“The acknowledgement of a single possibility can change everything.” ― Aberjhani, Splendid Literarium: A Treasury of Stories, Aphorisms, Poems, and Essays1
OPD without patients
I was sitting in a Saturday OPD. Only one patient had managed to reach me so far for consultation. The city was observing a weekend lockdown on Saturday and Sunday. I guess everyone was scared to come out on roads after seeing social media videos of lathicharge on the lock down violators.
After sitting idle for 15 minutes, I decided to stretch my legs and moved into the lobby. I was drawn towards a coffee kiosk. From a distance, I could see my friend GK,2 standing there with a cup in his hand. GK is a senior radiologist in the same hospital. He saw me asking for coffee and grinned. Standing about a meter away he asked, “Have you seen the recent news on consciousness?”
I had not heard about it and I told him so. He announced, “The mathematicians think that the universe is conscious.”3
I raised my eyebrows,”Universe meaning the whole universe? We don’t even know how big it is!”
He elaborated, “The basic mathematical model working on this is called Integrated Information Theory (IIT).4,5 When applied to non-living things like machines, subatomic particles, and even the universe, it claims that they too experience consciousness of some sort.”
“Are you worried that your CT-scan machines will get upset with you for making them work day and night during COVID-19?” I said in jest. GK was fond of physics and knew the subject as well as a doctor could.
He explained further, “IIT relies on a value called phi (see figure-1 below) that represents the interconnectivity of a node, whether it’s a region of the brain, circuitry, or an atom. That value represents the node’s level of consciousness. The cerebral cortex, for instance, has a high value because it contains a dense cluster of widely-interconnected neurons.”
Current medical knowledge suggests that the consciousness emerges in human foetus by activation of the cortex by thalamocortical connections around 24 weeks after conception.8 After this, the human foetus in the mother’s womb can be potentially conscious, as it is aware of its body. It reacts to touch, smell and sound and shows social expressions in response to external stimuli. Since it mostly remains asleep, it may not be aware of itself and its environment.
The development of consciousness seems a progressive, stepwise, structural and functional evolution of multiple intricate components. However, there are some important missing pieces of knowledge at this stage. It is unlikely that the foetus can remember its past or anticipate anything about the future.
As per biological knowledge, consciousness is an active process with multiple facets. Sensory perceptions are modulated as per individual requirements, stored somewhere (we do not know how and where) in the brain, and decompressed again when required. Science understands very little about cognition of thoughts, emotions and of course, awareness that provides a sense of continuity in everyday life.9,10
Mathematics and consciousness
I remarked, “Consciousness is a biological phenomenon. Why are mathematicians getting into it?”
GK asserted, “Consciousness may not be merely a biological phenomenon! Remember Roger Penrose? One who got a Nobel Prize this year for his work on blackholes! He wrote books titled The Emperor’s New Mind and Shadows of Mind on relationship of physics and consciousness over two decades back. ”11
Personally, I wasn’t sure that consciousness can be a physical thing. “How can a machine be conscious?”
I countered, “ I really do not understand your IIT. Wasn’t it David Chalmers who talked about the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness?13 I think he said that any attempt to explain consciousness in purely physical terms may not be possible. You will be doing all the thinking within that consciousness.”
GK replied, “For centuries, modern science has been shrinking the gap between humans and the rest of the universe. There is a famous quote from Carl Sagan that says ‘we are made of star stuff‘ — that the atoms of our bodies were literally forged in the nuclear furnaces of other stars.”14
I remarked, “We may be made of star-stuff, but we are aware! Mind is peculiar to living beings, and is difficult to imagine in any inanimate matter .”
A stranger arrives
While I was uttering those words, I became aware of a young gentleman in an orange dhoti–kurta close-by, looking expectantly at me. He was carrying a blank monogrammed prescription paper of our hospital that I could recognise from a distance. Possibly, he was another stray patient who had landed up to consult me.
I looked at his orange robes. He was probably a sanyasi or a devotee in some Ashram. There were plenty of them in this area. I asked him, “Are you waiting for me?”
That man politely replied. “Sir, I have been referred to you. Someone pointed you out to me and I decided to come here to meet you.”
I said, “Could you please wait in my OPD chamber? I will be with you in a few minutes.”
He smiled and said, “Sir, please do not hurry. I have plenty of time. But would you mind if I listened to what this doctor is saying about consciousness? I find it very interesting.”
I looked at GK for approval. GK ignored our exchange and that person in orange. He responded to what I had commented earlier, “Latest research shows that neural network in the brain and the cosmic web of galaxies in the universe are strikingly similar.15 In any case, what is it that you call inanimate matter?”
The orange robed gentleman also ordered coffee and stood just a meter away quietly sipping from his cup. Now, I wanted to quickly close the discussion with GK, but I answered his question, “Inanimate objects? All this stuff that we can touch and feel. Brick and mortar, made of up molecules and atoms!”
Physics and conciousnesss
GK asked, “And what are these molecules and atoms made of?”
I could not fathom what was he driving at, “Of course the subatomic particles – electrons, protons and neutrons.”16
GK smiled as he asked again, “And what are these particles made of?”
He laughed, “I am impressed with your knowledge. You are right. But what are these fundamental particles made of?”
I asked, “Are there still smaller particles? I don’t know exactly. What are they made of?”
GK said in a mocking tone.”AC, this a question that separates a student from a professor.”
“Why?” I was still confused about which way this conversation was going.
GK answered with that persistent smile that I was now finding a bit irritating, “Because a student would answer – I don’t know! And a professor will answer – nothing is known about it!” And he laughed again.
I asked, “But what is your point?” I saw that gentleman in orange had patiently made himself comfortable and had closed his eyes as if meditating.
Quantum physics explains
GK suddenly became serious, “I am not an expert, but from what I understand, beyond this level, there are only theories,20,21 like superstrings or supersymmetry. Matter seems to disintegrate into vibrations in the quantum field. Many of these small fundamental particles and their antiparticles are known to appear out of nothing and merge into nothing. In effect, matter is made of nothing that we know.”
My irritation had evaporated and I must have looked surprised, “But I see and feel everything. See there – a bright red rose and this green shrub in the terracotta pot here!”
GK said, “As per science, there is nothing red or green there! It is just our perception.”
I wasn’t convinced, “How?”
GK explained,”Humans have limited sensory input organs. Take the example of our eyes! We receive various frequencies of electromagnetic waves in our lens and these waves initiate a chemical reaction in our retina, which is converted to into an electrical impulse in the nerves. Similarly our ears convert pressure waves into an electro-chemical reaction in our inner ear. Even our nose picks up vibrations in the chemicals floating in the air, and our skin too responds to contact with extraneous substances by creating chemical and electrical signals.”
I was now getting impatient, “What has all this to do with consciousness. Skip the physiology lesson and make a point!”
GK said, “I am coming to that. All these electrical impulses are taken to different parts of our brain in different nerves. The patterns of these electrical impulses allows our brain/mind complex to create a virtual reality inside us, that we perceive as the outside world!”
I was astounded, “What?”
GK calmly replied, “Outside you, there is just a jumble of random vibrations at the quantum level! You create a beautiful world out of it in your own consciousness.”
“You feel all this I see is a virtual reality?”
He elaborated,” At the gross level, the structural probabilities may be deterministic, but all the qualitative beauty that you see outside (like the texture, feel and colours) is the virtual reality created in your brain by your consciousness!”
“Hmmm!” I was trying to imagine but finding it difficult.
GK further said, “The philosopher Thomas Nagel had once asked an interesting question. What is it like to be a bat? Bats use sonar22 to echo-locate and seem to ‘see’ with the sound they produce. What would their world be like? Will extraneous sounds interfere with echo-locations? All the scientific knowledge about the physiology and neurology of bats cannot help us experience ‘being a bat’— the way a bat experiences it subjectively. The virtual reality world of bat would be nothing like ours”
I asked, “What are you trying to say?”
He replied, “The virtual reality world we create will depend on what sensory apparatus we have. There is a significant gap between the descriptions of science (physical phenomena) and our personal experience (subjective phenomena),23 and consciousness may be the missing link!”
“How?” I asked.
GK said, “How do we know that the vibrations that make up our fundamental particles are not in a medium or field that is made up of consciousness? After all, subatomic particles change their behaviour when they are observed!”
“Is that true?” I asked.
GK’s irritating smile was back,”It is a well known fact that electrons behave as waves, as long as we do not try to observe them. When we try to observe them, electrons are being “forced” to behave like particles and are no more waves.24 Thus the mere act of observation changes experimental results.”
We had finished our coffee and both of us started walking towards our respective departments. GK had also apparently exhausted his knowledge of physics. The gentleman in orange dhoti–kurta was now watching us with fascination. He too started walking, albeit a step behind us.
Clarity of mind
I addressed that gentleman,”Swamiji, sorry you had to wait. We were just discussing something meaningless. I will see you immediately in my chamber.” And I turned to GK to gesture “See you!”
The gentleman in orange interrupted me.”No, no, sir. Your conversation is not meaningless. It has started clearing my mind.”
I was confused. So was GK. What was he talking about?
The gentleman looked at our perplexed faces and said, “Sir, I did come to consult you as I have been found to have hepatitis B infection. But your conversation has resolved all my mental confusion.”
I was finding our conversation weird and this man was saying that it had resolved his confusion “How come?” I looked at him and asked.
“Sir, I am a student of Advait Vedanta, a sadhak.” He replied. “I was having difficulty in understanding the concept of ‘non-duality’ but your discussion has made it crystal clear to me. In fact our scriptures say exactly what you were discussing!”
GK suddenly appeared very much interested. He changed his course to walk towards my OPD chamber with us, “Can you clarify? We were discussing the modern physics of subatomic particles.”
He folded his hands,”You may find it strange, but this is exactly what we are studying in Vedanta.”
GK asked, “Isn’t Vedanta the natural resource company involved in mining operations here? I have some of its shares.”
The swami in orange robes was taken aback, “No, no, no sir. India’s holy scriptures are four Vedas. The last portions of vedas dealing with higher knowledge are called Upanishads. Hence the philosophy of Upanishads is called Vedanta. These scriptures are dated by some to have originated seven thousand years back.”
GK said, smiling to himself,”Oh, so your Vedanta mines ancient knowledge! What does it say about particle physics?”
Swami was not perturbed. He replied, “Vedanta says nothing about particle physics, but yes, it says a lot about consciousness!”
GK asked mockingly,”Does it say that the universe is conscious?”
Vedanta and Consciousness
Swami looked sideways and cryptically replied,”More than that, It says the universe is nothing but Consciousness.”
GK remarked, “Just like that?”
“Instead of focusing on the external world, our ancient rishis had started studying the enigma of our awareness or what you call consciousness. They declared that we are that (Tat-twam-asi).25 Rational enquiry into the self shows that although each one of us identifies with our body or our mind, we are neither. Each one of us is primarily Consciousness.” Swami replied without minding GK’s rudeness.
I asked, “I did not follow you. Can you elaborate?”
He did,”Rishis discovered that this life is nothing but a series of experiences. Every moment of our life is a new experience. Every experience has two components – an object being experienced and a subject who is the experiencer. The experiencer in us is the witness (sakshi) Consciousness.”
We had reached my chamber. GK had followed us in. I offered both of them chairs that were kept about 2 meters apart. “Our mind is conscious! What is new in that?”I asked
The gentleman in orange robes answered,”Upanishads differentiate between mind and consciousness. It says our mind (antahkaran) is also an object to our Awareness or Consciousness!”
“What if I say that my mind is the experiencer?” GK asked
Swami calmly explained, “That is a very common doubt. Drig-drishya viveka (seer-seen argument) of the Upanishads says that an object and a subject in an experience can not be the same. If you see an object for example this pen on the table, then the seer of the pen has to be different. It cannot be that pen itself. If you look inside yourself, you will be able to observe (see) your thoughts, perceptions and emotions, all of which change from moment to moment. You, the subject Consciousness remain unchanged. Not only during the day, but throughout your entire life, as a continuous thread.”
Brahma satyam jagat mithya
GK said, “That is logical enough. But what difference does it make?”
The gentleman in orange spoke,”Vedanta says that this Consciousness is the only reality (Sat or truth) in this universe. Everything else borrows its reality (existence) from this Consciousness. Consciousness has been given various names like Brahman (literally ‘the vast’), Atman or Sat-Chit-Anand.”
I asked, “But how is it connected to our discussion?”
He said, “Understanding of Vedanta is a two step process. What I just now talked about is step one. Accepting this step is not very difficult. But the second step is.”
I asked, “What is the second step?”
He slowly said, “The second step is more complex for those of us living a practical life. It is not that Brahman exists, but that it is existence itself. This Consciousness (Chit) is the only reality (Sat) in this universe, which is complete and self content (Anand). Since it is the only existence, it is non-dual. The duality we see around us as this world is a false appearance. It has been created through Maya (roughly translated as illusion) and is therefore unreal (mithya)!”
These words rang a bell somewhere in my mind as I remembered the oft repeated sentence from my childhood -“Brahma satyam jagat mithya”. It was more of a slogan in my mind and I had never understood it completely.
Before I could ask anything, GK spoke, “How can it be the only reality? Isn’t my consciousness different from yours?”
The man in orange robes said, “No it isn’t. Your perceived world exists in you mind and my perceived world in my mind. It is the common radiance of this Consciousness that illuminates it to us in our respective minds.”
GK was intrigued as I was,”And what is out there? What is this physical world outside us that we perceive?”
Origin of universe
Swami spoke, “The Upanishads say that it is Brahman or Consciousness that has some how (through Maya) created everything, just as you were suggesting with your particle physics. In fact the Kashmiri Shaivism says explicitly that the vibrations (spandan) of Consciousness produces matter or universe.26 It is the same as you mentioned while discussing particle physics.”
GK asked, “Do our scriptures talk about the origin of the Universe?”
Swamiji elaborated, “Vedanta says that the Consciousness is the fabric of creation. In Chandogya Upanishad, Rishi Uddalaka, teaching his son, says – in the beginning, dear son, there was nothing but reality (Sat or Consciousness) alone.”(Chhandogya Upnanishada 6.2.1) (See figure-1A)
“Then how did this Universe begin?” GK was getting impatient.
He said, “A verse in Mundaka Upanishad (1.1.7) says that just like the spider creates a web and then retracts it into its naval (body), Consciousness creates this world with Maya and then retracts it into itself.”(See figure-1B)
GK’s eyes started shining. I am sure he was visualising the assertion of astro-physicists that the Universe expands out of a singularity and finally contracts into it.27
GK asked,”If your and my mind are lit up by the same Consciousness, why don’t I know your thoughts?”
Swamiji looked at him for a moment and then said. “It is somewhat like the same electricity lights up your computer as well as mine, but my computer does not know what your computer is doing.”
After a pause he helpfully added, “Don’t think of Consciousness as a person! A single source of light (for example sun) can illuminate a million things! This Consciousness is a universal reality. As I mentioned earlier, it is reflected in and illuminates every mind. It is not something physical (as matter) or even a perceivable energy (as light). Think of it as more like a magnetic field, maybe even subtler than that because we can not infer it or detect it yet. The perceptions we have lie in our mind, not in Consciousness! Consciousness only illuminates it for us.”
GK again asked,”But where in Universe does it reside?”
Fabric of creation
Swami gave a simple answer, “As I said, it is the subtle fabric of creation. It pervades each and every part of the universe and even beyond!(Purush Sutra, Rigveda) (See figure-1C)28 Personally, I was finding it difficult to comprehend how Brahman could pervade and create everything but your discussion about how particles are made, has given me clarity. God bless your mathematicians.”
I was curious, “Have Upanishads given a description of Consciousness?”
Swami replied calmly,“At many places. One description is in Mandukya Upanishad, 7th mantra.(See figure-1D) Its approximate meaning is that it is neither directed outwards (as in waking state), nor inwards (as in dream state). Neither is it sentient, nor insentient. It cannot be perceived by any sense organ and cannot be comprehended by the mind. One can not infer it, imagine it, or describe it in words. It is the silence of the universe and complete in itself, peaceful, blissful and non-dual. Some call it the Turiya (literally the Fourth – one that remains after you have discounted the experience of three mental states i.e. being wakeful, dreaming or in deep sleep). This is the Ātman and it has to be realised.”
I asked, “You have referred to waking and dream state twice. What does it imply?”
He looked at me and replied, ”If I use the analogy given by this learned doctor (pointing to GK), in waking state, you create a virtual reality from current sensory inputs. During sleep, in the dreaming state, all your sensory input is blocked in your brain and you create a virtual reality from whatever information is stored in your memory. Both these virtual realities are created in your mind and are illuminated by Consciousness. In deep sleep, inputs from sensory organs and from memory are also blocked and are present only in a seed form. Now there is no virtual reality to illuminate and there is just blankness! The One that reveals this blankness to us is our Awareness or Consciousness (or Brahman).
“And all this is written in Upanishads?” GK had disbelief in his voice.
Are newer discoveries embedded in ancient wisdom?
“It is sir, but the term virtual reality is new. It is a product of modern science.” he said and then after a pause added. “Vedas are considered śruti (“what is heard”) and apaurusheya (Not of human origin).29 It has been taught in India as word of mouth for several millennia. Apparently Vyasa compiled Vedas, and arranged the four kinds of mantras into four Samhitas. They were committed to writing around 1500 BCE.30 Over ages detailed discussions (commentaries) on these Upanishads have been written by great scholars such as Gaourpada, Adi Sankaracharya, Swami Vivekananda, and Swami Chinmyananda.”
“You said Apuruseya?” GK was thoughtful, “Is it possible that this cutting edge knowledge came from an advanced alien civilisation, who may have visited the earth back then?”
Swami was not impressed, “That is an interesting thought! I am sure you know that a gentleman named Erich Anton Paul von Däniken has been talking about this theory.31 We don’t have enough evidence to say that, do we?”
GK and I were lost in our thoughts for what seemed like an eternity, each of us noodling the questions this discussion had raised.
“Can I have my consultation now?” Swami demanded.
His voice pulled us out of our rabbit holes, and left our questions suspended as gently floating motes of dust in a sunbeam, to be roiled up again when the leisure of a lazy winter morning would permit it. May be during another coffee break dictated by a lull in lockdown OPD.
|↑2||All character names are fictitious, though the facts stated are true.|
|↑6||Maillé S, Lynn M. Reconciling Current Theories of Consciousness. J Neurosci. 2020 Mar 4;40(10):1994-1996. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2740-19.2020. PMID: 32132221; PMCID: PMC7055139.|
|↑7||LeDoux, Joseph E., Matthias Michel, and Hakwan Lau. “A little history goes a long way toward understanding why we study consciousness the way we do today.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 117.13 (2020): 6976-6984. Web. 11 Nov. 2020.|
|↑8||Padilla N, Lagercrantz H. Making of the mind. Acta Paediatr. 2020 May;109(5):883-892. doi: 10.1111/apa.15167. Epub 2020 Jan 31. PMID: 31922622.|
|↑9||Young GB, Pigott SE. Neurobiological basis of consciousness. Arch Neurol. 1999 Feb;56(2):153-7. doi: 10.1001/archneur.56.2.153. PMID: 10025420.|
|↑10||Fleming SM. Awareness as inference in a higher-order state space. Neurosci Conscious. 2020 Mar 11;2020(1):niz020. doi: 10.1093/nc/niz020. Erratum in: Neurosci Conscious. 2020 May 10;2020(1):niaa011. PMID: 32190350; PMCID: PMC7065713.|
|↑12||Tononi, Giulio; Boly, Melanie; Massimini, Marcello; Koch, Christof (2016). “Integrated information theory: from consciousness to its physical substrate”. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 17 (7): 450–461. doi:10.1038/nrn.2016.44. PMID 27225071. S2CID 21347087.|
|↑15||Vazza F, Feletti A. The Quantitative Comparison Between the Neuronal Network and the Cosmic Web. Frontiers in Physics 2020; 8: 491. 0.3389/fphy.2020.525731|
|↑19||Braibant, Sylvie; Giacomelli, Giorgio; Spurio, Maurizio (2012). Particles and Fundamental Interactions: An introduction to particle physics (2nd ed.). Springer. ISBN 978-94-007-2463-1.|
|↑20||Vafa, Cumrun (1996). “Evidence for F-theory”. Nuclear Physics B. 469 (3): 403–415.|
|↑21||New theory links neutrino’s slight mass to accelerating Universe expansion”. ScienceDaily. 28 July 2004. Retrieved 5 June 2008.|
|↑22||SOund NAvigation and Ranging|
|↑23||Hick, John (2006), The Fifth Dimension, Oneworld, Oxford pp.32-83|
|↑25||Chhandogya Upanishad, Chapter 6|