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  • Saving the Self?Classical Hindu Theories of Consciousness and Contemporary Physicalism
  • C. Ram-Prasad

This is a highly programmatic essay. It aims to provide some suggestions on how classical Indian philosophical material may contribute to current discussions in consciousness studies, but does not attempt to provide either a textual exploration of that material or a detailed taxonomy of issues in consciousness studies. It is premised on the claim that, at this early stage of such work, merely suggesting systematically as to where the Indian material provides scope for contribution is itself a worthwhile task.

The situation is this: classical Indian theories of consciousness generally evolved within a soteriological context in which the ultimate goal was some transcendental spiritual state. Contemporary consciousness studies, apart from where it is approached from the specifically religious concerns of Christianity (and, increasingly, Buddhism), is generally oriented to scientific goals that allow no place for transcendental concerns. Of course, it is time that the religious dimensions of consciousness be approached from Hindu perspectives as well, to join those of other traditions. But this essay is concerned with the interpretative possibilities of Hindu-derived systems within the nonreligious, physicalist paradigm of consciousness studies.

A note on a terminological inexactitude: I have stayed with the conventional but misleading term "Hindu" when initially describing the systems or schools. I take it for granted that the reader will keep in mind the problems associated with this word and the difficulty of reading it back into the history of Indian philosophy. It would be more accurate to call these systems "brahmanical," to distinguish them from Buddhist and Jaina systems, since socioreligious circumstances stopped all but brahmin men from having access to the intellectual culture of the philosophical tradition. (It is no accident that Indian Mahāyāna schools, deeply engaged as they were in debates with the brahmanical systems, tended to be represented by brahmin converts.) "Hindu" looks to be a simpler and more readable term for those not primarily concerned with the facts of Indian religio-philosophical history, while "brahmanical" is more accurate. I will use both.

Physicalism and Classical Indian Material: A Challenge

I will take physicalism in the ontological sense, as the thesis that all occurrences and entities are constituted by the (literal, i.e., inorganic) material of physics. It can be added that the majority of physicalists also hold the epistemological thesis that all occurrences and entities are constituted by the logical material of physics, that is, that they can be described and explained by physics. However, some ontological [End Page 378] physicalists or materialists reject such reductive (or even eliminative) strategies, and so I shall not take this second conception as part of the basic framework within which I assume the Indian material should work.

Now, as ontological physicalism is generally accepted as true in (nonreligious) consciousness studies, it is assumed that whatever consciousness is, it is made up of physical elements and their interactions. (This assumption is common even to many of those who hold that some features of consciousness cannot be [re-]described in the terminology of physics.) It would seem prima facie that this leaves no space for classical Hindu concerns about consciousness, in terms of its logico-metaphysical relationship with the self (ātman), which is the focus of soteriological endeavor. The goal of the classical philosophy is the attainment of liberation for that self from the flawed conditions of a material existence. The focus of that philosophy is, in other words, something that precisely is not a physical entity, that precisely seeks liberation from the physical (howsoever subtle and sophisticated the accounts of such liberation).

Classical Indian philosophy, then (and that includes the Buddhist systems that, even though they deny a metaphysical self, nonetheless have the soteriological goal of liberation), has concerns that are simply incompatible with the framework of physicalist consciousness studies. On the other hand, it is undeniable, for those who know anything about the classical Indian texts, that there is much in these texts on issues of selfhood, consciousness, self-consciousness, mind, mental activity, and so forth that appear germane to contemporary concerns. What sorts of responses may be given to this situation?

Three Responses

1. The robust dismissal...