29. The Source Of Consciousness


Q: Rick Linchitz, who died recently, heard Satyam Nadeen say something along the lines of “Everything is consciousness and you are that.” Rick had heard that many times before but this time he had a splendid “calamity.” This is what he wrote shortly before his death:

“Not much to tell. We’re all living and dying. Life becoming more focused. Future more clearly dries up and plans disappear. Bodily functions, especially breathing, major focus. As always, nothing special. Just life being lived. Lots of pain and shortness of breath, but also deep peace. What appears to be transformation, is also the eternal peace of the unchanging oneness who we are.”

Robert, please comment.

A: I don’t know anything about Satyam Nadeen or Rick Linchitz, but these matters seem to come down to how one defines “myself.”

The phrase “everything is consciousness” can mean so many different things. Just for starters, we do not see the world as it “really” is, but in the way that each of us perceives it according to the structure of the nervous system and the previous conditioning of that system.

I have written about this before, using the illustration of a butterfly that can perceive portions of the energy spectrum to which we humans are blind. Able to sense many “colors” beyond violet, butterfly consciousness perceives a flower garden as we humans never will. My donkeys, whose hearing is phenomenally more acute than mine, and whose ears rotate independently from one another so as to focus on two different areas simultaneously, experience one auditory world, and I quite another. I know this whenever I walk with them.

So that is species-specific consciousness. Then there is individual consciousness which refers, for example, to the vast difference between how a trained artist, being aware of thousands of hues with only the finest gradations between them, would comprehend a flower garden, as opposed to the way an untrained eye, conversant only with relatively gross differences in color, would see the same garden.

So that is one way of understanding “everything is consciousness.” Things appear the way they appear due to type of nervous system plus individual conditioning—straightforward, yes?

However, there is another, much less straightforward way of using that expression. In that usage, “everything is consciousness” means not just that the material world looks, sounds, and feels different depending on the observer, but that the material world, including bodies and brains, does not exist at all except as a so-called “appearance.” That seems to be the way that Nadeen meant it and Linchitz understood it.

But what if there really is a material world, and brains really do exist? And what if evolved brains are the source of consciousness, so that what “you” are is not “pure consciousness,” whatever that phrase means (we don’t know what it means), but a physical body that happens to include brain-centric, nervoussystem generated consciousness that has flourished and developed genetically as a mechanism advantageous to survival? What if consciousness began to evolve with the first animate creatures, and has reached an apparent highpoint—on this planet, at least—in humans?

In that case—if consciousness is something that brains do — myself would not be an “unchanging oneness” at all, because brains, after all, change constantly. And, if “myself” is always changing, what could anyone ever really know about what is unchanging or even if there is anything unchanging?

It may seem that myself is unchanging. It may feel that way. But consider this: To an observer on a boat floating down a river it may feel that he or she is stationary, while the shore and the rest of the scenery is moving backwards. We have all had that experience—if not in a boat, then on a train, an airplane, or whatever. And this perspective, perhaps entirely imaginary, of “myself” as a fixed witness, is all the more likely to convince if someone keeps telling you that “you” are unchanging, and that whatever is changing cannot possibly be you, or even be real.

I am not saying that the brain is the original source of consciousness. I have no inside information about that. I am saying that it could be, and if it were, Nadeen, although he may believe that brains do not really exist, would have no way of knowing his mistake, would he?

The idea that consciousness exists separate from and prior to the brain is a religious or metaphysical idea, resting upon no firm evidence at all, although some try to claim, erroneously in my view, that it is demonstrated, or even proven scientifically, by quantum mechanics.

Whether the brain is the source of consciousness, or whether there is some larger overarching consciousness that exists prior to the material world, the human experience of perceptions, thoughts, and self-awareness would feel the same. Therefore, I say, no human being is situated so as to know which of those is a true view, or even if neither is.

One cannot find the answer by “self-inquiry” either, or any other approach. The answer, I say, resides beyond the human event-horizon. The hackneyed “spiritual” view that claims to provide an answer involves crediting some other human being with having access to inside information which you do not. On what basis one makes such a determination, I cannot imagine. If one believes Osho, or Deepak Chopra, or whomever, and takes his or her word for it—no matter how buttressed by logic, scripture, or tradition—that is, I say, credulity, not knowledge.

Science, by the way, does not claim that consciousness is brain-generated, albeit many scientists do incline towards that view. Science says that the answer—part of the solution to the so-called “hard problem”—is unknown, and possibly unknowable.

The notion “everything is consciousness” may be appealing. It may be an idea that one wants to believe. In that case, one might hear those words from a “holy man,” as Linchitz did. Suddenly the idea clicks. That is knowing through conviction, through having been convinced. Or one may undergo an experience that seems to require for explanation a consciousness that exists exogenously to the brain—a near-death experience, for instance, in which “I” seem to be outside of my body, observing it from a distance, or perhaps the kind of “altered state” provoked by extended silence, gazing, trance induction, breathing practices, ingestion of psychedelic substances, etc., in which “I” seem to be present, but disembodied.

Now, it is clear to me, and I wonder if it is clear to you as well, that those kinds of “knowing” must involve a brain. Even in near death experience, the brain is still functioning, after all. If it were not functioning, one could not speak of a near death experience; one would be dead.

An experience, by definition, is that of which one becomes conscious. Experience and perception are one and the same. This, however, says nothing about the source of consciousness, but only the contents of consciousness. Knowing the contents of consciousness cannot tell us what consciousness is or isn’t. Alan Watts got at this point pretty well when he said, “The eye cannot see itself, nor the teeth bite themselves,” by which he meant that consciousness—whatever it may be or not be—cannot become aware of itself.

But if consciousness cannot observe itself, there is no basis for saying anything about the ultimate source of consciousness, which could be the brain for all we know, or the Vedas could be correct, or the Bible, or perhaps some other possibility that human beings cannot even imagine.

Neither the scientist, nor the yogi, has means sufficient for knowing the ultimate source of consciousness. That information exists, I say, on a level to which human beings are perforce blind. That blindness, coupled with wanting to know, gives rise to conjecture and credulous embrace of conjecture. This is not to disparage Linchitz’s experience. His experience is his experience. Naturally, I would never begrudge Linchitz any peace he found while dying.

Inspired by Nadeen’s words, Linchitz had his experience—including watching the body shutting down while feeling somewhat apart from it. That is not uncommon actually, but what does it prove? Nothing much, I am saying.

Other people have their beliefs. I have known people who say that God speaks to them directly and tells them what to do. Some say that the souls of the departed reside in Paradise for eternity after the body dies. And those folks seem as sure of that as I imagine Nadeen is of his version of reality.

Certain writings, purported to be holy or sacred, assert that “everything is consciousness,” and believers in the inerrancy of such scripture imagine every word to be true by definition. Gurus teach those words the way Baptist preachers quote the Bible as if it were inerrant, but it ain’t necessarily so.

We human beings love smooth sailing. We crave assurance and comforting concepts. We want our beliefs supported and approved, not challenged and possibly discredited. That psychological fact is called the “confirmation bias.” To state it briefly, human beings tend to give too much weight to evidence that corroborates what they already believe or desire to believe, while giving too little weight, discounting out of hand, or even forgetting entirely, evidence that tends to contradict what they already believe or desire to believe.

If one does not recognize, and admit, the confirmation bias, and if one does not keep working against that bias, then one’s views on all matters will be forever skewed and untrustworthy. I do not imagine that many adepts begin by working against the teachings they have been given, so I consider their testimony to be untrustworthy at best.

“Spiritual” people tend to reject serious investigation of their beliefs. Hearing about epistemological limits feels like rain on their enlightenment parade. Those folks accuse Robert (that guy who does not really exist) of “materialism” and “reductionism.” But I’m not a materialist. I’m an “I-don’t-know-ist”.

The source of consciousness is, I say, a matter beyond human ken.