Reality, Consciousness, and Universe

— Swami Vireshananda —

The modern scientific age began when Nicholas Copernicus proposed that the earth revolves around the sun. His ideas were later improvised by scientists like Kepler, Galileo, and notably by Isaac Newton, who discovered laws that governed the motion of the physical bodies and the law of gravitation. Further, James Clerk Maxwell showed that magnetism and electricity too could be deduced by a set of equations. The philosophical implication of these scientific developments is that the whole universe is determined by physical laws. This is called the principle of determinism. This law was prevalent in scientific circles up to the end of the 19th Century.[1]

Then, a major revolution took place in the form of quantum theory. It rejects determinism by proposing three basic principles: indeterminacy, complementarity, and superposition. Indeterminism, in contrast to determinism, holds that events in the universe have no certain outcomes and the entire outcome of anything is probabilistic. Complementarity proposes that two contradictory theories, like the wave and particle theories of light, will be able to explain a set of phenomena, although each theory accounts for only some features of light. One cannot observe these aspects simultaneously, though they together present a full picture. In some systems, entities like atoms can be in two simultaneous states. The principle of superposition states that such possibilities are ontologically real.[2]

The Reality of Physical World

Some implications of quantum theory are even more radical. The classical sciences took it for granted that the physical things are as they ‘really are’. Their goal was to substantiate the ontological reality of the physical world. Quantum physics deviated from this general presumption and stated that the very act of measuring or observing an object often profoundly alters its state. A physical object, in this theory, becomes just an ‘observable’, losing its independent state of ‘physical reality’.

In 1961, a Hungarian American physicist Eugene Wigner proposed a thought experiment, called ‘Wigner’s friend’, in which he showed that it is possible for different people to experience different realities while observing the same entity. In 2018, Massimiliano Proietti of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and his colleagues were able to experimentally demonstrate Wigner’s thought experiment by creating different irreconcilable realities and comparing them. This, according to them, called for questioning the very objective status of facts established by two different observers. Also, it became clear that two contradictory realities can coexist independently without influencing each other. This created a doubt among scientists if there is anything like objective reality which everyone agrees on. Proietti and his colleagues suggested that no such common objective reality exists.[3]

Consciousness and Universe[4]

There are two major views among scientists regarding consciousness and its relationship with the universe. Some say that consciousness emerges from the functions of the brain, while others say that consciousness is independent of matter, including the brain. The first view is epiphenomenal, that is, consciousness is a secondary effect of physical phenomena. The second view is panpsychism, which holds an idealistic view that all physical matter is really consciousness; the material world is but an illusion.

There are various theories as to how consciousness arises from brain actions. The earliest view was that consciousness somehow emerges from complex computation among simple neurons. This is called brain as computer view. It accounts for non-conscious cognitive functions. However, cognitive functions like thought and understanding are non-computable and hence cannot be explained by the above theory. Scientists like Roger Penrose propose biomolecular computing in the brain to explain cognitive functions, in which microtubules act like computers. Microtubules are microscopic hollow tubes made of proteins. They are part of the cytoskeleton, a network of protein filaments that extends throughout a biological cell that gives the cell shape and keeps its parts in place. Chris King, a scientist from New Zealand, even suggests that subjective consciousness as the cosmological foundation is also an inherent property of the brain.

In contrast to the above views, Walter J Christensen Jr argues that the universe has a cosmological memory which he attributes to the cosmic consciousness. According to him, ‘cosmic consciousness means any cosmological system that requires both memory and choice to operate it’ (ibid., 63). Through this, he proposes a cosmological model relating to memory, choice, and entropy, which are necessarily conscious.

Basing their definition of consciousness as containing thoughts, sensations, perceptions, moods, emotions, dreams, and awareness of Self, Edger D Mitchell and Robert Staretz suggest that the whole of creation learns, self-corrects, and evolves as a self-organising, interconnected holistic system. They conclude that the universe we live in is: 1. Self-organising, 2. Intelligent, 3. Creative, 4. Subject to trial and error, 5. Interactive, 6. Learning, 7. Participatory, 8. Evolving, 9. Interconnected beyond time and space, and lastly, 10. Exhibit quantum characteristics. In all, the universe is a living, evolving, and adopting universe of which we are not only a part but inner connected with everything else in it; interconnectedness and oneness being two fundamental characteristics of the universe.

‘How does consciousness become the physical universe?’—Some scientists like Menas Kafatos, Rudolph E Tanzi, and Deepak Chopra have tried to answer it in the light of quantum theory. According to them, the most critical aspects of consciousness are to be viewed in the recent developments in the intersection of quantum theory, biology, neuroscience, and philosophy of mind. Classical Science is based on the dichotomy between subject and object, and studies nature as only an external objective reality, relegating the role of observer to a secondary irrelevant entity. In their view, ‘the subject-object dichotomy is false to begin with and that consciousness is primary in the cosmos, not just an epiphenomenon of physical processes in a nervous system’ (ibid., 111). They have also come to a radical conclusion that consciousness is not just a human attribute:

It was ‘there’ ‘before’ those two words had any meaning. In essence, space and time are conceptual artefacts that sprang from primordial consciousness. The reason that the human mind meshes with nature, mathematics, and the fundamental forces described by physics is no accident; we mesh because we are a product of the same conceptual expansion by which primordial consciousness turned into the physical world (ibid., 116).

There are differences among scientists about the nature of consciousness as a non-physical cosmic entity. However, those who profess this idea have two major theories: 1. The universe is an organic system imbued with consciousness. 2. The whole cosmos itself is primarily consciousness.

The Universe as an Integrated Living System

This idea is expressed even in the earliest hymns of the Vedas. However, in the ‘Antaryāmi Brāhmaṇa’ section of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the knowledge of each particle having consciousness as an underlying principle has been explicitly spelt out. The word ‘Antaryāmi’ succinctly implies the essence of this section. It means the Internal Ruler, which is the inner essence of Sutra, the cosmic filament or the principle, that pervades the whole universe. The word signifies two aspects of the principle: who is within the Sutra and controls the Sutra. The Upanishad gives several illustrations of Antaryāmi, of which the first one is as follows: ‘He who inhabits the earth, but is within it, who the earth does not know, whose body is the earth, and who controls the earth from within, is the Antaryāmi, your own immortal Self.’[5]

After numerous illustrations of this type, the Upanishad unambiguously states that Antaryāmi is the pure consciousness, ‘which is never seen, but is the Witness; He is never heard, but is the Hearer; He is never thought, but is the Thinker; He is never known, but is the knower. There is no other witness but Him, no other hearer but Him, no other thinker but Him. He is the Antaryāmi, your own immortal Self. Everything else but He is mortal.’[6]

This section corroborates with the view that consciousness is the living force of the entire universe. Hence, the cosmos is not physical, but an integral organic system. It also states that the same consciousness is the real nature of a human being, who takes the role of an observer in the quantum system.

The Universe as Consciousness Entity

Some scientists, as we have seen in the earlier section, have put forward an extremely idealistic view of the universe as consciousness, without leaving any role for the physical objects in determining reality. This finds resonance with the theory of ‘Ajāti Vāda’, expressed by Sri Gaudapada in his well-known Mandukya Karika, the explanatory verses on the Mandukya Upanishad. Vijñānavāda, an Idealistic school of Buddhism, also proposes a similar idea but it associates consciousness with the vijñāna, a momentary mental mode. Gaudapada has shown plainly the distinction between these two classic philosophical theories in his work, the closer look of which is essential to know the subtle nuances of each view.

First, Gaudapada takes into consideration the opinion of the realists, who advocate physical objects outside the purview of consciousness. They contend that every kind of awareness or consciousness should have a cause. Hence, we have to admit the existence of the physical objects, being the cause of the awareness. In other words, the production of consciousness is feasible only with physical reality. This opinion is repudiated by adherents of Vijñānavāda, who argue that the external object, which is supposed to be the cause of the knowledge, itself has no existence from the standpoint of ultimate reality. How? Sri Shankaracharya explains this: If the reality is pursued successively till words and notions cease, one does not perceive any external cause of knowledge at all. An example is cited to this effect: A jar, which is supposed to be the cause of the knowledge of jar has no reality apart from mud, its cause. As we go on to pursue reality in this manner, we end up with ad infinitum. Hence, no cause of knowledge can be perceived in the physical plane. So, the Buddhists declare that the vijñāna, the consciousness in the form of mental mode has no contact with objects and hence, an object has no existence.

The Advaita Vedantins persist on this matter and argue further that even a false apprehension of the illusory object in the form of a mental mode is also not possible. They conceive of independent consciousness, which does not have any contact with the so-called ‘mind’. They also contend that if objects are false, the knowledge about the object is also false. Hence, the apprehension of such false knowledge in the form of Vijñāna is also false. Sri Gaudapada summarises his conclusion in this phrase: ‘Tasmānna jāyate cittam cittadṛśyam na jāyate; therefore, neither the mind nor the objects perceived by the mind are ever born.’[7] This is the essence of Ajāti Vāda proposed by him.

Then what is the absolute reality, the substratum of all unreal ideas of creation and the like? Sri Gaudapada describes it in glowing terms:

It is consciousness—birthless, motionless and non-material, as well as tranquil and non-dual—which has the semblance of birth, appears to move, and simulates a substance.

This duality, possessed of subject and object, is a mere vibration of consciousness. And Consciousness is objectless; hence It is declared to be eternally without relations (ibid., 4.45, 72).

However, this Advaitic view does not find acceptance among scientists who would not extend their idea of consciousness beyond the ‘cognitive apprehension’, called in common language as ‘the mind’. They, by doing so, fail to appreciate the fact that the mind, which is but an apprehension of ‘false’ external objects, itself is false and hence, the ‘real’ consciousness should be traced to an independent entity.

The Problem of the Subject-Object Dichotomy

Quantum physics gives an idea of reality different from that of classical physics. This is called the Quantum paradigm, where the paradigm refers to the structure of the Reality we experience. In essence, the Quantum paradigm is contradictory to the classical paradigm.

In the classical view, there is a definite dichotomy between the subject (observer) and the object (observed). The assumption is made that the objective side of reality can be studied independently not taking into consideration the interface between the observer and observed (subject-object). Further, subjective consciousness involved in the process is conceived as having emerged from the brain and can be reduced to the objective.

In the quantum paradigm, according to a section of quantum theorists, the area of happening is a fundamental awareness, in which the mind (subject), matter (object), individual and collective, time and space—all arise depending on each other. The next step would be in knowing that the ‘elaboration of the Quantum Paradigm is a transition from the relational perspective of individual minds to the nondual One Mind cosmology.’[8]

Sri Shankaracharya, the doyen of Advaita Vedanta, has evaluated the subject-object dichotomy in the eighth century itself. In his ‘Adhyāsa Bhāshya’, the masterly exposition of superimposition between the Self, a consciousness entity, and the non-Self, an unconscious entity, the Acharya elucidates that Adhyāsa or superimposition is but an illusion that causes a false understanding of this universe as objective. He begins this short essay, which forms the introduction to his commentary to Brahma Sutra, with a counter-argument that suggests that such Adhyāsa is not at all plausible being illogical and inconsistent. The reason is that consciousness and unconsciousness have opposite characteristics and hence, cannot superimpose on each other. However, the Acharya argues that without such a superimposition, the ideas like ‘I am a man, I am blind’ and the like are impossible to construe. Though ideally, Adhyāsa is impossible to occur, it is a fact that we experience in our daily life.

Further, Sri Shankaracharya says that Adhyāsa is tantamount to Avidyā, the ignorance of one’s own real nature as the Self—the pure consciousness. The knowledge of the oneness of Atman (individual Self) and Brahman (Supreme Self) is the only panacea for the removal of Avidyā. This makes one realise that the Reality constitutes only consciousness and nothing else.[9]

It is interesting to note the Acharya’s assertion is similar to that of the Quantum paradigm, which states that it is on the fundamental awareness that all happenings are possible. Erwin Schrodinger, one of the pioneers of Quantum physics, echoes the same idea when he says: ‘The world is given to me only once, not one existing and one perceived. Subject and object are only one.’[10]


In his ground-breaking work What is Life?’, Schrodinger says:

The earliest records to my knowledge date back some 2,500 years or more. From the early great Upanishads, the recognition atman = brahman upheld in (the personal self equals the omnipresent, all-comprehending eternal self) was in Indian thought considered, far from being blasphemous, to represent the quintessence of deepest insight into the happenings of the world. The striving of all the scholars of Vedanta was, after having learnt to pronounce with their lips, really to assimilate in their minds this grandest of all thoughts.[11]

He also emphasises that consciousness is never experienced in the plural, but only in the singular. Swami Vivekananda says: ‘When it is said that the same power which is manifesting itself in the flower is welling up in my own consciousness, it is the very same idea which the Vedantist wants to preach, that the reality of the external world and the reality of the internal world are one and the same.’[12]

This central teaching of Vedanta expressed by Swamiji in such a wonderful manner finds resonance with what quantum theory seems to be indicating.


[1] See Alastair I M Rae, Quantum Physics: Illusion or Reality? (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 2.

[2] See ‘Quantum Physics and Consciousness: A (strong) Defense of Panpsychism’ by Carlos Eduardo Maldonado, <>.

[3] See ‘Quantum Physics: Our study suggests objective reality doesn’t exist’ by Alessandro Fedrizzi and Massimiliano Proietti, <>.

[4] For a detailed discussion on the themes discussed in this section, see ‘Consciousness and the Universe: Quantum Physics, Evolution, Brain & Mind’ (Cambridge, MA, US: Cosmology Science Publishers, 2017).

[5] Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 3.7.3.

[6] Ibid., 3.7.23.

[7] Mandukya Karika, 4.28.

[8] For a detailed discussion, see ‘The Quantum Paradigm and Challenging the Objectivity Assumption’, George Weissmann and Cynthia Sue Larson, Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, 13/2 (2017).

[9] See Adhyasa Bhashya of Sri Shankaracharya.

[10] ‘The Quantum Paradigm and Challenging the Objectivity Assumption’, 286.

[11] Erwin Schrodinger, What Is Life? (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies at Trinity College, Dublin, 1944).

[12] The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), ‘Vedanta and Privilege’, 1.419.

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