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Consciousness Beyond Explanation

Why an explanation of consciousness will
always elude the modern scientific mind
 
 

 Such is the climate of cultural ignorance in which we live that it seems as if the historical consciousness of the modern scientific mind does not even stretch back to the 20th century, i.e., to phenomenology and to the profound phenomenological critique of ‘scientism’ articulated by Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. It was they who first showed that the modern scientific world outlook replaces knowledge based on our immediate sensual experience of phenomena with models abstracted from that experience - and then used to ‘explain’ it. The historical consciousness of the modern scientific mind certainly does not reach back to the rich and highly sophisticated scientific tradition of Indian philosophy - 10th Century Shaivist Tantricism in particular - which affirmed consciousness itself as the fundamental reality behind all realities. Indian philosophy alone is enough to put the prosaic, superficial and historically ignorant argumentation of the most notable modern ‘thinkers’ to shame. Great thinkers such as Abhinavagupta and the inspired author of the Shiva Sutras implicitly understood that consciousness cannot be understood as an ‘attribute’ of either pre-existing material bodies or pre-existing beings, whether human beings or gods. Instead both bodies and beings, mortals and divinities, are individualised self-expressions of an unbounded consciousness field – a field which itself constitutes the very essence of divinity as such. 

The ‘big name’ scientific minds of our day such as Daniel Dennett continue to do battle against their own philosophical naivety and historical ignorance. They begin by assuming as given a meaningless and non-aware universe of matter. They then pit their great minds – or rather hit their heads - against the supposedly ‘elusive’ question of how meaning and above all consciousness can possible ‘emerge’ from such a universe. This is rather like seeing a book simply as a material object of paper and ink then posing and pondering the question of how its pages can come to have ‘meaning’ in the minds of its readers? Is there some point at which the chemistry of this ink becomes so complex as to ‘produce’ intriguing patterns of marks endowed with meaning? For ‘book’ read ‘brain’ and the same false ‘question’ of consciousness poses itself. They begin by seeing the brain as some purely material object - devoid of consciousness like any other -  and then wonder about the mysterious ways in which its 'neural networks' might generate or provide a model of consciousness.  They do not recognise that in this game what they are effectively doing is to turn what is already an object or construct of consciousness – the brain and its neural networks - into an explanation of consciousness. Alternatively our ‘great minds’ might oppose the idea of consciousness as an ‘emergent’ phenomenon and be led to consider consciousness as some basic ‘attribute’ of matter on a quantum level. It does not occur to them that in positing a quantum basis for consciousness they are turning the mental-mathematical construct that is quantum theory – itself a product of consciousness – into an explanation of consciousness in general! Nor does it occur to them to question their root assumption – that the starting point of scientific and philosophical enquiry into the question of consciousness is not an ‘objective’, pre-given universe of matter and energy devoid of meaning and consciousness. Rather the true starting point of all scientific and philosophical inquiry into the universe is consciousness itself - our subjective awareness of that universe or any universe.

The question of consciousness is only ‘elusive’ as long as the recognition eludes us that consciousness itself is the primary reality - the starting point and not the end-stage of a complex and mysterious material process. An explanation of ‘consciousness’ will always elude us if instead it is reduced to a secondary attribute, quality or phenomena in need of explanation. The question of how to ‘explain’ consciousness is therefore an ‘elusive’ one only for those who themselves elude consciousness from their explanations of the universe. For what needs to be explained is not how consciousness and meaning emerge from a non-conscious and meaningless cosmos of matter and energy, but rather the converse – how matter and energy arise from the primary reality of consciousness itself?

In the West too - and centuries before our great minds began pitting themselves against the ‘elusive’ question of consciousness - this quite different question had already received an answer so profound it put all modern ‘explanations’ to shame. Not only Hindu but Christian thinkers understood nature not as a set of causes, effects or invisible quantum fluctuations but as a language. Nature was seen not as a machine but as a book - giving material expression to the consciousness of its Creator, offering a rich source of meaning to all its Creatures - and endowing them all with the same consciousness that was Nature’s own Divine source. Today on the other hand we constantly read reviews of the latest clever ‘books’ on the elusive question of how consciousness ‘emerges’ from the machine like workings of nature, and whether machines will spontaneously generate mind –‘artificial intelligence’.

How ‘artificial’ and superficial our intelligence has now become – now that intellectuals no longer even consider the possibility that nature might not merely be a set of material bodies whose mechanics need to be explained. No longer even considering the possibility that - like books - all material bodies in space and time are but a material manifestation of consciousness itself, giving expression to countless layers and dimensions of meaning. No longer conscious of the fact that physical objects themselves are as much symbols as the words we use to describe or explain them. The ‘Book of Nature’ can therefore no more be ‘explained’ by the mathematical equations and symbols of quantum physics than a book can. To even attempt such ‘explanation’ is to seek to explain one set of symbols with another. The attempt is made without even attempting to sense the meaning of symbols directly and wordlessly. Yet this is something we do naturally in order to understand the letters and words of any book – whether by Dennett or Derrida - or any of the sensual languages of nature and art. 

Consciousness is not some ‘thing’ in need of explanation through some other ‘thing’. Instead it is the field condition for our experience of any ‘thing’, ‘being’ or ‘phenomenon’ whatsoever. Not being in need of explanation, consciousness is ‘beyond explanation’. It is not there to be explained, but to be expanded and explored more deeply, expressed and embodied more fully. The scientific attempt to ‘explain’ consciousness as if it were some ‘thing’ betrays a profound lack of consciousness.  It is this very lack of consciousness that explains our scientists’ pressing need to have consciousness ‘explained’. Yet as long as the larger reality of their own consciousness - and of consciousness as such - eludes them, the ‘question’ of consciousness will always be seen as an ‘elusive’ one, requiring ever more sophisticated ‘explanations’.

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