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A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami


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Consciousness, How It Interacts With But Is Separate from the Body

STEPHEN KNAPP – Very often scientists have a desire to do something that determines or proves the philosophy they use. Rather than simply basing their philosophy on the facts alone, they may tend to base their viewpoints or interpret their experiments on what they desire. In this way, they may use the idea that life comes from chemicals because if it is true, there are then so many things science can do. With science we could build a better human machine, a better brain, or create immortality. But if it is not true, then science cannot recreate life, or build machines as good as humans, or overcome death. Therefore, science does not want to face that. Instead they may choose to take an idea and follow it as far as it will go by using many taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars to investigate many useless and unnecessary things.

One very famous physicist stated that if there is such a thing as the conscious self, a nonmaterial particle that possesses consciousness which does not come about from chemicals, then scientists might as well retire and become truck drivers. This is an example of the bias in science and the motivation behind rejecting any non-mechanistic idea, and in clinging stubbornly to mechanistic and physical explanations of life. Only in this way can they become like God, with their hopes of creating life and doing so many wonderful things, and denying any need to recognize a Supreme Being.

Today, scientists hardly talk about the mind. They just talk about the brain. There are over a billion neurons in the brain and each of these little brain cells discharge electrical impulses which send out particular kinds of signals. So the scientists are conceiving of mapping which parts of the brain control cognitive functions, like thinking, memory, motor responses, sensory impressions, etc. Then they hope to stimulate artificially the activity of specific neuron cells with chemicals or electrical shock to negate those neurons that affect one’s feelings of anxiety or depression, or similar unwanted feelings. In this way, one could simply take a chemical in order to feel a particular feeling. This is based on the Western concept that the mind is the self and is not separate from the brain, but is a part of it.

The basis of this kind of modern research of the mind was set by the British biologist T. H. Huxley more than a century ago. He said that all states of consciousness are caused by molecular changes of the brain. In other words, this is all that causes our changes of mood or the way we feel when experiencing good or bad events in our life. On the basis of this theory, the mind is merely a by-product of a properly functioning brain, and the mind can be controlled simply by adjusting the brain in various ways.

There are, however, a few who do not agree with this. The Australian neurophysiologist and Nobel laureate, Sir John Eccles, thinks that mind or consciousness is separate from the brain. While performing experiments on the cerebral cortex, which controls movements in our bodies by sending appropriate signals to various muscles, he has noted that before any voluntary act is performed, the 50 million or so neurons of the supplementary motor area (SMA) within the cortex begin to act. Thus, the SMA acts before the cerebral cortex sends the necessary signals to the muscles needed to perform the desired activity. Eccles concludes that conscious will, separate from the brain, must first be there before the chain of neurological events begin. Therefore, the mind controls matter rather than matter (the brain) controlling the mind. In this way, we can begin to understand that, as Sir Karl Popper, a philosopher of science, describes, the mind and brain exist in two separate realities. The brain is a functioning material organ of the body, and the mind or consciousness is the immaterial symptom of the living entity or soul which motivates the body. Thus, as explained in the Vedic literature, the two work together like a driver seated in a car.

Problems with Scientific Theories of Consciousness

The current idea that the mind is part of the brain is held not only by many biologists, neurologists, etc., but by others in all branches of science, including physics, computer science, and psychology. We might, however, point out a number of problems with this current thinking. Let us suggest that it is just as reasonable to consider an alternative view, and that the Vedic concept is actually more consistent and does not have as many problems as their concept has.


For example, does a person have the same experience in seeing a sunset as a machine programed to say “I see a red light,” when it registers a sunset taking place? In other words, is merely recognizing light waves all there is to consciousness? If the mind works simply in a mechanistic way, as science tends to propound, then simply registering that we see a sunset would be all there is to consciousness. It would be exactly like a mechanical reflex to a particular stimuli. The point is that we could say a tape recorder hears music, but does it actually hear or enjoy it? Does it get goose bumps or inspiration from listening to it?

The experiences of enjoying something cannot be measured or broken down into a simple mathematical equation. Therefore, in an eliminative or reductionary philosophy, which science uses, it is believed that if something cannot be broken down into a measurable and simple equation, then it is not real and leaves no room for discussion. With this viewpoint, reductionary scientists can begin throwing out a word like “consciousness” because it does not have any meaning or reality. It does not fit into an equation. You can break the movement of brain cells down to a mathematical formula, but not consciousness. And since the word “mind” also does not fit into an equation, we can throw that out as well. And, of course, the concept of a soul has been given up long ago. After all, everything is seen as an extension of the mechanical workings of the brain. So the idea is that we should only use vocabulary which is related to physical, identifiable, and quantifiable formulas.

By understanding these examples of a machine responding to a red sunset, or a tape recorder hearing music, we can know that there is something in consciousness far beyond the ability of any machine giving simple reactions to external stimuli. Machine reactions are similar to our senses sending electrical messages to the brain. But, obviously, we experience more than a simple sensual or physical stimulus. A machine cannot describe the experience of hearing a Beethoven symphony and cannot recognize one piece of music from another. A machine has no emotions, so how can it describe the experience? Therefore, scientists who just try to show that our own responses are a mechanical reaction to sensory stimuli are simply trying to negate the idea of consciousness or the existence of the soul. But, if there is a conscious particle, then they cannot make something else conscious, or create life, or be a Dr. Frankenstein without first creating that conscious particle or soul, which they cannot do.

From the Vedic literature, we learn that there is a conscious self that is separate from the machine or body. Obviously, we are conscious of every single impulse that the senses of our body/machine deals with. There is perfect interaction. So science will question how the self can interact so well with the machine if it is not part of the machine. And why is consciousness affected when changes are made to the brain? If the self is separate, then consciousness should not be affected. These are the arguments of science, and the Vedic literature offers some very interesting answers. If these arguments are answered, then why not consider an alternative viewpoint, as described in the Vedic literature?

The idea that consciousness is changed by changes of the body or machine can be understood more clearly if we use the example of a person driving a car. Obviously, the driver is separate from the car, but if the driver gets in his car and is hit by another car, he will immediately say, “You hit me.” It is not that the driver was hit, it was the car that was hit, but the driver identifies with the car as if he were a part of it. So the driver is affected by changes in the machine. Similarly, when the self depends on the body and strongly identifies with it, he will think he is the body and will be disturbed if there is some problem with it, although he is actually separate from it.

Another example is that there have been carefully controlled and documented experiments done with epileptic patients. In these experiments, the patients have been treated with electric shock to certain parts of the brain in order to respond in a particular way. The findings of these experiments have shown, however, that in almost every case the patient would respond to a certain stimuli stating that he was not doing it, but that the doctor, by controlling the electrical impulses, was making the patient’s body respond in a certain way. Thus, the mind’s inclination was different or separate from the response of the body. So simply by applying electric shock to parts of the brain for certain responses does not give any adequate explanations of what is the mind.

In considering the mind, we also have to consider the will. If all that the patients did was respond to stimuli, then, according to the mechanistic theory, that is all that would be expected of being conscious. But the patients were protesting that it was not they who were voluntarily reacting. It was against their will. So if there was no such thing as a separate self with an individual will, there would have been no protest, like a robot programmed to act in a certain way. So these experiments that showed that the mind had an identity and will separate from the brain were startling in neurological circles. The reason was because it brought up the old argument that there is something separate between the mind and the brain–it is not all one.

Another example of this is in the field of near-death experience. There have been top scientists at such places as the University of Virginia using the strictest standards for documenting and researching particular phenomena. They have been able to demonstrate conclusive findings in over hundreds of test cases with patients who were, according to all known laws of physics, technically in a state of unconsciousness, or in a coma due to a heart attack or accident. The patients, after being brought back to consciousness, explained in detail what procedures had been performed to revive them. They described themselves as floating out of their body, up into the room, looking down and watching the medical procedures the doctors were performing on them. There was no possibility that they could have dreamed this as subsequent tests have shown. This shows that there is a difference between the brain and the mind, and that the mind or consciousness can continue working even though the brain is impaired and hardly functioning at all, as in a comatose state.

Vedic Recognition of the Soul’s Presence

In the near-death experience we have the description of what happened to the individuals when they were revived, but what if they had not re-entered their body? What if the patients could not be revived? If they had died, where would they have gone? Or is death simply the end of everything? When someone dies, the relatives may cry and exclaim, “Oh, he is gone, he has left us.” But what is gone? He is lying there, or at least the body is. So if he is gone, then it is that part you have not seen that is gone. So what is it?


As we have shown in the last several pages, philosophers and scientists have all questioned this and have arrived at no final conclusion. But the Vedic literature gives detailed descriptions of the self. The Chandogya Upanishad (6.10.3) begins explaining that the subtle essence in all that exists is the self. It is the true and thou art it.

In the Twelfth and Thirteenth Khandas of the Chandogya Upanishad, it gives further examples in which it states that a tall tree has its essence, the self, originally in the small seed from which it grew. Yet to break a seed open will reveal no such potency for it to grow into such a huge plant. But the power is there. Likewise, to take salt and mix it with water renders the salt invisible; yet, by tasting the water, we can know the salt is there. Similarly, in the material body, the self exists, though we do not directly perceive it. However, Bhagavad-gita (13.34) explains: “O son of Bharata, as the sun alone illuminates all this universe, so does the living entity, one within the body, illuminate the entire body by consciousness.” Therefore, just as we cannot perceive the salt mixed in the water except by taste, we also cannot see the soul in the body except by recognizing the symptom, which is consciousness.

Consciousness can be recognized easily by performing a small experiment. Pinch part of your body and you will feel pain. This is a sign of consciousness, not only in humans but also in cats, dogs, or other animals. In any type of species of life, there are two types of bodies; the body which is alive, and the body which is dead and deteriorating. The live body is pervaded and illuminated by the consciousness of the self. The Mundaka Upanishad (3.1.9) says: “The soul is atomic in size and can be perceived by perfect intelligence. This atomic soul is floating in the five kinds of air (prana, apana, vyana, samana, and udana), is situated within the heart, and spreads its influence all over the body of the embodied living entities. When the soul is purified from the contamination of the five kinds of material air, its spiritual influence is exhibited.”

Thus, the self is the motivating factor within the body, and when it leaves, the body breaks down and slowly disintegrates. Therefore, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (2.4.3-5) points out that whomever is dear to us, whether it be our wives, husbands, sons, daughters, teachers, guardians, etc., they are dear to us only due to the presence of the self within the body, who in reality is what is dear to us. Once the self leaves the body, the body becomes unattractive to us because it rapidly gets cold, stiff, and begins to decompose. Therefore, the body is not our real identity, but we are the self within.

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