Understanding The Science Of Consciousness In Ancient India – Part 1
This is the first in a two-part series that presents a summary of the Vedic theory of consciousness within a framework of contemporary scientific concepts.
Consciousness is described as the ultimate mystery in ancient Indian texts, and its study is lauded as the highest science. But until recently, the question of consciousness was considered to lie outside of the scope of science and, consequently, the references in the Indian texts to consciousness have not been examined for their significance to the history of science in India. But before a chronology of the ideas related to consciousness can be developed, it is essential to understand their scientific significance and separate what can be correlated with the emerging insights of cognitive science from the more speculative philosophical and religious thought.
Scientific attitudes towards consciousness have changed due to the recent advances in neurophysiology and because modern physics and computer science are confronted with the question of the nature of the observer. In many ways, the study of consciousness is centre-stage in the discussions of modern science. On the other hand, a considerable part of Indian thought is devoted to the question of consciousness.
Although a part of this tradition deals with philosophical issues, there are other aspects, as in yoga and tantra, that deal with structural aspects. Books such as Yogavasistha and Tripurarahasya claim to describe the nature of consciousness. The same is generally true of various works on yoga, the Upanishads, and even the earlier Vedic texts.
The task for the historian of science is to sketch an evolution of the ideas related to consciousness, and see how this sketch fits with the development of other scientific ideas. Since Indian works related to consciousness have not yet been systematically examined, it is perhaps premature to write such a history.
Note that there are intriguing parallels between the insights of the early Vedic theory of consciousness and those of quantum mechanics and neuroscience. In the Vedic theory, which dates back to at least 2000 BC, one views awareness in terms of the reaction that the hardware of the brain provides to an underlying illuminating or awareness principle called the self. This approach allows one to separate questions of the tools of awareness, such as vision, hearing and the mind, from the person who obtains this awareness.
The person is the conscious self, who is taken to be a reservoir of infinite potential. But the actual capabilities of the animal are determined by the neural hardware of its brain. This hardware may be compared to a mirror. The hardware of the human brain represents the clearest structure to focus the self, which is why humans are able to perform in ways that other animals cannot. Within the framework of this theory, humans and other animals are persons and their apparent behavioural distinctions arise from the increased cloudedness of the neural hardware of the lower animals. Self-awareness is an emergent phenomenon which is grounded on the self and the associations stored in the brain.
From a modern scientific viewpoint, living systems are dynamic structures that are defined in terms of their interaction with their environment. Their behaviour is taken to reflect their past history in terms of instincts. Living systems can also be defined recursively in terms of living sub-systems.
Thus, for ants, one may consider their society, an ant colony, as a living superorganism; in turn, the ant’s sub-systems are also living. Such a recursive definition appears basic to all life. Machines, on the other hand, are based on networking of elements so as to instrument a well-defined computing procedure, and they lack a recursive self definition.
The reality of consciousness is evident not only from the fact that responses are different in sleepwalking and awake states, but from the considerable experimentation with split-brain patients.
The experiments of Kornhuber indicate that it takes about eight-tenths of a second for the readiness potential to build up in the brain before voluntary action begins. According to Libet, the mind extrapolates back in time by about half a second or so the occurrence of certain events. So consciousness is not an epiphenomenon. As it possesses a unity, it should be described by a quantum mechanical wave function.
Eugene Wigner argued that the laws of quantum mechanics may not apply to conscious agents. In a variant of the setting of the Schrodinger cat experiment, he visualised two conscious agents, one inside the box and another outside. If the inside agent makes an observation that leads to the collapse of the wave function, then how is the linear superposition of the states for the outside observer to be viewed? Wigner argued that in such a case, with a conscious observer as part of the system, linear superposition must not apply.
This result, now called the Wigner’s friend paradox, and others have led many quantum theorists to argue that basic advances in physics would eventually require one to include consciousness in the scientific framework. The Vedic system, which was an earlier attempt to unify knowledge, was confronted by similar paradoxes. It is well known that Schrodinger’s development of quantum mechanics was inspired, in part, by Vedanta, the full-blossomed Vedic system. His debt to the Vedic views is expressed in an essay he wrote in 1925 before he created his quantum theory:
This life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of this entire existence, but is in a certain sense the \whole”; only this whole is not so constituted that it can be surveyed in one single glance. This, as we know, is what the Brahmins express in that sacred, mystic formula which is yet really so simple and so clear: tat tvam asi, this is you. Or, again, in such words as I am in the east and the west. I am above and below, I am this entire world.
Schrodinger used Vedic ideas also in his immensely inuential book ‘What is Life?’ which played a significant role in the development of modern biology.
According to his biographer Walter Moore, there is a clear continuity between Schrodinger’s understanding of Vedanta and his research:
The unity and continuity of Vedanta are reflected in the unity and continuity of wave mechanics. In 1925, the world view of physics was a model of a great machine composed of separable interacting material particles. During the next few years, Schrodinger and Heisenberg and their followers created a universe based on superimposed inseparable waves of probability amplitudes. This new view would be entirely consistent with the Vedantic concept of All in One.
In view of this connection between the Vedic system and quantum mechanics and the fact that quantum mechanical models of consciousness are being attempted, it is important to see how the Vedic philosophers developed their classificatory models of consciousness. A summary of one classificatory model is the main focus of this piece.
The question of the history of ideas related to the notion of consciousness in ancient India will also be touched upon briefly in this paper.
Self, biology, psychology
Neural network models have been used by cognitive scientists to model behaviour.
The limitations of neural models have been highlighted by Sacks and others who point out that these models do not take into account the notion of self.
The limitations of current theories of psychology were well-summarised by the distinguished Canadian psychologist Melzack :
The field of psychology is in a state of crisis. We are no closer now to understanding the most fundamental problems of psychology than we were when psychology became a science a hundred years ago. Each of us is aware of being a unique “self”, different from other people and the world around us. But the nature of the “self”, which is central to all psychology, has no physiological basis in any contemporary theory and continues to elude us. The concept of “mind” is as perplexing as ever… There is a profusion of little theories — theories of vision, pain, behaviour-modification, and so forth — but no broad unifying concepts… Cognitive psychology has recently been proclaimed as the revolutionary concept which will lead us away from the sterility of behaviourism.
The freedom to talk about major psychological topics such as awareness and perceptual illusions does, indeed, represent a great advance over behaviourism. But on closer examination, cognitive psychology turns out to be little more than the psychology of William James published in 1890; some neuroscience and computer technology have been stirred in with the old psychological ingredients, but there have been no important conceptual advances…We are adrift, without the anchor of neuropsychological theory, in a sea of facts — and practically drowning in them. We desperately need new concepts, new approaches.
Cognitive abilities arise from a continuing reflection on the perceived world, and this question of reflection is central to the brain-mind problem, the measurement problem of physics, and the problem of determinism and free-will. A dualist hypothesis to explain brain-mind interaction or the process of reflection meets with the criticism that this violates the conservation laws of physics. On the other hand, a brain-mind identity hypothesis, with a mechanistic or electronic representation of the brain processes, does not explain how self-awareness could arise. At the level of ordinary perception, there exists a duality and complementarity between an autonomous (and reflexive) brain and a mind with intentionality.
The notion of self seems to hinge on an indivisibility akin to that found in quantum mechanics. The wave-particle duality encountered in quantum phenomena led Neils Bohr in 1927 to introduce the notion of complementarity.
Complementarity is the principle that description of reality in any of the mutually contradictory pictures is incomplete; but between them such pictures form a complete, complementary description. This principle also presupposes that experiments can be unambiguously described only in classical terms.
Considering the question of logical foundations of biology, Bohr concluded that life (and also cognitive) processes are likewise subject to complementarity. The complementarity exhibited by life may be expressed most fundamentally between structure and behaviour.
The recognition of the limitation of mechanical concepts in atomic physics would rather seem suited to conciliate the apparently contrasting viewpoints of physiology and psychology. Indeed, the necessity of considering the interaction between the measuring instruments and the object under investigation in atomic mechanics exhibits a close analogy to the peculiar difficulties in psychological analysis arising from the fact that the mental content is invariably altered when the attention is concentrated on any special feature of it.
Bohr suggested an interesting analogy between neural (thought) and quantum processes. The instantaneous state of a thought may be compared with the position of a particle, whereas the direction of change of that thought may be compared with the particle’s momentum. This is described by Bohr as follows:
Part of the significance of each element of a thought process appears to originate in its indivisible and incompletely controllable connections with other elements. Similarly, some of the characteristic properties of a quantum system (for instance, wave or particle nature) depend on indivisible and incompletely controllable quantum connections with surrounding objects. Thus, thought processes and quantum systems are analogous in that they cannot be analysed too much in terms of distinct elements, because the intrinsic nature of each element is not a property existing separately from and independently of other elements but is, instead, a property that arises partially from its relation with other elements.
There is also a similarity between the thought process and the classical limit of the quantum theory. The logical process corresponds to the most general type of thought process, as the classical limit corresponds to the most general quantum process. In the logical process, we deal with classifications. These classifications are conceived as being completely separate but related by the rules of logic, which may be regarded as the analogue of the causal laws of classical physics. In any thought process, the component ideas are not separate but flow steadily and indivisibly.
An attempt to analyse them into separate parts destroys or changes their meanings. Yet there are certain types of concepts, among which are those involving the classification of objects, in which we can, without producing any essential changes, neglect the indivisible and incompletely controllable connection with other ideas. Complementarity is required at different levels of description.
But just as one might use a probabilistic interpretation instead of complementarity for atomic descriptions, a probabilistic description may also be used for cognitive behaviour. However, such a probabilistic behaviour is inadequate to describe the behaviour of individual agents, just as notions of probability break down for individual objects.
As an epistemological principle, complementarity has been criticised for not providing a unifying picture. But from an operational point of view, complementarity, by considering all kinds of responses, becomes a very useful approach. When analysed in terms of local interactions, the framework of quantum mechanics suffers from other paradoxical characteristics. This shows up in non-local correlations that appear in the manner of action at a distance.
To be continued…
This piece was first published as a paper, titled ‘On the Science of Consciousness in Ancient India’, in Indian Journal of History of Science (vol. 32, 1997, 105-120), and has been republished here with permission.