December 2, 2020

The Science of Consciousness

Pioneering scientific research on human consciousness corroborates the scientific roots of ancient Indian philosophical thoughts.
Keywords: Consciousness | Indian Philosophy | Modern Science | Artificial Intelligence | Panpsychism | Advaita Philosophy
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‘Consciousness’ is the oldest and most enduring philosophical riddle faced by humankind. The questions related to consciousness are as old as the realisation of ‘self’. Both the ideas of the self and of one’s consciousness are deeply interconnected. 

Traditionally, India had been the battleground of thoughts on the philosophy of self-awareness and consciousness. A few centuries ago, there was very little, if any, differentiation between Philosophy and Science. Though the philosophy of self-blossomed both in India and Greece, it was only in 17th and 18th century Europe that objective and skeptical schools of philosophy developed, laying the foundation for a period of enlightenment and technological revolution in Europe. 

With the formalization and objectivization of education, knowledge began to be considered worthwhile only if it was objective. Experiential knowledge in Europe took a back-seat and slowly disappeared in formal learning. Objective knowledge rendered considerable material dividends. Thus, it prospered through mass education, writing of books and self-study like never before, leading to a significant spurt in vertical thinking (in-depth) and objective exploration of sciences. 

Though the philosophy of self-blossomed both in India and Greece, it was only in 17th and 18th century Europe that objective and skeptical schools of philosophy developed, laying the foundation for a period of enlightenment and technological revolution in Europe. 

René Descartes’ Mind-Body problem in that sense was an anomaly. He held that mind was distinct from matter, but could influence matter. In terms of technical progress, subjective, experiential knowledge (when compared to the European system based on reproducible experiments) had failed to deliver. 

In contrast, the focus shifted from self to material objects. The use of firearms and other novel technological tools tilted the scales in favour of objectivity, irrevocably. While western societies made a turn to physicalism, India was caught between its traditional economically unproductive experiential knowledge tradition and the imposed British colonial education, which mass-produced servicemen but not creative thinkers. This led to the loss of India’s leadership in a field it had pioneered and mastered from millennia – the knowledge of the self and consciousness. 

All the facts as mentioned above are crucial because there has been a renewed interest in objectivization of the subjective and a bid is being made to objectively understand the subjective through the existing sciences.

Study of consciousness remained married to philosophy following its inroads into psychology. The metamorphosis of psychology into cognitive sciences and then its merger with neurology led to amalgamated, neurocognitive science as a mainstream academic discipline. Advances in neurocognitive sciences led to the discovery of varied states of (un)consciousness thus creating an ethical dilemma for the physicians on when to recommend that the ventilator should be unplugged because the patient is only artificially kept alive. Understanding, whether the ‘person inside’, say in a coma, is battling for life or is already dead became a matter of crucial import. This provided a major nudge to the science of consciousness. In our times of COVID-19 with multiple patients on ventilators, the need to understand consciousness came into even sharper focus.

There has been a renewed interest in objectivization of the subjective and a bid is being made to objectively understand the subjective through the existing sciences.

The Center of Consciousness of the University of Arizona in the US organises an annual conference under the theme of ‘Science of Consciousness’. Owing to COVID this year it was held online. I was invited to deliver a presentation on my theory at the aforesaid Annual International Conference. The conference was impressive with the who’s who in this area participating, including Nobel laureates and eminent field-researchers. There was Google with its quantum computing and AI projects, under which generation of computed feelings is intended during the next decade. The icing on the cake was Sir Roger Penrose’s talk on quantum consciousness. He has since been awarded the Nobel Prize in physics.

Major trends in the Science of Consciousness:

Amongst philosophies, Panpsychism seems to be catching most attention. Panpsychism proposes consciousness to be an inherent quality of matter. Proto-panpsychism professes availability of constituent proto-consciousness as a property of the smallest particles of matter, which combine to produce consciousness as we experience it at our level of complexity. Consciousness as an inherent quality is still an unproven hypothesis. There are multiple other questions such as, what happens to proto-consciousness when a small subatomic particle is converted into energy? Regrettably that there was no paper on Advaita Vedanta Philosophy from India which could have brought out the Indian understanding of the same. 

American neuro-cognitive scientist Stuart Hameroff has carried forward his hypothesis of quantum consciousness residing in micro-tubulins (hair-like nanometer-sized structures protruding out of neurons) and is collaborating with Sir Roger Penrose who has laid out the physics and maths of the proposed theory of quantum collapse. The hypothesis, however, remains unproven. Professor Penrose upholds the possibility of retro-causality (future causing past), which vindicates the quantum consciousness approach. 

A large number of papers on various processes of the nervous system, advancement of scientific knowledge on the subject and pathbreaking new researches were presented. I had the opportunity to present my research on the Awareness, Life, Cumconsciousnes, Consciousness of the Observer (ALCCO) Approach.

While there is a general inclination to project older knowledge or ideas as personal discoveries, more often it has to do with the west’s unwillingness to recognise that their current percepts touted as modern breakthroughs were familiar to Indian and other minds in the remote past.

The ALCCO theory focuses on the distinction between awareness and consciousness as two separate phenomena. Awareness is discovered to be the inverse of measure of stimuli-response latency, subject to the state of responsiveness of an aware entity (observer) being elastic and hence largely, irrevocably, unaltered. Vis-a-vis other theories ALCCO illustrates the origin & evolution of Awareness and Intent from non-spontaneous birth of systems with an observer-constituent. Awareness is followed by the evolution of life and then by consciousness, which is a state of aware observer-constituent of a system, when it can interpret, influence and alter changes; sense external (higher systemic complexity level) & internal (lower systemic complexity level) stimuli, cognize and influence changes with ‘intent’, in events that are not smaller in duration and higher in frequency than the threshold below which the principle of observer’s causality can be violated. 

The uniqueness of the theory lies in its closeness to the Advaita school of Vedantic thought on the centrality and primacy of Observers, while the observers themselves are described to be available in every smallest system and subsystem. Consciousness is the quantum state of these yocto-systems when perturbed, such that the information of these states is instantly cascaded upwards to more complex systems. Life is described as the flow of infonomy (uninterpreted information).

ALCCO is one of the few theories that not only describe the process of consciousness but explain its origins and evolution. This is important as in contrast to Panpsychism ALCCO does not predict proto-consciousness as an inherent property of matter. On the contrary, it is hypothesised to be a property of such ‘systems’, however small, which have at least two observer constituents and a dynamic milieu.

The Indian Connect

There are many occasional papers where flashy western acronyms are used for theories that have existed in India from time immemorial. Donald Hoffman’s theory of the experiential world being an illusion is a very ancient Indian insight. While there is a general inclination to project older knowledge or ideas as personal discoveries, more often it has to do with the west’s unwillingness to recognise that their current percepts touted as modern breakthroughs were familiar to Indian and other minds in the remote past. Panpsychism too is a neo-Indian philosophy with roots in the Upanishads. Dr Miri Albahari from the University of Western Australia for one has written scholarly articles on Advaita Vedanta. The study of ancient Indian philosophies from a modern scientific perspective can unravel the many mysteries of human consciousness.

7 comments

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  • Sir, very well written, just wanted to add that though the people have started taking interest in object of the subject, on the contrary govt is not supporting ease of doing business, then in such circumstance how to move ahead ?

  • The basic premise of ALCCO theory that awareness precedes consciousness does not appear to be correct. . Let’s go into it ,when ,a child is born it’s conscious but not aware and it gathers awareness or physical or sensual perceptions which can be called mind. And when one dies the mind remains in the body but consciousness does not. So body is hardware , mind software and the electricity which makes the system work is consciousness. Thus the consciousness is always present in the universe as energy or matter. The awareness is increasing

    • When a child is born it is aware, since they respond to senses, but they are not conscious. Ms. Shivani you seem to equate awareness to knowledge, which it is not. Awareness is the lag between stimulus & response. Not just a new born, but even an adult is classified unconscious if he is not responding to stimuli. Awareness (latency of response to stimulus) is a necessary condition for consciousness to happen. After death, consciousness ends. True. But life is not completely destroyed. Multiple organs keep on living even after the body dies. Have you thought, how else eyes, liver, are donated after death. Because entire body does not die immediately with death.

      I liked your description. But may I be allowed to revisit your description I would out it as – body is hardware, all software – whether in human body or in computers is also hardware (no software works if memory & cache are taken out). Consciousness is data-transmission (or electricity). While mind does not feature in ALCCO at all, yet would I be asked to provide a definition of mind – the closest call would be ‘software’.

      Yes, consciousness should be increased in the universe as that is the motive & reason of existence of intent. But this topic is very elaborate & I will fail to answer in a comment.

  • Yes. CARL JUNG’S THEORY supports it. The collective conscious vis-a-vis personal unconscious decides the experiential evidence of the human world.

    • Thanks Megha.
      I liked your formulation “collective conscious & personal unconscious”. Consciousness is a systemic property.
      Any system that embodies an observer-constituent has the capability/chance to become complex enough resulting into consciousness.

Deepak Loomba

Deepak Loomba

Deepak Loomba is Chairman of De Core Nanosemiconductors Limited, Gandhinagar, Gujarat. He owns the only Private Company in the history of independent India, and the only one in entire South Asia which established a compound semiconductor plant with a material growth facility.

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