Pure Consciousness

The Reality of Consciousness

The word “consciousness” comes from the Latin root scio, which means “to know.” Consequently, consciousness can be defined as that abstract and mysterious something that has the potential to know.

Without consciousness there would be no knowledge at all—whether philosophical, religious, or scientific. In other words, knowledge is structured in consciousness. This is not a matter of debate. It is a matter of common experience.

However, there are two different perspectives about the reality of consciousness, which amount to fundamentally different paradigms, or ways of thinking, about the world.

The objective paradigm, which provides the basis for modern scientific thinking, suggests that everything that exists, including all forms of consciousness, arise from complex interactions among fundamental fields of force and matter.

From this perspective, consciousness is nothing fundamental to nature. It is a mere epiphenomenon produced in the brains and nervous systems of biological organisms.

The subjective paradigm, which provides the basis for ancient spiritual thinking, presents a very different view. It suggests that everything that exists, including all forms of force and matter, arise from complex interactions among fundamental fields of consciousness. In this case, the brain must be viewed as product of consciousness, and not the other way around.

The Field of Pure Consciousness

In the ancient wisdom traditions, the fundamental fields of consciousness were called the gods, and the unity of these fields was called God, the Supreme Being. Alternately, in some traditions, the fundamental fields of consciousness were called selves, and the unity of these fields was called the Supreme Self.

In both cases, the Supreme Being or the Supreme Self was viewed as the ultimate origin of creation—the one thing from which everything originates.
The Supreme Being or Supreme Self can thus be equated with an unbounded and all-pervading field of pure consciousness, which operates non-locally on the basis of self-conception and free will choice.

The field of pure consciousness can be understood as the subjective essence of the unified field, which acts as the ultimate origin of creation. It not only acts as the origin of all individual thoughts, but also all of the forms and phenomena in nature.

In Sanskrit the word for pure consciousness is chit. The ancient Vedic texts tell us that pure consciousness is capable of knowing itself, by itself, through itself alone. without any dependence upon the empirical world, and that all subject-object relations arise as mere vibrations of consciousness.

“This duality, which consists of subject and object, is a mere vibration of consciousness. Pure consciousness is ultimately objectless; hence, it is declared to be eternally without relations.” (Mandukya Karika IV.72)

In Greek pure consciousness is denoted by the term nous, a term that is often translated as “intellect” or “intelligence” or “mind.” However, Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, born about 500 BC, defined this term as follows:

“All other things partake in a portion of everything, while nous is infinite and self-ruled, and is mixed with nothing, but is alone, itself by itself. For if it were not by itself, but were mixed with anything else, it would partake in all things if it were mixed with any…For it is the thinnest of all things and the purest, and it has all knowledge about everything and the greatest strength; and nous has power over all things, both greater and smaller, that have soul.” (Anaxagoras, DK B 12, trans. by J. Burnet)

That which is infinite, self-ruled, and mixed with nothing but itself, is none other than the field of pure consciousness. That field, which is the one eternal Self of all beings, is also the omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent Ruler, the Supreme Being, who acts as the ultimate origin of all things by merely knowing itself—that is, by merely vibrating within itself.

This is the essential teaching of the perennial wisdom, which has been bestowed upon mankind by the divine messengers since time immemorial.

Empirical Consciousness and Pure Consciousness

To more fully understand this teaching a distinction must be drawn between two different types of consciousness and two distinct types of knowledge, which can be called empirical and pure.

Empirical consciousness refers to the type of consciousness whose knowledge is born of empirical experience. This can be called empirical knowledge. It pertains to the phenomenal forms of created existence that abide within the physical Cosmos.

Pure consciousness refers to the type of consciousness whose knowledge is born from pure intuition. This can be called pure knowledge. It pertains to the non-phenomenal forms of uncreated existence that abide within the metaphysical Logos.

Whereas empirical consciousness depends upon the created existence of the physical Cosmos, pure consciousness does not. The field of pure consciousness has the potential to know itself, by itself, through itself alone, whether the physical Cosmos exists or not.

When pure consciousness knows itself in the absence of the physical Cosmos, it conceives itself as the metaphysical Logos—the imperishable field of pure knowledge that underlies all things in creation.

Human Consciousness and Divine Consciousness

Human consciousness is a manifestation of the field of pure consciousness. It is but an expression of universal divine consciousness. Prior to enlightenment, human consciousness is restricted to empirical consciousness and the forms of empirical knowledge that are born from it.

To obtain the state of pure consciousness, one must transcend the process of thinking. One must transcend the activity of the mind, body, and senses and experience the underlying basis of the mind.

This can be compared to a wave settling down on the ocean. In this analogy, the wave corresponds to a thought. When a wave settles down in the ocean, it expands and becomes indistinguishable from the ocean.

Similarly, when a thought settles down in the mind, it expands and becomes indistinguishable from the unbounded field of pure consciousness, which lies at the basis of the mind, and is infinite and eternal.

By experiencing the field of pure consciousness, directly and intuitively, without any active involvement on the part of the individual mind and intellect, one comes to know the one eternal Self—which is the very essence of God, the Supreme Being. The Scriptures thus state:

“Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalms 46.10)

This type of Self-knowledge, rooted in pure consciousness, is called gnosis. Those who obtain it more closely resemble immortal gods than mortal men. In this regard, the Hermetic sages declared:

“These men got a share of gnosis; they received nous, and so became complete men…these, my son, in comparison with the others, are as immortal gods to mortal men. They embrace in their own mind all things that are, the things on earth and the things in heaven, and even what is above heaven, if there is aught above heaven, and raising themselves to that height, they see the Good….Such, my son, is the work that mind does; it throws open the way to knowledge of things divine, and enables us to apprehend God.” (Corpus Hermeticum, translated by Walter Scott, Shambala, 1993, p. 151-3)

This type of all-embracing knowledge (gnosis), rooted in the experience of pure consciousness (nous), is required to make the journey back Home. It is required to obtain the mystical visions of the starry heavens, and of what lies above the heavens, deep in the bosom of the infinite.

Before one can even begin the journey, one must come to know the Self—the universal field of pure consciousness that lies at the basis of the individual mind. The Self is the one thing by knowing which everything else becomes known, because it is the universal Knower.

Hence, we should seek to know the Self—by transcending thought and becoming one with the field of pure consciousness. That is the Portal to worlds unknown, horizons unseen, and possibilities undreamt.

BY Robert E. Cox


Pure Knowledge

The Definition of Pure Knowledge

Empirical knowledge is rooted in the vibrations of consciousness, which create a dichotomy between subject and object, or knower and known. Pure knowledge transcends this dichotomy.

Pure knowledge arises when the field of pure consciousness knows itself, by itself, through itself alone. It consists of the unity of knower, known, and process of knowing. Pure knowledge can thus be said to be a “three-in-one” reality.

It is one thing, which nevertheless has three aspects. Of these, the knower is of primary importance, while the known and the process of knowing are of secondary importance. This follows from the fact that without a knower, nothing whatsoever could be known.

The Definition of Veda

In the ancient Vedic tradition of India, the type of pure knowledge that arises when the field of pure consciousness knows itself, by itself, through itself alone, was called the Veda—a term that literally means “pure knowledge”. However, the traditional definition of Veda is given below:

“Veda is defined as Mantra and Brahmana.” (Apastamba Srauta Sutram 24.1.31)

Commenting on this traditional definition, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who is most widely known for teaching the practice of Transcendental Meditation around the world, but who was also a profound Vedic scholar and seer, explained:

“Mantras are the structures of pure knowledge,…Brahmanas are the internal dynamics of the structure of pure knowledge…Because Mantras and Brahmanas both together constitute the Veda, the word ‘Vedic’ is meaningful for both aspects of Veda—Mantra and Brahmana. (Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Introduction to Maharishi Vedic University.)

In this traditional definition, the knower is implied. It corresponds to the field of pure consciousness, which conceives its own structures and dynamics.

The knower and process of knowing, on the other hand, are spelled out. The known corresponds to the structures of pure knowledge, while the process of knowing corresponds to the internal dynamics of those structures. Pure knowledge, or Veda, is the unity of the three.

The Self as the Knower

The Veda represents the transcendental field of pure knowledge that is cognized by the Self, in the Self, and through the Self alone. This cognition extends from point to infinity in all directions.

This is because there are two aspects of the Self, which can be called the point-value of consciousness and the infinite-value of consciousness. In Sanskrit these two aspects of the Self are called the jiva (point-value) and the atman (infinite-value) respectively.

The jiva represents the individual self, while the atman represents the universal Self. The one eternal Self, otherwise known as the jiva-atamn, is the non-dual union of the two. It represents the non-dual union of the individual self (jiva) with the universal self (atman). In effect, the individual self merely provides an individual point of view for the universal self.

Even though the individual self has the form of an infinitesimal point, it nevertheless has the potential for infinity. It has the potential to realize its identity with the universal self.

“The jiva is extremely subtle like the point of a hair divided and subdivided many times, yet it has the potential for infinity. He (the jiva) should be realized (as the atman).” (Shvetashvatara Upanishad V.9)

When the jiva (individual self) realizes its identity with the atman (universal self), then it becomes the jiva-atman, which can be described as both “smaller than the smallest and bigger than the biggest”—simultaneously.

The Self and God

In this realization, one finds the essence of God, the Supreme Being, who acts as the source of innumerable jiva-atmans—or innumerable Selves.

Just as a ray of the sun can be reflected in a tiny mirror to give an impression of the sun, so also, a ray of the Supreme Being can be reflected in a tiny point to give an impression of God. In this sense, each jiva-atman, or each Self, can be viewed as a ray of God, the Supreme Being, whose omniscient awareness embraces innumerable such rays.

The Supreme Being can thus be described as the Supreme Self—who acts as the source of innumerable Selves, each of which presents a reflection of the whole, as experienced from an individual point of view.

Whereas the Supreme Being is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, the Self is not. It is limited in its knowledge, power, and presence. Nevertheless, each Self shares in the essence of God in the sense that it is endowed with a portion of God’s knowledge, power, and presence. Like the rays of light emanating from the sun, the rays of light reflected from a mirror have the potential to burn.

But the power to burn possessed by a mirror is much less than the power to burn possessed by the sun. Nevertheless, each Self, each enlightened soul, aspires to become like God. Each Self aspires to “grow up” to become like its Father.

This means that each Self aspires to grow in knowledge, power, and presence, by expanding its comprehension to embrace a larger and larger portion of all things that exist.

The ancient sages thus held that to know God, the enlightened soul must become like God, for like is known by like alone.

“If then you do not make yourself equal to God, you cannot apprehend God; for like is known by like. Leap clear of all that is corporeal, and make yourself grow to a like expanse with that greatness which is beyond all measure; rise above all time, and become eternal; then you will apprehend God…make yourself higher than all heights, and lower than all depths;…grasp in your thought all this at once, all times and places, all substances and qualities and magnitudes together; then you can apprehend God.” (Corpus Hermeticum, translated by Walter Scott, Shambala, 1993, p. 221.)

However, this aspiration is never-ending. No matter how all-embracing the soul might become, it will never become “equal” to God. No matter how much knowledge, power, and presence the enlightened soul might obtain, the reality of God, the Supreme Being will always be greater than that.

The quest for God-realization is thus endless. Nevertheless, at a certain point in the evolution of the soul, the distinction between God and the Self becomes a matter of metaphysical hair-splitting.

This hypothetical union between God and the Self is achieved when the soul develops the ability to comprehend all that exists in the created universe, as well as that which lies far beyond the created universe, in the bosom of the infinite. That is the goal of the path of immortality, which can also be understood as the path of gnosis—the path of pure knowledge.

The Divine Messengers as Fully Realized Immortal Souls

Those great souls who have achieved that goal, and who thus manifest the glory of God in their presence, more closely resemble immortal gods than mortal men.

That is the status of the divine messengers. They are fully realized immortal souls, who have the ability to ascend and descend the divine ladder at will.

Although the divine messengers possess glorious spiritual bodies, which are invisible to our physical eyes, they also have the ability to incarnate into any physical body. Whether they remain in their spiritual bodies, or incarnate into a physical body, depends upon the nature of their mission, as well as the time and circumstances associated with it.

With respect to human beings like us, the essence of that mission is always the same—to reawaken in human consciousness the light of pure knowledge and lay out the path that leads back Home, to the abode of immortality deep in the bosom of the infinite.

The Crystalline Structure of Pure Knowledge

When one obtains gnosis, by realizing the Self, then one experiences the non-dual union of point and infinity—as well as the unity of knower, known, and process of knowing. It is only then that the “structures” of pure knowledge become cognized.

These structures are transparent crystalline forms of pure intelligence, which exist between point and infinity. The ancient sages thus declared:

“When mental activity disappears, then knower, knowing and known become merged one into another, (and display the form of) a transparent crystal, which assumes the appearance of that upon which it rests.” (Pantanjali Yoga Sutras I.41.)

The crystalline structure of pure knowledge rests upon and within the unbounded continuum of pure consciousness. Because both are transparent, the crystalline structure assumes the appearance of that upon which it rests—namely, the unbounded continuum.

This crystalline structure represents the “ideal form” of the Self, which serves as the “rational” basis of creation. It is the thing that is known, when the field of pure consciousness knows itself, by itself, through itself alone.

The crystalline structure of pure knowledge travels with the enlightened soul—the awakened point-value of consciousness—wherever it goes. It constitutes the “discrete” or “rational” form of the Self, which can be described as the immortal body of the Self.

In the Vedic tradition, this immortal crystalline body was called the vajra-deha—the diamond-body, because it resembles a flawless, transparent diamond. The immortal diamond-body is not a created form of existence. It eternally exists as the ideal and self-referral form of the Self, and all souls, no matter what their status, possess diamond-bodies, whether they are aware of it or not.

With respect to the category of space, all jivas (individual selves) possess crystalline forms of pure existence, which are but categorical appearances of the atman (the universal self). The sages thus declared:

“Since the atman appears in the form of jivas in the same way that space appears in the form of space-cells, which are composite things like jars, therefore with respect to categorical appearance this is the illustration (to be taught). (Mandukya Karika III.3.)

These “space-cells” are actually “crystallographic cells”. They play the same role with respect to the immortal diamond-body, as do biological cells with respect to the mortal physical body. Just as each biological cell contains the structure of DNA, which encodes the blueprint of the mortal physical body, so also, each crystallographic cell contains the structure of pure intelligence, which encodes the blueprint of the immortal diamond-body.

In the final analysis, this represents the unmanifest blueprint of creation, which is cognized by every enlightened soul as that which is “known” in the Self. With this cognition, mortality becomes clothed with immortality, and victory over death is achieved—all in accordance with the Scriptures:

“When our mortality has been clothed with immortality, then the saying of the Scripture will come true: “Death has been swallowed up; victory is won! O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?” (First Corinthians, 54-56.)

Upon realizing the immortal diamond-body, the soul becomes equipped with the vehicle—the merkabah, or divine throne-chariot—which is capable of ascending and descending the divine ladder, while maintaining its ideal and archetypal form at each stage of ascent and descent.

The Spherical Dynamics of Pure Knowledge

In addition to the Self, which serves as the knower, and the crystalline structure of pure knowledge, which serves as the known, there are also the spherical dynamics of pure knowledge, which serve as the process of knowing.

These dynamics consist of ten spherically symmetric wave fields, centered on each and every point-value of consciousness. These wave fields constitute the ten life-breaths of the immortal soul. In the Vedic tradition these were called the ten pranas, each of which was assigned a name based upon its particular function.

“Prana, Apana, Vyana, Udana, Samana, Naga, Kurma, Krikara, Devadatta, and Dhananjaya are the ten pranas.” (Bhavana Upanishad 17.)

These are not physical wave fields. They are metaphysical wave fields—literally wave fields of pure consciousness.

The waves of consciousness do not travel locally at the speed of light. Rather, they travel non-locally at the speed of thought—which can exceed the speed of light by many orders of magnitude.

These waves, which collectively represent the process of knowing possessed by each enlightened soul, uphold the communion of souls throughout the vast realms of creation, and even beyond creation.

This communion is pure harmony—the music of the spheres. It makes manifest the essence of divine Love, and unites all things into a single harmonious whole.

All enlightened souls share in this harmony, for they are all but rays of the one Supreme Being, and are united one with the other, and with the Supreme Being, through the agency of Love—the agency of divine relationship. The Hermetic sages thus declared:

“Among those that dwell in that world above, there is no disagreement; all have one purpose; there is one mind, one feeling in them all; for the spell which binds them one to another is Love, the same in all, and by it all are wrought together into one harmonious whole.” (Hermetica, translated by Walter Scott, Shambala, 1985, p. 281.)

In effect, the waves of consciousness are what bring the field of pure consciousness to life. As vibrations of consciousness, they uphold the relations between subject and object, or knower and known. However, when these relations are cognized on the level of pure consciousness, they are subsumed in unity—such that the relations become virtual.

The virtual relations among the diverse souls in creation, which share in the experience of non-local unity, presents the very meaning of the term “uni-verse”—that is, unity in diversity.

The Two Types of Gnosis

There are actually two types of gnosis obtained by the enlightened soul. The first type, which reveals the transparent crystalline structure of pure knowledge, is devoid of all the qualities of the senses.

It represents an abstract form of pure intuition, which reveals the unity of all things directly and immediately, without any intermediate mental or sensory representation.

In the Vedic tradition this type of gnosis was called jnana (pronounced as “gyana”), which is derived from the verbal root jna = to know.

The second type of gnosis, which reveals the dynamics of pure knowledge, is filled with all the qualities of the senses.

This represents a visionary form of pure intuition, which reveals the diversity of all things, by means of mental and sensory representations.

In the Vedic tradition, this type of gnosis was called vidya, which is derived from the verbal root vid = to see.

Both words mean “pure knowledge”, corresponding to the Greek term gnosis, and both types of pure knowledge are obtained on the basis of pure consciousness. It is just that one is devoid of the qualities of sense, while the other is filled with the qualities of sense.

Mystical Visions of the Cosmos

Both types of pure knowledge are involved in the mystical visions of the Cosmos, which are obtained as the soul ascends and descends the divine ladder.

By means of jnana, the soul apprehends the underlying unity of all things, along with the abstract and transparent crystalline structures of pure knowledge, and by means of vidya, the soul apprehends the virtual diversity of all things, endowed with all the qualities of the senses.

However, the “qualities of the senses” cognized in this manner do not inhere in the physical organs of sense. Rather, they inhere in the Self—the field of pure consciousness.

Because the Self is all-pervading, that is, because it extends from point to infinity, it can be said to have heads, eyes, ears, etc. everywhere. But these are not physical organs of knowledge and perception. They are simply the modes of knowing, seeing, hearing, etc. that are inherent within the Self—that is, within the field of pure consciousness.

Regarding this extraordinary type of knowledge and perception there is the following Vedic passage:

“Its hands and feet are everywhere, its eyes and head are everywhere, its ears are everywhere, it stands encompassing all in the world. Separate from all the senses, yet reflecting the qualities of all the senses, it is the Lord and ruler of all, it is the great refuge of all….Grasping without hands, moving without feet, (the Self) sees without eyes, hears without ears. He knows what can be known, but no one knows him.” (Svetashvatara Upanishad II.16-19.)

By virtue of such extraordinary means of knowledge and perception the enlightened soul has the potential to “know” and “see” what is there at a far distance in the heavens, while remaining here on earth.

Contrary to what many might believe, the enlightened soul has the potential to mount the divine ladder and ascend into the heavens, while its physical body remains here on earth.

In other words, it is not necessary to physical die in order to ascend the divine ladder. It can be done here, even while alive on earth. The Hermetic sages thus explained:

“Man ascends even to heaven, and measures it; and what is more than all beside, he mounts to heaven without quitting the earth; to so vast a distance can he put forth his power. We must not shrink then from saying that a man on earth is a mortal god, and that a god in heaven is an immortal man.” (Hermetica, translated by Walter Scott, Shambala. 1985, p.205)

This is the mystical journey that every human soul is destined to take—either in this life or another. Even if the journey is not completed in the short span of a human life on earth, nothing is lost. When the physical body drops away, the soul retains whatever stage has been achieved, and continues on its way.
Although the journey has a well-defined end, far beyond the boundaries of the finite universe, in truth it is never-ending—for no matter how much knowledge, power, and presence the soul might obtain, the omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent reality of God will always be greater than that.

by Robert E. Cox

The Brain: The Mystery of Consciousness By Steven Pinker

The young women had survived the car crash, after a fashion. In the five months since parts of her brain had been crushed, she could open her eyes but didn’t respond to sights, sounds or jabs. In the jargon of neurology, she was judged to be in a persistent vegetative state. In crueler everyday language, she was a vegetable.

So picture the astonishment of British and Belgian scientists as they scanned her brain using a kind of MRI that detects blood flow to active parts of the brain. When they recited sentences, the parts involved in language lit up. When they asked her to imagine visiting the rooms of her house, the parts involved in navigating space and recognizing places ramped up. And when they asked her to imagine playing tennis, the regions that trigger motion joined in. Indeed, her scans were barely different from those of healthy volunteers. The woman, it appears, had glimmerings of consciousness.

Try to comprehend what it is like to be that woman. Do you appreciate the words and caresses of your distraught family while racked with frustration at your inability to reassure them that they are getting through? Or do you drift in a haze, springing to life with a concrete thought when a voice prods you, only to slip back into blankness? If we could experience this existence, would we prefer it to death? And if these questions have answers, would they change our policies toward unresponsive patients–making the Terri Schiavo case look like child’s play?

The report of this unusual case last September was just the latest shock from a bracing new field, the science of consciousness. Questions once confined to theological speculations and late-night dorm-room bull sessions are now at the forefront of cognitive neuroscience. With some problems, a modicum of consensus has taken shape. With others, the puzzlement is so deep that they may never be resolved. Some of our deepest convictions about what it means to be human have been shaken.

It shouldn’t be surprising that research on consciousness is alternately exhilarating and disturbing. No other topic is like it. As René Descartes noted, our own consciousness is the most indubitable thing there is. The major religions locate it in a soul that survives the body’s death to receive its just deserts or to meld into a global mind. For each of us, consciousness is life itself, the reason Woody Allen said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it by not dying.” And the conviction that other people can suffer and flourish as each of us does is the essence of empathy and the foundation of morality.

To make scientific headway in a topic as tangled as consciousness, it helps to clear away some red herrings. Consciousness surely does not depend on language. Babies, many animals and patients robbed of speech by brain damage are not insensate robots; they have reactions like ours that indicate that someone’s home. Nor can consciousness be equated with self-awareness. At times we have all lost ourselves in music, exercise or sensual pleasure, but that is different from being knocked out cold.


WHAT REMAINS IS NOT ONE PROBLEM ABOUT CONSCIOUSNESS BUT two, which the philosopher David Chalmers has dubbed the Easy Problem and the Hard Problem. Calling the first one easy is an in-joke: it is easy in the sense that curing cancer or sending someone to Mars is easy. That is, scientists more or less know what to look for, and with enough brainpower and funding, they would probably crack it in this century.

What exactly is the Easy Problem? It’s the one that Freud made famous, the difference between conscious and unconscious thoughts. Some kinds of information in the brain–such as the surfaces in front of you, your daydreams, your plans for the day, your pleasures and peeves–are conscious. You can ponder them, discuss them and let them guide your behavior. Other kinds, like the control of your heart rate, the rules that order the words as you speak and the sequence of muscle contractions that allow you to hold a pencil, are unconscious. They must be in the brain somewhere because you couldn’t walk and talk and see without them, but they are sealed off from your planning and reasoning circuits, and you can’t say a thing about them.

The Easy Problem, then, is to distinguish conscious from unconscious mental computation, identify its correlates in the brain and explain why it evolved.

The Hard Problem, on the other hand, is why it feels like something to have a conscious process going on in one’s head–why there is first-person, subjective experience. Not only does a green thing look different from a red thing, remind us of other green things and inspire us to say, “That’s green” (the Easy Problem), but it also actually looks green: it produces an experience of sheer greenness that isn’t reducible to anything else. As Louis Armstrong said in response to a request to define jazz, “When you got to ask what it is, you never get to know.”

The Hard Problem is explaining how subjective experience arises from neural computation. The problem is hard because no one knows what a solution might look like or even whether it is a genuine scientific problem in the first place. And not surprisingly, everyone agrees that the hard problem (if it is a problem) remains a mystery.

Although neither problem has been solved, neuroscientists agree on many features of both of them, and the feature they find least controversial is the one that many people outside the field find the most shocking. Francis Crick called it “the astonishing hypothesis”–the idea that our thoughts, sensations, joys and aches consist entirely of physiological activity in the tissues of the brain. Consciousness does not reside in an ethereal soul that uses the brain like a PDA; consciousness is the activity of the brain.


SCIENTISTS HAVE EXORCISED THE GHOST FROM THE MACHINE NOT because they are mechanistic killjoys but because they have amassed evidence that every aspect of consciousness can be tied to the brain. Using functional MRI, cognitive neuroscientists can almost read people’s thoughts from the blood flow in their brains. They can tell, for instance, whether a person is thinking about a face or a place or whether a picture the person is looking at is of a bottle or a shoe.

And consciousness can be pushed around by physical manipulations. Electrical stimulation of the brain during surgery can cause a person to have hallucinations that are indistinguishable from reality, such as a song playing in the room or a childhood birthday party. Chemicals that affect the brain, from caffeine and alcohol to Prozac and LSD, can profoundly alter how people think, feel and see. Surgery that severs the corpus callosum, separating the two hemispheres (a treatment for epilepsy), spawns two consciousnesses within the same skull, as if the soul could be cleaved in two with a knife.

And when the physiological activity of the brain ceases, as far as anyone can tell the person’s consciousness goes out of existence. Attempts to contact the souls of the dead (a pursuit of serious scientists a century ago) turned up only cheap magic tricks, and near death experiences are not the eyewitness reports of a soul parting company from the body but symptoms of oxygen starvation in the eyes and brain. In September, a team of Swiss neuroscientists reported that they could turn out-of-body experiences on and off by stimulating the part of the brain in which vision and bodily sensations converge.


ANOTHER STARTLING CONCLUSION FROM the science of consciousness is that the intuitive feeling we have that there’s an executive “I” that sits in a control room of our brain, scanning the screens of the senses and pushing the buttons of the muscles, is an illusion. Consciousness turns out to consist of a maelstrom of events distributed across the brain. These events compete for attention, and as one process outshouts the others, the brain rationalizes the outcome after the fact and concocts the impression that a single self was in charge all along.

Take the famous cognitive-dissonance experiments. When an experimenter got people to endure electric shocks in a sham experiment on learning, those who were given a good rationale (“It will help scientists understand learning”) rated the shocks as more painful than the ones given a feeble rationale (“We’re curious.”) Presumably, it’s because the second group would have felt foolish to have suffered for no good reason. Yet when these people were asked why they agreed to be shocked, they offered bogus reasons of their own in all sincerity, like “I used to mess around with radios and got used to electric shocks.”

It’s not only decisions in sketchy circumstances that get rationalized but also the texture of our immediate experience. We all feel we are conscious of a rich and detailed world in front of our eyes. Yet outside the dead center of our gaze, vision is amazingly coarse. Just try holding your hand a few inches from your line of sight and counting your fingers. And if someone removed and reinserted an object every time you blinked (which experimenters can simulate by flashing two pictures in rapid sequence), you would be hard pressed to notice the change. Ordinarily, our eyes flit from place to place, alighting on whichever object needs our attention on a need-to-know basis. This fools us into thinking that wall-to-wall detail was there all along–an example of how we overestimate the scope and power of our own consciousness.

Our authorship of voluntary actions can also be an illusion, the result of noticing a correlation between what we decide and how our bodies move. The psychologist Dan Wegner studied the party game in which a subject is seated in front of a mirror while someone behind him extends his arms under the subject’s armpits and moves his arms around, making it look as if the subject is moving his own arms. If the subject hears a tape telling the person behind him how to move (wave, touch the subject’s nose and so on), he feels as if he is actually in command of the arms.

The brain’s spin doctoring is displayed even more dramatically in neurological conditions in which the healthy parts of the brain explain away the foibles of the damaged parts (which are invisible to the self because they are part of the self). A patient who fails to experience a visceral click of recognition when he sees his wife but who acknowledges that she looks and acts just like her deduces that she is an amazingly well-trained impostor. A patient who believes he is at home and is shown the hospital elevator says without missing a beat, “You wouldn’t believe what it cost us to have that installed.”

Why does consciousness exist at all, at least in the Easy Problem sense in which some kinds of information are accessible and others hidden? One reason is information overload. Just as a person can be overwhelmed today by the gusher of data coming in from electronic media, decision circuits inside the brain would be swamped if every curlicue and muscle twitch that was registered somewhere in the brain were constantly being delivered to them. Instead, our working memory and spotlight of attention receive executive summaries of the events and states that are most relevant to updating an understanding of the world and figuring out what to do next. The cognitive psychologist Bernard Baars likens consciousness to a global blackboard on which brain processes post their results and monitor the results of the others.


A SECOND REASON THAT INFORMATION MAY BE SEALED OFF FROM consciousness is strategic. Evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers has noted that people have a motive to sell themselves as beneficent, rational, competent agents. The best propagandist is the one who believes his own lies, ensuring that he can’t leak his deceit through nervous twitches or self-contradictions. So the brain might have been shaped to keep compromising data away from the conscious processes that govern our interaction with other people. At the same time, it keeps the data around in unconscious processes to prevent the person from getting too far out of touch with reality.

What about the brain itself? You might wonder how scientists could even begin to find the seat of awareness in the cacophony of a hundred billion jabbering neurons. The trick is to see what parts of the brain change when a person’s consciousness flips from one experience to another. In one technique, called binocular rivalry, vertical stripes are presented to the left eye, horizontal stripes to the right. The eyes compete for consciousness, and the person sees vertical stripes for a few seconds, then horizontal stripes, and so on.

A low-tech way to experience the effect yourself is to look through a paper tube at a white wall with your right eye and hold your left hand in front of your left eye. After a few seconds, a white hole in your hand should appear, then disappear, then reappear.

Monkeys experience binocular rivalry. They can learn to press a button every time their perception flips, while their brains are impaled with electrodes that record any change in activity. Neuroscientist Nikos Logothetis found that the earliest way stations for visual input in the back of the brain barely budged as the monkeys’ consciousness flipped from one state to another. Instead, it was a region that sits further down the information stream and that registers coherent shapes and objects that tracks the monkeys’ awareness. Now this doesn’t mean that this place on the underside of the brain is the TV screen of consciousness. What it means, according to a theory by Crick and his collaborator Christof Koch, is that consciousness resides only in the “higher” parts of the brain that are connected to circuits for emotion and decision making, just what one would expect from the blackboard metaphor.


CONSCIOUSNESS IN THE BRAIN CAN BE TRACKED NOT JUST IN SPACE but also in time. Neuroscientists have long known that consciousness depends on certain frequencies of oscillation in the electroencephalograph (EEG). These brain waves consist of loops of activation between the cortex (the wrinkled surface of the brain) and the thalamus (the cluster of hubs at the center that serve as input-output relay stations). Large, slow, regular waves signal a coma, anesthesia or a dreamless sleep; smaller, faster, spikier ones correspond to being awake and alert. These waves are not like the useless hum from a noisy appliance but may allow consciousness to do its job in the brain. They may bind the activity in far-flung regions (one for color, another for shape, a third for motion) into a coherent conscious experience, a bit like radio transmitters and receivers tuned to the same frequency. Sure enough, when two patterns compete for awareness in a binocular-rivalry display, the neurons representing the eye that is “winning” the competition oscillate in synchrony, while the ones representing the eye that is suppressed fall out of synch.

So neuroscientists are well on the way to identifying the neural correlates of consciousness, a part of the Easy Problem. But what about explaining how these events actually cause consciousness in the sense of inner experience–the Hard Problem?


TO APPRECIATE THE HARDNESS OF THE HARD PROBLEM, CONSIDER how you could ever know whether you see colors the same way that I do. Sure, you and I both call grass green, but perhaps you see grass as having the color that I would describe, if I were in your shoes, as purple. Or ponder whether there could be a true zombie–a being who acts just like you or me but in whom there is no self actually feeling anything. This was the crux of a Star Trek plot in which officials wanted to reverse-engineer Lieut. Commander Data, and a furious debate erupted as to whether this was merely dismantling a machine or snuffing out a sentient life.

No one knows what to do with the Hard Problem. Some people may see it as an opening to sneak the soul back in, but this just relabels the mystery of “consciousness” as the mystery of “the soul”–a word game that provides no insight.

Many philosophers, like Daniel Dennett, deny that the Hard Problem exists at all. Speculating about zombies and inverted colors is a waste of time, they say, because nothing could ever settle the issue one way or another. Anything you could do to understand consciousness–like finding out what wavelengths make people see green or how similar they say it is to blue, or what emotions they associate with it–boils down to information processing in the brain and thus gets sucked back into the Easy Problem, leaving nothing else to explain. Most people react to this argument with incredulity because it seems to deny the ultimate undeniable fact: our own experience.

The most popular attitude to the Hard Problem among neuroscientists is that it remains unsolved for now but will eventually succumb to research that chips away at the Easy Problem. Others are skeptical about this cheery optimism because none of the inroads into the Easy Problem brings a solution to the Hard Problem even a bit closer. Identifying awareness with brain physiology, they say, is a kind of “meat chauvinism” that would dogmatically deny consciousness to Lieut. Commander Data just because he doesn’t have the soft tissue of a human brain. Identifying it with information processing would go too far in the other direction and grant a simple consciousness to thermostats and calculators–a leap that most people find hard to stomach. Some mavericks, like the mathematician Roger Penrose, suggest the answer might someday be found in quantum mechanics. But to my ear, this amounts to the feeling that quantum mechanics sure is weird, and consciousness sure is weird, so maybe quantum mechanics can explain consciousness.

And then there is the theory put forward by philosopher Colin McGinn that our vertigo when pondering the Hard Problem is itself a quirk of our brains. The brain is a product of evolution, and just as animal brains have their limitations, we have ours. Our brains can’t hold a hundred numbers in memory, can’t visualize seven-dimensional space and perhaps can’t intuitively grasp why neural information processing observed from the outside should give rise to subjective experience on the inside. This is where I place my bet, though I admit that the theory could be demolished when an unborn genius–a Darwin or Einstein of consciousness–comes up with a flabbergasting new idea that suddenly makes it all clear to us.

Whatever the solutions to the Easy and Hard problems turn out to be, few scientists doubt that they will locate consciousness in the activity of the brain. For many nonscientists, this is a terrifying prospect. Not only does it strangle the hope that we might survive the death of our bodies, but it also seems to undermine the notion that we are free agents responsible for our choices–not just in this lifetime but also in a life to come. In his millennial essay “Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died,” Tom Wolfe worried that when science has killed the soul, “the lurid carnival that will ensue may make the phrase ‘the total eclipse of all values’ seem tame.”


MY OWN VIEW IS THAT THIS IS backward: the biology of consciousness offers a sounder basis for morality than the unprovable dogma of an immortal soul. It’s not just that an understanding of the physiology of consciousness will reduce human suffering through new treatments for pain and depression. That understanding can also force us to recognize the interests of other beings–the core of morality.

As every student in Philosophy 101 learns, nothing can force me to believe that anyone except me is conscious. This power to deny that other people have feelings is not just an academic exercise but an all-too-common vice, as we see in the long history of human cruelty. Yet once we realize that our own consciousness is a product of our brains and that other people have brains like ours, a denial of other people’s sentience becomes ludicrous. “Hath not a Jew eyes?” asked Shylock. Today the question is more pointed: Hath not a Jew–or an Arab, or an African, or a baby, or a dog–a cerebral cortex and a thalamus? The undeniable fact that we are all made of the same neural flesh makes it impossible to deny our common capacity to suffer.

And when you think about it, the doctrine of a life-to-come is not such an uplifting idea after all because it necessarily devalues life on earth. Just remember the most famous people in recent memory who acted in expectation of a reward in the hereafter: the conspirators who hijacked the airliners on 9/11.

Think, too, about why we sometimes remind ourselves that “life is short.” It is an impetus to extend a gesture of affection to a loved one, to bury the hatchet in a pointless dispute, to use time productively rather than squander it. I would argue that nothing gives life more purpose than the realization that every moment of consciousness is a precious and fragile gift.

Steven Pinker is Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard and the author of The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate

1. The Final Event: Dawn of the Age of Truth 2.The Elixir of Immortality 3. Creating the Soul Body by Robert Cox

Robert Cox’s The Final Event provides major new insight into the timing and significance of the momentous events beginning now to unfold on planet earth at this most crucial period of human history. Based upon his own intuitive cognitions, the author ties together prophetic indicators derived from the Vedic, Egyptian, Christian, Greek, Judaic, and Mayan traditions to develop a predictive historical model, which spans the last 13,000 years and, for the first time, connects the Precession of the Equinoxes with the cyclic unfolding of the four Ages of Man.

The model accurately pinpoints, describes, and aligns the cultural and spiritual character of historical periods and points to June 2009 as the end of the current cycle of Ages and the beginning of the next. The author predicts that this date will mark the beginning of the 42-month period indicated in The Apocalypse of St. John, when all of humanity will traverse the Valley of the Shadow of Death making our way toward a new Golden Age, or Age of Truth.

Like most birth processes, this global transformation is likely to be traumatic, and the author supplies advice on how to prepare for it physically and spiritually. Nevertheless, he argues that this risky and challenging passage will provide the greatest opportunity for transcendence ever offered to humanity, and he advises us how to take advantage of this opportunity through ego-mastery and meditation. The model predicts that the 42-month transition period, which marks the time of Tribulation, will end on December 21, 2012, when the light of the new Golden Age will first be see

Robert E. Cox holds a Master’s degree in Vedic Studies from the Institute of Creative Intelligence in Switzerland. For nine years he lived as a reclusive monk, during which time he received intuitive cognitions regarding the structure and dynamics of consciousness that inspired his research. He is the author of The Pillar of Celestial Fire, The Elixir of Immortality, and Creating the Soul Body, and he lives in Arizona.

About The Elixir of Immortality
A modern-day quest that echoes the ancient alchemists’ work to discover the elixir of life

• Provides an overview of alchemical practices in the ancient world–from Europe to China

• Reveals the alchemical secrets for creating this elixir in clear scientific language

In 1989, while attempting to extract precious minerals from his property, a wealthy Arizonan obtained a mysterious white material that initially defied scientific attempts to identify it. After several years of testing, this substance was revealed to consist of gold and platinum–but in a form unknown to modern science. Further research showed that this powder, which had also been discovered to possess marvelous healing powers, contained monatomic forms of precious metals whose electron units had been altered to no longer display the physical, chemical, or electrical properties of the original elements. This substance, Robert Cox shows, bears eerie resemblance to the ultimate quest of the alchemists: the elixir of immortality.

The mysterious material-spiritual science of alchemy was once pervasive throughout the ancient world, spanning the globe from China and India to Egypt and medieval Europe. In The Elixir of Immortality, Robert Cox reviews the alchemical lore of these traditions and the procedures each used to produce this fabulous elixir. Using his own alchemical research, Cox then reveals secrets that have been kept hidden for millennia uncovered in his own modern-day quest to rediscover this long-sought elixir of life.

About Creating the Soul Body
Outlines the principles and mechanics of the soul body, the spiritual vehicle that enables individual consciousness to survive the body’s death

• Shows that the ancient Vedic, Egyptian, Hebraic, and Pythagorean traditions shared and understood this spiritual practice

• Reveals modern science as only now awakening to this ancient sacred science

Ancient peoples the world over understood that individual consciousness is rooted in a universal field of consciousness and is therefore eternal, surviving the passing of the physical body. They engaged in spiritual practices to make that transition maximally auspicious. These practices can be described as a kind of alchemy, in which base elements are discarded and higher levels of consciousness are realized. The result is the creation of a vehicle, a soul body, that carries consciousness beyond physical death.

These spiritual preparations are symbolized in the Vedic, Egyptian, and Hebraic traditions as a divine stairway or ladder, a step-by-step path of ascent in which the practitioner raises consciousness by degrees until it comes to rest in the bosom of the infinite, thereby becoming “immortal.” This spiritual process explains the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, for example, whose reincarnation is confirmed in infancy through physical and spiritual signs, indicating that the consciousness has been carried from one lifetime to the next.

In Creating the Soul Body, Robert Cox maps the spiritual journey of consciousness behind this sacred science of immortality and reveals the practice of creating a soul body in detail. He also shows that this ancient spiritual science resembles advanced theories of modern science, such as wave and particle theory and the unified field theory, and reveals that modern science is only now awakening to this ancient science of “immortality.”

%d bloggers like this: