Animal, Vegetable, Mineral …. Consciousness?

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Historically there has been little congruence between scientific and spiritual theories of consciousness—what it is, how it operates, or whether it even truly exists. In fact, most scientific fields have tended to keep quiet about consciousness, relegating its contemplation to philosophers and religious scholars.

This is quickly changing, however. Modern scientific disciplines, such as molecular biology and particle physics, are starting to unravel mysteries of how our universe works at the micro-scale (from chemical signals in the body or atoms in a dying star), and how these micro processes together create the large-scale world we perceive as ‘reality’. Equipped with advanced technologies coupled with nuanced theories that explain processes such as quantum mechanics and neural networks, scientists are directing their focus back to that once untouchable question—what is consciousness?

What I find particularly fascinating is that the latest proposed scientific theories about the nature of consciousness closely parallel some of the most ancient spiritual philosophies, such as the Vedic yoga sutras, that discuss consciousness. Might this be one more front where science and spirituality finally coalesce—or at least complement each other—to create a more holistic understanding of the universe?

sciencecafescienceofconsciousness618x350Mind as Matter

Max Tegmark, a theoretical physicist from MIT, is at the forefront of this scientific quest to define consciousness. His hypothesis? Consciousness may be another state of matter, like liquids, solids, and gases. He even suggests that there may be multiple kinds, or layers, of consciousness. “Just as there are many types of liquids, there are many types of consciousness,” he states.

From a scientific standpoint, his suggestion may initially sound far-fetched, or even outlandish. How can you ‘prove’ that consciousness is a form of matter? Apparently, with some help from neuroscience. Tegmark developed his hypothesis based on the work of neurologist Giulio Tononi, who proposed that consciousness is a phenomenon of information that is integrated into a unified, indivisible, whole.

In other words, consciousness is an all-encompassing information storage and retrieval system (i.e., memories), like a super-computer more powerful than any computer we can currently fathom—38 orders of magnitude beyond current computing power, according to Tegmark. He names this consciousness matter computronium.

He also discusses a related type of consciousness that he calls perceptronium, the most general material substance with subjective self-awareness. This matter processes information from an internal control center rather than based on external stimuli, making it a more fundamental ‘layer’ of conscious matter.

Although neurobiology and quantum physics provide a tangible foundation from which to define and explore these concepts, this new scientific framework of consciousness has many holes and is plagued by many as of yet unanswerable questions. For one, according to Tegmark (assuming he and his colleagues estimates are accurate) the size of the neural network in our brain that supposedly creates our conscious experience is only large enough to store about 37 bits of information, when in reality it stores vastly more. How it does so is still a mystery. Tegmark therefore believes that there is some missing aspect to his mathematical formulations, “at least one additional principle” essential to creating consciousness as we know it.

Another mystery to science is why we perceive the universe in terms of classic Newtonian physics; e.g., why we experience just three dimensions, and perceive objects as discrete and separate even though at a quantum level all matter is energy, which is all connected and all-pervasive. We’ve come a long way in understanding our world, but we are still at the frontier in terms of explaining our own perceptive ability and limitations.

That is, if you are a scientist. If you are a spiritual scholar or devotee of Vedic scripture, on the other hand, you may have a much deeper comprehension of consciousness and its relation to our perceptive capabilities. Indeed, while modern science has yet to account for all of the factors, or ‘principles’, upon which consciousness is built, some scholars believe that the nature of consciousness was discovered ages ago, and is understood fully today by a small number of fully realized monks and spiritual gurus.

Re-defining Reality

The Samkya and Yoga philosophies, which derive from the ancient Vedic traditions of the Himalayan Mountains (and from which most Eastern religions originated, such as Hinduism and Buddhism), contain whole treaties pertaining to matter and consciousness*. As explained in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, which date back thousands of years, ‘reality’ consists of two over-arching dimensions: Purusha, defined as ‘pure consciousness’, and Prakriti, or ‘creative energy’, from which all matter derives.

Just as Tegmark proposes that consciousness may exist in many states of matter, the Sutras delineate several layers of consciousness, beginning with its purest unmanifest or undifferentiated state all the way to its manifested physical state, or what we perceive as external objects. The goal of yoga is to eventually reach pure consciousness by slowly working backwards through these layers of consciousness, from gross external perception to the most subtle internal perception of the self, and finally to pure consciousness beyond ego.

Another way of understanding this concept is to consider the Figure below. The Yoga Sutras outline the various layers, or ‘evolutes’ as they are often referred to, of consciousness and perception. At the most subtle level at the top of the figure, Purusha, or pure consciousness, is reflected in the primordial unmanifested energy, Prakriti. This energy is considered even subtler than the realm of quantum physics. From this creative energy, the first evolute or layer of consciousness (called Buddhi) arises. Buddhi is the subtlest aspect of the mind, where cognition and intelligence originate. The orientation of Buddhi is inward, towards ultimate consciousness, rather than outward toward external perception.

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The next evolute of consciousness is ‘Ahamkara’, the ego identity. This is the level of consciousness where the sense of self originates, where consciousness begins to turn outward and define reality based on the relationship between itself and the external world. In this way, Ahamkara closely mirrors Tegmark’s definition of perceptronium.

Following Ahamkara is ‘Manas’, what we would think of as the mind, or the brain—the instrument of thought and perception. Manas is the level of consciousness that receives and processes sensory input, or information, similar to Tegmark’s computronium. Manas receives its information from the five senses (sight, sound touch, sound, taste), which relate to organs and actions of the body.

From the perspective of yogic philosophy, then, the reason why we perceive the world in a particular (and rather limited) way is due to our reliance on these five organs of perception, which piece together this particular version of reality. If, however, through the practice of yoga and meditation, you work backwards through the subtler and subtler layers of consciousness, you no longer need rely on those sensory organs. Instead, you slowly gain a more and more holistic understanding of reality, until ultimately you merge with pure consciousness and realize that everything is ‘one’ (This is my simplified interpretation, anyway).

Where two roads meet…

I am always wary of discussing non-scientific concepts in scientific terms, or pretending that something is scientific when it is not (e.g. creationism). However, I do think that it is a legitimate thought exercise to consider not only where scientific and religious theories/philosophies differ, but also where they overlap or complement each other.

In the pursuit of defining consciousness, I believe there is much to be learned on both sides. Just as science has shown us that all life is multi-leveled, with repeated patterns from the micro to macro scale, so too does Yogic philosophy consider life, including consciousness, as layered. Objects are made out of compounds, which are made out of elements, which are made out of atoms, which are made out of particles, which are made out of even subtler entities that science cannot readily perceive, but that the Sutras describe as Prakriti—the origin of all matter. In a similar way, our actions are triggered by thoughts, which are triggered by emotions, which are triggered by memories, and so on.

Thus, there is near agreement between these two vastly different world views (science and yogic philosophy) regarding the structure of the universe. Indeed, for thousands of years yoga had been described largely as a science, a way of observing the world and drawing conclusions about reality. Our ‘western’ conception of science more narrowly defines it as a particular method of testing hypotheses, and therefore does not necessarily encompass older definitions of ‘science’.

The key differences between modern science and Yoga seem to be a) the method of discerning the structure of the universe, and b) the terms used to describe the structure and its origins. Semantics tends to become an issue in cross-communication not only between science and non-science, but even among different scientific fields. We often lose sight of how narrow each of our views are, because to us they make up our entire individual reality. But we are only perceiving a miniscule piece of an infinite pie, which is why considering additional world views may help us create at least a slightly more holistic picture of the world.

I’ve only discussed two particular such world views today, but I hope to discuss many more in future blog entries, including Buddhism and other eastern religious philosophies, Judeo-Christian beliefs, and other philosophical and scientific systems. Just like our rudimentary understanding of the universe, my blog is only just starting the scrape the surface of this complex topic.

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*I am only just beginning to learn the intricacies of these teachings, and therefore cannot claim to be an expert on Vedic philosophy any more than I can claim to be an expert in quantum physics. But from what I have read and learned so far, there are many striking parallels between ancient spiritual philosophy and modern science, both in regards to what questions each system seeks to answer, and how these answers are derived.