Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

Advaita and the Brain
Chittaranjan Naik

flower pictures
Chittarnajan Naik


Read Chittaranjan's discourse on the A Realist View of Advaita.


The following is derived from a post to the Advaitin Egroup Feb. 2004.

It is generally believed that consciousness is an emergent “phenomenon” arising out of certain processes in the brain, and that the brain is some kind of computer-like processing mechanism that transforms sensory signals from the world into our perceptions. As a result, our perceptions are reduced to the status of qualia belonging to the realm of a subjective world. There is a growing claim in some scientific circles that mystical experience is a subjective condition induced by certain electro-chemical-neural states of the brain. The aim of this essay is to critically analyse the brain model and verify the basis of these claims.

The brain-centric model of perception postulates the brain as the cause of perception and ideation—as the ‘intelligent’ centre where the various input signals from the environment are processed and ‘displayed’ as the manifold phenomena of the world. Thus, logically, it follows that all the things I perceive, and have ever perceived, are only forms ‘displayed’ by the brain, for it is no more possible for me to perceive anything except through the machinations of the brain. For whatever be the entity that I may point to, or think about, it would necessarily be part of the manifold that is presented to me, including the thing pointed to, the act of pointing, and the comprehending of the thing. But this leads to a logical circularity because the brain, which is supposed to be presenting this manifold “from behind” phenomena, is also a perceived or ideated thing that is part of the self-same phenomena, as are other objects of the world. Thus, the brain that we know, in so far as it is a perceived or ideated thing, would necessarily be a product of the machinations of whatever ‘processing mechanism’ is presenting it. If we are to avoid this circularity, the presenter of the manifold of phenomena must lie outside the manifold. Therefore the brain is not the transforming mechanism that we conceived it to be – it is the output, so to say, and not the transforming mechanism that presents the output. Thus the notion of the brain as the “central processing mechanism” collapses.

When logic forces circularity it becomes imperative to look at the premises of the theory. Here it becomes necessary to dispense with the stimulus-response model of the brain altogether and say that we reach objects directly without mediation.

Everything appears quite logical in this hypothesis except for one source of discomfort. The discomfort arises from the fact that the brain has an observed correlation to perception. That is, the manner of perception can be modified by human intervention in the workings of the brain - by the administration of drugs, or the injection of certain electrical signals. Experiments conducted on the brain show that the electro-chemical-neural mechanism of the brain has a correspondence to the manner in which we perceive. We are therefore presented with an enigmatic problem. On the one hand, placing the cause of perception in the brain creates a logical conundrum and demands that the cause of perception be placed outside phenomena. On the other hand, there is a definite causal relationship between the brain and our perception of the world.

The roots of this seemingly intractable problem may be traced to a certain unexamined conception of causality that science adheres to. Science uses the word “cause” in a fairly loose sense, and believes that an invariable correlation is a sufficient condition to posit a causal-nexus. Therefore, the correlation between phenomena and brain-activity becomes an adequate criterion to establish the brain as the cause of perception. But science is not philosophy - it ignores the fertile soil of our minds wherein meanings are given to words and principles. There is more to causality than mere correlation, and one cannot find better words to illustrate this fact than Socrates’ words in Phaedo:

“It was a wonderful hope, my friend, but it was quickly dashed. As I read on I discovered that the fellow (Anaxagoras) made no use of Mind and assigned to it no causality for the order of the world, but adduced causes like air and ether and water and many other absurdities. It seemed to me that he was just about as inconsistent as if someone were to say ‘The cause of everything that Socrates does is Mind’ and then, in trying to account for my several actions, said first that the reason why I am lying here now is that my body is composed of bones and sinews, and that the bones are rigid and separated at the joints, but the sinews are capable of contraction and relaxation, and form an envelope for the bones with the help of the flesh and skin, the latter holding all together; and since the bones move freely in their joints the sinews by relaxing and contracting enable me somehow to bend my limbs; and that is the cause of my sitting here in a bent position.

Or again, if he tried to account in the same way for my conversing with you, adducing causes such as sound and air and hearing and a thousand others, and never troubled to mention the real reasons; which are that since Athens has thought it better to condemn me, therefore I for my part have thought it better to sit here, and more right to stay and submit to whatever penalty she orders - because, by Dog! I fancy that these sinews and bones would have been in the neighbourhood of Megara or Boeitia long ago if I did not think it was more right and honourable to submit to whatever penalty my country orders rather than take to my heels and run away.

But to call things like that ‘causes’ is too absurd. If it were said that without such bones and sinews and all the rest of them I should not be able to do what I think is right, it would be true; but to say that it is because of them that I do what I am doing, and not through choice of what is best would be a very lax and inaccurate form of expression. Fancy being unable to distinguish between the cause of a thing, and the condition without which it could not be a cause! It is this latter, as it seems to me, that most people, groping in the dark, call a cause – attaching to it a name to which it has no right.”

The agent of change must necessarily be a sentient being. The necessity of a sentient efficient cause has been argued at length in the Brahma Sutra Bhashya. Thus, the brain would have the logical status of an instrument through which the cause acts, but not the status of a cause.

With the collapse of the brain model, there is no transforming mechanism that stands between the perceiver and the perceived world. Thus there is the seer and the seen, the sentient and the insensate, the conscious and the unconscious. The seer sees the seen intimately and directly. For the seer to be able to see objects, the sense of seeing and the sense of the object must exist within the seer. It is meaningless to speak of colour unless the sense of sight, and the sense (or meaning) of colour is already constituted within the seer as an a priori capacity of the seer. Thus, the entire world is seen because the sense and meaning of the world is already constituted in the nature of the seer. In other words, reality is consciousness, and the world of forms is what consciousness is conscious of and has bestowed with meaning. We have now arrived at the gates of Advaita! It is strange how many roads lead to non-duality!

The world is phenomena, and its objects are empty in themselves without the ground of consciousness. That is, objects in themselves are “nothingness”; they derive their being and meanings only by virtue of consciousness. These “empty” objects cannot influence one another. To assign causality to objects of the world would be as naïve as assigning causes to the things we see on the screen when we watch a cinema. The causes of events on the screen are not in those events or screen-things, but in the transcending source from where they derive their existence and meaning.

Similarly, there are no causes in the world, except by virtue of causality being bestowed upon them by the bestowing consciousness. Thus, it would be true to say that something in the world is a cause of another only in so far as this is the manner of ordering of the world, and not because the cause is something intrinsic in the object. Thus, in the physical world, the brain is the cause of perception, not because of any intrinsic capacity in the brain to influence or be influenced by the world, but because the Transcending Cause that orders phenomena manifests the brain as the seat of a certain causal-nexus within the schema of the world. It is in this wise that the brain becomes a “cause” of perception. To retain its status as a cause, the causality of the brain must exist in hidden-ness and be masked of its true character as being completely subservient to the conscious controller. Thus, the perceived causal-nexus of the brain is not a necessary condition of the world, but is contingent to the “existence” of the veil of avidya. The perceiver is in truth Brahman that shines through maya as the individual self. Thus, strictly speaking, it should not be impossible – logically - for a perceiving subject to dispense with the mediation of the brain altogether. To venture further would be to enter into the realm of the mystical.

I believe the primary goal of this exercise has been achieved – it has been demonstrated that the radiance of love is not on account of testosterone, or that the ineffable expansiveness of religious experience is not the result of electro-chemical-neural mechanisms in the brain. But the arguments are open to criticism.

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