Projecting Consciousness

In “Vedic Vision of Consciousness and Reality,”[1] Satya Prakash Singh raises some interesting questions about the nature of consciousness. In short, Singh raises the possibility that reality may not be quite exactly as our consciousness presents it to us, and that things may actually exist which our consciousness is not designed to reveal to us. One of the main arguments Singh puts forth is the idea that the subject-object dichotomy is merely an illusion manufactured by our consciousness. For Singh, perception is the result of a kind of “intermingling” of the subject and the object: “What happens in the event of intermingling is that by way of transcribing the stimulus into the object of perception, it is actually the consciousness which comes to assume the form of the object which otherwise in itself remains imperceptible to us” (Singh, 15). As a result of this “intermingling” caused by our consciousness, our understanding of reality is in a sense distorted, such that we cannot expect that what we perceive as “real” is strictly the same as what is actually out there. Our perception, then, although extremely convincing, is unreliable, since what we consider “real” is actually a projection of our own consciousness onto the outside world. This projection is so convincing that we can hardly doubt the reality of the image that our consciousness presents to us: “Though a sheer projection of conscious, our percept, however, is felt as very much existing there outside us in all its material concreteness and tangibility” (Singh, 15). It is as if we were perpetually sitting in front of a movie screen, watching a fictitious story but at the same time being caught in the moment and believing it to be real.

For Singh, it is telling of the nature of consciousness that, within the subject-object dichotomy, consciousness places the subject in the center and the object in the periphery. To illustrate his point, Singh imagines a world without human consciousness. In such a world, there would be no subjects, only objects: “Had consciousness not been there, as on earth prior to the emergence of conscious beings, for instance, there would have been only the objective world without anyone even to feel it as such” (Singh, 15). It is only with the advent of consciousness that the notion of “subject” comes to be, the key distinction between subject and object being the relative position of each, the subject being in the center and the object in the periphery: “As soon as consciousness emerges from within the same objective expanse, the whole scenario gets divided into the subject and the object with the former placing itself in the centre and considering the latter as the periphery” (Singh, 15). The subject, we might say, from its central position has a perspective that the object lacks, and this sense of perspective is the defining characteristic of the subject. But for Singh, that the subject-object dichotomy should coincide with the emergence of consciousness and the convenient placement of the subject at the center of it suggests that the dichotomy is not real, that it is manufactured by consciousness. Our consciousness determines that there should be subjects and objects, but in the final analysis there might very well be neither. Similarly, in a movie there is usually a central role and supporting roles, and during the projection of the movie on the screen, viewers will tend to place themselves within the perspective of the central character. In this analogy, the projector assumes the role of consciousness by projecting an instance of the subject-object dichotomy onto the screen. When the movie is over, the previously displayed subject-object dichotomy disappears and all that is left is a motionless projector and a blank screen. In this way, the projection of the movie plays a trick on the viewer of the same kind as the one consciousness continuously plays on us all.

If consciousness is fooling us into thinking in terms of subjects and objects, then what can we know about the nature of consciousness itself? For Singh, conscious is something which exists but that is not constrained by ordinary physical limitations. Consciousness, for example, acts like a beam of light, except that it can travel anywhere in no time at all: “To travel from one point in space to another, howsoever distant, [consciousness] does not require to touch anyone of the points lying between them. It jumps to the desired point outright in a single flight of attention” (Singh, 10). Also, consciousness, unlike a beam a light, is capable of going back in time: “While the physical light cannot be turned to the past, consciousness can re-live the past to any extent” (Singh, 10). And consciousness is different from physical energy in another very important respect – it has purpose: “Another distinguishing feature of consciousness is its end-orientedness as against the purposelessness of the physical energy in itself” (Singh, 12).

But for Bina Gupta in “The Advaita Notion of Saksin (Witness-Consciousness): Its Anticipations in the Upanishads and Gaudapada,”[2] our ability to comprehend the “witness-consciousness” or “the self”  in empirical terms is fundamentally limited: “if one thinks one knows the self and can describe it as an object perceived in the ordinary world, then he does not know it” (Gupta, 20). For Gupta, the self “is different from objects that are known: it is the pure element of awareness in all knowing; it can never become an object” (Gupta, 21). The self, then, is not something we can know per se, since the self is the vehicle of knowledge as such. Furthermore, like Singh, Gupta considers the perceived duality and multiplicity of the phenomenal world as a misapprehension of reality. For Gupta, “knowledge of duality is only a conditional and temporary feature of finite lives” (Gupta, 27). The phenomenon of deep sleep, where the self ceases to project duality and multiplicity onto the world, suggests that a pure, undifferentiated consciousness, a non-dual witness, underlies the waking consciousness of external objects: “Deep sleep demonstrates that something permanent, unchanging, and foundational to all experiences must be present even when the consciousness of external objects is not present” (Gupta, 27). Empirical knowledge, then, is only a shallow form of knowledge, and there is a deeper form of consciousness always at work behind it, a non-dual metaphysical constant referred to as the pure self, which provides the necessary framework within which the subject-object dichotomy that characterizes all knowledge of the material world can subsequently take hold. As Gupta explains, “The experientially variable can only be isolated against an invariable background. Without an invariable consciousness, there can be no objects” (Gupta, 32). For Gupta, this invariable consciousness, this pure self, exists in its own right, although it is effectively concealed by the experientially variable.

What then, one might ask, is the ontological status of objects? For Gupta, both the subject and the object are real when considered jointly, insomuch as they both motion towards the same reality, but neither is real in its own right because the distinction between subject and object is a misapprehension of reality. For Gupta, “That which is known must be at least as real as that which knows, because both the knower and the known, the subject and the object, are superimpositions on the same reality” (Gupta, 48).

[1] Singh, Satya Prakash (2004). Vedic Vision of Consciousness and Reality, in: History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization, Vol. XII, Part 3 (D.P. Chattopadhyaya, ed.). New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.

[2] Gupta, Bina (1998). The Disinterested Witness: A Fragment of Advaita Vedanta Phenomenology. Illinois: Northwestern University Press.


Book Review: The New Visibility of Religion

How are we to understand the recent surge in the public visibility of religion? Are we experiencing the re-emergence of traditional religious beliefs and institutions or are we dealing with something entirely new? The New Visibility of Religion[1], a recent collection of essays by Western European sociologists, political scientists, theorists and philosophers attempts to answer these questions and provide new insight into the role that religion is currently playing within society.   

In keeping with sound academic principles, the first order of business is method. James Sweeney in “Revising Secularization Theory” argues that the sociology of religion is presently ill-equipped for dealing with the hermeneutical challenges associated with the resurgence of the sacred. Peter Manley Scott similarly remarks how the resurgence of religion raises difficult questions for sociology. Scott asks: “Why do the religions persist despite the processes of secularization, and what are the consequences of this persistence for sociology as an explanatory discipline?” ( 172). For Sweeney, “a sociology that is methodologically atheist, confining itself to phenomenological comparative analysis, is inevitably drawn towards an epiphenomenal portrayal of religion” (21). Since the object of religious belief, the supernatural, is not sociologically apparent, it falls outside the purview of sociological inspection, and the resulting analysis of religious phenomena is necessarily reductionist. Sweeney therefore calls for a major change in sociological method, whereby theology and sociology combine forces, so to speak, in order to more effectively explain the meaning and value of religious truths. For Sweeney, “the view from inside religious culture, which nurtures meaning, is an essential account” (25).

While Sweeney suggests that sociology, despite its best intentions, is methodologically inclined to misdiagnose the state of modern society as secular, others such as Rowan Williams take the matter a step further, declaring that secularism is in fact a dangerous illusion designed to accord more power to the state under the guise of ideological neutrality. Williams argues in “Secularism, Faith and Freedom,” that “the sphere of public and political negotiation flourishes only in the context of larger commitments and visions, and that if this is forgotten or repressed by a supposedly neutral ideology of the public sphere, immense damage is done to the moral energy of a liberal society” (55). For Williams, the state is nothing more than a mutually beneficial arrangement for individuals with wider identities and solidarities, and as such, the state cannot in and of itself dictate legitimate behavior. For Williams, a “supposedly liberal society that assumes absolutely that it has the resources for producing and sustaining moral motivation independently of the actual moral or spiritual commitments of its citizens, is in danger of behaving and speaking as if the only kind of human solidarity that really matters is that of the state” (53). Williams therefore calls for “not a narrowing but a broadening of the moral sources from which the motivation for social action and political self-determination can be drawn” (55).

But politics aside, what can be made of this resurgence of the sacred? How and why is it happening? In one of the more insightful essays in The New Visibility, Lieven Boeve observes how the diminishing impact of Christianity has created a vacant space that has since been taken over by a variety of religions and life views. This freshly installed religious pluralism in turn breeds a new form of religious awareness for all. For Boeve, “the consciousness of religious plurality feeds the intuition of a general religiosity, constitutive for being a human person as such (…), of which particular traditions are then particular examples of manifestations” (193). For Boeve then, as for Sweeney and Williams, the secularization thesis, insomuch as it denies the power and impact of religion within society today, is largely misleading. Boeve contends that the detraditionalization of Christianity, as evidenced by decreasing church attendance rates, etc., is a symptom of a deeper religious transformation. Humanity’s religious consciousness, rather than collapsing into atheism, has taken on a new shape, which can be understood as “the expression of a religious longing, adequate to the contemporary context, of the hope that there is more to life than what scientific world-views maintain” (197).  

For Boeve, the detraditionalization of Christianity, that is to say the distancing from the conservative ethics and inflexible doctrinal positions of the church, also has implications for identity formation, which “is no longer the growing into pre-given ideological patterns, which condition one’s perspectives on meaning and social life. On the contrary, because of the absence of such unquestioned and quasi-automatic transmission of tradition, identity is no longer given but has to be constructed” (191). Yves de Maeseneer, in his essay called “The Art of Disappearing: Religion and Aestheticization,” similarly remarks how religious subjects have become the authors of their own lives and worlds. For Maeseneer, “postmodern subjects behave as consumers of religious goods: being creative individuals, they consider traditions as a repository of materials for their identity construction” (100). Furthermore, Alexander Darius Ornella points out in his essay how the media plays an important role in providing people with an arrangement of meaning systems to pick and choose from. For Ornella, “the mediatization of religious acts and symbols as well as an ‘apotheosis’ of mundane objects turn believers into consumers/customers and consumers/customers into believers” (141).

But Maeseneer also points out, through an analysis of the work of Adorno and von Balthasar, the existence of an irreducible distance between subject and object within the aesthetic experience. As a result of this distance, “the subject’s relation to reality is inverted; the subject is no longer the centre of its own experience, but is involuntarily oriented towards the aesthetic object” (105). As a result, “the aesthetic form actively imprints itself on the receptive subject” (105). Maeseneer highlights, for instance, the power of commercial logos in the branding process. In branding aesthetics, “there is a constitutive power of the image at work, which actively transforms the subject” (107). The power of the modern image takes over the subject, fooling the subject into thinking s/he is having a creative moment, while it secretly conveys its intended message and, as a result, effectively produces a certain desired behavior. Peter Weibel, in relation to the current aesthetic turn in Western society, speaks of an “uncontrollable subjectivity” which he associates with the sentiment which drives artistic intuition. For Weibel , this “dictatorship of subjectivity” is dangerous because it turns the image into a tool, a tool than can be used to accomplish specific ends. Weibel cites, for instance, the television pictures of Abu Ghraib as a case in point. According to Weibel, “the Americans did not really harm the people, they only made them look as though they were very oppressed; the degradation was the picturing itself, the picturing was a tool of degradation” (121).

In summary, The New Visibility undoubtedly raises some thought-provoking issues, and many of the authors who contributed to this volume do a fair job of tackling those issues.  Furthermore, the multi-disciplinary approach employed by the book is effective and in tune with the current trend in religious studies. On the other hand, The New Visibility’s geographical limitation to Western Europe is an unnecessary and unfortunate limitation insofar as it needlessly leaves the reader wondering how a North American (or other) perspective might have differed from the ones presented. Another limiting factor of The New Visibility is that it tends to rely on a decidedly Christian definition of religion throughout, while making little mention of other religious traditions. Furthermore, the few references it makes to Islam tend to associate that religion with terrorism and violence, an inappropriate and distracting revelation of some of the contributors’ personal biases. Nonetheless, I would recommend some (but not all) of the essays in this volume to those interested in investigating the new visibility of religion.

[1] Graham Ward and Michael Hoelzl, The New Visibility of Religion, London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2008.