The Riddle of Consciousness – III

 The Illusion of Existence

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.” ― Albert Einstein

In deep philosophy of both East and West, we find a recurring notion of the absence of the ‘self’, the ‘I’ or the ‘ego’. This is really the basic tenet of Buddhism itself understood as ‘niratmavada’, i.e. the nonexistence of soul. Now at the heyday of modern science we have this notion recurring through the agencies of empirical formulations that maintain that the ‘I’ that is seated behind the control console of our emotions and scanning the screen of our senses is really a work of fiction of the brain, such an ‘I’ is not real in terms of power or presence, it really has no control.  Consciousness turns out to consist a whirlpool of events distributed across the brain. These events compete for attention and as one process out shuts the others, the brain rationalizes the outcome after the facts and concocts the impression that a single self was in charge all along.

To understand this by the help of an analogy imagine the entrance of a college academic year. The college offers 6 bachelor courses – Liberal Arts, Science, Humanities, Engineering, Music and Management.  Students are made to sit in a room and at the platform sit 6 helpers each responsible for reviewing the form for each of the 6 courses. Now as the call for Liberal Arts forms is made people start bombarding information in that criteria, same follows for the remaining   5 courses. After all the forms are processed there comes a notification that the ‘board of reviewers’ has taken all the information for all 6 courses from all the students present and wanting admission in the college. Now here the entity ‘board of reviewers’ in a concocted fictional object which is in reality a group of several objects processing information of diverse nature which is competing for attention. This is the case with the concept ‘I’, what we refer to as an ‘I’ is a complex arrangement of information by the various parts of our brain depending on the priority that the survival value sets, so in a stampede the priority of the organism for survival would be escape the sight, and those functions of the brain will gain attention, then will arise the fiction that ‘I am running out of here’, whereas that I is just a function of a temporal limitation, a flickering sense of existence of oneself, which is gone the moment you are out of the situation. The collective memory of oneself is really the accumulation of these innumerable ‘I’s that have existed on the temporal scale in the past, this concocts the idea of ‘I’ as a present through time past, which gives a person and a people a sense of history. But what is noticeable is that this ‘I’ really exhibits no freedom or power of its own, the brain reacts to the conditions set by the external environment and it at most times doesn’t have a choice. The ‘I’ has no free will as such.

While the question of free will does not figure as prominently in Buddhist writings as it does in western theology, philosophy, and psychology, it is a topic that was addressed in the earliest Buddhist writings. According to these accounts, for pragmatic and ethical reasons, the Buddha rejected both determinism and indeterminism as understood at that time. Rather than asking the metaphysical question of whether already humans have free will, Buddhist tradition takes a more pragmatic approach, exploring ways in which we can acquire greater freedom to make wise choices that are truly conducive to our own and others’ genuine well-being. One key to achieving such freedom is the cultivation of attention skills so that one can deliberately focus one’s attention with continuity and clarity on one’s chosen object. A second theme is the cultivation of insight into the manner in which our own attitudes shape experience, allowing for the possibility of altering not only the way we experience events in the present, but also how we are influenced by our memories of the past. Finally, the Great Perfection school of Tibetan Buddhism emphasizes the realization of the deepest dimension of consciousness — pristine awareness — which transcends the nexus of causality. This is regarded as the ultimate source of freedom and the ultimate nature of human identity

In Hindu Philosophy this deep conundrum of free will and consciousness finds various expressions. For example the ‘concept of Karma’ in all Indian traditions really means an action which is a reaction to the circumstances, for example you see a snake and your body experiences fright, or you see someone you deeply despise and your body loses its cool and prepares for a verbal spat. This is what in Indian tradition was phenomenological attribution to the deeds of your past life, which of course was a white lie to tie it down to a system of ethics for social needs, what a masterstroke to ensure right behaviour by subjects.  But the real philosophical implication of karma was very profound in which they anticipated modern science in explaining the determination of man’s actions by his environment and really the absence of a choice in action. All schools of Hinduism seek the liberation from karma as their ends which are understood as ‘Moksha’ or ‘Nirvana’ commonly translated as liberation, and to reach an action which is free from all compulsions is to be really free, this concept when applied to social and political ethics gives birth to Gandhi’s Swaraj –  when man or a nation takes his/its destiny in his/its own hand and is free to act in the real senses and when he acts in the right way he does so not by the compulsion of authority but by his free choice and pure volition. This also busts the myth that all Indian traditions are inherently nihilistic and self-denying, it is now commonly understood that though these schools offer some pessimism initially it is only for the reason of not giving false comfort and security to the disciple, but make him overcome the limitations set out on himself by his own nature.