Irreducible Consciousness

By Swami B.V. Tripurari, from Sacred Preface, an extended commentary on the mangalacarana of Krsnadasa Kaviraja’s Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, available from Darshan Press.

Perhaps the most popular scientific reductive conjecture is that consciousness, often conflated with mind, is an emergent property of physical matter and thus inherent within it. Could this idea be true? Stranger events have not occurred. To think of consciousness as such would be to think of emergent properties observed in physical matter in a way that is entirely unlike any example nature provides. In every known material example of emergent properties, that which emerges is found to have been already present in some form within that which it emerges from. But there is nothing that even remotely resembles first-person experiential existence within third person objective, nonexperiential physical matter. In other words, there is nothing like consciousness in the brain, nor is there an evolutionary place for it since evolution is conceived of as a continuous process that molds preexisting properties into more complex forms but which cannot produce entirely novel properties. Consciousness is clearly such a novel property.

Hume gives an example of bile emerging from the liver. The liver is similar to the brain, although it is less sophisticated. Consciousness, however, is nothing like bile, the liver, or the brain, all of which have much in common. Brains are no doubt complex machines, but they will never assume a subjective attitude. Through artificial intelligence, we attempt to replicate the human brain, but however sophisticated such a replication is, it is not accompanied by feeling. Although there have been advances in the field of artificial intelligence, if its goal is to create machines that feel, today’s progress can be compared to climbing a tree in the name of getting closer to touching the moon. Falling in love with “Her” in Spike Jonze’s film involving artificial intelligence is pure fiction now and forever.

Furthermore, analogies prove nothing, and Hume’s analogy in support of consciousness being an emergent property of the brain is not a particularly good one. Better analogies for the opposite notion—that consciousness is nonphysical and at the same time influences the brain—are not hard to find. For example, quantum theory clearly demonstrates that the observation of an object instantaneously influences the behavior of other distant objects—even if no physical force connects them. Comparing this quantum phenomenon to how consciousness moves matter, while proving nothing, can stimulate and help to guide our thinking on the subject. Thus by way of an analogy better constructed than Hume’s, we are better equipped to conceptualize nonphysical causation, which in Gaudiya Vedanta derives from the existential witnessing and willing presence of consciousness in proximity to matter.
Note that I have not defined consciousness above. I have merely shed light from the Gaudiya Vedanta perspective on the nature of consciousness. Vedanta informs us that consciousness is “not this, not that,” neti neti. That is to say that consciousness is not a thing at all, nor is it a thought. It is unto itself. Without consciousness, there is no consciousness. This is the general view of Vedanta. And at least with regard to the difficulty in defining consciousness, no one of consequence in philosophy and the sciences today disagrees.


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