Science has yet to define and fully understand consciousness, but the debate has been given a new impetus by artificial intelligence, where the issue centers on the question: Can AI develop its own consciousness?
The meaning of the European word consciousness as we understand it today is often attributed to René Descartes (1596-1650), who used the word “conscientia.” Others attribute the current notion of consciousness to John Locke’s “Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” published in 1690. Locke defined consciousness as “the perception of what passes in a man’s own mind.” An 18th-century encyclopedia defined consciousness awkwardly as “the opinion or internal feeling that we ourselves have from what we do.”
The growing interest in consciousness in Europe, as expressed by Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” has been explained as the liberation of religious (Catholic) dogma that had Europe in its grip for centuries. In China, the equivalence of consciousness was expressed by the term “heart-mind” and had Confucian-ethical connotations concerning how humans should act in society. The “seeking,” as opposed to believing, was left to the Taoists.
Only the ancient Vedic-yogic tradition of India developed a comprehensive framework for the study of consciousness. India has been called the land of seekers without a religion but with millions of gods. By some estimates, the yogic tradition that aimed to define and develop consciousness goes back 10.000 years. The country has rich literature and elaborate terminology related to consciousness and has a new topicality. Subhash Kak, an Indian-American computer scientist, explained in a recent article that the Indian notion of consciousness could be crucial to the future of modern science. He writes:
“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 center-stage in the discussions of modern science. On the other hand, a considerable part of Indian thought is devoted to the question of consciousness.”
He adds: “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.”
Several pioneers of quantum physics were aware of the correlation between quantum mechanics and the way the ancient Indians described reality
Several pioneers of quantum physics were aware of the correlation between quantum mechanics and the way the ancient Indians described reality. Erwin Schrödinger’s work on quantum mechanics was partly inspired by Vedic thought. His influential book What is Life? was infused by Vedic thought. Theoretical physicist Eugene Wigner and other students of Schrödinger’s work have since argued that advances in physics would eventually require us to include consciousness in the scientific framework. The seemingly curious notion in quantum mechanics that “the act of observing subatomic particles changes their behavior” can only be understood by understanding human consciousness.
The field of psychology has also struggled to understand consciousness. The prominent Canadian psychologist Ronald Melzack recently wrote:
“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.”
Jaggy Vasudev, popularly known as Sadhguru, is one of the modern incarnations of India’s ancient yogi. Sadhguru is equally at home with ancient yogic practices as with quantum physics. His book Inner Engineering was an international bestseller. He has spoken at the United Nations, MIT, and Stanford and has shared the stage with prominent quantum physicists, economists, and social scientists throughout the world. He also has 5 million volunteers for his Isha Foundation, an international organization that is active in social outreach, education, and environmental programs.
Sadhguru articulates the intricate yogic view of consciousness in a language that resonates with people across all cultures. He explains that in the yogic tradition, consciousness has 16 different dimensions that are distilled in four main categories: buddhi (intellect), manas (memory, both mental and physical), ahankara (identity, sometimes referred to as ego), and chitta (cosmic consciousness).
Sadhguru compares the intellect to a knife. It is used to dissect and analyze things. The intellect is controlled by memory, our personal databases of stored knowledge and the accumulation of experience throughout our lives. Identity is shaped by family, social and cultural environment, education, media, etc.
Intellect evolved from instinct developed as survival skills. Memory and identity explain why people use intellect in different ways even though we all rely on the same natural and universal principles to survive. Sadhguru explains our connectedness to the universe in terms even a child can understand. We all depend on oxygen, which is produced by trees, grasses and tiny ocean plants drifting with the ocean currents (phytoplankton). Plants rely on the sun for photosynthesis, of which oxygen is a byproduct. Just by holding our breath for one minute or longer makes us aware that we are part of this universal process.
In recent history, industrialization and modernization have put excessive focus on the intellect in education and society as a whole. The trend started in the West, spread to East Asia as well as India. Intellect played a key role in modernization but it is now showing its limitations. Sadhguru explains that the intellect is a knife that helps us to cut open a flower and study its inner parts, but the intellect alone is not able to grasp the totality of its existence.
Sadhguru is living proof that striving for higher consciousness does not have to be an aim in itself. It can spur us into action, born out of a sense of connectedness with everything and everybody, from suffering children to deforestation. The Isha Foundation’s Project Green Hands mobilized two million volunteers to plant 30 million trees in India, the largest ecological project ever undertaken in Asia. Sadhguru also initiated the River Rally by traveling 9,000 km through India to raise awareness of the plight of India’s rivers. His 5 million volunteers around the world are active in education, healthcare and other social programs not provided by governments.
The deity within
In the 20th century, power tools and robots relieved us of most physical work. In the 21st century, AI will relieve us of most mental work. When AI can do everything humans can but do it faster and better, it will arguably be the last science we will ever need. AI will handle virtually all tasks that require intellect and can be captured in mathematical structures.
What AI will not be able to develop is human consciousness, if only because we do not yet fully understand what it is and how it develops. Consciousness will increasingly be the focus of AI, quantum physics, psychology, and many other disciplines, including the social sciences.
The best AI can do is simulate consciousness, and Vedic knowledge of consciousness offers a blueprint. Its view that consciousness consists of four parts explains much of human behavior, among them the seemingly inexplicable behavior of fanatics; their intellect has been hijacked by their identity, whether based on nationality, ideology, or religious belief.
Vedic understanding of consciousness is attracting growing interest from the neurosciences
Vedic understanding of consciousness is attracting growing interest from the neurosciences. Two years ago, Bala Subramaniaman, an anesthesia specialist at Harvard Medical School, asked Sadhguru how anesthesia makes one unconscious. Sadhguru responded by saying: “Anesthesia cannot touch consciousness, it can only take away memory. What you are referring to as consciousness is wakefulness. We do not consider wakefulness as consciousness. Being wakeful and being conscious are two different things… Consciousness means you went beyond your memory and grasped the nature of reality as it is.”
Sadhguru and other yogic teachers are modern interpreters of India’s ancient tradition. Their knowledge will play an increasingly important role in the future of science, psychology and AI. When AI can handle most mental tasks, people will wonder: What’s next?
While the world looked at the West for science and East Asia for “application technology,” they will look at Vedic sciences to explore the ultimate frontier of consciousness. It will put India center stage, if not as an economic powerhouse but surely as a “spiritual superpower.”
Vedic science provides a manual for our consciousness and shows that the same cosmic principle sustains all that exists and that the distinction between human, god(s) and the universe is artificial. It explains why India has 33 million deities, one for every conceivable phenomenon that partakes in the reality of our existence. Transcend your identity and your memory and you will see deities everywhere you look, only to realize that one of them is you.