It was in the spring of 1994 when a young Australian philosopher named David Chalmers gave a presentation at the University of Arizona’s ‘Towards a Science of Consciousness’ conference that changed the landscape of science and spirituality forever. Chalmers’s main message was that there is a ‘Hard Problem’ with being able to explain consciousness, or one’s ability to experience life subjectively while being aware of themselves and the world around them. He asks:
Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.”
Since Chalmers gave his now infamous speech, the debate about consciousness has continued to evolve. Today, spiritual believers and scientific thinkers who see life through an atheistic lens, continue to disagree on what consciousness is and what role it plays in human existence. While there are numerous scientific theories about consciousness, neuroscientists, and physicists have been unable to verifiably tell us what it actually is. For this reason, it seems unlikely that the paramount debate between science and spirituality will be ending anytime soon.
Before we begin to explore the scientific and spiritual perspectives of human nature, it’ll be important to expand our understanding of consciousness and determine why it’s such an unexplainably hard problem to solve. We know that consciousness, or mindful awareness, allows individuals to subjectively experience life with feelings of wakefulness and a sense of selfhood, yet trying to define or explain what it remains one of the most elusive mysteries in science.
Probably the most appropriate way to show how difficult it is to describe the indescribable state of consciousness is to analogize it to the task of describing the color red to an individual who was born blind.
Proponents of both science and spirituality do agree that consciousness is not something that can be touched, heard, tasted, felt, or seen, rather that it is an experiential state of awareness. With this added information, we can now settle on the following consciousness definition: One’s ability to be mindful of themselves, both internally and externally, and the environment around them, from a state of subjective present-moment awareness.
The Scientific Perspective of Human Nature:
Scientifically speaking, there are a number of different biological, mental, and emotional variables that come together and form who we are as individuals. By looking at a number of different psychologically based concepts, we can gain insight into the purely scientific perspective of human nature.
One important question that continues to occupy the minds of philosophers, scientists, and psychologists is what role nature and nurture plays in the human development process. While some theorists believe that either our biological evolution or environmental surroundings play a more important role in determining the ways we act, think, and feel, most modern theories believe that both play some role. Biologically speaking, it is known that humans have evolved in complex ways, which is easy to recognize by analyzing the sophisticated nature of the human brain. When looking at the impact of life experiences and environmental circumstances, we can notice how individuals have a tendency to become conditioned in certain ways.
Another psychologically based theory that we can examine is the self-concept, which was developed by award-winning psychologist Carl Rogers. He believed that an individual’s self-concept is a collection of beliefs that they hold about themselves and is made up of three unique factors: Their self-image (based upon physical attributes, personality traits, and social roles), self-esteem (based upon the feedback they receive from the outer world and their comparative references), and the ideal self (based upon who they hope to become in the future). Many believe that the dynamic and continuously changing self-concept of an individual serves as the basis for an individual’s decision-making and largely explains who we are as humans.
Additionally, we can look at a more recent psychologically based model that comes from the field of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). The CBT Triangle shows us how an individual’s cognitions, emotions, and behaviors affect each other on a continuous basis and offer insight into the personal well-being of individuals. In particular, cognitive behavioral therapy puts great importance on showing how an individual’s automatic thoughts greatly determine their emotional reactions and behavioral choices.
As you can see, the scientifically based perspective on human nature tells us that each of us is a complex entity that is made up of numerous variables. In the view of scientists, a combination of biological, physical, mental, and emotional factors most accurately describes human nature. Unfortunately, because consciousness cannot be measured and is not understood, science has greatly avoided discussing it, even though it is directly due to an individual’s conscious abilities that they can analyze human existence. The previously mentioned David Chalmers lays out the hard problem once more:
Now I have to say I’m a complete atheist, I have no religious views myself and no spiritual views, except very watered down humanistic spiritual views, and consciousness is just a fact of life, it’s a natural fact of life.”
The Spiritual Perspective of Human Nature:
While the great sages of the Hindu religion won’t dismiss ideas of physical, biological, and emotional existence, they do believe that consciousness is a very real part of the human existence equation. In fact, they believe it not only to be a component of it, but they see it as the most important aspect of human nature. Hindu mystics tell us that our misunderstanding of the material and mental components of reality is largely what keeps us from experiencing ultimate bliss. A number of important Hindu-based concepts can help show why pure consciousness is actually thought to be who we are at the deepest level of our beings.
For thousands of years, Hindus have believed that there is an all-encompassing God-like source called Brahman. According to scriptures, Brahman, or the all-encompassing truth, is thought of being impossible to describe because it is believed to be infinite consciousness. In the estimation of Hindu seers, Brahman is the creator of the cosmos and universe, yet at the same time is the cosmos, universe, and everything found within it. The great Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi tells us:
All these universes, humans, thoughts and events are merely pictures moving on the screen of pure Consciousness, which alone is real. Shapes and phenomena passes away, but consciousness will remain forever.”
If Brahman is in fact the creator of the universe yet at the same time is the creation, this means that you and I have a part of Brahman within. Hindus refer to this part of themselves as the Atman, or eternal soul, and it is the goal of all Hindus to reunite their Atman with the ultimate divine source of Bahaman. It is believed that a state of pure unwavering consciousness is who we are at the deepest level of our beings, yet because our souls are mistakenly led to believe the material world is real, we remain stuck in a cycle of suffering.
Maya, which means illusion, is the term used to describe what prohibits us from experiencing the truth of eternal bliss. Hindus believe that Maya causes us to develop a self-concept or ego, and identify with our impermanent body and everything connected to it. When individuals see the impermanent material and constantly changing world as real, they develop a view of ignorance that causes them to perceive right as wrong and wrong as right. In the estimation of the world’s oldest religion, it is only by devoting one’s self to spiritual practices and prayer, one can individuals ultimately obtain Moksha or spiritual union with the all-encompassing truth of pure consciousness.
For Science and Spirituality, Consciousness is the Key:
It should now be clear to see that consciousness is the key disagreement in the science and spirituality debate, yet because the state of mindful awareness has unmeasurable qualities, it seems unlikely that a verdict will soon be reached. While spiritualists, especially of the Hindu faith, believe that consciousness is a clear sign of God, atheistic scientists think that it is a function of the brain yet to be discovered. So the question remains, is there an all-pervading higher power or not?
One iconic figure that can potentially shed light on answering this question is history’s most accomplished scientist, Albert Einstein. Throughout his career as a physicist, Einstein was able to accomplish great things, including conceptualizing the general theory of relativity, developing the mass-energy equivalence formula, and advancing the field of quantum theory. Unlike many of his colleagues who believed in a purely scientific existence, however, Einstein wasn’t willing to dismiss the notion of a higher power. He came to realize that the further he studied science, the more he thought that spiritual energy was probable. He told us:
Every one who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe — a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is indeed quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.”
Here at Balanced Achievement, we understand that we, like everyone else, don’t have the authority to tell you for certain if consciousness is a direct representation of spiritual reality or not. From personal experience, however, we can tell you that by searching for this answer with spiritual understanding and the practice of meditation, we believe it is more probable than not. If you are willing to search deep within yourself, you too will come to realize that spiritual consciousness is the key to human existence. Now, we leave you with a quote from the great Hindu sage Paramahansa Yogananda:
By the definite science of meditation known for millenniums to the yogis and sages of India, and to Jesus, any seeker of God can enlarge the caliber of his consciousness to omniscience to receive within himself the Universal intelligence of God.”