Consciousness Alone Exists – Part 2: Mind-Brain Relationship

I have been in the new place in Havana for several weeks running now. This series of blog entries is approaching completion. I posted the first one to David's website recently and now this one. It has been a great way to occupy my thought sphere! I may get more posted before I return to New York February 15. My plan is to attend David's Intensive in March and have everything of “Consciousness Alone Exists” up on the website by that time.

First, to recap from Part 1:

1. I shared an understanding of Conscious Union implying an Absolute not only manifesting as infinity but also as an intuitive experience in personal life that pulsates in clarity, ultimately to full clarity as the Conscious Subject. In the present discussion I am putting in play the philosophical position of Vedanta with respect to the philosophy of materialism.

2. Satchitananda is clarifying the experience of the contents of individual Consciousness, our reality, revealing its union with the actuality of infinite Consciousness, the Conscious Subject. Feeling the unlimited experience of Satchitananda is the spiritual teaching of Consciousness itself. An emerging movement in the field of neuroscience is juxtaposed to spiritual teaching in this historical moment.

3. Some neuroscientists say it is not to be concluded that modifications of the contents of individual Consciousness, which are objectively knowable, produce the Conscious Subject. It is a serious current scientific hypothesis that is rooted in the following statement: “nothing we can or could know about the content of what anyone is knowing tells us anything about what it feels like to be anyone”.

4. The scientists who grasp the limitations of a materialistic hypothesis for neuroscience are establishing a new hypothetical paradigm that is necessarily metaphysical. Also, recognized by some is the insight that metaphysics not only pertains to humans, but by logical necessity to the “Mind at Large”. By that is not meant just the physical universe at large, but also what it means to be the universe. My own project here, is to offer the distinction between the materialistic “subject-thinker” [my term], and the metaphysical Conscious Subject or “Mind at Large” inclusive of the “subject-thinker”.

The matter of the universe, all objects of perception, are objectively known through the medium of the brain. What anyone knows is produced this way in the mind of the knowing subject. Consciousness, however, can only be what it feels like to actually be that metaphysical Subject witnessing what is objectively knowable. Neurologists have been inquiring about the nature of brain matter and gathering objective data, measurements, about the modifications of the brain that reflect changes in the personal contents of Consciousness. This, many neurologists call research into the easy problem of Consciousness as opposed to the “hard problem of Consciousness”. What is “hard” is the fact that it is impossible to objectively measure the properties and dynamics of what it feels like to be any particular person, which is why it is metaphysical. This is especially true of the most important experiences of living: like what it is like to feel love or beauty, but also things as mundane as what it feels like to see the color red.

Consciousness, unlike the measurement of matter, cannot be defined as to mass, charge, and other properties and dynamics. A metaphysical hypothesis is needed. This doesn't mean materialistic theories about Consciousness are impossible, however. A couple of theories countering the definition of Consciousness proposed as “hard” are being explored by scientists. One is that Consciousness is an emergent property of matter, but this, even if true of the brain at least, does not hold as an empirical observation since there are no measurable properties of matter that can be identified as constituents of such an emerging Consciousness. Still, nothing about a brain can tell us what it feels like to be the person with that brain. Another theory is that Consciousness is an illusion, an absurd argument that “Consciousness” is not what we mean to designate as our personal experience of reality. “Illusion” is a label being applied to an unknowable metaphysical witness by “scientists” asserting that subjective experience will become objectively knowable eventually. Consciousness does not just magically appear, nor is it going to.

Practitioners of actual empirical science must conclude that “the brain provides the second person perspective of first person experience”. If you were to gather data of my brain activity now, you would have a second person perspective of my first person metaphysical experience of the world. We could not deduce that either perspective produces the other because they are perspectives of one phenomenon. Perhaps, this we could say is the mind phenomenon, whereby external objects are known as thought internally as a second-person perspective. Furthermore, the brain is a physical entity being in a relationship with a metaphysical Subject having Conscious experience. The self-reflective activity of the brain, thought of oneself, is memory reflecting our first person experience and as such is also a second person perspective – our own second-person perspective as “subject-thinker”. Our individual experience of the mind-matter relationship suggests that a mind-matter relationship exists on a continuum throughout the physical universe. Of course we assume other people have minds, but we could easily consider the dual perspective existing for animals, or further, as a feature of organic life. This leads to the metaphysical hypothesis of Pan-psychism introduced to the modern philosophy of science by Alfred North Whitehead. Its a known starting point in the philosophy of science for the historical moment I am addressing now, but more on this later.

I think we are now approaching in this inquiry the topic of personal or individual Consciousness as Absolute Consciousness. For this we are leaving the field of science as it is currently entangled with materialistic philosophy, prejudicial to Consciousness being a phenomenon emerging from matter. Perhaps you could say we are exiting through the door of physics and quantum theory that has been demonstrating the dual nature of matter as particle and wave – inexplicable by a purely materialistic paradigm. At least since Whitehead, the philosophy of science has been struggling with this contradiction in many facets of the mind-body problem. Even considering that thought is a material process in the mind-brain relationship, the Conscious Subject witnessing thought cannot be objectively known. All that can be known is our thoughts about ourselves as what I call “subject-thinker”, one fragment of two in the basic fragmentation of the field of thought. The other fragment is the thought composing “not-me”.

There is a field of thought, a thought sphere, attending human existence. We can easily believe others are the same as myself. We can speculate with some confidence that other life forms are sentient in a similar way, or even that some rudimentary structure of this kind exists in the full range of organic life. If we are to extrapolate from organic life as a subset of the physical universe we would posit a universal mind: metaphorically matter would be the brain and and what it would be like to be a cosmic Subject would be personal Consciousness as Absolute Consciousness! Such Consciousness would shine not only in sentient beings of organic life, but as the experience reflected by all matter. Why? Because Consciousness is another primitive aspect of matter itself. I will be developing a nuanced presentation of Consciousness as a primitive of matter.

A good place to return to now, is with what we actually experience, then proceed in the context of a philosophy that vastly exceeds the scope of materialism. My body-mind complex is such a infinitesimal part of infinite space and even the incomprehensible reach of matter contained in space. Furthermore, the scope of my experience is also very circumscribed in time and space or space-time; or per this discussion, to the catalog of the contents of my individual Consciousness in Absolute Consciousness. I want to explore why I am so isolated from the scope of cosmic mind, why I am so disassociated from the “Mind at Large” suggested by the scientific metaphysical hypothesis that has been introduced as necessary. In this exploration as I am presenting it, I employ the core philosophic position of Advaita Vedanta.

In the Upanishads we find the questions and issues, and logical analysis of individual Consciousness and Absolute Consciousness (“Atman-Brahman”)are exhaustively debated. Neurologists are entering the terrain mapped thousands of years ago in Vedanta. Vedanta, however, has not precluded the advent of quantum mechanics or any study of the material universe, it is the metaphysical hypothesis, paradoxically, for study of the Subject inaccessible to knowledge. I will state the key insight of Vedanta for the present discussion about Consciousness. The materialist philosophy, the default modality of almost all scientists is, according to Vedanta, rooted in a displacement of Consciousness in space. Whether believing Consciousness emerges at some point in time during material processes or if it is just an illusory idea, the materialist understands Consciousness as a kind of epi-phenomenon like the smoke off a locomotive that has no role in the operation of the metaphorical train itself, of matter in itself. This is not what it feels like to be the Conscious Subject according to the Advaita Vedantic nondualism.

The Vedanta asserts that matter is known as forms and the names of forms as thought, thought itself being a material process of the brain occurring in space and creating space-time through the operation of thought. The Sanskrit for the fact of matter in space is perhaps inadequately translated as “superimposition” (possibly confusing because of the common meaning of the term). Matter is “superimposed” in space, but the meaning is not that there are two components, one superimposed on the other. When a material object moves through space, and thereby space-time in that movement, the object is not displacing space like a ship moving through water, it is always occupying space moving or not. That is the meaning of “superimposition” in Vedanta. Positing matter without space is a disassociation from what is actual, like an illusion but it is more subtle. In Vedanta it would be an operation of “Maya”. The term has more nuanced meaning than simply “illusion”. It applies more broadly to the operation of thought in the body-mind experience.

Matter superimposed in space is what we know from a second person perspective of our reality. As to what it feels like to be the Subject, the operations of matter experienced in Consciousness, this is the first person perspective of our individual reality. The Upanishads assert that matter is superimposed in space, and space is superimposed in Consciousness! The second person perspective of matter superimposed in space-time is obvious to someone conditioned by a materialist philosophy. However, that Consciousness is a primitive element of existence, that space is superimposed in Consciousness, is apparently not seen by the vast majority of scientists, or even many scientists recognizing the “hard problem of Consciousness”. The Vedanta points out that just as the illusion of matter without space is a disassociation from actuality, so is living as a “subject-thinker” with the illusion of space without Consciousness. This is a state of mind disassociated from actuality – or to touch on the nuances of Maya, it is the limited state of reality disassociated from Absolute actuality, from the full domain of the Conscious Subject.

It is exciting to me that a number of respected scientists are exploring hypotheses about Consciousness that exceed materialism. I think this is a recognition that without incorporating Consciousness as a primitive feature of existence, the state of experience of such a reality will be disassociated from comprehensive actuality. I do, however, see a problem in the hard problem of Consciousness as conceived by those scientists I know of so far. I hope to find some who may understand the issue of non-duality as I will explain. Materialism is in fact a perspective of nonduality even though it fails to account for Subjective experience. This does not mean, as it seems to be the case with the scientists I have encountered, that a dualism is required. This move seems to be to add Consciousness as an additional separate primitive as a category separate from the category of materialistic primitives (the range of measurable features). I will explore instead the ramifications of the hypothesis of superimposition, which maintains nonduality while accounting for the operation of Consciousness.

An insight that one is Living with a disassociated image of oneself is a potent realization. It should be clear that an objective investigation of what it is to be human is in fact impossible. As for the microcosm, it is also so for the macrocosm. An objective measurement of what it is to be the universe is not possible with a physics tethered to materialism and its absurd faith in such an eventual measurement. Faith is not experience. The macrocosm contains the microcosm as its disassociated image which nonetheless is Consciousness existing as Consciousness in individual mental content. The content of Consciousness for each of us is thought in the brain. Attention to our thought, according to Vedanta philosophy, is a process of thought within the contents of Consciousness that is in practice “meditation”. This “meditation” is an activity which nonetheless continues in the state of disassociation. However, this “meditation” is a conditioning of the mind which mitigates the conditioning that generates disassociation, which in the language of Vedanta is better understood as “Maya”.

The questions attending the addition of Consciousness as a primitive element has its philosophy of science origins in the Pan-Psychism of Alfred North Whitehead. Not to mention the materialists, even many scientists understanding and recognizing the hard problem of Consciousness find the idea of Consciousness existing everywhere, even in sticks and stones, untenable. Whitehead, however, speculated that things that do not have higher forms of experience (“simple individuals”)are involved in things that do have higher forms of experience (“compound individuals”). Compound individuals display features of a mind-brain relationship which emerge from simple individuals which do not. So Pan-Psychism defined this way avoids the problem of how sentient and insentient entities interact. Whitehead's metaphysical hypothesis is that brain cells as compound individuals feel the mind's feelings and the mind feels the feelings of the brain cells. Simple individuals do not have the higher order experience of Consciousness as compound individuals, but since the compound emerges from the simple, the simple cannot be said to be vacuous realities, merely materials in space. The mystery remains as to how the simple is organized into the compound, so it is not really known if this is what happens.

So that material is superimposed in space, and space in Consciousness, could also be suggested as the theoretical metaphysical hypothesis in Pan-psychism. I question, however, if this hypothesis as read by theorists, or even Whitehead, engenders a true nondualism even though it unifies the interaction of sentient and insentient individuals. Like some adherents to Pan-psychism as a viable hypothesis for scientific study, I would agree with the proposition it is still a dualistic alternative to nondualistic materialism. Whitehead's “society of simple individuals” are composed of insentient things while some as yet undiscovered process organizes what is theorized as insentient simple elements which emerge as members of a “society of compound individuals”. Compound individuals may, nonetheless, be something it would be like to be or possess self-Consciousness, such as humans on planet Earth. Still, we can't know. I question it, however, as it leaves simple individuals devoid of Consciousness and so the hypothesis read this way is not nondualism as only some space is superimposed in Consciousness.

Pan-psychism presents dualistic hypothesis composed of disorganized and organized “individual” things. Consciousness remains a mystery to the reality of the body-mind relationship in its apprehension of thought reflecting a content of knowledge to the “subject-thinker”. Vedanta recognizes the reality of individual Consciousness in the actuality of an Absolute Conscious Subject. Its a hypothesis only substantiated by direct experience of a Subject – for a Subject being like that. A Subject like that would have to be an Absolute Subject with an Absolute mind in an Absolute material universe superimposed in Consciousness. Such a Subject could not be a disassociated fragment with a limited mind interacting only with the contents of memory, the domain of thought. This is what is designated here as Conscious Subject.

I have hardly scratched the surface in the study of metaphysical hypotheses as they are being discovered or formulated by neuroscientists, but my sense is an impasse has been reached regarding the inadequacy of materialism in the question of the hard problem of Consciousness. I am suggesting the metaphysical hypothesis of Vedanta regarding the impossible mystery of Consciousness for materialism, not as a method to solve the hard problem mystery for the awareness of the limited content of anyone's personal Consciousness. Vedanta is a metaphysical hypothesis for the ending of that reality as a fragmentation within the domain of the Absolute actuality, the Conscious Subject. The gesture of scientists adopting the working hypothesis of Vedanta will change nothing about what is being investigated, the mind-brain relationship. Vedanta will change the way we look, so we can find out what the consequences of that may be beyond the confines of material determinism or Pan-psychism and so take neuroscience into a novel arena of investigation.

Changing the way we look, seeing without the demand for conclusions of knowledge required by the content of thought, be it thought conditioned by the nondualism of materialism or the dualism of Pan-psychism, means a science of attention to what is the nature of thought. Deeper attention, attention to our inattention, is a “meditation” process mitigating disassociation. The ending of a limited, dissociated individual paying attention. The birth of the “individual” Meditated by a Conscious Subject is the topic of Part 3 on this blog series: “A Neuroscience of Attention”.