Does Matter Create Consciousness?
August 18, 2019

Many Eastern views of reality posit that it is consciousness that lies at the foundation of existence, not the material world.

00:00 Audience

This is a second question I’ve got. Bear with me. I’m troubled by this all the time. The question of consciousness. People thought there is a thing called “life force,” and when you die [the] life force goes away. But as you understand now more in science, there’s no such thing. It’s an illusion of life force. Where is the—can we use the same analogy for consciousness? I mean, can you see a feeling that… okay.

00:35 Swami S.

I understand perfectly, because we have this discussion all the time. Let me put it in this way. Are you a biologist?


I’m a physician.

Swami S.

Physician. So, what he is saying is: at one time people thought there’s something called a “life force,” and when the body dies it means the life goes away; prāṇa goes away. But as biology has advanced, we have understood more and more about it. Bill Conrad is there. He is a biophysicist. He’s our senior-most member at 95 years.


So now, let me change the question a little bit and put it this way. Because we have discussed this. We have something called a Philosophy Cafe, here in the Ethical Society, which meets once a month. And among the leaders there are philosophers from Columbia, from CUNY. One of the leaders is Massimo. He’s Head of Philosophy at CUNY. And he’s a biologist by training, and also a philosopher. So his argument is exactly this. When I ask him—we have discussions on consciousness studies—“So where do you stand on the hard problem of consciousness?” he dismisses it. He says there is no fundamental thing called consciousness. It’s just a process of a living brain. It’s a byproduct—epiphenomenal process. The answer he gives, the reason he gives is exactly this: he says right now, because we don’t understand the brain well enough and consciousness well enough—at all! We don’t understand—that’s why we think there’s a mysterious thing called “consciousness” which has to be discovered. But a similar thing was there, he said, at the turn of the century, where life was not understood. And it was thought that one of the questions which science will never be able to explain is life. And people called it things like élan vital—you know, Bergson and this. So there is something corresponding to the Indian idea of prāṇa. All ancient cultures have this. The Chinese had the idea of ch’i, Japanese have the idea of qi, and the Indians have the idea of prāṇa. Greeks had the idea of pneuma. “Life breath.”


Now, as science has advanced, we have understood that what we call “life” is basically a collection of several biological processes going on in this body (he [Massimo] said), and to a great extent we are able to synthesize many parts of similar things in the lab—in a very simple way—in the laboratory also. So we understand it down to the molecular level. We know it’s not some mysterious single thing which comes and goes. Not like that. That’s what he said. So one day we will be able to understand consciousness also like that. One day. When we understand the brain better. So there’s no such separate consciousness. All this consciousness being the ultimate reality, or the immortal soul which religions believe in. Nothing like that. He says that.


Now, the answer is—I’ll give you the simple Vedāntic answer. See if it makes sense. To me it makes perfect sense. You’ll be surprised to know that, according to Vedānta, life is also material. World is material. Body is material. Life is material. Mind is material. But material—the Sanskrit word I’m using is jāra. Original Sanskrit word there: cit jāra, consciousness and matter. How do they distinguish? They have a very elegant way of distinguishing, in Vedānta, what is consciousness and what is not consciousness. They say you always look at your own experience. In your experience, right now, whatever you are aware of belongs to the category of jāra; objective reality. What is objective? That which appears to consciousness. Then what is consciousness? Clearly, it cannot be an object. Anything that is an object must be jāra, an object to consciousness. So the pure subject, which is not an object, which is the one which is aware of everything—including mind—that is consciousness according to Advaita Vedānta.


Now, what follows from this? What will an Advaitan say to an objection like this. The Advaitan will say there is no problem that you have been able to explain life in terms of other objective processes. One objective process is explained in terms of simpler objective processes. Of course! In principle, there’s no problem. Prāṇa—or life—is an objective process. And you have explained it in terms of other, simpler objective processes. Good! But if you now claim that a set of objective processes in the brain is generating the subject—which is not an object. You must remember the knife with which they are cutting reality in Vedānta: subject and object. Why will I accept that? Because that’s how you experience the universe.

05:25 Audience

I lost you, sir.

05:28 Swami S.

Life is an objective reality.



Swami S.

First of all, remember what I am defining as objective: anything that you are aware of or can be aware of is an object.



Swami S.

Anything that is presented to consciousness is jāra, is not conscious. You are consciousness, and your mind, your thoughts, your breath (prāṇa), body, world—all are objects: jāra. Are you with me so far?



05:59 Swami S.

To change the paradigm. Now, in this paradigm, life also is an object. And you have explained life in terms of other objects—biological processes. There’s an objective process of life and they have been explained in terms of the physiology of the body and all of that. They’re all objective. So an objective process explained in terms of more, simpler objective processes. Nothing—there’s no problem in principle.



06:30 Swami S.

But now, the pure subject consciousness: how can it be produced by objects? The brain is an object. Whatever is happening in the neurons is an object. So one object can produce another object. So neurons can produce the electrical activity of neurons. But how can it produce you, the subject? Why does it not make sense to your scientifically trained person is: the scientifically trained person has a deep objective bias. According to science—look at the tremendous contradiction at the heart of science. Science studies everything as an object. It cannot but do that. What do you do when you do science? Be objective. So everything that is studied is an object. And that works fine when you are studying objects. But when you are studying the subject, the only way science can work is to reduce the subject into an object. Not only that. Science has earlier made up its mind that the object is the only reality. Everything in the universe is an object. But that’s not true. That is falsified by your own experience. What science has already made up its mind is that what you are calling “subject” is a byproduct of an objective brain. Are you with me at every step?


Yes. I can understand the fundamental, primordial—not in the spiritual sense—the scientists have done that right from the very beginning. I understand that.

08:14 Swami S.

Let us call it the “primitive:” the primordial paradigm difference. Science never considers this. Science says this talk about subject-object is a way of talking. Actually, everything is an objective reality. No! All of it is fine as long as you are studying quasars, or quarks, or living cells. They’re all objects. Even when you’re trying to study the mind. According to Vedānta, mind is an object. Why is mind an object? Because what is the definition of “object?” Anything that you experience is an object. But by that very definition, when you now say the objective thing like the living brain can produce the subject, you’re making what is called in philosophy a category error. And this is very clear from the Vedāntic perspective.


Where is the necessity to invoke category error?

09:11 Swami S.

Because: object and object—relationship is clear. But the subject is something entirely different in nature from an object. How can you jump from the object to the subject? Never in scientific history have you ever come across something like consciousness. And it’s strange that you have not, because consciousness is ever-present. All science is done in consciousness. First-person experience is conscious, and that is where you do science. That is where you are a theist, an atheist. That is where you’re scientific or unscientific. Everything in life is in consciousness, from the Vedāntic perspective. Not just the Vedāntic perspective—in a common-sense perspective also.


So, this consciousness—it’s not an object. This is what Vedānta says. This is what science is unable to grasp. Look at all the prevalent theories of consciousness now. They’re either reductive—like Massimo Torbi [???]—that it is a process of the living brain. We don’t know how. Give us time, we’ll find out. This is called “promissory materialism.” I’ll give you a materialistic explanation. I promise! 10 years, 40 years, 50 years, 100 years… we will find out. What David Chalmers at NYU says is that you don’t understand the question. What you feel as first-person experiences—pleasure, pain—there is something there (that first-person-ness of the experience), there is no connection between that and the objective realities in the world. In fact, if you look at your own experience, your personal experience, these objective experiences are in you. These objective realities are experienced in consciousness. Isn’t it? What is more primary in your experience? You, the experiencer. Then, only, experience is possible.


Are we to understand consciousness as something like, say:I have magnesium in my body, there’s magnesium everywhere? Or iron everywhere? I own part of the iron and magnesium?

11:25 Swami S.

No, not even like that. Iron and magnesium still are objective realities.


Is it like a light force, an electromagnetic force?

Swami S.

No. Light force, electromagnetic force—they are also objective realities. Just use that thing. See, what we are saying is: attend to your own experience right here and right now. What is there in your experience? Do this. What is there in your experience? There are many things that you see, hear, smell, taste, touch. And what you see, hear, smell, taste, touch—varied though they are—they’re all objects. What you think and feel and understand and remember—very subtle things—but they’re also objects. Why am I calling them objects? Because you’re aware of them. Now that which is aware of all of this—is it an object?


Can I—do you believe in the Socratic logic? Something new cannot arise. It must be dormant all along.

Swami S.



Do you believe there’s consciousness dormant in non-living things? Plants and animals, and then sentient beings?

12:40 Swami S.

Good question. Do you believe that something new cannot arise? That question I forgot to answer—that how can your universe come from nothing? Good question. So, do you believe that consciousness is dormant in all living beings? If you understand answer which I’m going to give, from a Vedāntic perspective, then you will get Vedānta. Vedānta says: it’s not that consciousness is dormant or active somewhere in the universe. Rather, the universe lies dormant in consciousness. According to Vedānta, consciousness is the reality in which the universe lies dormant, and then it appears. You can call it a Big Bang, you can call it evolution, life appearing, and then conscious beings appearing like us, and then life disappearing, and the universe ending, going back to dormancy. Gītā says: from the unmanifest the manifest comes and goes back to the unmanifest. But unmanifest, manifest and unmanifest again. This cycle. It’s all happening in consciousness. And Advaita Vedānta will go forward and say it’s not even happening. It’s a movie being played. The reality all throughout is a changeless consciousness.


See—I’ll end with this. The four possibilities are there. I will just give you in seed form this answer. I read it from a non-dualist teacher in Hindi, who had no idea of modern science. He says consciousness and matter—let’s call it “object;” matter—the material universe and consciousness, what is the relationship? Four possibilities are there. One is: consciousness emerges from matter, which is the old materialistic Cārvāka argument in ancient India, and which is exactly the modern scientific argument. Matter—time, space, matter, energy: this is fundamental. And at one point planets develop, living more complex matter comes—organic matter—and from that, living beings come, and they organize themselves more and more by Darwinian evolution into complex beings, and then they develop nervous systems and brains, and from those nervous systems and brains—all material!—there’s a byproduct called consciousness. Just like a flame from a candle. Epiphenomenal. And there is no consciousness without matter. So matter is the reality out of which consciousness flickers somehow. That’s one theory.


The second theory is just the opposite: matter emerges from consciousness. Whose theory is this? All religions hold it. When they say, “God is the creator”—that’s the religious language—if you ask them is your god conscious or unconscious they’ll all say, “Our God is conscious!” So, actually, matter emerges from consciousness. Consciousness is the creator of a material universe. Religion says. Which religion? All theistic religions say it. Second theory. This is not Advaita, not non-dualism.


Third: neither emerges from the other. Both are eternal and parallel. Sāṃkhya theory; purusa-prakṛti. Consciousness and time-space-matter-energy (prakṛti), they exist eternally parallel to each other and interact. Where do they interact? In us. We are consciousness interacting with matter. That’s a living being according to Sāṃkhya. Very sophisticated theory. In fact, what David Chalmers is proposing now, as panpsychism here—it’s a variation, not exactly Sāṃkhya, but a variation of Sāṃkhya theory. This is also not Advaita.


There is another one, which he has not counted, which is Nāgārjuna’s Buddhistic theory. Matter is also śūnya, consciousness is also śūnya. Both are appearances in the void. It’s a different thing to explore. Now, if you add that, then that’s the fourth one.


The fifth one is Advaita theory. The Advaita theory is: consciousness alone is real, is the only reality, in which matter appears. Consciousness does not create matter, it does not become matter. Matter appears periodically—as universe, as life, and as conscious beings—and disappears. But consciousness is fundamental. That consciousness—I’m using the English word “consciousness;” there’s no parallel to it You might say what proof? I’ll leave you with this. The proof is: look at your own experience. Where does matter appear? Where does matter appear? In your consciousness. Where does mind appear? In consciousness. Where does mind disappear in deep sleep? In consciousness.

Very good. Profound matters. Now let us eat. Some matter is necessary. Consciousness demands matter now.

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