From Physicalism to the Pure Consciousness of Vedanta

This is an essay about how I went from the world of physicalism and thinking consciousness is a mere linguistic illusion to the sublime heights of Advaita Vedanta, which argues Consciousness is the ultimate ontological foundation of reality.

First, let me state I am not a teacher of Vedanta. I am but a mere student of Vedanta with a penchant for writing philosophy in a personal, non-academic fashion. I am indebted to all the great Swamis of the Ramakrishna Order for their many wonderful teachings on Sri Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, and the great spiritual philosophy of Vedanta. I am particularly indebted to the wisdom of Swami Sarvapriyananda. Any misunderstanding of this great philosophy is my own fault, and I duly apologize for not keeping silent.

But I must write! I must write about Vedanta. For it is animating within me a tremendous spiritual fire, the likes of which I have never experienced before.

As someone who once was the strongest of agnostic atheists, as someone who spent 6 years as a philosophy grad student at the PhD level fiercely debating with everyone the illusory nature of consciousness and defending the strictest physicalism, atheism, and nihilism I could envision, it is a strange conviction I have come to in now believing the ultimate reality of the cosmos is Pure Consciousness!

It was not that long ago I was firmly convinced that consciousness did not exist! I followed the arguments of Quine, Dennett, and others who wanted to “Quine qualia,” and started my basic ontological inquiry with a firm conviction that any serious ontology cannot admit anything into its catalog of reality except that which stems from the basic ontology of materialistic science.

There I was, for many years, consciously experiencing the world, telling myself my conscious experience was an illusion and that at bottom it was a narratological trick of language, and that ultimately, the most fundamental ontology of the universe was pure dead matter, insentient, lacking any consciousness whatsoever.

Look at a brain. Where do you see consciousness? Can you point to it? Can you measure it? No! All we have are these “first-person experiences,” which nobody can define or operationalize, which I was convinced were illusions generated by humanity’s linguistic capabilities, completely incapable of being talked about in a coherent fashion.

Many scientifically minded people trained in the Western sciences look at the “hard problem of consciousness” and think that consciousness is a “thing” or “function” in the brain, an emergent property, an epiphenomenon, or a secondary “level” of reality like “software” is a secondary “level” of reality compared to hardware.

This idea of “levels” of reality is very seductive to the physicalist. They cling to the idea that consciousness is reducible to the brain but can’t give a theory of that emergence relation understandable at the level of human intuition. They assure us though, that scientists are right around the corner with a final explanation, and if we hold tight, scientists will one day provide us with a plausible mechanism.

But for me, I became convinced for nearly ten years that it was just pure hardware. That “software” is but a mere metaphor. A trick of language. No one was home. I was more confident in the ontological truth of physicalism than I was in the reality of my own experiences.

But how things have changed for me! Having discovered Advaita Vedanta from Swami Sarvapriyananda, my position is now almost completely the opposite. 

Now I have so much confidence in the ontological primacy of my own phenomenological experience as a conscious subject that the very idea of “matter” has become a manifestation of the fundamental ground that is Pure Consciousness, an appearance in Consciousness to Consciousness, and not the other way around.

After all, what is closest to me is consciousness. I have never had an experience that was not illumined with consciousness. I have never experienced matter except by light of consciousness illuminating that experience of matter as an object of consciousness.

Thus, I find within my experience the basic phenomenological fact that any object I experience in the phenomenal world, whether a tree in my visual field or a thought in my thinking field, is always set apart from the knower of that object, which is “I” the unified subject.

The subject operates as a field or screen in which and through which the multiplicity of phenomenal experiences become unified into a cohesive experience such that it is I the individual Conscious Subject who is experiencing the object as an “I.”

Don’t confuse it: this “Pure ‘I'” of Consciousness is not the ego, which is a cognitive function of the personality. The Pure “I” of Conscious Subjectivity is a transcendental principle of unitive experience and not a mere ontic fact of cognitive function.

I look at my phenomenal field. There is a great blooming, buzzing, multiplicity of experiential facts. These are ontic facts insofar as they are contingent and subject to change. The whole world, mental and physical, is like the river of Heraclitus: subject to constant change.

And yet all that change is presented to me as a conscious subject, who beholds these disparate facts and transcends their multiplicity to create a unitary field or screen of experience that stands apart as a singular Witness of those changing ontic facts.

The analogy Swami Vivekananda gave is that of a projector displaying a chaotic movie scene on a cinema screen. We can only perceive the chaotic scene insofar as the screen itself is unchanging and still, providing a unified background upon which the multiplicity dances. A great fire scatters across the screen but the screen itself remains unburnt and acts as the unitive ontological ground upon which the multiplicity plays out.

Through a process of negation, I disidentify myself with all changing ontic facts, such that I finally arrive at a Pure Witness Consciousness that is strictly without phenomenal content.

It stands separate, unitary, unchanging, pure, one, without limitation, existing unbound by space and time, and is thus infinite and eternal.

Take this exact argumentative line of via negativa and apply it to existence itself and you arrive at Pure Existence.

For this Pure Consciousness is not a “thing.” It is not an “entity.” You cannot point to it. You cannot even truly ascribe any properties to it the way we do with things e.g. “grass is green, “water is wet,” etc. 

It is not even a single monist substance.

What is it, then?

Even though Pure Consciousness is not a thing or an entity or object or substance that can be measured or experienced qua object, we also cannot thereby say it does not exist, for what could be more directly knowable to us that the fact that we are conscious, that we are a subject? What could be in less doubt than the direct existence of Consciousness?

If we deny that we are an experiencing subject, we must ask, who is asking? Who is inquiring into the nature of their experience? At the end of any ontic inquiry, you will always find an infinite subject which is itself not an ontic thing.

In the tradition of Vedanta, the ancient and universal philosophy of the Vedas, the highest spiritual knowledge of Hinduism, this Pure Consciousness and Pure Existence is called Brahman, or Existence-Consciousness-Bliss.

But wait? Where did bliss come from? It is easy to think “bliss” refers to a mere phenomenal, ontic fact of pleasure or sublime experience in space-time.

But the “blissful” nature of Pure Existence-Consciousness comes from the fact it is infinite and as such, completely unlacking and complete in-itself.

Since nothing is apart from Pure Existence-Consciousness, it could not be anything but perfect in itself, and thus blissfully free of any need to be anything but complete within-itself as Pure Existence, Pure Presence.

Why do we not know about this ultimate reality? Why don’t we experience ourselves as One with everything, infinite, eternal, and all-pervasive? Because we are ignorant of our True Nature, which is identical with Brahman.

This is the surprising conclusion of Vedanta: We ourselves always already are this Absolute Reality!

And it is not the case that there are multiple Pure Consciousnesses. For how could an infinite unbound perfection of pure existence admit of any distinction or separation into distinct parts? It is just pure Oneness, and the Pure One Consciousness that we are is all-pervasive in the cosmos and the cosmos is all-pervasive in us.

This is the nature of nonduality: non-twoness.

Non-twoness is the literal definition of Advaita. Thus, Advaita Vedanta becomes the final endpoint of a process of philosophical Self-inquiry that slices through a dark cloud of ignorance to reveal the ultimate ontological ground of reality, Pure Consciousness.

The release of this ignorance is freedom.

Related Links

Advaita Vedanta: Why You Are Not Your Body

The Negative Theology of Advaita Vedanta

What Is Brahman In Advaita Vedanta?

Christianity and Advaita Vedanta: The Kingdom of God is Within

The Future of Christianity is Advaita Vedanta

Advaita Vedanta and the Ontological Argument

15 thoughts on “From Physicalism to the Pure Consciousness of Vedanta”

  1. Hi Rachel,
    I’d love to believe this, but you’re just offering your own conversion experience,
    which is no more persuasive than an evangelical Christian’s, Catholic’s, Muslim’s, or Nazi’s.
    Are you sure you’re distinguishing between subjective experience and objective metaphysics?

    • Of course I am offering my mystical conversion experience. I have nothing else to offer. I have absolutely zero desire to persuade anyone of anything. When it comes to theology, persuasion is a pointless exercise for if something does not resonate with one’s own personal worldview and lived experience, someone else’s mystical experiences are meaningless. I am dealing with realms that must be experienced; theological squabbles are for academic logic chopping but they do not convert someone from one fundamental worldview to another fundamental worldview. You cannot experience the truth of someone else’s experience. One must experience your own experience. If your own deepest experience resonates with physicalism or agnosticism or atheism or whatever else, that is your truth and I am happy you have found it and I hope it brings you peace and joy and contentment.

  2. OK, thanks. You seem to concede that this is a matter of personal phenomenology rather than objective fact. Would you you agree that the other ideologies I mentioned have just as much claim to validity as yours?

    • Well, Nazism is a political ideology and political ideology has nothing to do with phenomenology or spiritual/mystical experience. Furthermore, I am of the belief that the “proof of the pudding” of genuine spiritual experience is that one manifests deep ethical behavior in your life and selfless love for humanity. Frankly, Nazism seems to be the opposite of that so I would be extremely skeptical of anyone who claimed that mystical experience led them to believe in the truth of the political ideology of Nazism. That seems like a spiritual oxymoron as far as I am concerned insofar as for me the essence of spirituality is univeralist and seeing the divinity in all beings while Nazism ideology is inherently divisive and exclusivist. And as far as Islam and Christianity, I am a cosmopolitan perennialist and believe there is an esoteric core at the heart of every exoteric religion and as Meister Eckhart said, while theologians may bicker, mystics all speak the same language.

  3. Rather than antagonizing, Godwin, let’s switch to, say, Born Again Christianity. Does that speak the same language as yours?

    • The central figure at the heart of born again Christianity is Jesus, who by any stretch of the imagination was a great mystic and sage who taught a Wisdom tradition. Was it not Jesus who said “The Father and I are One” and “the Kingdom of God is within”? From those two lines alone one can construct an entire esoteric vision of Christianity that is quite mystical and “speaking the same language” as Vedanta. Furthermore, the very idea of spiritual re-birth is a mystical idea for is that not just a process of realizing God? Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount that those who are pure in heart will see God. He didn’t say “will go to Heaven when they die.” He said those with spiritual purity and discipline, embodying Christ consciousness, will see God, or realize God. That is very Vedantic. But yeah, most “born again Christians” would deny all this and say it’s devil worship. But that’s ok. It’s possible for the exoteric and dogmatic trappings of religion to the quite different from the underlying spiritual and esoteric core of those teachings which, as Jesus said, can only be heard by those “with ears to hear.”

  4. Nice answer. How broad are you willing to go here? Are poetry or music etc. also the same language? Does one have to believe in a nonphysical plane of existence? Or can one just enjoy the ecstasy of an elevated consciousness?

    • I am willing to take it to the final logical conclusion which is that everything in all of existence is speaking the same language for those who have ears to hear.

      Rumi said “silence is the language of god, all else is poor translation”

      That mystical sound of silence? If we stop to listen closely in the depths of present awareness, we come to find that holy silence vibrating throughout the whole cosmos, at every level of reality, interpenetrating our mental and physical existence. Those are lofty thoughts and hard to maintain when I am, e.g. in a business meeting or bickering with my spouse, but that is the goal, that is the ideal: to tune our ears to hear those vibrations echoing in all things, and certainly in all religions.

    • Physicalism says the super-physical does not exist but it’s own definition necessarily contains the term “physical” and is thus patently question begging and circular.

      For if you say, “all that exists is the physical” it raises the ultimate question: well, what is the ultimate ontological nature of “the physical”? What IS the physical?

      One might say, “the physical is all that exists,” which now immediately opens the door to the Vedantic line of inquiry which starts with the question? What is existence? What is existence in itself? What is being itself? What is pure being?

      And if we think deeply about pure being, we know it to exist insofar as we can experience it in our present conscious awareness. That’s our only epistemic access to it: through consciousness. Ahh! But now consciousness has entered into the picture for what is the nature of the subject that is aware of pure being? It cannot itself be just another object because that would lead to an infinite regress.

      Thus, any analysis of physicalism that starts from the phenomenological perspective will lead to an infinite regress that ends in pure subjectivity, which is consciousness. And by definition subjectivity cannot be objectivity. So the physical cannot be all that exists and immediately disproves itself upon phenomenological analysis.

      This might be considered a Vedantic version of the ontological argument.

  5. “Physicalism says the super-physical does not exist but it’s own definition necessarily contains the term “physical” and is thus patently question begging and circular.”

    Nice try, but there’s no one line refutation of physicalism (or of almost anything else).

    “For if you say, “all that exists is the physical” it raises the ultimate question: well, what is the ultimate ontological nature of “the physical”? What IS the physical?”

    If you don’t think “physicalism” is even a meaningful term, why bother opposing it? What’s your definition of “physicalism”?

    “And if we think deeply about pure being, we know it to exist insofar as we can experience it in our present conscious awareness.”

    But is our subjective experience probative for ontology? I think not.

    Btw, what’s wrong with an infinite regress? Who’s afraid of infinity?

    My main question: what’s your definition of “physicalism”, this thing that you oppose so vehemently?

  6. Let me offer a sociological explanation for your phenomenological experience.
    1. Post-colonial Indian knowledge system long ago abandoned empirical science ( post-Gupta age probably) . They become increasingly absorbed with logic, mathematics, epistemology, Upanishadic metaphysics of self.
    2.Meanwhile, natural philosophy of West gave rice to empirical science in proper sense of the term. Newtownian mechanics soon overwhelmed western philosophy and gave rise to Comtean Positivist optimism sidelining occasional Kierkegaard-type Agony.
    3. This natural science came India ( for that matter in all non-west world) via colonialism. This science was welcomed cautiously by Sanskritists( i. e. Indian philosophers-elites) as they see it instrument of oppression.
    3. Meantime, Post-Newton, Laplacian demon, Mendeleev’s periodic table, Mendel’s Gene ,Hslden’s evolution, Neil Bhor’s quatum world , Einstein’s relativistic cosmos, Crick’s DNA…western world’s idealistic philosophy has been on it’s way to graveyard.
    3. This scienctic development has had no crisis in idealistic philosophy of India. As it comes to impact them secondarily.
    4.Western philosophers meantime has “eliminated ” metaphysics by “Analytics “, introduced “Verufuability” and “falsifiability criteria”. Western Theologians also became ” Analytic” by churning out ” skeptical theism” and “Kalam argument”. . Naturally spritual debasement is complete.
    5. Non-western world or “East”ern spritual doctrines remains “pristine” attracting christendom’s demography facilitated by their relative economic prosperity which gave them enough “Surplus time”.

    • Post script..
      It would be ” pre-colonial” not ” post” as colour 1 suggest above.

      Let me say from Indian perspective what’s going on here..
      Here There is no philosophers post-independence. Even ” contemporary Indian philosophers ” like Aurobindo Ghosh or Swami vivekananda…they are repeating what Upanishada has said long ago.
      Here can you tell me any Indian philosopher in 21st century worth its name ( save “scholar-philosophers” scholastics of , Ramkrishna mission and Hare Krishna movement and Amartya sen)??
      No, there is none.
      What you see as Pristine workd free from western materialist premise, actually it’s “philosophical stagnation”. Here there are no competing group of “philosophers of consciousness ” ( physicalists, panpsychists , illusionists, epiphenomalists etc).. debating fiercely with each other. Here everybody believes in Advaita panpsychism, if you believe otherwise you will be termed as ” western stoong” ” slavish mentality” or ” anti-hindu”.. But ironically it’s Indian philosophers who first asserted ” physicalism” in ancient Indian ( Charvaka school of Indian Darsana) .
      But they have been marginalised so far as we have no texts of them ( except Jayrasi’s texts).

  7. “Let me offer a sociological explanation for your phenomenological experience.”

    Mine or Rachel’s?

    Anyway, I’m not sure sociology can explain phenomenology.


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