- Consciousness across Cultures:A Response to Bina Gupta's CIT: Consciousness
In recent years, consciousness has reemerged from the nether world of scientific and philosophical investigation and is now seen by many researchers as the last great unsolved scientific problem. There are several reasons for this shift in the status of consciousness studies. For one, neuroscience and the philosophy of mind are occupying the scientific and philosophical center stages, respectively. Furthermore, there has been a spate of books on consciousness by eminent scientists and philosophers. To my mind, the current wave of texts on consciousness started with three pioneering books: Roger Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind (Penrose 1989), Francis Crick's The Astonishing Hypothesis (Crick 1994), and David Chalmers' The Conscious Mind (Chalmers 1996), each representing a radically different perspective on consciousness. Crick's book was the most conservative of the three (despite its title): he claimed that consciousness is entirely a biological phenomenon identical with (as yet unknown) brain processes. Roger Penrose argued that the phenomenon of consciousness is tied to the foundations of physics in general and quantum mechanics in particular. David Chalmers went one step further, claiming that consciousness cannot be explained by any known scientific theory and that consciousness is a fundamental substance on a par with matter. Since then, the trickle of books on consciousness has turned into a flood. It almost seems as if the first thing a new Nobel Prize winner does these days is to write a treatise on consciousness.
However, Nobel Prize winners do not have a monopoly on Consciousness. As I am sure the readers of this journal know, investigations of consciousness are not a Western preserve; consciousness is perhaps even more important a topic in Indian philosophy than it ever was in Western philosophy. Dr. Bina Gupta is to be commended for writing Cit: Consciousness (Gupta 2003), the first overview of consciousness from the perspective of Indian philosophy. Her goal seems twofold: first, to introduce to a nonspecialist audience Indian theories of consciousness, which she presents as a ladder of ideas with Advaita Vedānta at the top, and second, to situate Indian ideas about consciousness within modern debates on this topic. Here, Gupta argues that it is Sri Aurobindo's Integral Vedānta that has the most to offer to modern scientific investigations of consciousness.
I am not qualified to judge whether Gupta has done justice to the various Indian philosophical traditions; my response here is based to a large extent on my reading of her text supplemented by what I know of the Indian traditions. However, as a cognitive scientist, I do have some acquaintance with current psychological and neuroscientific theories of consciousness. This response is an attempt to ask whether Indian theories of consciousness, as presented in Gupta's book, have concrete suggestions for researchers in these scientific fields. [End Page 567]
Let us take Aurobindo's evolutionary theory of consciousness, which is based on the existence of a hierarchy of levels of conscious entities, with matter and life occupying the two lowest levels and "existence" occupying the highest level. Current scientific theories of nature, especially of biological evolution, do not leave much room for such hierarchical accounts. There is no sense in which human consciousness is superior to that of a bat. A bat can use sonar to detect and perceive objects, so it is quite likely that a bat has auditory experiences that completely escape us human beings, just as color consciousness is beyond the capacity of bats. How does one fit the difference between bat and human consciousness into this hierarchy? Even if one could, does it really tell us anything new about the consciousness of bats relative to humans, as one would expect from an evolutionary account? In my opinion, Aurobindo's theory is incompatible with scientific accounts of the evolution of species. Whether his theory is right or wrong, it is not the bridge between scientific accounts of consciousness and Indian Philosophy.
In general, while there is much to be admired in entire systems of thought, be they of the Advaitic or Aurobindian persuasion, I think that these systems are unlikely to be useful to the...