Materialist View of Consciousness

I came across this essay last week. I don’t actually remember writing it, although the file was dated Feb of this year! (My memory must be deteriorating faster than I thought!) Anyway, since everyone (who contributes these days) seems to be particularly interested in Consciousness and scientific views, it seemed a good idea to post it. Apologies if I have already posted it somewhere before…

Shankara’s Refutation of the Materialist

Seemingly, the most prevalent view today of the nature of consciousness is that it is a phenomenon that comes into existence when the brain reaches a certain level of complexity. To use the favored term, consciousness is an ‘epiphenomenon’ of matter.  In fact, this is not a novel idea; it has been around for a long time. An Indian philosopher with whom the theory is particularly associated is Charvaka, who lived around 600 BCE.

The materialist philosophy itself is called lokayata in Sanskrit, and this is the term used in the principal Vedantic text, the Brahmasutras. It is interesting to note that the term ‘lokayatika’ was effectively used by the eminent philosopher Shankara as an insult but nowadays would be regarded by most people as a compliment, since it literally means ‘someone experienced in the ways of the world’ – an indication, perhaps, of the spiritual depths to which Western society has sunk!

In his commentary on the Brahmasutras, Shankara offers a refutation of this materialist philosophy.

The arguments to which I referred mostly appear in Shankara’s commentary (bhAShya) on the brahmasUtra-s. In the middle of a section which is arguing that the ‘fires’ referred to in a particular scriptural text have nothing to do with sacrificial rites but are actually talking about meditations, vyAsa suddenly introduces an incidental topic (‘aikAtmyAdhikAraNam’ – eka AtmanaH sharIra bhavat –  III.iii.53 – 54). This has not been specifically addressed before but has major significance for the entire body of scriptures. His comments on The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad IV.iii.6 are also relevant, where yAj~navalkya asks what it is that ‘serves as the light’ for a man when there is no external light or sound (“when the sun and moon have both set, the fire has gone out, and speech has stopped”). Janaka answers that it is the Self (i.e. Consciousness).

Shankara says that some people (i.e. the chArvAka-s) state that consciousness depends upon the body for its existence. Obviously, if this is the case, then there is no question of anything becoming ‘liberated’ from saMsAra – when the body dies, that is the end of ‘us’. And it would follow that there is no purpose in pursuing advaita. Indeed, the only reasonable path to follow would be the hedonistic one – wine, women and song (or whatever your preferred source of pleasure). The materialist says that there is no ‘soul’ to go to heaven (or elsewhere) after death; the body itself is all there is, just happening to have ‘consciousness’ whilst alive. Consciousness is an ‘attribute’ of the body, they say, in the same way that heat and light are attributes of a fire – when the fire goes out, the heat and light disappear. Similarly, we never see ‘consciousness’ independent of a body; the two always go together. The qualities which we associate with consciousness, such as independent motion, memories, ability to hold a meaningful discussion and so on, are all absent when there is no body. We don’t encounter them in connection with a brick, for example.

And we don’t see consciousness in individual elements and chemical compounds but, when these come together in the form of nucleotides in a DNA chain, cells begin to replicate and, at a certain level of complexity, consciousness is manifest as an epiphenomenon. (We have now moved from the 8th Century chArvAka-s to the 21st Century biochemist and neuroscientist but the principle is exactly the same.) The brahmasUtra uses the example of ‘intoxicating quality’. The separate ingredients of, say, beer – sugar, hops, malt, yeast etc – are not themselves intoxicating but, when they are brought together, something happens (i.e. fermentation) and an intoxicating quality is exhibited. But we wouldn’t expect to see this quality ‘apart from’ the beer that exhibits it. In just the same way, says the chArvAka, there is no soul to go to heaven or become liberated because it is inexorably linked with the body.

It is strange that this question should be left until nearly the end of the brahmasUtra-s, since all of the scriptures pre-suppose the existence of a ‘soul’ separate from the body, but never mind!

The argument of the chArvAka uses the logical reasoning called ‘anvaya-vyatireka’. In this particular example, what they are saying is that consciousness occurs in the presence of the body but not in its absence. Therefore, the body is the same as consciousness. Or, to put this more formally:

  1. When the body is present, consciousness is present (this is the anvaya, ‘association’ or ‘co-presence’ statement).
  2. When the body is absent, consciousness is absent (this is the vyatireka, ‘exclusion’ or ‘co-absence’ statement).
  3. Therefore the body is the same as consciousness.

vyAsa offers only one argument against the materialist. He says that there is a distinction between consciousness and the body because the former may be absent even while the latter continues to exist. When death occurs, we clearly see the body still lying there but all consciousness-related signs have gone forever. Obviously, therefore, consciousness must be something other than the body. We can only see things in the presence of light but that does not mean that perception is an attribute of the light. Similarly it cannot be concluded that consciousness is an attribute of the body.

Shankara adds that, while such things as the form and shape of the body can be seen by another person, qualities such as consciousness, memory and life itself cannot be perceived, only inferred. (And the Charvakas only accept direct perception as a source of knowledge; they refute inference on the grounds that it is not always reliable.) Also, whilst we can appreciate that these exist in the body whilst it is alive, we cannot actually prove that they are no longer there after the body has died. For all we know, they might transfer to another new body, as is supposed by the theory of reincarnation. Since there is no way of disproving this possibility, the chArvAka’s argument cannot be substantiated.

Basically, we cannot say that, because we do not experience something, it does not exist. In science, an example might be the neutrino. Millions of these pass through us and the earth every second, yet most people have not even heard of them. Our not experiencing something may be because it doesn’t exist. But an equally plausible explanation (in the absence of any definite knowledge) is that our instruments are inadequate. The neutrino is a perfect example. Solar neutrinos were eventually detected in the nineteen eighties by a detector using 50,000 tons of pure water surrounded by 11,000 photomultiplier tubes buried 1 km underground. Thus, an alternative explanation might be that the appropriate conditions for experiencing it are not present. E.g. If you have ever been into an underground cave system and switched out the lights, you will know that you literally cannot see your hand if you hold it immediately in front of your eyes. If someone came into the cave with you, you do not claim that, since you can no longer experience them, they must have ceased to exist.

But, although we cannot conclude that something is absent because we do not experience it, we certainly cannot conclude that it is present. If we could, we would have to admit that we are surrounded by invisible unicorns and Martians, to mention two examples that spring to mind. So it is conceded that we do not rely on experience for the conclusions about consciousness. Shankara, and other philosophies accept scriptural texts as the means of knowledge. I.e. it is suggested that we temporarily accept the assurance of those sages who have gone before and discovered the truth for themselves.

Shankara does not want to leave things there, however, and goes on to provide some further arguments. The materialist believes that there is only matter; i.e. no such thing as spirit (or ‘consciousness’ separate from the body). So, asks Shankara, what exactly does he mean, when he talks about consciousness? If he means ‘the perception or awareness of things (i.e. matter)’, then he is saying that matter itself is both the subject and the object in the act of perception. How can X be perceived by something which is a quality of X? He likens this to claiming that the quality of fire, i.e. ‘heat’, could itself burn the fire. Or an acrobat could stand on his own shoulders. Form cannot sense form, nor can sound hear sound. If, on the other hand, we accept that consciousness is separate from matter, there is no problem at all. It can perceive objects external to the body, and it can perceive thoughts, feelings etc which are internal.

There is another reductio ad absurdum argument which follows from such thinking. If we consider the sense of vision, we can say that the eye is the locus for the property of ‘seeing’. And we can say that this ‘seeing property’ is what perceives external objects. But there are two specific things that this ‘seeing property’ cannot perceive: namely itself and its substrate or locus. The reason for this is simply that the eye and its seeing attribute are the ‘subject’ of the act of seeing. Whilst it can perceive other objects, it cannot perceive itself – its objects must be different from and separate from itself. To generalize, an attribute cannot objectify either itself or its locus. Since the attribute is intrinsic to the locus, it cannot also be different and separate from it.

To extrapolate this to the topic of discussion, then, the Charvaka is proposing that consciousness is the attribute of the body as locus. This would mean that consciousness is able to objectify everything except two things – consciousness itself and its substrate, the body. Just as the eye cannot see itself, we would have to conclude that we could never experience our own body! (But not actually associated with the body. It is the brain that is believed to ‘generate’ consciousness and we cannot experience our own brain.)

If we accept that the one who perceives is different from what is perceived, we are obliged to conclude that, since we can perceive the body, we cannot be the body – Consciousness cannot be the body. Our memory shows us that the ‘I’ who experienced being a child is the same as the ‘I’ that now experiences being an adult – but the body has changed radically. Consciousness remains the same whilst the body is born, grows old and dies. This also leads us to the conclusion that Consciousness is permanent while everything else changes. We only think that this is not the case when we identify with things that do change, such as the body and mind. In fact, if we did not remain essentially the same, we could not say that an event recalled from the past happened to ‘us’. So the view of the materialist does not explain the phenomenon of memory.

[In fact, as I explained in ‘How to Meet Yourself’, and copied the relevant section into the new edition of ‘Book of One’, modern science does have a plausible explanation as to how this works. Since it is relevant to the discussion (and since I do not want to be accused of ignoring the other side of the argument!), here it is:

“We know that long-term memories seem to reside in the cortex of the brain. Short term ones exist for only a few seconds before beginning the process of consolidation into longer term ones, involving one of the organs within the brain (the hippocampus). A complex protein has been identified as being responsible for the translation process. What has been discovered recently, however, is that our long-term memory is not necessarily very reliable (Ref. 109). Whenever we revisit it for whatever reason, whether mentally to relive an enjoyable experience or in order to recall a specific item of data, the information is reprocessed and stored anew in our long term memory and thus will not be quite the same as the earlier version. It is hardly surprising that witnesses of crimes or accidents have been shown not to be totally reliable. We may actually rewrite the story, with modifications, each time we remember it.

“The experimental data for this was, admittedly, derived from rats rather than humans but the mechanism is believed to be the same. Rats were taught to associate being placed in a dark room with receiving an electric shock. Needless to say, after a while it could be observed that they became anxious whenever they were shown the room, irrespective of whether they received a shock. Once this pattern was observed repeatedly, even after a significant lapse of time, it could be concluded that this association was fixed in their long-term memory.

“Some of the rats now either had their hippocampus removed or they were treated with a drug that suppressed the action of the protein responsible for laying down long-term memories. When these rats were shown the room, they reacted as before with anxiety, showing that their long-term memory in the cortex of the brain was still registering the association with electric shock.

“Some of the other rats were shown the room (but not put into it) and then had either the hippocampus removed or were treated with the drug. In all cases, when they were subsequently put into the room, they showed no anxiety whatsoever. They wandered about quite happily, indicating that the long-term memory association had completely disappeared.

“In fact, revisiting old data from electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) back in the sixties showed that this effect had already been seen with humans. If someone was asked to relive their traumatic episodes or fears and then given ECT whilst still conscious, the related memories were found to have disappeared subsequently. Of course, such experiments would no longer be allowed today!”

Of course, this in no way nullifies the arguments that Consciousness = the Self = who we really are, but it does show that the mechanism by which we are able to associate with past events may involve data stored in a mechanistic way in the brain. ]

Another way of looking at this is that, if consciousness were an attribute of the body, we ought to be able to experience it in just the same way that we experience the body’s form and color etc. Properties of the body are objects of the sense organs. Yet we are not aware of consciousness as an attribute or object at all. Rather it is we, as Consciousness (the subject), who are aware of everything else. Nor do we experience it in others. We can infer consciousness in others, because they move, speak etc. But we cannot see it or otherwise experience it. Indeed, it is conceivable that we might be mistaken in our inference – it seems almost certain that, one day, we will be taken in by a robot.

The dream experience is also quoted by Shankara as showing that the physical body is not a sine qua non for consciousness. In our dreams, the gross body is absent and we assume a ‘dream body’ and experience a dream world, which exist entirely within our own mind. The gross body does not contribute to our experiences in the dream but lies motionless on the bed. Although we ‘see’ a perfectly realistic (to the dreamer) world in full color and three dimensions, the gross, physical eyes remain closed and the room may be dark. This world is seen by ‘dream eyes’.

In fact, it is not the eyes that ‘see’ but the consciousness behind the eyes. Thus, we can recall things that we have seen in the past even though they are no longer present and our eyes are closed. Someone with an eidetic memory can describe every detail, even though not remarked upon at the time. Even a blind man, whose eyes have been physically removed, can still see in his dream the images of events and objects from his past. Consciousness is separate from the body and senses and illumines them as do the sun, moon and fire but it is not itself illumined by anything else.

Further, Shankara points out in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad that the agent must be separate from and ‘superior’ to the organs because otherwise it would not be possible to know that the thing that we touch, for example, is the same thing that we earlier saw. Nor can the agent be the mind because the mind itself is an object to the experiencing consciousness. Presumably, here, Shankara refers to thoughts and feelings which, as it were, make up the mind. If we claim that these are in the mind rather than being the mind, it seems it would still be possible to claim that it is the mind which ‘sees’ the thoughts and feelings. So this last objection has not clearly been refuted. However, this would seem to offer no real help to the Western scientist, who does not acknowledge the existence of a ‘mind’ to begin with.

Overall, notwithstanding the flimsiness of some of the points, the above arguments show that the materialist view (that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the body or brain) is not proven.