Science and Consciousness
Find out how Vedanta’s nondual philosophy sheds light on the inherent limitations of scientific inquiry.
During the past few years, an increasing number of scientists have claimed insight into the nondual nature of reality. These claims, however, ignore a fundamental truth: Consciousness falls outside the scope of scientific investigation. Therefore, by their very nature, such claims cannot be valid.
There has always been a degree of animosity between science and spirituality. The Catholic Church’s persecution of Galileo over his insistence that the Earth was not the center of the universe comes to mind, as does the current debate between Creationists and those preferring the more down-to-earth tenets of Darwinian evolution. It is encouraging, therefore, to see the growing number of books and articles written by scientists on the subject of nonduality. There is even an annual conference with the title “Science and Nonduality,” thus making it possible to explore these two avenues of knowledge in the same forum.
Paradoxically, both the power and the ultimate shortcoming of science as a tool for investigating the nature of reality lie in its objectivity. The scientific method of empirical observation and subsequent reasoning is something it shares with Vedanta, along with the acceptance of findings from those who have gone before (providing these findings do not contradict more recent discoveries).
Science has made a significant contribution to persuading people to consider that the world may not be as it initially appears to our limited organs of perception. At one end of the scale, the scanning electron microscope looks into the supposed solidity of the matter beneath our fingertips. At the other extreme, the Hubble telescope peers toward infinity into the swirling clouds of galaxies invisible to the naked eye. “Reality” is far more subtle than everyday experience would have us believe. The hardness of the table on which I write is due to irrevocable laws regarding the spin of electrons and their sharing of orbitals around atoms. Massive energy sources in the universe result from entire galaxies being sucked into black holes. Our own senses are quite inadequate for the job of explaining the behavior of the world around us, whereas science seemingly can.
Science tells us that everything is made up of atoms, which are themselves assembled from smaller particles and those, in turn, are formed of more fundamental ones. Even light consists of packets of energy, behaving sometimes as particles and sometimes as waves. Ultimately, everything reduces to pure energy, which itself can be neither created nor destroyed but only transformed from one form into another. So everything is “one”—and isn’t this precisely what Advaita says also? And didn’t Heisenberg show that the observer and the observed are intricately linked, thus supporting this idea of nonduality?
Science is obliged to try to explain the place of Consciousness in the scheme of things as an epiphenomenon, a serendipitous side-effect of the evolution of matter.
So, at least, go the superficial arguments to illustrate how science is validating the truths embodied in the ancient scriptures and couching them in terms more acceptable to the sophisticated modern mind. Unfortunately, there is a significant omission in this neat explanation: the place of Consciousness in the scheme of things. Accordingly, science is obliged to try to explain this away as an epiphenomenon, a serendipitous side effect of the evolution of matter, once a certain level of complexity is reached. This, of course, is the exact opposite of Advaita, in which matter is explained as a manifestation of Consciousness.
On the face of it, Consciousness and matter are quite clearly separate “things.” In the Sankhya and Yoga philosophies, the material cause of the universe is called prakriti or pradhana, which is inert and quite other than the consciousness principle, called purusha. Another major pair of Indian philosophies—Nyaya and Vaisheshika—attributes the cause of the universe to “atoms” or parimanus with, again, Consciousness as something quite separate. Only the purva mimamsakas and uttara mimamsakas (which include Advaitins) recognize Consciousness as the cause of creation.
This consciousness is Brahman, the Self; the ultimate subject: "that which," according to the Kena Upanishad "cannot be thought by the mind, seen by the eye or heard by the ear. He who thinks he knows It, knows It not."
The reason science cannot investigate the Consciousness posited by Advaita is readily understandable. This Consciousness is Brahman, the Self; the ultimate subject. As the Kena Upanishad (1.4–7 and 2.3) tells us: “It is That which speech does not illumine; That which cannot be thought by the mind, seen by the eye or heard by the ear. He who thinks he knows It, knows It not.” And as Shankara’s disciple, Sureshvara, wrote in Naishkarmya Siddhi (3.48; translated by A.J. Alston in Realization of the Absolute): “The Self cannot be known through the empirical means of knowledge such as perception, etc., which are but phlegm coughed up by the thirst for life. Indeed, it is not a possible object of empirical cognition, since it is the innermost Self [and is part-less and not accessible to the senses].”
The scientific method is also bound up with the notion of causality; it is constantly looking for causes to explain the observed effects. But, as Gaudapada points out in his karika on the Mandukya Upanishad, turiya, the nondual reality, is karya karana vilakshana—it has nothing to do with cause and effect. It is beyond, or prior to, space, time, and causality. Consequently, a scientifically based inquiry into reality is a contradiction in terms.
Science and the method that it embodies are excellent for looking into objects and mechanisms in the apparent world. Its ingenuity in the most unpromising of circumstances is seemingly endless. And some of these investigations are of value in the investigation into what we are not; i.e., the neti-neti practice of traditional Advaita.
But even though science is good at investigating objects, even there it is doomed to fail because the essence of objects is ultimately the same nondual reality. As Atmananda Krishna Menon puts it in Notes on Spiritual Discourses (1386): “As long as the least trace of subjectivity remains, objectivity cannot disappear. And until objectivity disappears completely, the real nature of the object can never be visualized. This is the fundamental error committed by science as well as philosophy, both in India and outside, in trying to approach the Truth through the medium of the mind.”
We "know" Consciousness because we are Consciousness. Consciousness is our true nature.
Without Consciousness, nothing can be known. But Consciousness itself cannot be an object of knowledge, just as in a totally dark room, a torch may illuminate everything but itself. Knowing requires both knower and known. For Consciousness to be known, it would have to be a knowable object, but it is the knowing subject. We “know” Consciousness because we are Consciousness. Consciousness is our true nature. The ultimate observer (which is who you essentially are) is simply not amenable to any type of objective investigation: who could there be beyond the ultimate observer to do the investigating?
This seemingly paradoxical state of affairs betokens a confusion of levels of reality. At the level of the world, which is the domain of science, investigation is carried out by the mind (which is a reflection of Consciousness) into objects, such as the brain. The world is the province of the knower-known duality. From the standpoint of absolute reality, there is only Consciousness. The world is only a manifestation of name and form, never actually separate from that Consciousness. But clearly Consciousness itself can never be investigated by the mind at the level of the world. What is gained from science is information rather than knowledge. There is no end to it—the more you find out, the more there is to find out. And any given theory is good only until more information comes along to discredit it. “I am” is not information. It is absolute and irrevocable.
The findings of science will always be subject to modification in the light of further observation. This is the nature of the method. But the recognition of the Self as nondual is not objective knowledge. It is directly known, not through the medium of any sense, not requiring any reasoning process, and not subject to correction. It is final and absolute.
The recognition of the Self as nondual is not objective knowledge. It is final and absolute.
Science is irredeemably limited to the realm of objective investigation. This is its strength, and if some scientists wish to provide useful input to the spiritual search, they can focus their endeavors on the neti-neti stage of the path. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle clearly demonstrated that there comes a point in one’s investigation into the increasingly subtle behavior of matter when the irreconcilable conflict between subject and object prevents any further data from being gathered. This is the terminus of scientific investigation. Consciousness itself is the subtlest of the subtle, beyond even observation, when the subject-object dichotomy itself disappears. By definition, no one goes there.
The Vedanta column is published in partnership with Advaita Academy, a nonprofit organization which aims to preserve and promote the awareness of traditional Advaita teachings through a comprehensive website and in collaboration with similar associations.
Dennis Waite has been a student of Advaita for over 25 years and lives in Bournemouth, England. He has authored several books on Advaita, most recently the revised edition of The Book of One, and he is a trustee of Advaita Academy, UK.