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Advaita Vedanta: The Possibility of and Possibilities for Consciousness in a Non-linear World

Advaita Vedanta: The Possibility of and Possibilities for Consciousness in a Non-linear World
by Walter Benesch

Presented at: The Thirteenth International Congress of Vedanta,
Miami University, Oxford Ohio


The following paper presents four propositions for consideration:

I. The ‘world’ as we experience it and are aspects of it, is a Nature/Mind1 continuum which manifests itself in ‘imitating processes’ in nature, and in ‘imaging’ and ‘imagining processes’ in human thinking.

This combination of in the world and of the world generates paradoxes in our attempts to know and explain mental and/or physical processes. The nature and significance of these paradoxes was clearly recognized in classical philosophical traditions East/West. For example, the Kena Upanisad poses them in its questions as to the nature and origin of knowing and understanding:

By whom impelled soars forth the mind projected?
By whom enjoined goes forth the earliest breathing?
By whom impelled this speech do people utter?

The answer, however, provided by the Risis is less an answer than a lesson on answering:

There the eyes go not;
Speech goes not;, nor the mind.
We know not, we understand not.

It is conceived of by him by whom It is not conceived of.
He by whom It is conceived of, knows It not.
It is not understood by those who [say they] understand It.
It is understood by those who [say they] understand It not…] 2

The practical yet mystical Chinese Taoist, Chuang Tzu chose to speak of the unspeakable, however…:

Heaven and earth were born at the same time I was, and the ten thousand things are one with me.
We have already become one, so how can I say anything? But I have just said that we are one, so how can I not be saying something? The one and what I said about it make two, and two and the original one makes three. If we go on this way, then even the cleverest mathematician can’t tell where we’ll end, much less an ordinary man….Better not to move, but to let things be!3

And Sextus Empircus in his discussion of the Greek Socratic philosopher, Gorgias of Leontini claimed that Gorgias was the father of three fundamental propositions:

…firstly that nothing exists, secondly that even if anything existed it could not be known by men, and thirdly that even if anything could be known by anyone it could not be communicated to anyone else.4

This perspective was affirmed by Gorgias’ contemporary, Socrates who ‘knew that he did not know.’ Socrates possessed, what the modern Chinese Philosopher,
Feng Yu-lan would call no-knowledge, as opposed to ignorant individuals who have no knowledge.5

In these passages, and they are but a fraction of similar texts by other philosophers and other schools, there would seem to be a clear insight that the possibility of consciousness or reflexive self awareness cannot be reduced to one or more possibilities for consciousness as products of nature and/or mind.

Some of the most significant illustrations of the application of this insight are found in the logical systems that many classical traditions and schools developed, e.g., the Jaina ‘nayavada’, ‘syadvada’ and ‘saptabhangi’ which emphasize subjects and points of view; the Nyaya and Buddhist five part experiential ‘syllogism’ and the ‘catuskoti’ which emphasize situational encounters of subjects and objects; and Taoist-Neo-Confucian process logics which emphasize a synthesis of aspects of and perspective upon subjects, objects, and situations. These are logics in which there is a critical step or rule or level which will preclude the possibility of mistaking the products of a logic for either the world, or the consciousness thinking of the logician who employs it. One might speak here of a synthesis of neti neti and tat twam asi. These logics and their traditions represent what I would call the dimensions of wisdom or philosophical space.6

II. Within the Nature/Mind Continuum, human consciousness reflects a synthesis of attending/intending processes and processing.

Our personal awareness seems to consist of an unbroken attending/intending process of innumerable particular acts and objects of attention and intention, e.g., sensations, concepts, feelings, etc..7However, the possibility of attending is never exhausted in any particular attention just as intending is not limited to any particular intention. And knowing is a synthesis of focusing upon specific attention and intention aspects of this continuum (observations, emotions, physical processes) with perspectives upon these aspect foci.. It is the perspectives within this continuum which enable us to change our ‘minds’, to emphasize questions over answers, to shift thinking ‘levels’, to withhold judging for the sake of further inquiry. Thus, as individuals we are a paradoxical mix of ‘being’ as the possibility of this attending/intending continuum combined with specific aspects within it which are the possibilities for attention and intention.

To rephrase this position, I would suggest one might define human consciousness as the possibility of attending/intending, and describe specific experiences and their interpretations as possibilities for consciousness as attentions and intentions. Experiencing is a synthesis of of and for . Or from the position of Shankara and Advaita Vedanta: the possibility of superimposing and the possibilities for superimposition. We encounter an excellent example of this synthesis when we seek to explain and/or define ‘self’ or ‘world’. Any explanation, interpretation, definition, etc., is an attending/intending flow with at least five aspects: 1) The ‘observer, interpreter, explainer’; 2) the ‘interpreted, observed, explained’ or experienced object which is the context to which the interpreter refers; 3) the process of ‘interpreting, observing, explaining’; 4) the ‘interpretation, observation, explanation’ that emerges from 1-3; and 5) the ‘awareness’ of and ability to distinguish the preceding four aspects of this continuum and to focus upon them individually and collectively, assigning each significance and value. It is within this fifth aspect that perspectives occur on the other four and upon number five itself. Every aspect of this continuum provides a vast number of possibilities for consciousness, while consciousness as the possibility of the totality is not reducible to any particular aspect, and is the source most clearly reflected in the fifth aspect.

This five aspect continuum seems to me implicit in all subject-object-process-language-understanding relationships. The challenge is to preserve the totality of ‘consciousness as possibility while utilizing and/or emphasizing particular aspects within it as possibilities for consciousness. Otherwise, we confuse the aspect with the whole or perhaps adopt the illusory ‘perspective of no perspective’—which is also a very important ‘version’ of maya. It is the processing of ‘consciousness as possibility’ that is the source of exploring, explaining, defining-the possibility for theorizing, theologizing, biologizing, cosmologizing, psychologizing. And it is the processing of ‘consciousness as possibility’ that discusses the ‘possibilities for consciousness’ in the contexts of the sciences, arts, and humanities.8

I believe that referring to consciousness as the ‘possibility of possibilities’ preserves the dynamic of thinking and perceiving (minding) without limiting this dynamic either affirmatively or negatively by restricting these processes to a specific possibility or interpretation. And it is consistent with Shankara’s Adhyasa-bhasya (commentary on superimposition) outlined in the his introduction to the Vedanta Sutras of Badarayana.9

Any distinguishing between possibility of and possibility for generates a number of ‘process’ or ‘superimposition’ paradoxes.. For example, as the source of explaining, defining, interpreting, we cannot reduce ourselves as explainers and definers to our explanations, definitions, or interpretations. Any attempt to do so leads either to dogmatic absolutes or spiraling regressions of concepts and terms. This does not mean that we cannot talk about ourselves. It does mean we are not our statements.

Human reflexive self awareness is ‘ordering awareness’ in what is assumed to be an orderly universe. Thus the human intellect as ‘minding’ can be viewed both as an orderly aspect of nature and experience, and perspective upon order in nature and experience—this I believe is completely consistent with the Brahman—Atman continuum. Knowledge and understanding accordingly are both positive and negative–that is, positive in the sense of finite inclusion and focus upon the distinctions identified and known in a limited situation, and negative as an awareness of both the ‘distinguishing’ which is the source of distinctions, and as an awareness of experiences and interpretations excluded and ignored. It is this latter which makes negative concepts possible like ‘non-being’, ‘infinity’, ‘indefinable, the ‘speaking of unspeakability’.

III. In modern science, the synthesis of nature/mind in observation, experiment, and explanation, especially in physics and biology increasingly reveal a ‘non-linear totality in which subject, object, and situation have become inseparable.

Scientists in the 20th and 21st Centuries have developed the technical tools and the analytic and theoretical maturity necessary for analyzing the nature aspect of the Nature/Mind continuum at unprecedented micro and macrocosmic levels, and have reaffirmed the dynamic nature of the whole that was reflected in the paradoxes of the ancients. The result is a view of nature in which processes have supplanted ‘things’ in descriptions and explanations.

By the end of the 19th Century, limitations of the classical Newtonian/Euclidean world view had become increasingly problematic as physicists began exploring nature at the sub-atomic level. The paradoxes posed by uncertainty, incompleteness, non-locality, and wavicles, etc.let it seem apparent that in the sub-atomic world observations and observers are aspects of a whole. According to the physicist, John Wheeler,:

“…in the quantum principle we’re instructed that the actual act of making an observation changes what it is that one looks at. To me, this is a perfectly marvelous feature of nature…. So the old word observer simply has to be crossed off the books, and we must put in the new word participator. In this way we’ve come to realize that the universe is a participatory universe.”10

Biologists have found that methodological reductionism, i.e. going to the parts to understand the whole, which was central to the classical physical sciences, is less applicable when dealing with living systems. According to the German molecular biologist, Friedrich Cramer, such an approach may lead to a study not of the ‘living’ but of the ‘dead’, because in the examination of highly complex living systems “Only by ripping apart the network at some point can we analyze life. We are therefore limited to the study of ‘dead’ things.”11

One of the most important shifts in the natural sciences in the modern period has been away from the view of a simple and complete separation between observer and observed to an awareness that an observer also represents a living aspect of that which is being observed–both as a product of nature and as the mental possibility in nature of observing, as in John Wheeler’s ‘participator universe’. A synthesis of ‘product’ and ‘process’ are at the heart of the puzzles and paradoxes that we associate with ideas of ‘indeterminacy’ in physics, and with genes in biology. The ethologist,. Konrad Lorenz, argued that even the very concept of ‘objectivity’ which maintains that the observed and observer are separate does not hold in the study of “…highly complex biological processes such as evolution or the functioning of the central nervous system, …. We cannot distance ourselves from the object being considered; indeed, this is so at the very moment we start to think.12

It is amazing how close in understanding, and that across six centuries, modern physics and biology are to the Neo-Confucian Philosopher, Wang Yang-ming’s continuum view of ‘innate knowledge’:

The innate knowledge of man is the same as that of plants and trees, tiles and stones….Heaven, Earth, the myriad things, and man form one body. The point at which this unity is manifested in its most refined and excellent form is the clear intelligence of the human mind.13

The French mathematician and physicist, Henri Poincare maintained that the very process of generalizing implies a belief in the unity of the world: “if the different parts of the universe were not like the members of one body, they would not act on one another…know nothing of one another, and we…would know only one of these parts. We do not ask if nature is one, but how it is one.”14 The position on mind and nature of Amit Goswami, Professor of Physics at the Institute of Theoretical Sciences at the University of Oregon, would also seem consistent with that of Wang Yang-ming and Poincare. Prof. Goswami suggests that the heliocentric universe is again becoming geo or human centered in that it is “… formless potentia … and becomes manifest only when observed by conscious beings….Of course, we are not the geographical center, but that is not the issue. We are the center of the universe because we are its meaning.”15

In 1960, Edward Lorenz, who was modeling earth’s atmosphere in nonlinear equations at MIT, switched from rounding his equations to the sixth decimal point to doing so to the third. What emerged was a totally different system! He attributed the difference to a combination of the iteration of his equations plus the sensitivity of the system to initial conditions—in this case, the changes in the terminal decimal points. Lorenz named this randomness within his non-random weather models the ‘butterfly effect’ in a paper he wrote entitled “Can the flap of a butterfly’s wing stir up a tornado in Texas?” The discovery of ‘sensitive dependency on initial conditions’ coupled with the ‘iteration of patterns or data’ which produce random irregularities in deterministic systems is the beginning of the contemporary science of “deterministic chaos.”16

The mathematician, Benoit Mandelbrot , coined the term ‘fractal,’ from Latin fractua ‘irregular,’ to refer to the results of this combination of iteration and sensitivity. And it was Benoit Mandelbrot who provided the pictures of this deterministic chaos in his computer generated fractal images—what James Gleick describes as “…a way of seeing infinity.”17

We discover these irregular nonlinear fractal structures and patterns throughout nature, in the iterations of buds in Romanesco broccoli, the arterial and venous systems of kidneys, lungs, brains, coast lines, mountain ranges, root systems, turbulences in fluids. For example, I might ask the length of a head of cauliflower or a coastline. At one level, the answer might be eight inches or 580 miles. However, at the fractal level of iteration of growth patterns and/or ocean forces, both can be seen as infinite.

In most, perhaps all of nature, we encounter a kind of deterministic chaos in a world described by ‘fractal geometries’ which have “…become a way of measuring qualities that otherwise have no clear definition: the degree of roughness or brokenness or irregularity in an object.”18 This is the heterogeneous and nonlinear world of the branching of buds in the cauliflower head, the spongy tissue of the lungs, the indentation on the beach. The German physicists, Peitjen, Juergens, and Saupe suggest in their Chaos and Fractals, that “…chaos is more like the rule in nature, while order (=predictability) is more like the exception.”19

Where the ‘butterfly effect’ of the 20th Century relates to sensitivity to initial conditions and the iterations of patterns and equations in physical space, the ‘butterfly dream’ of the 4th Century BCE Taoist philosopher, Chuang Tzu, reflects sensitivity in a philosophical system to initial presuppositions and their iterations in philosophical space. Chuang Tzu claimed to have fallen asleep and dreamt he was a butterfly. Upon awakening, however, he wondered whether he was a man who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or whether he was a butterfly dreaming it was a man.20 We may insist that ‘dream’ is not ‘reality’, and reality is not dream. However, if one subscribes to the view that the world is ultimately atomic in nature, then do physicists dream of particles or do particles dream of physicists in an adhyasa–neti neti–tat twam asi continuum.

IV. The Advaita Vedanta–(Shankara’s)–concept of ‘superimposition’ (adhyasa) and the inter-play of the possibility of consciousness and various possibilities for consciousness can provide both model and method for the analyses of the non-linear world of modern science.

A dualistic view of nature or the cosmos must accommodate the problem and paradox of the relationship/s between the two basic elements, and I would emphasize the term ‘element’ as the basic ‘stuffs’ of the view, i.e. matter vs. spirit, creator vs. creation, ideas vs. things. These basic elements are qualitatively different and yet somehow together produce the world of our experiences as well as our knowledge of it.

A monistic or non-dualistic (advaita) view must accommodate and explain the paradox of differences, whether essential or apparent, that seem to arise between and among the basic aspects of the one, and I would emphasize the term ‘aspect’ (from aspiceri to look at). This is the puzzle to which Chuang Tzu calls attention with his talk of ‘oneness’ and the realization that one and the statement ‘about one’ equal ‘twoness, ad infinitum. (The Chinese philosophical tradition tends to stress ‘aspect’ of a totality whereas Indo-European philosophical traditions tend to stress ‘things’ within a totality—an approach, as A.C. Graham noted, which is facilitated by the use in Indo-European languages of the verb ‘to be’.21)

Shankara outlines the nature and function of ‘superimposition in the introduction to his Commentary on the Vedanta Sutras of Badarayan. He also suggest that it is a quite normal process (a necessary process?) which the intellect/self follows in the empirical and rational world:

It is a matter not requiring any proof that the object and the subject…which are opposed to each other as much as darkness and light are, cannot be identified. All the less can their attributes be identified. Hence it follows that it is wrong to superimpose upon the subject—whose Self is intelligence, and which has for its sphere the notion of the Ego—the object which has for its sphere the notion of the Ego, and the attributes of the object, and vice versa to superimpose the subject and the attributes of the subject on the object. In spite of this it is on the part of man a natural [beginingless] procedure… what have we to understand by the term ‘superimposition?’—The apparent presentation, in the form of remembrance to consciousness of something previously observed, in some other thing.22

I believe that Shankara’s solution to the nature of difference in the non-dualistic totality of Brahman can provide a useful approach to modern physical and social science which have been increasingly forced to reject the absolute reductionism and dualism of classical differences between subject and object in what physicist John Wheeler calls a ‘participant universe’. It is a universe in which our knowledge of it is dependent upon ‘uncertainty principles’, ‘incompleteness theorems’, principles of ‘ multiple explanations’, ‘complementarity’, ‘non-linearity’, ‘non-locality’, ‘deterministic chaos’, and ‘butterfly effects’, etc..It is a universe in which difference is a matter of focus and choice. Erwin Schroedinger, for example, insisted that “…it depends entirely on the observer what he chooses to regard as essential and what as inessential in a thing. Per se everything is equally essential. This would turn ‘organic’ and ‘inorganic’ into characteristics, not so much of the object as of our point of view or the direction of our attention.”23 This modern universe is, according to Prof. Goswami, a “self-aware universe.”24

‘Superimposition’ provides a very useful model for dealing with what can be considered different/dissimilar aspects in and of a totality consisting of the non-linear and random nature of the brain, turbulence in liquids, the iterating and infinite patterns of the cauliflower head, our kidneys, and our thinking processes, etc.. In what might pass as a modern ‘paraphrase’ of Shankara’s position, the geneticists and molecular biologists, Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin write:

…any theory of psychic development must include not only a specification of how a given biological individual develops psychically in a given sequence of environments, but how the developing individual in turn interpenetrates with the objective and subjective worlds to recreate its own environments.
There is a mental world, the world of perception, to which the mind reacts, which at the same time is a world created by the mind. It is obvious to all of us that our behavior is in reaction to our own interpretations of reality, whatever that reality may be.25

Shankara’s idea of ‘superimposition’ also provides a methodology for inter-relating the five aspects of a knowing/understanding continuum, i.e. interpreter/observer- interpreted/observed – interpreting/observing – interpretation/observation – and perspectives upon the inter-relationships in what is a continuum of superimpositions of each upon the other. The observer superimposes possible mental and sensual contexts upon the observed; the observed superimposes possible experiential and sensual contexts upon the observer; the possibility of observing superimposes a processing context upon both observer and observed; the observation, especially as symbolized superimposes possible linguistic contexts upon observerobserved, and observing. And an awareness of the syntheses of superimposition and superimposing in these four aspects superimposes perspectives upon the knowing and understanding continuum in whole and in parts.

Three central ideas emerge in Shankara’s analysis that are central to understanding the non-linear, orderly, yet chaotic world: (1) ‘Subjectification’ and ‘objectification’ reflect different aspect and perspectives within a continuum—inseparable and essential to one another. Awareness of this relationship is not the relationship, but a perspective upon it (this is the fifth aspect of the knowing process) in reflexive self awareness. (2) The inter-dependence of subject and object is the both the source and the value of the superimpositions that occur when we superimpose the attributes of the one upon the other – but again it is in reflexive self awareness that we can realize that these attributions are superimpositions, for in reflexive self awareness we become aware of the minding process of ‘superimposing’. (3) And the superimpositions – but not the superimposing process- have their origins in memory and past experience – that is the empirical possibilities for consciousness. The recognition of these possibilities as ‘possibilities for‘ is an aspect of the possibility of consciousness.

The paradox of the superimposition of subject/object is a paradox that figures centrally in modern science. As Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin point out in an illustration taken from biology:

Organisms do not simply adapt to previously existing, autonomous environments; they create, destroy, modify, and internally transform aspects of the external world by their own life activities to make this environment. Just as there is no organism without an environment, so there is no environment without an organism. Neither organism nor environment is a closed system, each is open to the other.26 [superimposes upon the other]


The process of superimposing is reflected both in the world as imitation and imitating processes and in human mental events as imagination and imagining processes. It is a world in which DNA as recipe is super-imposed upon species, genotype upon phenotype and phenotype upon genotype, signs upon concepts, concepts upon signs, values upon cultures and cultures upon values, brain upon mind and mind upon brain. Ultimately ours is a world in which the possibility of consciousness finds its expression in the possibilities for consciousness; and as Shankara proposed, the possibilities for superimpositions lead back in reflexive self awareness to the possibility ofsuperimposing.


1. The Chinese for ‘world’ or ‘nature’ is ziran which means ‘thus-so’, or ‘self-arising’.

2. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan & Charles Moore (ed):A Source Book in Indian Philosophy, Princeton University, 1957, p. 42

3. The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, Burton Watson, trans., Columbia University, N.Y., 1968, p. 43

4. Philip Wheelwright: The Presocraics, “Sextus Empiricus ‘Against the Logicians’, Macmillan N.Y., 1966, p. 256,

5. Fung Yu-lan: A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, Free Press, Macmillan, N.Y., 1966, p. 117

6. Walter Benesch, An Introduction to Comparative Philosophy, A Travel Guide to Philosophical Space, Macmillan/St. Martins, 1997

7. One can think of the Buddhist analysis of ‘self’ into the five skandhas: rupa, vedana, sanna, samskara, vijnana (body, feelings, sensations, predispositions, consciousness) as the essence of intending/attending in a world view of anicca and anatta. And any discussion as to who does or owns these five skandhas would fall under one or more of them.

8. I have used the term ‘possible’ because it would seem to reflect human awareness and judgment based upon experience. The term comes from ‘potis, pote’ = ‘able to’; and the term ‘esse’ = ‘to be’. The term ‘consciousness’ is a combination of ‘com’ = ‘with’, and ‘scire’ = to ‘know’. These two terms combined in the way they are used here mean the ‘ the possibility of knowing with knowledge of one’s knowing’. An excellent example of this meaning is implied in the term ‘conscience’ which means in moral and ethical matters not only knowing what one is doing, but also knowing the ethical implications of ones actions, and, coupled with potis and esse, implying both the possibility of choosing and the possibility of responsibility. Such knowing or awareness suggests the ability to pose on one level questions about one’s views and actions on another level-to remain aware of attending/intending beyond specific attentions and intentions.

9. The Vedanta Sutras of Badarayana, with Commentary by Sankara 2 vols., George Thibaut trans. Dover Press, N.Y. 1962

10. .” Paul Buckley and F. David Peat: Conversations in physics and Biology, University of Toronto Press, 1979, p. 53-4

11. Cramer, Ibid, 214

12. Friedrich Cramer: Chaos and Order, VCH Publishers, New York, 1993, p. 212

13. Wing-tsit Chan, Wang Yang-Ming p.221

14. Henri Poincare, The Foundations of Science, George Bruce Halsted trans., The Science Press, Lancaster, PA., 1946, p. 130

15. Amit Goswami, The Self-Aware Universe, G. P. Putnam Sons, N.Y. 1993, p. 141

16. Heinz-Otto Peitgen, Harmut Juergens, Dietmar Saupe: Chaos and Fractals, New Frontiers of Science, Springer Verlag, New York, 1992, p. 48

17. James Gleick, , Chaos, Making a New Science, Penguin Books, N.Y. 1987, p. 98

18. Gleick, Ibid.

19. Heinz-Otto Peitgen, Harmut Juergens, Dietmar Saupe: p. 48

20. Burton Watson, The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, Columbia University, 1968, p. 49

21. A.C. Graham, Chinese Philosophy and Philosophical Literature, Institute of East Asian Philosophies, National University of Singapore, 1986, p. 323

22. The Vedanta Sutras of Badarayana with the commentary by Sankara, ,I p. 5-6

23. Erwin Schroedinger, My View of the World, (Cecily Hastings trans.), Ox Bow Press, Woodbridge, Conn., 1983, p. 42-3

24. Amit Goswami, The Self-Aware Universe, G.P. Putnam Sons, N.Y. 1993

25. R.C. Lewontin, Stven Rose, Leon J. Kamin: Not in Our Genes, Pantheon Books, N.Y., 1984, p.276

26. R.C. Lewontin, Steven Rose, Leon Kamin: Ibid, , p. 273

Walter Benesch, Deptartment of Philosophy, University of Alaska Fairbanks