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Towards an Integral Epistemology of Consciousness

Towards an Integral Epistemology of Consciousness
A radical proposal based on Sri Aurobindo’s Work
by Matthijs Cornelissen


What is it to know something? How can we know anything at all?

Within the normal routine of science these fundamental questions are seldom raised. Each scientific discipline has its own framework within which more immediately practical questions are selected, answers searched and, in due time, generally found. As long as we remain within the boundaries of our discipline, the deep questions do not really arise. They do come up, however, when we get involved in interdisciplinary work. Then we get confronted with the significant differences in approach to knowledge and its acquisition that exist between the different scientific disciplines. The issue comes up still more trenchantly, when we try to study a subject that simply does not fit within the parameters of our particular discipline. Consciousness is one such subject that challenges the most basic assumptions of the disciplines that are at present trying to tackle it.

When consciousness was studied in the 19th century there was plenty of confusion, no doubt, but no essential, epistemological difficulty, for it was approached mainly from within the confines of a metaphysical and clinical psychology in which subjective, introspective forms of enquiry were still accepted as a legitimate source of knowledge. When psychology in the early years of the 20th century, attempted to become an objective science, like physics, it redefined itself as behaviorism, and the subject of consciousness disappeared more or less completely from scientific enquiry (Guzaldere,1995). Only at the very end of the 20th century, did consciousness force itself again on the scientific agenda. This time around, however, it was taken up by an objective psychology, “evidence-based” medicine, and hard sciences like neurophysiology, computer science and physics. And here the epistemological difficulties arose.

There can be no doubt that the objective sciences have made tremendous progress during recent times regarding the functional and physical correlates of consciousness, but it is hard to believe that this will make us much wiser about consciousness itself. If it is confirmed, for example, that our human consciousness is not located in any one specific center of the human brain but that it goes together with 40Hz electromagnetic waves that move from the front to the back over the frontal lobes, then this is extremely interesting in its own right, but it is not very clear how much this adds to what we know about consciousness itself (as distinct from its material correlates). That the essence of consciousness escapes scientific study as presently understood is perhaps not so surprising. Modern science has put all its energy into arriving at knowledge that is objective and independent of the observer, and consciousness might quite well be quintessentially subjective.

From where then do we get knowledge about consciousness itself? An answer might be found in the fact that modern science is not the only systematic effort to arrive at knowledge that humanity has made so far. There are in fact many other knowledge systems, but for our purpose the most promising is that of the spiritual traditions of India, which have specialized for thousands of years in the exploration of the inner worlds and on the acquisition of valid and reliable knowledge of consciousness. That the Indic traditions could play a major role in the further development of consciousness studies is widely acknowledged (Baruss, 1998). What is less clearly seen, is that this contribution consists of a unique combination of two elements: on the one hand a highly sophisticated theoretical framework for the study of consciousness and on the other a welter of practical techniques to change consciousness. How crucial this latter ability to modify consciousness could be for the effective study of consciousness has as yet hardly been recognized. This is surprising given the immense role physical technology has played in the advancement of the physical sciences: technology has not only provided the apparatus needed for more detailed observations, but it also has been the spur for further theoretical work and the final test for the practical applicability of theoretical advances. Similar roles have been played by Yoga in the development of the Indic theories of consciousness. An effective “technology of consciousness” is absolutely critical for the development of more powerful and reliable methods to arrive at subjective knowledge.

Integrating Eastern and Western knowledge systems is however not easy. It is still comparatively simple, for example, to study the physiological effects of meditation techniques from within science. Such decontextualised phenomena don’t conflict with the standard scientific paradigm and have been extensively studied in literally thousands of scientific research projects.1 But more subtle aspects of the Indian understanding of consciousness cannot be fully grasped without challenging the materialistic, reductionist premises that are, according to many, still the bedrock of modern science.2 Such not physically reducible aspects of reality cannot be fully understood without adopting at least some essential elements of the Vedic, or Buddhist, ontology, which are incompatible with a materialistic view of reality. If one studies the materialist and the spiritual systems dispassionately, it becomes clear that the results of Yoga cannot be explained losslessly by the materialistic worldview, while, as we will see later, it is comparatively easy to fit the entire scientific enterprise within one or two specific niches of the more comprehensive Indian ontology. But before we can work this out, we must have a look at what the two different traditions actually mean by knowledge, consciousness and reality.

What is meant by knowledge?

The words “knowledge” and “consciousness” are used in many different ways by different people, so before proceeding I’ll try to clarify how I will use these terms. I don’t think it is possible, or for that matter, very useful, to give exhaustive definitions of either. These concepts are too complex and comprehensive for such an attempt. So the following is meant only as a first indication of the direction in which we will move. For our limited purpose it is sufficient to observe that the knowledge aimed at by science is not of the same type as the knowledge aimed at by the Vedic tradition. Scientific knowledge consists of explicit statements about things and processes and the relationships between them. One of the most generic descriptions of a valid statement of scientific knowledge is probably “If you do action a, under conditions c, you will get result r”. (Velmans, 2001) This pragmatic formula holds even for much of yogic knowledge, but it does not hold for all of it: it presumes, for example, the existence of an independent agent, which doesn’t apply to the higher ranges of mystical experience. There are other differences as well. In the Vedantic worldview, where truth is not seen primarily as a property of sentences, but as something inherent in the observer as well as the observed, the knowledge aimed at doesn’t consist of independently existing, external descriptions of such truth. The aim rather consists of the very act of seeing, realising or even becoming that truth. In ordinary science explicit statements about reality are complete in themselves; in Yoga statements about reality are rarely more than hints or aids, meant to arrive at a direct perception of a deeper truth, which itself remains concealed behind the outer formula. As Forman (1990, p.41) says with respect to “Pure Consciousness Events”, “linguistic systems are afloat, not pinned down to the terms in which the mystic undergoes the event”. While scientific knowledge can indicate avenues for outer action, Vedic knowledge indicates rather a different way to be and experience. Even the role of reason is not the same in both systems. In the early, Vedic and Upanishadic tradition rational thinking is not used as a means to arrive at truth, but rather as a means to express as faithfully as possible a truth already seen or lived on a “higher” level of consciousness, so that the expression, by the quality of the consciousness inherent in it, can help others to experience that truth directly for themselves.3

Within the context of Yoga, Sri Aurobindo describes Vedic knowledge as follows:

[T]he knowledge we have to arrive at is not truth of the intellect; it is not right belief, right opinions, right information about oneself and things, that is only the surface mind’s idea of knowledge. To arrive at some mental conception about God and ourselves and the world is an object good for the intellect but not large enough for the Spirit; it will not make us the conscious sons of Infinity. Ancient Indian thought meant by knowledge a consciousness which possesses the highest Truth in a direct perception and in self-experience; to become, to be the Highest that we know is the sign that we really have the knowledge.

…For the individual to arrive at the divine universality and supreme infinity, live in it, possess it, to be, know, feel and express that one in all his being, consciousness, energy, delight of being is what the ancient seers of the Veda meant by the Knowledge; (Sri Aurobindo,1972a, p.686-87)

It may be clear that this Vedic concept of knowledge is something entirely different from the scientific concept of knowledge. Of course the ancients were aware of the more mundane type of knowledge, but they were less exclusively interested in it than modern science. Avidya, or “ignorance”, as they called it somewhat disdainfully, denotes all knowledge that is not knowledge of the Absolute and the word is specifically used for knowledge of the world, in other words, for science. According to Sri Aurobindo’s interpretation of the Isha Upanishad, both vidya (Knowledge of the One) and avidya (knowledge of the multiplicity) are needed for a complete understanding of reality:

Into a blind darkness they enter who follow after the Ignorance, they as if into
a greater darkness who devote themselves to the Knowledge alone.
… He who knows That as both in one, the Knowledge and the Ignorance, by the
Ignorance crosses beyond death and by the Knowledge enjoys Immortality.
(Sri Aurobindo’s translation, 1996, pp. 21-22)

In the acquisition of the Vedic type of Knowledge four clearly demarcated stages are distinguished, of which only the first is a part of ordinary science: information, experience, realization and transformation. These four stages of understanding are most typically used to describe different levels of understanding the ultimate reality, but they also occur in other types of knowledge. Information can be gained by listening to others, by reading or by conducting objective experiments. It is the level of knowledge science deals with. Unless it is related to something emotionally loaded, information generally does not directly affect a person. Only through the second stage of direct experience, knowledge becomes really one’s own. Still, experience does not yet make any deep change to whom one is in one’s essence. It is still something one has and is still separate from who one thinks one is. Direct personal involvement comes with the third step: realisation. Realisation involves a true reversal of consciousness. After realisation, there is no coming back. It changes who you feel you are. But even then, even though one has changed one’s basic position and outlook on reality, one’s nature remains still largely what it was. The whole nature changes only during the last stage, through the process of transformation. Experience and realisation can come by themselves, or after much effort, but they are things that happen at once. One can afterwards remember the exact date and time. Transformation however is a gradual and laborious process.

Before we can explore how the Vedic, inner knowledge relates to scientific knowledge, we have to have a look at what consciousness is, for human knowledge is typically a combination of information with consciousness, or at least potential consciousness. Recent years have seen an enormous interest in information, largely spawned by the communications industry with its need to store and transfer information electronically. We will not get into this information aspect but focus rather on the aspect of consciousness.

What is Consciousness? What is Reality?

In most scientific literature, consciousness is equated with the ordinary mental awareness of one’s surrounding and one’s internal movements. Sri Aurobindo uses the word “consciousness”, in line with the Vedic tradition, in a much wider sense, for something that is pervasive throughout existence. As such it can take many forms. In man consciousness manifests most typically as mind, but in pure inorganic matter, for example, it manifests as not more than an obscure habit of form and movement. Consciousness in Sri Aurobindo’s terminology is thus a much wider concept than mind. It exists in many grades or types that together form a hierarchy ranging from matter to the pure spirit, with the mind somewhere in the middle.

Sri Aurobindo formulates his view of this wider range of consciousness as follows:

Consciousness is usually identified with mind, but mental consciousness is only the human range which no more exhausts all the possible ranges of consciousness than human sight exhausts all the gradations of colour or human hearing all the gradations of sound – for there is much above or below that is to man invisible and inaudible. So there are ranges of consciousness above and below the human range, with which the normal human [consciousness] has no contact and they seem to it unconscious… (Sri Aurobindo,1972b, p. 234)

This extended use of the term may in first instance be confusing for those who are used to the way the term is used in most of western scientific literature. Consciousness and mind are there often equated and in psychology mind is even used as a wider concept than consciousness (for example when a distinction is made between conscious and unconscious mental processes). Such a restricted conceptualization of consciousness makes of consciousness a freak phenomenon that suddenly appears at a certain level of physical complexity and that as such defies explanation. Much of the confusion that presently reigns in the field of consciousness studies seems to be due to an unworkable delineation of both matter and consciousness. Chalmers’ “hard problem”[REF] for example, is hard only because it contains implicit assumptions about the relationship between matter and consciousness that are quite unwarranted.4

If we take consciousness in line with the Vedic tradition as all-pervasive and existing not only within individuals, but also, independently, on a cosmic scale, then the individual consciousnesses can be seen as instances, portions or representatives of these different types of cosmic consciousness. The gradedness of consciousness and its cosmicity taken together have led to a conception of reality as a complex scheme involving interpenetrating but experientially distinct worlds, each consisting of a different type of consciousness and being.

Sri Aurobindo sees these different worlds as different relations between conscious existence as observer and the same conscious existence as the observed. Human mentality, that is our mental awareness of the physical world, is just one type of consciousness somewhere in the middle of a long scale. At the upper limit of the scale there is the consciousness the Divine has of himself. At the bottom end of the hierarchy we have the completely involved consciousness of inorganic matter. In the latter, self-oblivion is almost complete with the elemental particles of physics moving about in a seemingly inconscient, but still lawful organisation: “the force acting automatically and with an apparent blindness as in a trance, but still with the inevitability and power of truth of the Infinite” (Sri Aurobindo,1972a, p. 344). The grades of conscious existence in between the two extremes of Spirit and Matter have been described in many ways. Sri Aurobindo uses generally the Vedic “sevenfold chord of being”: Sat, Chit, Ananda, Supramental, Mental, Vital and Physical, with several subdivisions within each of these seven major planes.

We mean [by planes of consciousness, planes of existence] a general settled poise or world of relations between Purusha and Prakriti, between the Soul and Nature. For anything that we can call world is and can be nothing else than the working out of a general relation which a universal existence has created or established between itself, or let us say its eternal fact or potentiality and the powers of its becoming. That existence in its relations with and its experience of the becoming is what we call soul or Purusha,5 individual soul in the individual, universal soul in the cosmos; the principle and the powers of the becoming are what we call Nature or Prakriti (Aurobindo 1972c, p. 429).

In this view there exists neither a purely objective world “out there”, nor a purely subjective experience “in here”. Reality consists of the different relationships between consciousness-existence as observer and the same consciousness-existence as observed. Conscious existence is all there is at any level. When consciousness-existence identifies itself with the ordinary physical mind, it experiences a separation between itself as subject and itself as object and senses itself as a separate subject in the midst of what appears to it as an “objectively”, independently existing matter. There can be no doubt that this is the most common experience of reality amongst humans, but otherwise it is not privileged in any manner. Matter as we see it and our ordinary mental consciousness are not real primitives, but rather intermediate points on a long continuum of conscious-existence, which ranges from what appears to us as inconscient matter to what appears to us as superconscient spirit. Of course in our ordinary mental awareness we don’t see reality like this, we see the world as existing independently “out there”, and we experience our own consciousness as existing “inside” and as looking out at that “objective reality”. This is quite sufficient for most practical purposes, but will not do as a full description of reality. It grants much too concrete a sense of reality to the world as we see it. It should be clear that not only acknowledged subjective phenomena like colour and hardness but even supposedly objective phenomena like space and time are constructs of our mental level of consciousness. All our descriptions of reality, whether stemming from a naïve common sense or from the most sophisticated mathematical models of science, can, in principle, never be more than the outcome of the interaction between our observing conscious existence with whatever ineffable conscious existence presents itself to it as object. Even the very distinction between subject and object exists only on the intermediate levels: at the bottom consciousness is totally involved in its own separate existence, at the top it is all encompassing.

These different worlds of Veda and Vedanta are not closed systems that are completely sufficient within themselves. But it is not correct to speak of interactions between essentially different types of substances or forces either (e.g. of interactions between mind and matter). The different worlds are interwoven in a different manner, based on an underlying identity. In terms of the observing self, Vedanta holds that there is actually only one observing Self (the paramatman). The many selves of the Sankhyas only appear separate and different from each other by a process of self-variation and “exclusive concentration” that takes place in portions of the original Self that in essence remains One. Similarly, as the Sankhyas acknowledge, there is only one objective reality, which is ineffable, or, in the more descriptive Sanskrit phrase, anantaguna, “of infinite quality”. So there is actually only one world of which we are portions and see aspects. When our individual consciousness expands and begins to merge with the cosmic consciousness, we begin to realise that there is only one conscious existence that separates itself, for the joy of manifestation, into an infinite number of relations between itself as observing consciousness and itself as observed Nature. At any given time, the only thing we can know about the reality is the interaction between the center, and thus the type, of consciousness we identify with and this ineffable Nature. The scientific, objective, relationship is just one amongst many such relationships.

Four types of Knowledge

On the basis of this broad philosophical conceptualisation of knowledge, consciousness and reality, we can now attempt to build a more pragmatic bridge between scientific and Vedic knowledge. Though the scientific and the Vedic ways of knowing seem so different as to be incompatible, they may actually be complimentary and prove to be equally needed to arrive at a complete picture of ourselves and of the world in which we live. While scientific knowledge has proven to be extremely effective within the limited range of the mental understanding of the physical world, the Vedic type of Knowledge has provided a comprehensive map of the whole field. Just like science has spawned a technology to explore the material level of reality in an objective way, the Vedic tradition has developed yoga as an effective technology to study the inner and higher levels of reality in a subjective way. It does this largely by enabling the observer to change the type and center of his or her consciousness. This is not only relevant for those interested in metaphysics and spiritual growth. What happens on the higher and lower levels of consciousness has an enormous influence on our ordinary waking state, and their study is thus of the utmost importance for humanity.

The systematic study of consciousness will have to begin, however, on the level of the ordinary waking mind. Even in our ordinary waking state, there is not only one type of knowledge, but several. In one place, Sri Aurobindo distinguishes four different types of knowledge that are routinely used in the ordinary waking state. Together they form a gradient between the external knowledge that Science works with and the inner knowledge that according to the Vedic tradition is the essence of all other forms of knowledge. The four types of knowledge are called as follows:

  1. Knowledge by indirect separative contact (= scientific knowledge of the outer reality)
  2. Knowledge by direct separative contact (= objective introspection of inner processes)
  3. Knowledge by direct intimate contact (= experiential knowledge of inner processes)
  4. Knowledge by identity (= Vedic knowledge)

The first type of knowledge, knowledge by indirect separative contact, consists of explicit, objective information about what we see as the external world. Sri Aurobindo describes it as indirect because it is mediated by the external sense organs, and as separative because it goes together with a sense of clear separation between the self, who is the knower, and the object, which is the known. This type of knowledge has been developed and expanded impressively by the physical sciences over the last couple of centuries and is perhaps too well-known to need much further comment.

The last type, knowledge by identity, is the very different type of knowledge that we have of our own existence. For this type of knowledge the senses are not required as it is a knowledge that arises “from inside out.” It is the knowledge we have of ourselves simply because we are. There is no difference here between subject and object and, in a way, not even a process: knowing and being are one. In our ordinary waking consciousness, knowledge by identity is hardly developed and almost point-like in character: it is undifferentiated and has no other content than the bare fact of its own existence. But according to the Vedic tradition, it is possible, through extensive spiritual practice, to develop this type of knowing further and then there is no theoretical limit to its scope. It is through this type of knowledge that the individual is considered capable of realising his or her identity with the Cosmic or the Transcendent Divine. It is also this type of knowledge the Upanishad speaks about when it says: “When That is known, all is known.” The logic behind this amazingly bold statement is that knowledge by identity is in essence the knowledge of the Self, and as all individual Selves are ultimately one, it is considered possible to have an intimate self-knowledge of other selves. This claim is in principle open for experimental testing, but it may be clear that it requires a rather radical change in many aspects of one’s cognitive functioning to make knowledge by identity operational to a substantial degree. It should not be surprising, however, if smaller manifestations of the basic principle would be found to be fairly common, for example in occurrences of telepathic communication.6 As interest in consciousness studies increases and our insight in the processes and techniques of change in consciousness deepens, one can expect more and more interesting work in this direction.

In between these two extremes there are two more types of knowledge, both used for our internal states and processes. The first is knowledge about internal, psychological and physiological states and processes obtained by looking “objectively” at what is happening inside oneself. If one focuses on one’s physical state, one could say for example, “My hands feel cold.” The cold sensation is then felt as pertaining to a part of myself, even though I’m neither fully identified with the cold sensation nor with the hands. The same separation between the inner observer and the inner observed can be experienced with feelings or thoughts. I can say for example, “I like this approach to Epistemology,” or “I think that he is right.” In this type of knowledge there is a small gap between the observer and the inner process that is being observed. This type of knowledge is thus called knowledge by separative direct contact, separative because there is this sense of distance between the knower and the known, direct because the outer senses are not required. This type of knowledge was, under the name of “introspection”, used extensively in Psychology till the second decade of the twentieth century when it was discarded in favour of a purely external study of behaviour. In a later section we will discuss some of the difficulties with introspection and the solutions Indian psychology has found for them.

In the third type of knowledge one identifies with some inner psychological state or process. One is conscious, but one does not observe what is going on inside because one is fully involved in what one is doing. This type of identification is experienced for example, when one is fully engulfed in a feeling, say a feeling of happiness. If one expresses what one feels in such a state of engrossing happiness, one does not say anymore explicitly and self-referentially, “Today I’m really happy,” which would imply a certain distance, but one’s happiness shows implicitly in the manner in which one expresses oneself, e.g. “What a beautiful day it is today!” Similarly, when one is completely engrossed in one’s own thinking one can express what one is thinking, but the expression does not involve a reflexive reference to the fact that one is thinking. One could say, for example, “You are right.” Even in this case there must be some implicit awareness that one is thinking this, but one is not aware of it by looking at one’s own thinking process from the outside. One is aware of it from within the thinking itself, or perhaps one should say, by being the thought. This third type is thus called knowledge by intimate direct contact, intimate because the observer is united with the observed, and direct because there are no intermediary sense organs involved. Knowledge by intimate direct contact is hardly used in the development of science but, under the name of “experiential knowledge”, it is an essential element of all forms of “learning by doing” and the training of skills. It is also used extensively in psychotherapy, whether psychodynamic, cognitive behavioral, or humanistic / transpersonal. It can be trained to extraordinary levels of intensity and refinement by spiritual practice and it plays an important role in most mystical traditions.

Though it is useful to distinguish these four types of knowledge conceptually, in daily life they often go together, in quick succession or even simultaneously. The most fascinating aspect of this is, that the last, the knowledge by identity, is always present in the other three, be it often as a hidden, implicit presence. This is clear for the middle two: one simply knows that the hand one feels as cold is “one’s own”, one knows that it is oneself who is happy. But knowledge by identity is there in a diminished form even in our sense-based knowledge of the outside world: one recognises what one sees as part of one’s world. This may look like a rather minimal level of identification, but the suffering caused by its absence in some of the most serious and “unlivable” forms of schizophrenia, makes clear how essential this basic sense of belonging is for a healthy existence.7 There is another form in which knowledge by identity presents itself within our knowledge of the outside world, and that is in all we know about the structure of the world that we cannot derive from the raw data our senses provide. There are certain basic knowledge structures that are needed to make sense of what comes from the senses. The fundamental rules of logic and mathematics are one interesting example of such innate or intuitive knowledge, but it occurs also in the less formalized knowledge individuals have of their surrounding. Sri Aurobindo holds that a lot of this “built-in,” instinctive knowledge is required to make anything at all out of the extremely incomplete and imperfect information that our sense-organs provide. The necessity or otherwise of this type of pre-experiential knowledge has been discussed for centuries, but it appears the tide is slowly turning again in its favour. For example, Sir Karl Popper (1994, p.15) has given some of the most convincing arguments against a tabula rasa image of the newborn child and recent psychological research seems to provide experimental evidence corroborating the idea that we do have extensive innate knowledge about the structure of the world. How such innate knowledge relates to intuitive knowledge remains however a complex issue. In Sri Aurobindo’s description of the manifold reality, logic and mathematics both belong to the pure mental plane and not to the physical plane, and they are derived from knowledge by identity rather than from knowledge by separative indirect contact.

The honing of subjective knowledge

As a whole, science has concentrated almost exclusively on the acquisition of sense-based knowledge of the outer world. This is understandable in terms of the historical division of territories between science and religion at the time of Descartes. It can also be explained as a universal human trait: the windows of the senses look outwards, as the Upanishads say, and that is where we are inclined to look for truth in the first place. But there are also a number of pragmatic reasons that have maintained this strong external focus. The main one is the lack of reliability of untrained introspection and other forms of subjective knowledge. All human perception is prone to error, but perceptions of inner states are particularly inconsistent and unreliable. There are many reasons for this. One of them is that human beings are aware of only a tiny fraction of what is going on inside. We have access only to the surface and miss out on the forces and processes that take place below, behind and above the surface, and these surface appearances can be misleading. As Freud discovered in the early twentieth century and the Indian tradition in a completely different (and much more comprehensive) fashion several millennia earlier, it is from these deeper (and higher) layers of consciousness that our outer nature is determined. As long as one doesn’t open the deeper recesses of one’s nature to the inner sight, it is not possible to achieve a reliable form of introspection. A second distorting factor is that we have an interest in the outcomes. In introspection one typically looks with one part of oneself at another part of oneself. It is extremely difficult to watch oneself objectively without any bias, fear or expectation. The mind has its preferences, the vital nature its desires and needs, the body its physical limitations. All these interfere with a “clean” observation. This is of course true for external observations as well, but the outer reality does not so easily change because of one’s moods or desires. The inner states, on the other hand, change easily under such influences and even due to the observing process itself. Taking all this together it is quite understandable that introspection was discarded in the beginning of the twentieth century as too unreliable a source of information for scientific use.

But none of these problems with introspection is irremediable. Each one of them can by systematic effort be eliminated. The different paths of Yoga have in fact all developed techniques that are supposed to achieve exactly this. They all aim to arrive at a direct perception and finally a merger of one’s individual consciousness and being with the consciousness and being of the Divine. To make this possible, a considerable purification of one’s inner instrument, or antahkarana is essential. The different yogic traditions thus all have their methods to improve the range, the “resolution” and the reliability of inner perception. These techniques can be grouped into those that aim at greater concentration, at freedom from the sense-mind leading to an ability to penetrate the deeper and higher layers of consciousness, and at freedom from partial identifications, that is from the body, from the vital drives and emotions, from one’s thoughts and finally from the ego-sense. These techniques are within their tradition considered to lead to a free consciousness, capable of watching the movements of Prakriti, nature, as a completely independent witness, making it possible to observe inner events not only with a greater precision but also with a perfect “objectivity” and thus reliability. The inner disciplines of Yoga can thus play exactly the same role for a science of the inner realities as modern technology is playing for the material sciences.


Can we have a reliable science of consciousness as a subjective reality?

If we presume that the essential nature, the svadharma, of science is to look for truth, then there should be all reason for science to expand its field and take up the methods of Yoga to achieve reliable and detailed knowledge of the inner realities. This is, however, an entirely new territory for science. Modern science is a child of the European Enlightenment8 and systematic methods to train consciousness have, at least in recent times, not been part of the mainstream western tradition.9 Besides new methodologies, it would involve new attitudes towards personal involvement and, perhaps most difficult of all, the acceptance of Indic ontologies, which are more comprehensive than the materialistic and idealistic philosophies with which the West is familiar. It will even involve new scientific hierarchies, based less on intellectual acumen and vital assertiveness, and more on inner wisdom. Given the political and economical dominance of the West at present, one can expect considerable resistance to this acceptance of Eastern techniques, philosophies and attitudes. There are, however, precedents of cultural influence moving in the opposite direction of political conquest. In classical Rome, for example, Greek art and science were widely, and we would now say rightly, valued above their Roman counterparts: after Athens had been defeated militarily and politically, slaves from Greece were used extensively as teachers for the Roman elite. Eugene Taylor predicts, on the basis of a detailed study of the history of spirituality in the United States, that a similar cultural counter stream will take place in the coming years. He sees that as a result of a “cross-cultural exchange of ideas between East an West unprecedented in the history of Western thought” there will be a “historical change in the very context in which reality is defined” (Taylor 1999, p. 290).

One can only hope that Taylor’s prediction will come true. At present spiritual development is left entirely to the subculture and remains outside the compass of science. As a result, mainstream society is in a state that has much in common with multiple personality disorder. Public life ?- the media, government, business, and education — is entirely governed by the materialist and reductionist ideas of the physical sciences. Private life, after five and in the weekends, follows often a completely different set of values and truths. Like all such internal divisions this split is leaving both sides diminished. Science is providing more and more power without the wisdom to use it. Religion and spirituality abound in uncritically accepted creeds and dogmas, and miss the best that the progressive intellect of humanity could have given them. If science and spirituality can come together we can expect an unprecedented collective progress in the inner realm, and it is hard to deny that this is sorely needed. All really serious problems facing humanity at the present stage are not material in nature but psychological. Imagine the joy and fulfillment if the ancient yogic techniques for attaining inner peace, freedom and wisdom could again become an organic part of our collective life and could be developed further for the benefit of all present and future generations!


1. An excellent example is the work of Benson on the “Relaxation Response”. A good overview of this type of work can be found in Murphy and Donovan, 1997.

2. Interestingly there are very few philosophers of science who advocate a strong reductionistic, materialistic worldview.(Daniel C. Dennet is probably the most outspoken representative of this group.) I don’t think there can be much doubt, however, that most scientific literature, at least in the “hard sciences”, is written as if this is the “given” worldview.

3. The later philosophical schools seems to have used reason more in the modern sense.

4. For a more detailed discussion of this issue see Cornelissen (forthcoming).

5. According to the Sankhyas the original Consciousness, which is one with Existence, splits itself in two: “the consciousness that sees and the consciousness that executes & formalises what we see” (Aurobindo 1997, p. 194). The first is called Purusha, or Self, the second Prakriti, or Nature. Sri Aurobindo makes extensive use of the Sankhya philosophy, especially as a practical means to rise above the ego-sense. It is interesting that in the system of the Sankhyas, mental processes are considered part of nature and illumined by the self, but not part of the self. This comes quite close to the modern division between objective thought-processes and subjective experience. In this “standard” scientific view mental processes are seen as correlated with, or even identical to, objective processes in the brain while consciousness is seen as a subjective phenomenon of a different character. One may note that this is very different from the traditional dualism of Descartes, who placed thinking without the slightest hesitation on the side of the self. Technology has thus naturalised the information aspect of knowledge and has left, as in ancient India, only pure consciousness on the side of the self.

6. Dean Radin (1997, p 269) actually suggests a similar theory of “interconnectedness” to explain the positive results in many “paranormal” cognitive phenomena.

7. One should not confuse this involuntary, pathological dissociation with the spiritual Void. The inner emptiness the schizophrenic feels is a terrible state, which, if genuine and not a ploy to manipulate the environment, often leads to suicide. The spiritual state of emptiness is a completely different state going together with a sense of utter fulfillment and beatitude.

8. It is interesting to consider that the European Enlightenment was supposed to have freed the collective human mind out of the darkness of superstition and authoritarian religion, into the clarity of the reason, while the Indian concept of enlightenment is used for the release of the individual consciousness out of the semi-darkness of the reasoning mind into the light of the Spirit. Are we ready for a collective change in this direction?

9. This is not to deny that meditative techniques have been used in some monastic orders. But in contrast to the Indic tradition such inner disciplines have in the West never been a central focus of mainstream culture. In the West science has focused


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