Framing the Consciousness Debates

What David Chalmers calls the “Hard Problem” of consciousness has been among the main reasons I started this blog. If you view it honestly, it is the last remaining fundamental mystery and, were I to be as extreme as Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus, I would go so far as to label it the only problem worth studying (Camus said that about suicide though). I meant to segue into this topic slowly, by first posting reviews of a bunch of relevant books as anchor points for my views, but blog readers have an unsettling habit of jumping the gun, and derailing the best-laid roll-out plan with untidy comments. So here we go. I’ll frame and circumscribe my approach, state my axiomatic commitments, bluntly partition the landscape into the relevant and irrelevant, and we’ll get set for exploring the Last Great Mystery.

Why Framing is Hard

When you deal with something as fundamental as consciousness, you have to first formulate the problem of formulating the problem. In fact, it can take several chapters of a carefully-written book like Chalmers’ The Conscious Mind to even make a case that there is an actual problem. That we are not merely talking about confused self-referential processing by a neuro-computer. That labeling it an ’emergent’ property of a complex set of algorithms is misguided at a very basic level.

When it comes to consciousness, there is so much complexity and so many irrelevant (or at best, marginal) sideshows that one party or another holds dear (sneak preview: AI, religion, neuroscience and ‘humanism’) that a full-blown open debate is impossible. You will either be reduced to Consciousness 101 level irrelevancies like whether computers can be “creative” or have huge dissonances, like that between (say) Daniel Dennett and David Chalmers, or between those who view the experiential-report evidence from mystic traditions as legitimate and those who do not.

The 101 level debates are boring, and the advanced debates between polar extremes are irrevocably stalled. The only hope for interesting progress is to commit to the camp that you resonate with the most, and look for movement there. Ignore the beginners who are yet to get beyond a few nights of stoned introspection, and ignore your intellectually solid but too-distant peers. We’ll bridge that gap in 2025. Until then, I’ll listen, but not engage, certain viewpoints like Strong AI.

So where am I on this spectrum of development of sophistication of views? Not 101 certainly. My bookshelf on consciousness and mysticism groans under a collection of some 30 volumes (more than half of which I’ve actually read). I’ve done a couple of informal talks about the subject. And I have one data point from a personal “mystical” experience (they are not as rare as you think, you can stop feeling special if you’ve had one too — I estimate that 1 in 4 or 5 people have had experiences comparable to mine, and they’re not particularly hard to get to). But more on that later. So I am not at the 101 level, and 101 level debates bore me to tears. I am also not a professional though, and haven’t worked years writing volumes on the subject. So one of the things I will be doing with this theme is exploring ideas at say, a 501 level. I’ll eventually post a bibliography if you want to catch up and keep up.

Keep in mind though, that almost everything that has been written is about clearing away clutter that is not relevant. Surprisingly little has been said on the subject that is relevant in a non-negative-definition sense. But you have to clear the clutter, and there the literature helps.

I’ll studiously ignore 101 level questions or at best say “read Chalmers” or something along those lines. This is not because I am snotty about my extensive reading in this area. It is because even for the talented thinkers in this field, who I frequently cite, providing a careful account of even the most trivial-sounding question, like whether we all experience ‘blue’ the same way, can take entire chapters. And still achieve no progress besides eliminating the sillier wrong answers.

The Framing Problem

So here is the framing problem, which might itself be critiqued, but let’s not backstep our way to exhaustion. If you answer this for yourself unambiguously, you will at least know where to begin looking for the real question. The framing problem is to force yourself to make clear assertions about the following things questions:

  1. Do you or do you not believe that subjective consciousness is a real , as yet-unexplained, mystery? (Chalmers estimates that about two thirds of academics engaged in the question believe it is. Daniel Dennett wrote a book titled “Consciousness Explained” that represents the other third who think it has been explained. That’s the schism. Live with it.)
  2. If you answered ‘yes’ to Question 1, which sub-category of stances do you adopt (the main current candidates being a) that consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe like mass/time, b) that it is a an epiphenomenon of brains only, or c) it has something to do with quantum mechanics that manifests itself due to the peculiar structure of the brain). There are about half a dozen other views which I don’t view as even being contenders.
  3. What elements of the consciousness debates do you consider relevant, marginally relevant and irrelevant respectively? There is a laundry list of things you need to make up your mind about, which I’ll provide in a minute.

That’s it. That’s the framing problem. My own commitments have been made: yes to 1, choice a) for 2, and the rest of this post for 3. If you believe ‘no’ for the first question (a stance usually, but not exclusively, identified with what is known as Strong AI), then I probably have nothing to say to you that hasn’t been said already. It isn’t that your viewpoint is provably unsound — it is just that debate is fruitless at this stage of evolution of both options, and primarily consists of noisy public showboating. A prime example of this is Daniel Dennett dismissing certain points of view as ‘you are a mysterian’ (a category he made up) on venues like Slate’s Meaning of Life TV. Entertaining, but not particularly helpful in moving the debates forward. Neither side can completely undermine the other at this stage, but neither does direct engagement help. Each side has significant internal work to get done first.

Scoping the Specifics

Once you decide you want to roll up your sleeves and do some non-trivial thinking about consciousness, you have some prep-work to do. In the framing problem, answering question 1 is easy if you have read a couple of books (or even if you are navigating only by introspection up to this point). Question 2 is tougher if you don’t know about some of the frames in play, but I’ll help you along for that in a future post, but Question 3, fortunately, is a much simpler matter of logical grunt work and figuring out the implications of your foundational commitment from Question 1.

The grunt work consists in making up your mind about several themes that have been proposed as candidate elements (or even centerpieces) of the debate. Here is the list of the usual suspects, probably incomplete, but covering 90% of the words you’ll see and hear in the debates. You may want to print out this page and pencil in your opinions if you want to follow along this thread of blog posts. I’ll elaborate on my own commitments in a minute.

None of this, unfortunately, is a moment’s work, but you can do an instantaneous self-assessment and evolve that. I’ll be addressing at least a few of these themes. To form a substantial opinion and avoid getting trapped into unnecessary trails of thought that others have mapped and dismissed credibly, you need to do some reading.

Themes List

  1. Neuroscience of the fMRI localization variety (“decision making is located in the anteriorus crapulus”)
  2. Neuroscience of the brain damage/counterintuitive phenomena variety (as in Oliver Sacks’ books)
  3. Artificial Intelligence
  4. Complexity and ’emergence’ (of the Douglas Hofstadter and Santa Fe varieties)
  5. Foundations of mathematics (stuff like Godel’s theorem, Brouwer’s view of the continuum, and so forth)
  6. (Human) Psychology
  7. Humanism and ethics
  8. Mysticism and mystic experiences (East or West; cultural silos are irrelevant. If you are a Westerner, think about the Christian mystic Hildegrad von Bingen if Vedanta and Zen make you uncomfortable and New Ageism leaves you cold)
  9. Religion of the organized variety with an associated theology and historicism
  10. Unsolved fundamental physics problems (primarily, but not only, quantum indeterminacy)
  11. Western philosophy of mind (Descartes, Ryle, all the way up to Chalmers)
  12. Language and its phenomenology
  13. Other Western metaphysics subfields besides PoM, such as ontology and epistemology
  14. Eastern metaphysics, separated from the related theology (primarily the varieties of Buddhist and Vedantic and non-Vedantic Indian metaphysics — recall that in the West, there was a philosophy-religion split, or more correctly, a theology-metaphysics split, perhaps dating back to about Aquinas, that has no parallel in the East. So you have to do the separation artificially, since I do think that the split is a useful and necessary operation)

My Commitments

Here are my commitments. I parse the themes into irrelevant, distraction, useful and fundamental. A word on the middle two categories is in order. There are many things that lead to revealing arguments that illuminate some aspects of the mystery of consciousness (more so for some stances than for others), but for some, the illumination comes at the expense of a whole lot of distraction. Language is an example. To me, the argument that dogs fall into my definition of ‘conscious’, dogs don’t have language, ergo, language is irrelevant is sufficient to ignore language as a fundamental feature. Whatever insight thinking about language provides then, comes at the expense of enormously distracting debates of the sort Steven Pinker likes to get into (he of “How the Mind Works” and acolyte-of-Chomsky fame). Not worth it. Language, however interesting a subject qua language, is too expensive an indulgence for a spartan attack on consciousness.

So here is my parsed list. I’ll justify some commitments, defer some, and simply assert an opinion on others without defending them (usually because it takes too long and others have done a better job already).

Remember, my classification follows from my commitment to answer a) to Question 2. If you answered differently, you will parse differently.

The Irrelevant

  1. Humanism and ethics
  2. Religion of the organized variety with with an associated theology and historicism

The Distracting

  1. Almost all of AI, except for occasionally useful thought experiments. The slug is 0.01 on the consciousness scale, ergo, most talk of AI capabilities is completely distracting. The 0.01 level scale consciousness of a slug with 127 neurons is just as mysterious as the fact that you can critique Van Gogh and HAL (as yet) can’t. Let’s stick with the simpler cases and not go to the more complex cases unless they reveal some subtlety. Haven’t seen any such revealing subtlety in the reams I’ve read from AI so far. Even the famous Searle-Dennett Chinese Room debates are a distraction once you plow through the details.
  2. Neuroscience of the fMRI localization variety. See Mind Wide Open. Learning the physical address of something in the brain is not particularly helpful. All you need from the neuro-morphological research literature is a rough-and-ready understanding of gross structure (like neocortex versus brain stem). The rest is detail. Noisy detail. If something in that world is curious enough and helpful enough to this debate, you’ll hear about it in a more digestible context from a hard-working philosopher who will filter out the noise for you.
  3. Language and its phenomenology. This is a hard area for me to dismiss as a distraction, because I hugely enjoy all my reading and thinking in this area, and it is deeply revealing in other ways.
  4. Complexity and ’emergence’ (of the Douglas Hofstadter and Santa Fe varieties). Again, it pains me to have to put this class of literature in the ‘distracting’ class, but I can only view my immersion in that for the better part of a decade as a waste of time, at least for the purposes of exploring the consciousness problem. It is useful for thinking about other things, but not for consciousness.

The Useful

  1. Neuroscience of the brain damage/counterintuitive phenomena variety: This is useful because it can lead you away from certain pointless lines of thought. For instance, does the brain construct reality or perceive it? The data is in. It constructs reality. You do not need to agonize over this. Read Dennett to understand how (in particular the Stalinist vs. Orwellian models of how the brain parses sensory data). Understand, internalize, move on. The mystery isn’t hiding there.
  2. (Human) Psychology: Not useful in the way you might think, in terms of what it says about the subject itself (hint: “almost nothing”), but in terms of what it tells you about the pitfalls of your own thinking about a topic that is so intimately and trickily entwined with your sense of (objective psychological) self.
  3. Mysticism and mystic experiences: most people either ignore (out of unreasoned suspicion or reasoned skepticism), underrate or overrate the importance of evidence from mysticism, so since this is a theme where I take a possibly very unusual stance, I’ll elaborate in a separate post.
  4. Other Western metaphysics subfields besides PoM, such as ontology and epistemology: these help skewer certain viewpoints like the ‘Cartesian Theater’ but are not in themselves directly relevant.


  1. Western Philosophy of Mind (Descartes, Ryle all the way up to Chalmers): You need this, and you’ll understand why when you read Chalmers and realize that it takes a hundred pages even to create a secure sandbox for thinking that is insulated from the distracting attacks of, say, Daniel Dennett. There is a vast, sophisticated and nuanced vocabulary that WPoM brings to the party (example, “qualia”) and a neat array of powerful thought experiments (like the Zombie problem and the inverted spectrum) that clarify a whole bunch of muddy issues.
  2. Eastern metaphysics, stripped of mythological trappings: studiously (though not conspiratorially as some imagine) ignored by the Western academy, mainly because it has no clue how to methodologically integrate what Eastern metaphysics has to say. It is mainly the second rung amateurs from outside philosophy (primarily neuroscientists who are stuck in synaptic weeds, and some AI folks infatuated with Zen koans) who introduce these ideas into the Western academy. To be fair, the few remaining intellectually rigorous Eastern philosophers roundly ignore Western ideas too, besides occasionally whining about credit attribution issues (I have a friend — sorry to call you out Rashmun! — who frequently brings up the point that the Mimasaka philosopher Kumarila Bhatta developed the dreaming argument before Descartes. Yeah, yeah, let’s move on!).
  3. Unsolved fundamental physics problems (primarily, but not only, quantum indeterminacy). Chalmers dismisses this as not relevant, and that’s an area where I break from his views. I don’t agree or disagre; I just think the jury is still out, and that fundamental physics is at least as mysterious as consciousness itself. Think about it. Mass, space and time are fundamentally just as confusing as the fact that there happens to be an ‘I’ sitting inside your head (just behind your eyes, apparently).
  4. Foundations of mathematics (stuff like Godel’s theorem, Brouwer’s view of the continuum, and so forth)

Whew! That was quite a trek. And that was just to get to the starting line. Hopefully we’ll make some progress in the next post.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Aha!

    > blog readers have an unsettling habit of jumping the gun, and
    > derailing the best-laid roll-out plan with untidy comments.

    When did you think you would start off with this stuff anyway? After you ran out of topics on business? :-)

    — Viraje

  2. Wow !! I am looking forward to the ride !!
    However, I will need to catch up to the 501 level from 001 :D
    I’ll probably be able to do that in a decade or so if you publish your bibliography ;) Hopefully ribbonfarm will still be up and active.

    I think I got a sense of most of your themes list (or you have left enough pointers to catch up on details) except for mystic experiences and eastern metaphysics. I am completely lost there. Some pointers will definitely help (which you mentioned you would post on)
    The most surprising for me was “Brain constructs reality vs. perceives it”. I’ll definitely have to read up on that one. Reminds me of The Matrix

  3. Hey, the business stuff isn’t going away. How else can I maintain a scholar-warrior persona, short of joining the military? Actually, I am going to connect up the themes of consciousness and organizations through some thought experiments. No non sequiturs on ribbonfarm, sorry.

    Kaps: will be posting enough detail on the useful stuff that you should be able to keep up. And I’d be no use as the friendly neighborhood firehose drinker if others had to read everything I did, so I’ll annotate the bibliography so you can do an 80-20… get to 80% of what I’ve learned by doing only 20% of the critical reading and not wasting time on a lot of crud like I did.

    And unfortunately, no matrix-like stuff — my ‘construction’ reference was much more trivial, and you are not going to get to ‘the universe is an illusion’ from that. Dennett and others have basically shown that the brain has layers of processing that manufacture what you think is raw sensory input. Optical illusions are just the tip of the iceberg.

  4. Venkat,

    I think you have set the stage rather neatly. I agree with you that this is the great mystery. I was hoping you would start something on these lines, but when I didn’t see it and didn’t know its timeline, I thought I would ask a few questions that arose in my mind, and see where we got to. I’m really sorry if that led to some incovenience for you with regard to your schedules for the various articles you had planned. In any case, I’m glad to see this post, and hope this will turn out to be a good forum for discussing these issues. I don’t know about other readers and their interests. But this subject is really the only reason I am active on this forum.

    Everyone is a seeker after the truth in some sense. In our own little way, we wonder about the mysteries of the universe, and how we came to be, and why we are here, and so on. Not in everybody’s case are such musings backed up by a formidable library, as it seems to be in your case. Indeed, as you correctly point out, it is important to know which avenues lead the wrong way. So, we stand not only on the shoulders of the giants who showed the light, but also on the shoulders of the giants who ventured into the darkness. However, the search for consciousness is a little different from other disciplines, so to speak, as it involves something that is typically more familiar to a human being than anything else — his or her own sense of self. And yet it is amazing that we have to wonder what that is. And while books may reveal to us what others have thought about and decided, every human being has an opportunity in this case to be his own experimenter and theorist. So I wouldn’t base everything on the books we read. And because it is so fundamental, there is scope here for someone with no prior domain knowledge to ask an uncomfortable question, something that may not be possible in most other disciplines.

    With regard to your questions, I am probably in the same neighborhood as you, but with a couple of important caveats. I do believe subjective consciousness is a real mystery, but I do not think it is yet unexplained. I think it has been explained, but not everyone is aware of or has accepted the explanation. As for the second question, I do think consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe, but I would not group it with mass/time. In the course of my search, without meaning it to sound so all-consuming, I have looked for answers in physics, evolution, philosophy of science, modern western philosophy of mind, (a bit of) neuroscience. I have not looked at AI or complexity/emergence. I have looked for answers in parapsychological phenomena, in alternative history. I have, in passing, read about Western mysticism. I have not looked at Zen. But I have looked into Indian spirituality and metaphysics: Vedanta. I have read first-person accounts, and modern interpretations, and translations of some Vedantic texts.

    By no means is my knowledge complete or my reading. But I believe Advaita Vedanta has it right. I believe it has the complete picture. I certainly am far from having this picture, but I think there have been people who have had the complete picture.

    However, I do not know if I have the right statements or arguments to explain or defend the theory in a way that is acceptable today. Or even the right arguments to find possible flaws in other theories. I have taken no notes during my study, so it may not be so easy for me to attribute things to people and books, something you do so effortlessly. My motivation for beginning to comment on your blog was to see if it can be done, if Advaita can be argued for rationally in a scientific language at the present time in history. I do not know the answer to that. We will have to wait and see. Advaita is a philosophy for experience, and not so much for debate. Nevertheless, I am hoping the discussions here will reveal something. At the very least, through the process of discussion and debate with people here, I will get more insight into Advaita and other theories. Of course, Advaita will not stand or fall by my efforts in this forum. It stands by itself. This will be a good exercise for me to get my reasoning processes in order.

    — Viraje

  5. I’ll do a fairly thorough examination of the experiential vs. epistemological approaches as and when I find good angles to write from (i.e., “stop thinking, and be it” vs. “you can understand it at an intellectual level.”) To a certain extent, the former approach precludes inquiry altogether, so you need a monastery rather than a blog to explore it, but they are not decoupled. Gnana, karma and bhakti have stuff to say about each other (mainly “ha ha, you suck”, but let’s not dwell on the petty :))

    In Vedantic lines of thought, I actually prefer the later Kashmiri Shaivism (an order-out-of-chaos division metaphysics of creative destruction that found an obscure path via (I think) Schopenhauer to Nietzche and the economist Schumpeter) and Ramanuja’s vishist advaita (qualified monism) lines of development beyond Sankara. And dvaita, shorn of Madhwa’s panchabhuta nonsense,has some life yet (nominally, being Madhwa, I ought to be dualist, but I admit, if I had to pick, I’d go with advaita).

    These approaches, including experiential aspects, can definitely be partially critiqued in more modern terms, though you would have to construct a new global language of metaphysics to figure out for instance, what Descartes’ a priori analytic and cogito ergo sum has to do with tvam tat asi and the Zen mu.

    • Rekha Kulkarni says

      Apparently, you are not only a blot to being a Madhva, but a blot to humanity to term the word “nonsense” to Acharya’s panchabuta concept. Not sure if you have even had a basic understanding of the dvaita tenets and Acharya Madhva’s Siddhantha and contribution or you are just blabbering words arising from a nascent yet to develop mind !!!

      Please read for BASIC ABC’S of Dvaita first for starters before commenting nonsense. I can point you to the next level after you’ve had a basic understanding.

      Best Regards

  6. “Last remaining fundamental mystery”? What about: why something rather than nothing?

    Anyway, that was an enjoyable post. Seems to me that all the action in this post is in the stuff under the heading “The Framing Problem”. (The other stuff is cool/interesting, but seems to me to distract a bit. Or maybe a lot.) But this section could perhaps use a little more fleshing out. You sketch what you take to be the three main views on consciousness in one sentence, and don’t elaborate on the “half a dozen other views which I don’t view as even being contenders”. Maybe in the next post you can devote a heading to each of the three views, spelling them out in more detail. And then maybe you can say a little more about why these views are the only three to care about.

    Methological remark: not sure why you’re taking such a super high-level approach. Things are getting classified as ‘distracting’ or ‘useful’, but without a lot of context or a huge amount of argumentation really going on. Another option would just be to lay out one or two of the main thought experiments usually taken to illustrate the hard problem—the zombie argument, the knowledge argument, inverted spectra, etc—and then you can incrementally build up sophistication, introducing fancy concepts and regimenting terms as needed. And then you can say why you think neuroscience is irrelevant, or mystical experience relevant, etc., in the relevant argumentative setting. Otherwise it’s sort of hard to get into useful debate. (Or maybe I’m missing the point of this post?)

    Incidentally, I think the basic intuitive problems about consciousness are not that hard to set up, hard as they are to solve. Leibniz does a pretty solid job in three sentences:

    Moreover, it must be confessed that perception and that which depends upon it are inexplicable on mechanical grounds, that is to say, by means of figures and motions. And supposing there were a machine, so constructed as to think, feel, and have perception, it might be conceived as increased in size, while keeping the same proportions, so that one might go into it as into a mill. That being so, we should, on examining its interior, find only parts which work one upon another, and never anything by which to explain a perception.

  7. Hey Seth:

    You find substance in “why something rather than nothing?” Somehow that one doesn’t grab me. In fact it strikes me as confused rather than profound. Is there literature on it?

    The three I pick aren’t the three main views — they are just the ones I consider promising because they at least suggest lines of attack and conceptual synthesis, for accommodating things analytical philosophers haven’t thought to include. I’ll be elaborating more in future posts, but developing themes in my own fashion rather than following the turf boundaries as laid out by philosophers of mind. I really have nothing new to say about epiphenomenalism, but might need to refer to it as I build on something else.

    As for the super high-level approach, rather than ask why, how about asking why not? I’d rather ask: why have philosophers stuck to narrowly circumscribed boundaries for so long when it is clear no progress is being made towards providing a satisfying account of consciousness? Sure, books are being written, reputations being built on safe topics, tenure is being awarded and other fields ranging from dynamic semantics to metaphor to possible worlds reasoning are moving forward as a result of attacks on philosophy of mind. But PoM has stayed pretty stationary in my opinion, with no great advances since maybe Ryle took on Descartes.

    Along the same lines, I think the zombie and inverted spectrum have been done to death (and very well) by philosophers, so I see no further insight emerging from there, so I wouldn’t want to up the sophistication there even if I could beat you guys at your own game. Since I don’t have philosophy tenure to win, I have the luxury of not having to prove my credibility by saying something sparkling and clever there :) I think the need of the day is broad imagination and (possibly initially sloppy) synthesis. Rigorous and dazzlingly skillful technicians have gotten us into a local minimum by wasting time admiring or dismissing each other rather than focusing on the mystery. I may make some use of the zombie and the inverted spectrum, but besides providing a sketch to get readers up to speed, I don’t want to dwell on those thought experiments.

    It isn’t that this blog is meant to avoid debate, but I don’t want to replicate and rehash the same old debates that don’t seem to have lead anywhere new in about a century. I think the variety of disconnected and stalled approaches can only move forward by trying some combinatorics. Some ideas I want to explore involve, for instance, thoughts about the continuum from Brouwer to Gregory Chaitin, and trying to provide an account of mystic experiences in terms of qualia rather than sensori-motor deprivation as is popular among neuroscientists.

    My approach is very contingent. I don’t see the point in rigorously nailing down intermediate arguments without first galloping ahead rough shod to see if it even leads anywhere interesting. If a flimsy what-if argument leads interesting places, time enough to come back and attempt to add rigor. If it goes nowhere, effort saved.

    Thanks for the Leibniz quote. That is a solid framing if you want to take the mechanistic route and focus on AI style framings. It doesn’t help very much for the direction I want to take. Let’s see what I can do here. At the moment I am just playing around.

    Chances are, you are going to find my approach frustrating. It is going to be a mix of amateur analytical, some continental/narrative style and some wholly made up ways of approaching the issues. Rigor here is a trap as far as I am concerned.

  8. Venkat,

    In Vedanta, enquiry and experience relate to each other in that, the appropriate form of enquiry, for instance, self-enquiry (of the Who am I? variety) is considered capable of eventually leading one to experience. The various forms of yoga that you mention are not opposed to each other. The really advanced practitioners say that these are different paths to the same goal, which in any case transcends each of the paths. It is possible some people will have preferences based on what they have themselves gone through.

    You mentioned the various Vedantic approaches. Let me briefly state my views on them.

    Dvaita, which says self, God, matter are all different from each other, has too many moving parts to be a “final” theory. But it is rather good as an approximation, like Newton’s laws approximate Einstein’s. It is, sort of, an initial step in reasoning.

    Vishishtadvaita, which says self and matter are “parts” of God, is more to the point, but why there should be parts is not clear. The image which is central to the theory, that of God being to the universe as the self is to the body, is interesting. A question arises in me whether this is recursive, whether a self is God to the universe that may be its body. It is not clear whether this is resolvable.

    Kashmiri Shaivism (KS) is interesting and close to Advaita, except in its treatment of maya or the nature of the physical universe. KS says awareness (Shiva) and action/energy (Shakti) are together the self, and constitute basic Reality, and the rest is more or less as in Advaita. So, they are able to say the physical universe made up of acion/energy is as fundamental as awareness, and explain maya as being within the self. In pure Advaita, maya is more of an emergent entity rather than intrinsic to Reality. I find KS to be another step on the way to Advaita. But it does gel with western approaches that combine consciousness/awareness and matter in a theory.

    Advaita, of course, says that the self is all there is. Reality is pure awareness. You are That. The rest is illusion, in the sense of being impermanent, emergent and not fundamental. I find Advaita has a minimal axiom set. It assumes very little. As far as I can see, it observes first-hand that “I” am aware. So, it probably assumes the validity of this observation.

    I think Descartes was on the right track, but he was probably led astray by the powerful distraction of “thought”. Through “I think, therefore I am”, he may have led generations of philosophers down a path where they stop at the mind, and do not enquire about internal states where there are no thoughts at all. It is possible the initial adventure into AI for finding consciousness sprang directly from this philosophical blockade. Even now, it’s called the philosophy of mind in the west. Mind = thoughts. Do I stop existing if I don’t think? Is there always necessarily a thought in one’s internal spotlight? Why should my sense of I-ness be tied to my thoughts?

    — Viraje

  9. Hi Viraje:

    Don’t want to figure out all this right here in the comments to the first blog on this theme, but your notes on the various viewpoints seem accurate and match my reading of the ideas. Regarding interpretation though, I have to differ, since you are structuring your ideas with Advaita as the presumptive winner (hence Descartes’ is led “astray” and KS is a “step on the way to Advaita” in your thinking).

    I have much more by way of doubt, and I’d like a metaphysics where noumenon and phenomenon are placed on a more equal footing. Tvam tat asi does not strike me as adequate as an axiom set, even if every individual can experientially justify it to him/herself via a magic blue pill.

    My axiom being doubt rather than certainty, and given my partiality to existentialist style views, I view ALL these stances as partial approximations and root nodes for further undiscovered branches. Perhaps an interesting way (for me) to explore the vedantic taxonomy of views (along with Buddhist and Western) is to do a skeptical treatment of each of them, highlighting my sense of the inadequacies of each stance (both as an intellectual viewpoint and a meditative practice). And of course, being resolutely atheist (apolytheist really, a distinction I will elaborate later), I want the account to be in terms that do not refer to even an abstract God or gods. To me, Nietzche killed God/gods and I want it to stay that way. But advaita and everything else can be reconstructed without appeal to the godlike aspects of the brahman, sunya, prakrit and purusa concepts.

    In a way, I don’t expect (or desire) doubt to be replaced by certainty. Merely to have some doubts be replaced by more sophisticated doubts. The full Descartes quote is “Dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum” — I doubt, therefore I think therefore I am. To me doubt is somehow key. Advaita in practice, kills doubt. In Indian thought, while doubt is certainly extremely foundational, this emphasis is lost in later Vedic exegesis. See the last line of the Nasadiya Sukta, which translates roughly, as:

    That out of which creation has arisen,
    whether it held it firm or it did not,
    He who surveys it in the highest heaven,
    He surely knows – or maybe He does not!

    Final reason I am not prepared to commit to advaita without further analysis: it puts unity in a preferential position in relation to plurality a priori. Prakrit before purusa, undifferentiated reality above the gunas tamas/rajas/sattva. I want to remove this assymmetry and put plurality on an equal footing. Call me a federalist! If that is a necessary asymmetry, I want a better account why. A mere anxiety for unity and monism will not suffice. I am open to an account of reality that has a gazillion moving parts — Occam’s razor and parsimonious axiom sets aren’t compelling to me a priori.


  10. Hi Venkat,

    You make some interesting points. I’ll skim over a few, and concentrate in this post on one item. Though my comments on some of the other philosophies may have betrayed my Advaitic viewpoint, I do think I have some relevant questions for those philosophies. With Descartes (specifically his well-known statement), it is the importance he gives to thought. With Dvaita, it is the plurality (more on this below). With Vishishtadvaita, it is the “parts” aspect and the God-universe relationship. With Kashmiri Shaivism, it is the nature of energy. What is energy anyway?

    I agree with you that doubt is central to intellectual exercises. I have nothing against doubt. But it is definitely the case that the universe works. It doesn’t break down. So, some theory is likely to be valid. If this truth is in one of the existing set of theories, then it may be pointless to continue to doubt it. So, once I think a theory is correct based on a combination of factors which are all subjective eventually, it is more satisfying for me to try and defend or explain that theory, and try to identify flaws in the others. So, my skepticism will be limited to non-Advaitic theories. And when I can’t explain something in Advaita, I will assume I don’t or can’t understand it well enough. But your way of doubting everything is equally valid, of course. This is naturally a matter of personal preference.

    Thanks for the wonderful quote from the Nasadiya Sukta. It expresses fundamental doubt on things like knowledge, doesn’t it? To properly come to terms with such issues, one may even need to ask about the inevitability of it all. Did all this have to be? The question Seth asked in a comment, whether there needs to be something at all, may have significance in this context.

    You mentioned Advaita’s bias towards unity. Bias there may appear to be, but in my view, it is a well-considered bias and is not something that is emotional, or beyond reason and argument. Without quite defending a proposal for unity, and without going into the merits of any specific fundamental concept, let me try and construct some lines of argument that occur to me, against a plurality of fundamental _types_ of elements. I will also give them some arbitrary names for convenience.

    1. The interaction argument. If there are indeed multiple types of fundamental elements or concepts, and if a theory includes a proposal for their interaction, how do they interact? At the deepest level, there must be something that interacts (or facilitates interaction) between at least two of the types. If there is such interaction, the types cannot be truly dissimilar for they “understand” each other to some extent. An example from physics is that if force acts on matter, then force must be a type of matter, and all forces do have their corresponding particle forms. So, we can reduce force to matter. If a wave can act on a particle, then they must be the same thing. If matter can have energy, matter must be energy. The way I am stating this is probably not the norm in physics. A graviton has to show up in the math or in an experiment for the physics community to accept it. Nevertheless, a physicist’s intuition may well be guided by a thought that asks how can 2 particles interact with each other without the help of another particle. It is possible that slippery concepts like space and time can be suggested here to show that influence can happen without any interaction, so to speak. But note that no one actually understands space and time, other than through mathematics. I haven’t come across a proper account of what a dimension truly is. Ripples through space-time and waves of energy sound similar to me. I don’t think we can rule out any shape the unification drive in physics may take. To summarize, interacting types probably have to be the same intrinsically.

    2. The emergence argument. Let us say a theory calls for N fundamental elements or concepts. Note that N is going to be an integer number, like say, 3 or 4. It does appear to me to be the case that a concept like integer is an emergent (and not intrinsic) property of the physical universe. In physics, if superstring theory is to be believed, then everything is vibrating energy. A certain configuration of this energy is called a photon, another is called an electron. The deepest physical level (that I can see) at which a concept of integer appears to emerge is when there are configurations of such energy that are somehow separated. (It is true that superstring theory is supposed to predict 10 or 11 dimensions, so that has a claim on primariness, but this is a mathematical construct for the moment, for me, and I will not be surprised if they threw away the non-integer roots of the equation that gave them 10 or 11.) So, there are then (an integral number of) different photons and different electrons, etc. If at the fundamental level (that of vibration of energy), there are no integers, why should there be an integral number of fundamental elements or concepts that may be at a deeper level, even, than the vibrating energy?

    3. The formal system argument. In mathematics, integers are just a formal system, like many others. They are merely symbols we manipulate according to certain rules. We seem to be able to apply them to predict the activities of the physical universe in a surprising number of cases. But the key fact is that mathematics does not define the truth value, so to speak, of a formal system. There is no claim to the truth or existence of integers. That being the case, at the most fundamental level, how can we be certain that having an integral number of deepest concepts makes sense?

    — Viraje

  11. Hey Viraje:

    Wow, that’s a lot of food for thought. Quick responses, since some of my more complex thoughts on these issues are subjects for future blogs:

    1. Kashmir shaivism and the prakrit/purusa metaphor. I don’t understand it as an energy principle. The gunas abstraction, sattva/rajas/tamas and more fine-grained breakdowns are best understood, I think as an abstract metaphor (some people call this division theory). The metaphysics strongly reminds me of symmetry breaking in physics. I’ll develop this idea and analogy more closely. But it suggests that a creative-destruction metaphysics is necessary. Applied to Vedanta, it would imply that Brahman, even if it was a connected whole at big-bang time, is no longer one as symmetries break. This would go against advaita metaphysics, but not against KS.

    2. Your interaction argument: this is very tricky and obscure, and I think there is a lot of early Western ontology (going back to Aristotle I think) that worries about the unstable nature of conceptual ontogeny. If you admit that there may be 2 fundamental “things” in the universe, then their relationship (that determines what is different and same about them) is a 3rd sort of thing. Call this R(A,B). Then you are unfortunately forced to define R(R(A,B),A) and so forth. So even if you make a basic statement like “in the beginning there was only matter and energy (M,E), you get R(M,E), R(R(M,E),E) and so forth. I’ve been meaning to look up the discussion of this stuff in classical metaphysics, east and west. Maybe I’ll just ask my Western philosophy expert friends and see what they know.

    3. Emergence and integrality. This I’ll talk about later this month. I am starting to get convinced, like Kronecker, that “God made the integers, everything else is the work of man.” Look out for my review of “Meta Math” by Chaitin.

    4. Formal system stuff. Penrose gets heavily into this in “Shadows of Mind,” and the whole line of development is something I find very murky and a distraction. I prefer to think of formal systems the way Brouwer did. That’s something I have to study a lot more before I can blog coherently about it, but roughly, Brouwer (he of the fixed point theorem and other major results) developed a philosophical view of mathematics that separated truth of mathematics from its formal assertion. He developed an approach called ‘intuitionistic mathematics’ (which is actually, despite its name, a formal system that rejects the law of the excluded middle and proof by contradiction) and an associated idea of how math works. I’ll probably get to that in about 6 months.

    5. But in a related line of development that is simpler to understand than Brouwer, you may want to try Lakoff Nunez’ “Where mathematics comes from,” that concludes in an agnostic stance about whether mathematics has objective reality or is an artifact of the mind.

  12. Hi Venkat,

    Let me try and analyse some of the points you make.

    symmetry breaking

    I presume you are suggesting that an undivided something “symmetry-broke” into things like consciousness and matter (or something on those lines)? Interesting analogy, no doubt. But is it a theory? That is the question. :-) Symmetry-breaking is an event in time. It also has the feel of a one-way function or irreversible event, though I don’t know the physics enough to know if that is really the case. And then, there is the issue of disorder and probability. Symmetry-breaking is, I believe, a transition to a less probable more ordered state (anything else is normal everyday activity in the general direction of increasing disorder). If I understand the physics right, the Higgs ocean or the early universe was a disordered entity, because of vacuum fluctuations, from where there was a symmetry-breaking event to generate more-ordered particles and forces.

    According to Advaita though, Nirguna Brahman (NB) is attributeless and changeless, beyond even existence and non-existence. There is none of the furious movement that modern physics says is present even in vacuum on account of Heisenberg uncertainty. NB is not a highly disordered state. It is, in fact, supposed to be the most ordered peaceful state possible. NB is also outside time, so the concept of an event does not make sense to/in it. Besides, it is held in Advaita that the NB state can be experienced and at that point the universe vanishes. So, the appearance of the universe is not a one-way function, so to speak. NB is considered to be the true Reality, so the question of probability of a changed state does not arise.

    I understand that the previous paragraph is not really a statement of physics (especially the part about being beyond existence and non-existence), but that is the way I think one might state it from an Advaitic viewpoint. So, I am not sure the symmetry-breaking concept applies to Nirguna Brahman as a potential physical theory. It can serve as an analogy though. Maybe, an analogy is what you were going for anyway.

    Kashmir shaivism

    Does KS allow for the possibility of NB breaking up in an irreversible way? That did not come up in my reading. The more I read about KS (the key word here is “about” for I have not read any KS source text in any form), the more it looks like the key difference with Advaita lies in the explanation for maya. KS says that Shakti is (almost?) as basic as Shiva. My understanding of Shakti is activity or action or energy or the physical universe. Shiva is awareness. That much is quite in sync with a theory that combines matter and consciousness in some way that is inherently dualistic. Advaita says the manifestation of the physical universe is brought about by ignorance of the truth. Energy, according to Advaita, would be more or less an illusion as it appears to awareness. In fact, I find usual Quantum Mechanical descriptions to be often non-contradictory with Advaita. In any case, that’s why I said I find KS to be different on “energy” lines. But it isn’t clear to me that KS claims that something broke up at some point, and stays broken.

    interaction argument

    Doesn’t the kind of recursive argument you mention about relationships between entities, work in favor of my point though? Either you get infinite regress or you get unity.

    integrality vs continuity

    I read your review of Meta Math. I haven’t read the book. But I don’t think the argument you reproduce there about the real line disproves the concept of a continuum in any way. If one superimposes a discrete model (numbers or points) on a continuous model (a conceptual straight line), one will get exactly that (the superimposition) as output, no matter how one tries to argue. So this seems more like a problem with the number theory language-game, so to speak, than anything else. But that does not prove or disprove the essence of either integrality or continuity. Sure, in the domain of physics, I will not be surprised if even space and time are shown to be discrete. After all, energy is supposed to go around in quanta, and Planck has his name on a length and a time, besides. But that still doesn’t prove anything about the possibility of a continuum. The argument just shows that if there is continuity anywhere, numbers can probably approximate it but never fully capture it.

    existence of mathematics

    Well, if the consensus is that these authors haven’t decided on whether mathematics truly exists or it doesn’t, that sort of suits my case for the moment. I think the burden of the proof of existence in this case rests on the mathematicians. :-)

    — Viraje

  13. Hi, I am reading this in between doing school planning so I haven’t digested your whole post…
    I think that Dennett didn’t make up the term mysterian; at least the mathematics writer Martin Gardner terms *himself* as a mysterian and implies that the term is in in general use for his view (which is your “yes” on 1).

  14. Nice going there, some straight copy-paste from,9171,1580394-2,00.html

    without reference.

  15. flip — can’t see what you are talking about. – Venkat

  16. I just ran across your blog for the first time today, and got drawn in by this post. Since I’m basically on the opposite side of this issue (my answer to your Question 1 is “no”), I thought it might be interesting to interject a few questions to clarify your point of view a little. Just a few–I tend to agree with you that, at this stage of our knowledge, there’s not a lot to be gained from a drawn-out debate between the two sides, since we just don’t know enough.

    That said, here are some quick questions:

    (1) What’s your definition of “consciousness”, and how do you know it exists in a given creature? For example: you say that dogs meet your definition of “conscious”. What is it about dogs that makes you say this? (I realize this probably seems obvious to you, but I still think it’s worth spelling out in a sentence or two.) Also, later on, you say that a slug rates 0.01 on the “consciousness scale”. How did you arrive at this number?

    (2) What muddy issue do you think the treatment of the Zombie problem in the Western Philosophy of Mind clarifies? (Yes, I’m not a totally naive questioner–I have my own well-informed opinion about WPoM’s treatment of the Zombie problem, but I want to hear a little more detail about yours.)

    (3) Why do you think knowledge about the fundamentals of mathematics is fundamental to the study of consciousness?

    Peter Donis