What is Consciousness?

// Revised July 16, 2020

1. Philosophers through the ages have struggled to figure out how consciousness arises in a human being. For “materialists” everything that makes a human being originates in the body, and they have been trying to explain consciousness in terms of something that comes out from the workings of the brain.

  • For the “dualists” consciousness is totally distinct from the material body and falls into the realm of theistic religion (related to a “soul”).
  • According to the Buddha, consciousness, together with the body, are two of the five “aggregates” that a human being consists of. And Consciousness does not arise from the body but arises with the body at the conception.

2. First of all, let us define consciousness.

  • The Buddha said that being conscious is “being aware”, but with feelings and perceptions, and the ability to “recall the past”.
  • There are several definitions of consciousness in modern science, but the general consensus among the scientists and philosophers is that the state of being conscious is a condition of being aware of one’s surroundings as well as one’s own existence (or self-awareness).
  • Therefore, we could say that science and Buddhism are attributing similar meaning to the word “consciousness”.
  • However, the Buddha’s definition of consciousness takes into account the critical roles played by the vedana (feelings), saññā (perceptions), and the manasikara cetasika among 52 other mental factors (cetasika), which combine to produce the viññāṇa which can be roughly translated as consciousness.

3. As to the origins of consciousness, we have three “theories”:

  • Contemporary science is totally matter-based: the universe started with the “big-bang” which created all existing matter, and all living beings “evolved” from this inert matter, and thus consciousness also evolved by some (yet unknown) manner.
  • The theistic religions believe, of course, that humans were created with built-in consciousness by an Almighty-God, and animals were also created (sans consciousness).
  • The Buddha’s is different from both above: It states that living beings (humans and animals) with built-in consciousness are different from inert matter, but they were not created. Rather, there is no traceable beginning to sentient life; life always existed, and it will exist forever (until Nibbāna is attained). Everything has a cause, so does life.

4. Consciousness is more than registration of a visual event, or an auditory event, for example. It has associated a variety of mental factors such as saññā (perception) and vedana (feelings).

  • A camera captures an image of a cat, but it is not aware of the presence of the cat. On the other hand, a dog sees a cat and becomes aware of its presence. It not only sees the cat but knows exactly where it is and can try to catch it.
  • Have you ever thought about how we can not only see things but know exactly where they are? Without this ability, we can not even walk without bumping into things. How do we know that the person in front of us is only a few feet away? Consciousness is associated with a sentient being with a MIND. Science cannot yet explain this capability.

5. There is also the issue of the phenomenal quality of the conscious experience: qualia, subjective feelings, the redness of red, the warmness of warmth, etc. How do these arise in a being made up of inert atoms? There are basically two approaches to solve this problem in modern philosophy and science:

  • One is that it arises as an emergent property in the neuronal activities in the brain. The other is the proposal of duality by Rene Descartes in the 17th century that persists to the present; see, for example, David Chalmers, “The Character of Consciousness”, (2010).
  • A subset of these scientists believe that consciousness is associated with the microtubules in a cell (for example, see “The Emerging Physics of Consciousness” Ed. by Jack A. Tuszynski  (2006) and John Smythies, “Brain and Consciousness: The Ghost in the Machines”, Journal of Scientific Exploration, vol. 23, No. 1, pp. 37-50, (2009)). Despite much research, the question of how qualia and subjective feelings arise from dead matter remains a mystery.
  • Just because a cell responds that does not necessarily mean it has consciousness; the cell can expand and contract (chemical reactions) in response to environmental stimuli. In a way, something similar happens when a plant turns towards sunlight; of course, plant life is not sentient. Thus, just because an entity responses to outside influence does not necessarily mean the entity is “mentally aware” of the outside influence, i.e., that it is conscious.

6. Therefore, all these scientists and philosophers are a long way off of solving the issue of the four mental aggregates of feelings, perceptions, volitional formations (saṅkhāra), and consciousness that make up the mental aspects of a human being. They are mainly focusing on consciousness and perception at this early stage, and even then are totally disregarding the intrinsic mental nature. It will be interesting to see what progress they can make by just taking a totally materialistic approach.

7. There is evidence, though, that some leading scientists are beginning to suspect that a complete “world view” cannot be achieved without taking into account the mental aspects. This trend started with the invention of quantum mechanics at the beginning of the 20th century and is gaining traction slowly. Some interesting ideas are discussed in a number of books including “Wholeness and the Implicate Order” (by David Bohm, 1980), “Quantum Enigma” (by Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner, 2006), “Biocentrism” (by Robert Lanza, 2009).

8. Consciousness (viññāṇa) discussed in this section does NOT take account the fact that consciousness of any living being (other than an Arahant) is contaminated by defilements. This our awareness is not pure; it is like looking through a foggy window. This is discussed in the “Viññāṇa (Defiled Consciousness)” and “Expanding Consciousness by Purifying the Mind“.

Next, “1. Thoughts (Citta), Consciousness (Viññāṇa), and Mind (Hadaya Vatthu) – Introduction“, ………….

Print Friendly, PDF & Email