A brief history of consciousness

“Consciousness” has become a very popular buzzword that I’ve heard in radically different contexts lately. For example, consciousness is often used when discussing artificial intelligence, philosophy, neuroscience, spirituality and even politics.

Some recent news articles show some of the variety of ways “consciousness” is used:

What is consciousness?

Generally, humans seem to share a broad intuitive understanding of what consciousness is. Through personal interaction and observation, most believe that other people and at least some animals are conscious or have some sense of self. But what is more conscious, a fish or an ant? Do plants have some sort of consciousness? Is the cosmos itself composed of sentient fabric?

Consciousness can be broadly defined as the quality of awareness of an external object or of something within oneself. Synonyms or related terms include awareness, sentience, wakefulness, having a sense of self and the mind’s executive functions.

The word conscious comes from the Latin word conscius (con- “together” and scio “to know”), which can be translated to “having joint or common knowledge with another”. The Latin phrase conscius sibi can be translated to “conscious unto oneself”, which closer to our modern understanding of the word consciousness.

Western understanding of consciousness

Philosophy and science has struggled to understand the age-old question of consciousness, which is a relatively recent concept in the western world. One of the first English references on the topic is John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) where consciousness is defined as “the perception of what passes in a man’s own mind.”

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Representation of consciousness, circa 1619

In recent years, consciousness has become a significant topic of research in psychology and neuroscience; the main focus being to determine the neural and psychological correlates of consciousness.

One of the most compelling scientific frameworks for the study of consciousness is Integrated Information Theory (IIT). It was developed by neuroscientists Giulio Tononi and Christof Koch to predict whether a system is conscious, and to mathematically measure to what degree it is conscious and what experience it is having.

According to IIT, consciousness is an intrinsic, fundamental property of any physical system and a fundamental property of the universe. This would mean that consciousness is spread throughout the fabric of all of existence.

“The entire cosmos is suffused with sentience. We are surrounded and immersed in consciousness; it is in the air we breathe, the soil we tread on, the bacteria that colonize our intestines, and the brain that enables us to think.” Christof Koch (neuroscientist)

Similarly, the ancient Greek philosopher Plato argues for the idea of a world soul or anima mundi:

“This world is indeed a living being endowed with a soul and intelligence … a single visible living entity containing all other living entities, which by their nature are all related”. – Plato in Timmeus (4th century BC)

A spectrum of consciousness

The psychiatrist Richard Maurice Bucke (1837-1902) theorized a spectrum of consciousness, going from the more simple consciousness felt by animals to the more complex awareness of humans:

  • Simple Consciousness: awareness of the body, possessed by many animals;
  • Self Consciousness: awareness of being aware, possessed only by humans;
  • Cosmic Consciousness: awareness of life and the order of the universe, possessed only by humans who are enlightened
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According to the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, “near human-like levels of consciousness” have been observed in the African gray parrot

“This [cosmic] consciousness shows the cosmos to consist not of dead matter governed by unconscious, rigid, and unintending law; it shows it on the contrary as entirely immaterial, entirely spiritual and entirely alive; it shows that death is an absurdity, that everyone and everything has eternal life; it shows that the universe is God and that God is the universe, and that no evil ever did or ever will enter into it; a great deal of this is, of course, from the point of view of self consciousness, absurd; it is nevertheless undoubtedly true.” -Richard Maurice Bucke

This cosmic consciousness is the foundation of the mystical experience described in a multitude of cultures and religious traditions, both in folk religion and organized religion.

This mystical or cosmic consciousness is the perception of the universe as a unified whole and the experience of merging with the absolute or infinite. In traditions such as Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism and Islamic Sufism, the key to enlightenment is transcending dualistic thinking and merging into “the one”. This is also referred to as non-dualism (meaning “not two”).

Hinduism and consciousness

The Hindus have been studying and mapping consciousness for thousands of years, and have a remarkably advanced understanding of the concept. Some the oldest known philosophical texts are the Upanishads (800-600 BC). Referenced in these ancient Hindu scriptures is the Sanskrit term Sat-chit-ananda, which is the combination of three words: existence/truth, consciousness and bliss. Together, Satchitananda means to awaken to our true nature.

In Hindu philosophy, Brahman is the source of all reality, existence and consciousness – or the Ultimate Reality – and the main goal of spiritual pursuit in Hinduism. Brahman is the unifying force behind all that exists in the universe, and can be equated with the concept of God in other religious traditions.

“Perfect bliss is Brahman, Perfect peace is the Self. That alone exists and is consciousness” – Ramana Maharshi

In non-dual schools of Hinduism, such as Advaita Vedanta, Brahman is identical with Atman, or Soul/Self. Our higher self, our pure awareness, is the same as Brahman or God. Brahman exists inside every living being, and there is a connected spiritual oneness in all existence.

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Impact of a drop of water in water, a common analogy for Brahman and the Atman and the connected spiritual oneness of all existence

The experience of the divine unity or the non-duality of Brahman and Atman is called jñāna in Sanskit, which means “to know”. In Tibetan Buddhism, jñāna signifies pure awareness that is free from the ego-self. In Hindu philosophy, non-duality is an experience where there is no separation between subject and object. There is no us and them, or me and God or me and the rest of the universe.

“When you go beyond awareness, there is a state of non-duality, in which there is no cognition, only pure being. In the state of non-duality, all separation ceases.” – Nisargadatta Maharaj

“I am without form, without limit. Beyond space, beyond time. I am in everything. Everything is me. I am the bliss of the Universe. Everything am I.” – Rama Tirtha

Tapping into consciousness

The ancient Hindus may have been correct in interpreting the cosmos as some sort of unified formless consciousness. Science is catching up to these seemingly esoteric ideas, as seen in IIT for example.

Western science has assumed that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of brain function. Another possibility is that our brains and nervous systems function more like antennas, tapping into this universal signal that we call consciousness.

An analogy for consciousness and the brain is the TV (brain) and the TV signal (consciousness): the TV projects images and sound by tapping onto this signal, which exists independently of that particular TV set. If the TV is not working properly (brain damage) it won’t function well or be able to project images and sound as clearly. If the TV is dead, it won’t work at all, but the TV signal still functions on any other operational TV set.

“Existence or consciousness is the only reality. Consciousness plus waking, we call waking. Consciousness plus sleep, we call sleep. Consciousness plus dream, we call dream. Consciousness is the screen on which pictures come and go. The screen is real, the pictures are mere shadows on it ” – Sri Ramana Maharshi

Many beings are self-aware, some are conscious of their own awareness and a few awaken to perceive this cosmic consciousness or Ultimate Reality. There is perhaps an evolution of consciousness where we are gradually awakening to the Ultimate Reality described thousands of years ago in the Upanishads by wise enlightened sages.

“Everyone is God; see God in everyone. (…) all are one, you should love everyone, we are all the same” – Neem Karoli Baba (Maharaj-ji)

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