Science, metaphysics and the problem of defining consciousness
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
A FEW SUMMERS AGO, my grandmother passed away in her eighties. In her last days, she often curled up, like a comma at the end of a long-winded sentence, leaving much of her bed unoccupied. She lay there alone, often looking weary and forlorn, with the whirr of her old table-fan offering up a metronomic score in the faithful manner it had for decades. Under the glare of the bedside lamp, her skin appeared like a pale covering that sought to hide an embroidered latticework of blue veins. From her bed, she would have noticed on some occasion that the household, which she once ruled with an iron fist, now throbbed with activity and noise without any need for her. On the day I was there, her children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces, friends and other villagers had gathered, ostensibly in her name, but I suspect they simply wanted an occasion to meet, exchange consolations and commiserate over heartbreak. All the while as the melee in the kitchen and verandah proliferated, the air from the fan’s whir swooped the edges of her grey hair which, like algae caught in a beachside storm, swerved to a rhythm that I watched in quiet. Every so often, somewhere outside, a child fell and cried, somebody else was laughing, and the fragrance of cardamom and black pepper from the kitchen wandered from room to room. All the while, she lay there, like leaves strewn about in a temple abandoned by its devotees, with little use for the world or its festivities. After 82 years of life, which had withstood the pain of childbirth nine times and the heartbreak of numerous deaths, she had decided that there was no use for her body and mind. I write that “she had decided” imbuing her with a form of agency, but the fact is she had little to say. “Alzheimer’s, dementia”: my mother had told me a couple of years ago on our way to see my grandmother. Her voice had lowered then as she huttered those words, as if she were sharing an unspeakable secret. The act of remembering is the currency we—individuals, societies, civilisations—transact in and my grandmother had gone bankrupt.
In those early years of her Alzheimer’s, her old self had flashed more often. Over time, like some opportunistic mercenary army, the legions of her neurons had switched sides. With their fealty now surrendered, not to memory but to self-annihilation, they had begun to press outwards. Furiously, ferociously. They proceeded methodically, patiently, destroying an enzyme here, a synapse there, till their imperium of nothingness was all there was. A mind without mental states. During her years of decline, she had become the ephemera of shifting allegiances, loyal to none, in search of nothing, just a free-floating locus of being for whom the distinctions between the past and the present did not matter. In those years, she had begun talking to her husband, my grandfather, about the upcoming festival at our village temple. Only he had been dead for more than six years. Her conversations with my dead grandfather were a unique record, an anthropological first-person account of experiences that sidestepped commonplace conventions of time and space. Her chronicles began before electricity arrived in Indian homes, before Radio Ceylon streamed Tamil film music, before the age when Jawaharlal Nehru straddled India ‘like Samudragupta’, and incredibly, before she was born. She confused herself for her long dead grandaunt and from there on began her own stories of creation. Her mind had begun to break free—or, was permanently exiled—from the taxonomies ordained by Panini to make sense of that vast and inchoate thing we call the past: as bhuta—“in the past”; as anadyatane—“with non-present day time reference”; and as parokshane—“outside the view”. In retrospect, the steady change of her words from a complex and tense-inflected river-in-flood language to an injunctive-laden and tenseless stream-in-drought trickle should have instructed me of the vivid and mysterious links between consciousness and language even if my observations wouldn’t have been an original insight. At least for two millennia, there have been schools of Indian thought—from the Buddhists under Dignāga and Dharmakirti to the Shaivite Kashmiri Pratyabhijñā savants, such as Utpaladeva and Abhinavagupta—who have debated some version of this statement written by Bhartrhari in the Vakyapadiya: “In the world, there is no cognition without the pervasion of language. All knowledge shines as if pierced by language.” But, like my grandmother, in some sense, I too had begun to lose my abilities to think about what was unfolding and instead of being an analyst or an interlocutor, I became a steady witness to her decline. And so I watched every summer vacation her metamorphosis from a loquacious person who spoke freely to a silent and hermetic presence whose occasional utterances were, like some old Rig Vedic grammatical structures, unmarked by tense or mode. Her body became the injunctive for us to offer her care but what lay beyond that responsibility was indiscernible. Since her death, every so often I have wondered if my grandfather answered back in her mind. Who could know? Not even her.
My grandmother confused herself for her long dead grandaunt and from there began her own stories of creation. Her mind had begun to break free—or, was permanently exiled—from the taxonomies ordained by Panini to make sense of that vast and inchoate thing we call the past: as bhuta—‘in the past’; as anadyatane—‘with non-present day time reference’; and as parokshane—‘outside the view’
THE BRAIN IS an improbable fistful of muscle wherein unexpected correlations are often the norm. To describe it or its various allied phenomena and properties—we could call it “mind”, “self”, or “soul”—humans have often relied on an assortment of metaphors which have their own journeys. Thus we see the idea of Indra’s net (“brihaddhi jaalam brihat shakrasya vajirnivatah…”), which appears as a world snaring instrument of conquest in the Atharva Veda, recast within millennia, by the time of Huayan Buddhism in 3rd-5th century China, into a concatenation of knots where each node is a receptacle of reflections—thus creating an infinite cascade of infinite reflections. By 1665, we see European biologists like Nicolas Steno (from Denmark) tell a group of fellow researchers that the brain should be viewed as a machine—a metaphor that has only grown in strength over time. But, ironically, in more recent times, the more we learn about the brain the more we realise that these metaphors have run their course and the complexity of brains has brought to fore fundamental questions about computability, consciousness, and correlations. Rudimentary efforts to draw up a map of a 10,000-cell brain in a maggot have, according to Matthew Cobb in a fascinating new book on the brain, seemingly run aground in the face of complexity.
The strangest thing about the brain, however, is not its complexity or that it thinks about the universe, the atoms, beauty, ugliness, love, or war but that, as the neuroscientist VS Ramachandran reminds us, it thinks about itself thinking. (In the vast corpus of Indian philosophical thought, this idea of recursive awareness appears in various forms and is described as svasamvedana.) To a large extent, this ability to self-refer, to recognise that a process of computation and recognition is underway is what makes the brain and its emergent accoutrements, such as consciousness, different from other sophisticated signal processing devices. Over centuries, these have in turn precipitated questions like: Where does consciousness emerge from? How does it proliferate across a lifetime? These are simple and natural questions to ask. The answers, however, are large-spirited, multidimensional and elusive.
The brain is an improbable fistful of muscle wherein unexpected correlations are often the norm. To describe it humans have often relied on metaphors. Thus we see the idea of Indra’s net recast into a concatenation of knots where each node is a receptacle of reflections—thus creating an infinite cascade of infinite reflections
It is large-spirited because to uncover the mechanisms of consciousness may very well reveal that the mental state of all sentient life is a variation of some deep archetypal theme. What this would do to our understanding of empathy and sense of interconnectedness is hard to say. My empathy for my grandmother emerges, in parts, due to my recognition that what flows through her does through me too. It is not blood, for after all it can easily be transfused. It is not her body parts, for those too can be easily replaced with others. But what forces upon me an identification with her is my knowledge that I am, in a sense, just her. Perhaps such a limited sense of identification may very well be extended beyond our immediate family, nation, humanity and more. But even a functioning scientific knowledge of how various correlations in the brain emerge is not just distant; we may still not be able to explain how the physical workings of the brain provide us with phenomenological experience. We would be like children peering into the levers and screws of a watch in the hopes of understanding the concept of time. Our knowledge might still echo VS Naipaul, who wrote in The Enigma of Arrival: “I saw what I saw very clearly. But I didn’t know what I was looking at.”
Since the 1990s, thanks to the Australian philosopher David Chalmers, much energy in consciousness studies has gone to describe and circumscribe the “hard problem of consciousness”. Unlike the ‘easy’ theory of consciousness (nothing easy about it, only that it aims for a physically deterministic description), the “hard problem” asks how do we “experience” something. The hard problem points to the intimate and unnameable experiential flavours in which our everyday life is drowned and asks: How does experience itself emerge from an experiential flavour? But after nearly three decades, there is a sense in some quarters that trying to solve this ‘hard’ question is perhaps a misdirection, a false end-goal for any theory of consciousness. Reframing the ‘hard’ problem of consciousness debate, the philosopher-scientist Anil Seth writes about the ‘real’ problem in which a theory would “explain, predict, and control” the properties of experience which would in turn facilitate the disappearance of the hard problem in “a puff of metaphysical smoke” itself. Such instances where we rewrite one problem in a different notation or an alternative coordinate system to discover that the original problem was merely a construct of our vocabulary are common in modern scientific thought. But training oneself to recognise evanescent distinctions has often been the goal of spiritual seekers who study the Self and the accompanying archipelago of fine distinctions we have constructed in the name of understanding reality. Strangely enough, this vanishing of boundaries appears in the most intimate of moments as well. The American writer Siri Hustvedt writes about giving birth to her daughter: after thirteen hours of labour when she “expelled from between [her] legs a bloody, wet, awe-inspiring stranger”, she tells a nurse, “I’m fine, fine, fine. I’ve never felt like this. I have no desire, no desire of any kind.” From the original desire nine months earlier was now born this singular moment of desirelessness.
At least for two millennia, there have been schools of Indian thought—from the Buddhists under Dignaga and Dharmakirti to the Shaivite Kashmiri Pratyabhijna savants, such as Utpaladeva and Abhinavagupta—who have debated some version of this statement written by Bhartrhari in the Vakyapadiya: ‘in the world, there is no cognition without the pervasion of language. All knowledge shines as if pierced by language’
EVERY TIME I MET my grandmother in those last days, when she had become a silent and breathing cipher, I wondered if she desired something—perhaps a favourite food or an old song. But for most parts, she waddled in an irreducible and inaccessible form of nothingness. A hard materialist view told me that when the last neural lights turn off, the room in our head goes dark. Perhaps that is all there is to it. The body disintegrates, the brain shuts down and this carbon based life form—you, me, all whom we love, the bird flying freely in the sky, the dog barking petulantly outside my window—ends its existence. Yet, despite knowing this and seeing my grandmother’s seeming inability to create a coherent worldview or experience the sweetness of sugar or the blueness of the skies, I couldn’t but wonder if there lay within her an all-seeing luminous intelligence that perceived the world as it is, sans frills and philosophies. Was there a substrate out of which her consciousness, mind and her Self emerged that was still watching the room around her?
It was evening by the time my mother and I drove back after visiting my grandmother. It was the last time I saw her. There wasn’t much to say to her at the end. What difference does it make, I caught myself thinking. My mother, however, had much prattle to her: who eloped with whom, who passed which exams, what happened to the new house being built by a third cousin, and so on. It was a strange play of dedication and despair. My grandmother would nod, sometimes respond with a non-sequitur. Perhaps her reaction was a faint effort to supplicate a daughter’s scramble to fight past biology and reach her. Perhaps my mother was implicitly telling me that someday, if need be, I mustn’t give up hope in her all too soon. Irrespective, when the time came for me to leave, my grandmother put her hand on my head and I bowed down to seek her blessings. To the rationalist in me, it seemed like a superfluous action, her muscle’s much-practised response after having offered benedictions to generations of children and grandchildren. But something within prompted me to go along nevertheless. Her eyes were vacant and she didn’t say anything. Out of habit, and hope, I told her that I would see her soon. This wasn’t a lie but this wasn’t the truth either. Was there anything she wanted from America, I asked out of habit. She kept quiet and then surprisingly added, “No, nothing. I have everything here.”
On the way back, we drove by the farmlands of Palakkad. There, the winds howled as the evening sun swept past the skies. In the distance, pin-sized silhouettes of farmers and labourers were smashing hay onto the ground—separating wheat from chaff in ways that have not changed for centuries. Large advertisements of impossible gold showrooms and obese cinema actors stared down at these impoverished and scrawny farm workers. The American essayist Scott Russell Sanders writes that when faced with the awesomeness of life itself, our words often fail. Our vocabularies reveal their true anaemic status and, then, when we muster some words, they are most likely wrong-headed or worse. Perhaps our linguistic abilities are no different than the neuroscientists who struggle to find physical locations of our consciousness. Like them, being able to call this elusive force that sweeps through our veins and mind by a particular name per se— Tao, Allah, Sri Ranganatha, Qi, and so on—is no indication of knowledge or insight into the original condition of man which is a struggle against decline. That is something we are condemned to wrestle with on our own terms.
By 1665, we see Nicolas Steno say that the brain should be viewed as a machine. Since the 1990s, thanks to David Chalmers, much energy has gone to describe the ‘hard problem of consciousness’. Reframing the ‘hard’ problem, Anil Seth writes about the ‘real’ problem which would facilitate the disappearance of the hard problem in ‘a puff of metaphysical smoke’
For a brief moment, I felt a surge of gratitude that I could experience what I saw. That I could articulate them, however inchoately; that I had a sense of yesterday and tomorrow. I looked out the windows to see a family of birds headed back in a formation, the tail-ends of the Sahyadri mountains had begun to change colour as the sun descended into the netherworld and a shimmer of lamplight from a distant temple streaked through the paddy fields. Seeing that splendour of everyday life, I hoped that I could see some of what I was looking at.