Dr Subhash Kak in conversation with Aravindan Neelakandan on consciousness, why its study is the next big thing in science and how India can leverage this rare opportunity.
What is consciousness? Is it a property of the brain or does it arise outside of it? What are the ways in which contemporary scientific research is describing it? What are the ways in which it is described in the texts of Indic traditions? Does the Indic view align with that of modern science? Which of the two presents an accurate answer? How can Indic knowledge guide the study of consciousness?
These are some of the questions, which Swarajya’s Contributing Editor Aravindan Neelakandan discussed with Dr Subhash Kak, Regents professor of electrical and computer engineering at Oklahoma State University and a vedic scholar. Dr Kak, who has been recently conferred the Padma Shri is amongst the world’s leading scholars on cryptography, random sequences, artificial intelligence (AI), quantum mechanics and information theory. Apart from this, however, it is his profound knowledge of Indic scriptures and knowledge traditions, which gives him a unique perspective into the contemporary discourse on consciousness.
It is this knowledge, which we tried to engage with and derive from in this conversation below.
Aravindan Neelakandan: What is this enigmatic thing called consciousness? When we speak of consciousness, do we from India or Indic schools of thought and the modern neuroscientists mean the same? For example, Bernardo Kastrup, who has ideas similar to yours, and is a computer scientist working in AI with an inclination towards non-duality, says that he uses “the word 'mind' as a synonym for what in non-duality circles is called 'consciousness’.”
So, what is consciousness in your view?
Subhash Kak: The word ‘consciousness’ means different things to different people. It can mean ‘awareness’ or ‘mind’ in some contexts. Most of what we do is done reflexively and our mind merely rehashes what has transpired before. Perhaps, mind states are explained as emerging from an attempt by the brain to provide coherence to its response.
When I speak of consciousness, I mean something deeper than these rehashing states. The Shiva Sutra defines it as the self, caitanyamatma, and I mean precisely that. It is the ‘centre’ that provides ‘freedom’ to the individual, a break from the chain of causality one is normally stuck in.
I have used the terms little-‘c’ and big-C consciousness to contrast these two views. Little-‘c’ is consciousness that emerges from the electrical activity in the brain, does the rehashing and nothing more. Big-C consciousness, on the other hand, transcends our brain activity although its experience in our minds is mediated by the brain.
Mind in the Indian view is part of the inner instrument and not consciousness. It is illuminated by consciousness but is not identical with it. If the sun is consciousness, the moon is the mind, and so my ideas, which are vedantic, are not quite the same as Kastrup’s.
AN: You have written in an earlier paper that the mind is the emergent property of neurological processes. Now comparing this with what you just told about little-‘c’ and big-C consciousness, can we say that the individual consciousness with all its seeming emergent properties is the vimarsa aspect and ultimate realisation of oneness implies a movement of the vimarsa towards the prakasa? In the south Indian Saiva Siddhanta which shares various core aspects with Kashmiri Saivism, we are usually told that vimarsa is associated with the goddess and that it actually solves some fundamental problems associated with maya. The seventh sutra of Siva Jnana Botha (Siva — Jnana Awareness by Meikandar in the thirteenth century) says: “As all are unreal before the Sat, Sat by itself cannot know and Asat being unreal can never know. The one who knows is the individual consciousness which is still in a superimposed both-and-neither state (of being Sat and Asat)”.
SK: Yes, the individual consciousness is vimarsa and it represents the goddess, who is embodied reality. While this distinction provides clarity, it also sets up a paradox that is expressed so beautifully in the Saiva Siddhanta sutra you quote. How does one go from embodied nature, which is reflexive and, therefore, incapable of looking at itself, to the state of freedom and to the light, prakasa? Put differently, how does the individual break away from causal chain and obtain agency?
And that is where Indian spiritual practices come in. They provide many means of turning inward in a manner that provides the strength to take flight in the sky of consciousness.
AN: When we speak of consciousness, there are three schools seen dominantly: one view is that it is an emergent phenomenon and Francis Crick was one of the strongest advocates of this position. Stuart Hameroff and Roger Penrose have been linking consciousness to quantum coherence in the microtubules. Then there is a third and an interesting view of consciousness put forth by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela in which they identify life itself with cognition and in turn identify its workings even at the cellular level. Then they proceed to talk about self-organisation or autopoiesis. This view has been popularised by physicist and author Fritjof Capra. In fact, you have written about brain being a self-organising system in your paper on Patanjali and cognitive science as early as 1987. So can you please tell us, of these which view of consciousness you tend to move towards?
SK: The idea of emergence, which in different ways underlies all the three positions you mention, seems reasonable from the view of materialistic science and appears to be the only narrative that will fit in with reductionism. But it is profoundly wrong. Emergence cannot explain freedom and it cannot explain creativity and the life-stories of individuals like Srinivasa Ramanujan, who claimed to have come by his famous formulae in his dreams, or that of other creative geniuses in all corners of the world whose discoveries appear unrelated to the knowledge current at that time.
There is another view of consciousness that does not assume emergence and it is implicit in the Orthodox Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. In this view, consciousness is apart from materiality and is complementary to it. As many may know, the founders of quantum mechanics were profoundly influenced by Vedanta and they saw their theory to be in perfect accord with the vedantic view of reality. Erwin Schrodinger, one of the two creators of quantum mechanics, asserted in his autobiography that the idea of superposition, which is central to the theory, came to him from the upanishadic maha-vakya ayam atma brahma, “this self is the universe”.
In my view, the microtubule theory of Hameroff and Penrose is wrong because mind is not a machine, and even a quantum machine will not explain freedom. And consciousness is not related to a process, whether at the cellular or macro level, because it is not material.
All vedic darasanas take consciousness to transcend materiality and, therefore, not a property of matter. Consciousness is about para whereas ordinary knowledge is apara.
AN: You have written decades back about the phantom limb phenomenon and have linked it to the brain mapping and generation of the body identity. Dr V S Ramachandran had come to the same conclusion. In the case of phantom limbs, this has even resulted in mirror box therapy developed by Dr Ramachandran. Today, we have a lot of neuroscientists giving more credit to the neural construct of our body than previously (like Anil Seth, Donald D Hoffman). Body as a neural or brain construct: is this at the individual physical level the functioning of maya? Is the Kashmiri Saivism view of maya different from that of Shankara’s Advaita?
SK: I think the naive idea that maya is illusion is misleading. Maya is the principle, operating through our brains and minds, that gives structure to our experienced lives; it is what makes the world possible. The vedic rishis knew this fact and they spoke of it as wisdom and extraordinary power and only later poetically as magic. I think the perceived difference between Kashmir Saivism and Shankara Advaita is a consequence of different aesthetic and cultural attitudes. In Kashmir Saivism, the embodied world is seen as a projection of Brahman and therefore to be valued and celebrated. On the other hand, in Shankara Advaita, the embodied world is seen as an ‘illusion’, in the sense of being transitory.
The Kashmiris acknowledge that the world is ephemeral but believe that its beauty can show us the way to deeper understanding. Shankara in his own life followed the same precept and let’s not forget that he also composed the Saundarya Lahiri, a tantric text in praise of beauty. At the deepest levels, the actual practices in both traditions are not different at all.
Culturally, Kashmiris followed the old tradition of the householder sage whereas the idea of a renunciate or wandering hermit was the tradition that Shankara extolled. Neither is superior to the other; it is just a matter of what one can relate to best. Knowledge only springs out of tapas, or suffering, and one can come by that both as householder and renouncer.
AN: What you say about maya that it “is the principle, operating through our brains and minds, that gives structure to our experienced lives” is what the neuroscience is also discovering. When a Donald Hoffman says that what we call reality is actually a kind of desktop created by neuro-dynamics, essentially he is validating this statement. That said, Adi Shankara speaks of maya as avyaktanamni, parmesa sakti, anadi, avidya, trigunatmika, para and goes on to say that through causal relations she can be inferred only by those of clear-intellect. The very next verse he uses has an uncanny resemblance to the famous nasadiya sukta — which makes one wonder if here Shankara uses maya in the cosmological context. In an enigmatic resemblance in Sri Lalita Sahasranama there is a sequence. In the thousand names of the Goddess Avyakta is a separate name. But the vyakta state is not separate but a name combined with avyakta. So, the sequence of the names are: mulaprakriti, avyakta, vyakta-avaykta, svarupini, vyapini, vividhakara (names from 397 to 401) and then the next name is vidya-avidya rupini (402). The commentators link this name to the verse in Isavasya (verse-11). Is not all science in a way understanding maya? Is not science again and again discovering the avyakta or the undefinable as the part of nature at all levels of existence? In this connection, I also want to know how you see what late George Sudarshan used to say about his doing of science as a spiritual endeavour quoting Vishnu Sahasranama that starts with the vishvam or universe as the very first name of the divine. Essentially based on Hindu schools of non-duality, can we create a school of methods of doing and experiencing science?
SK: The power of maya works both at the personal and the cosmological levels and its structuring of experience gives rise to various paradoxes and it is to that extent that it is magical. From a scientific perspective, I have proposed the so-called ‘principle of veiled nonlocality’ to explain why we don’t see nonlocal effects that quantum theory tells us do exist. Philosophically, the vyakta represents the manifest that can be seen, whereas the avyakta is the unmanifest that may only be inferred. If vidya and avyakta are associated with consciousness, avidya and vyakta are associated with materiality. Both are an expression of maya.
I agree with you and my late friend George Sudarshan that science is the process of understanding maya which is the discovery of both vyakta (which constitutes ordinary reductionist science) and at a deeper level that of avyakta.
Now that we are speaking of Sudarshan, I should mention his quantum Zeno effect (QZE), which presents a mechanism of how consciousness can control nature by observation alone. This effect has been verified in the laboratory and it corresponds to the old Vedantic view of drishti-srishti vada.
AN: This is very beautiful. So we have srishti-drishti vada and also drishti-srishti vada. We also have Ajativada which forms the basis of Advaita. Now can we say that each of this can be applied to different levels of reality — like for example the srishti-drishti vada for the emergence of what you call the small-‘c’ consciousness, the drishti-srishti vada for the QZE and the Ajativada for the very primordial state of total undifferentiation — the mother matrix of consciousness? Is not now QZE getting more and more recognised in the emerging field of quantum biology? Jim Al Khalili et al have shown it as responsible for the mystery of the bird navigation.
Again this aspect of Indic knowledge systems, the kind of epistemological and even ontological pluralism which arises from the different schools of darshanas, provides a very strong advantage for Indian student of science as against her Western counterpart who often feels a ‘slippery ground’ because of the singular Aristotelian basis. How we can make this advantage integrated to India doing science?
SK: You are right to bring in the other complementary lenses through which reality may be seen. The totality of these lenses provides a broad framework, covering both epistemic and ontologic aspects, to analyse any scientific problem. Indeed this is how science has advanced in the past, sometimes by an intuitive application of this framework by scientists who did not possess knowledge of the deeper philosophical perspective.
Imagine how much of an advantage Indian students will have at research if they explicitly knew this!
AN: You said how the emergence models cannot explain freedom. In the context of freedom, you have referred to the famous Libet experiment in your works. It has created a lot of heartburn for the Western philosophers of consciousness, like for example, Daniel Dennett, who has even gone to the extent of questioning the experiment itself. You have argued that this takes us to “the old concept of two selves within the individual, which may be described as ‘self’ (the unconscious) and ‘I’ (the conscious self) of which the former (of the readiness potentials) is in control of actions while the latter ‘I’ (the conscious self) takes control only at times”. Is this also the little-c and big-C you talked about in the beginning?
SK: Yes, indeed Libet’s experiments were concerning our normal response that works as little-C, which is an example of how the codes of our behaviour function.
AN: You have stated that Indian art essentially aims to induce the individual to connect to his or her own infinite (and highest) potential within. Will you speak on how the ideas of aestheticians like Abhinavagupta together with concepts like sahridaya and rasa compare with insights from modern neuroscience?
SK: The purpose of Indian art is to awaken the individual, to find the break in the covering (avarana) that hides the prakasa within. It is that light which transforms and opens all kinds of possibilities. The idea of dhvani that Anandavardhana and Abhinavagupta spoke about is the resonance in art and music that helps one find oneself. It involves letting go and be absorbed in the composition, which makes it possible to open the inner veil. The dhvani creates specific rasas and makes it possible for the connoisseurs to find an identical emotional state (be sahridaya) that takes one beyond the particular to the universal.
AN: So we have the understanding of consciousness as the basic substratum and as the process that permeates all existence versus understanding it as either a ghost in the machine or as an emergent property. What kind of value systems and civilisational ethos they create?
SK: This is the most important question concerning the crisis facing the world. If we are mere machines, as accepted by the mainstream science paradigm, then life is not worth living after one has gone through all kinds of sense gratification. As jobs disappear, even if there were universal basic income, people will find a huge emptiness in their lives. Perhaps, the current opioid crisis of the West is a foretelling of things to come.
There is overwhelming evidence that the Indian view of consciousness is the correct one. It is the path of optimism with the possibility of opening of countless new avenues and layers of understanding.
AN: Today in the West, there are new cultural movements — notably SAND (science and non-duality) —a movement I believe was seeded by the Advaita of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj. They have been able to bring together the best of the scientists, spiritual teachers, artists etc, and are creating a culture of non-duality adapted to the modern challenges. You have been one of their contributors. Today, we have a strong identity crisis in India. There is no way our children can learn our traditional knowledge systems in schools. There is no integrated approach to teach them. Despite such great educationists like Sister Nivedita, Rabindranath Tagore and Sri Aurobindo, we as a nation and a civilisation seemed to have lost our initiative in doing what a movement like SAND is doing. And, to add to this, we have the cargo-cult like statements like ‘vedic vimanas’, ‘Mahabharata nuclear missiles’, ‘Shiva is an alien’ etc, which actually help those who stereotype us as pseudo-science if not anti-science. Can you suggest some serious and immediate solutions at social and individual level to correct this situation?
SK: You’re right that organisations like SAND are bringing deeper knowledge about the world to the larger public in the West. The specific challenge in India with disseminating such knowledge is that our education system has become overly politicised and bizarre claims and counter claims are made just to score points. The Indian education system is paralysed by fear that minority religious groups will oppose such material and so it has chosen to keep the public uninformed.
But what we are discussing is universal and non-sectarian knowledge, and so if a case is properly made, and a responsible curriculum devised, I don’t believe there will be opposition. We need to have a commitment to excellence and the critical method. Not only will that help us make sense of the past, it will also better prepare us for the future.