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Chapter 3: Consciousness a Function of the Brain Alone?

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3 Is Consciousness a Function of the Brain Alone?

Is consciousness a function of the brain alone, that can not exist when and where there is no physical brain? Is consciousness only a property of individual beings with a mind, or also for those who have no mind and/or nervous system? Does consciousness exist outside the framework of organic chemistry and organisms?

Function of consciousness in plants


Are plants conscious?

If consciousness and life are emerging factors from physical matter and a function of complexity, it means that consciousness has been inherent or potential in physical matter always. If there ever was a big bang or any other physical protocosmos, the possibility of conscious being must already have been locked up in the extremely dense matter that banged. It would be only an issue of time before it would be released and come to the surface. Manifested consciousness, then, would only be released by chance – and it might never have happened if their would not have occurred a ‘happy accident’ along the line of the processes of matter. In one sense it was indeed locked up within the primitive matter which was to become the physical universe. Because in the very properties of atomic and subatomic matter lies the option of becoming useful for that purpose. Higher, spiritual consciousness could not have manifested through matter if matter would not have had a reflection of universal consciousness within itself. How else could the two have communicated – ‘recognized each other’ if they are not identical in essence?

Function of consciousness in minerals

Mineral consciousness

Are minerals conscious?

Do plants and minerals have consciousness?

In an ancient Jain scripture, the Ācārāṅga Sūtra, in its original (lost) form supposedly composed in the 5th or 4th Century BCE, the commonness of the plant body and the human body has been stressed, thus emphasizing that both are expressions of an inner being:

I say – This human body …, so is this plant”:

This human body is born, so does this plant’s body; this human body grows, so does this plant’s body; this human body is sensitive, so is this plant’s body; this human body withers when damaged, so does this plant’s body; this human body has food intake, so has this plant’s body; this human body decays, so does this plant’s body; this human body is not permanent, neither is this plant’s body; this human body gets strong with nutrition, so does this plant’s body; this human body undergoes many changes, so is does this plant’s body. (AS 5:46)

One point mentions that the plant’s body is sensitive, as is the human body. From that ancient point of view – and many other pre-modern points of view, like those of Native Americans – all living beings are expressions of an inner being – a soul, inner god, god spark, etc. etc. According to the Jains, like many others, and Theosophists, plants have ‘feelings’ – i.e. conscious awareness and an innate desire to express themselves and, either to a small or in gradation to a much larger extend, are aware of an external world. The fact that plants have developed a tremendous amount of technologies to attract insects, or make use of wind, water and the physical properties of the environment to serve their procreation, and to express the ‘importance’ they attach to that in most elaborate, fine, beautiful and sophisticated sexual organs, could neo-Darwinistically be explained as a result of unguided genetic mutations and blind processes; but does not that seem like stretching western scientific beliefs too far – even into absurdity? Would it not be more acceptable if a conscious inner impulse of an living individual, a living soul-substance, is the source of all that? It seems that only consciousness would wish to express beauty, joy – which can be recognized by other consciousnesses.

If we say soul-substance, we wish to express that jīva or ‘soul’ or consciousness is not something ‘mystical’ or vague. There are a hierarchy of substances in the universe, of which the physical substance of modern astronomy and physics is but one. Subtler or ‘dark’ substances and energies are just as real, and have their properties which can be studied. In more refined substance – call it astral or ethereal to use generalizing term – processes could be quicker, less hampered by the sloth or resistance as we know from physical matter. Subtler substances are said to be immediately pliable to mind and the energy of will. There is no reason to attribute a maximum speed such as that of physical electromagnetism to other levels of substance in the universe. We can regard ‘mind’ and ‘desire’ as much as a substance as we regard ‘matter’ as a substance. All substances are derived from each other and forming and expressing different levels – like different octaves in music. Therefore they can communicate. If there were no relatedness, even identity, of the different levels, communication would not be possible. Nothing would ever be able to understand anything of the other. There is absolutely no need to explain every phenomenon of the universe in terms of our wellknown lethargic physical matter only. An occult scientist does not frown when he hears, for example, about instant communication between entangled units of fine matter. It is just a result of a law of nature at work outside the grasp of the property or retardation that works in the physical phase of substance. What has by many been called the divine is just a lofty, conscious, non-ignorant, fine substance – of which beings on that high and beautiful and wise level of accomplishment are composed.

As far as the physical body of beings is concerned, the more complex ones need a genetic structure, mostly DNA – as in plants, but not (yet) in minerals. Minerals can do with the inherent properties of atoms and electricity to build their bodies – and even so they can express phenomena that we humans tend to recognize as universal beauty. Spiritually, they know what we know. Individually they still have to find more sophisticated technologies of expression. In a more primitive or dormant sense than plants, the same applies to minerals. They have an inner desire, expressing itself in their external form. According to the Jain scholars of several millennia ago, this involves one active type of sense perception. Both plants and minerals have bodies, they have consciousness in their own world, both are the result of action, vibration, desire, of the jīva within. So have we humans, and so are we humans.

It should be pointed out that the number and type of fields over which consciousness stretches itself out, has noting directly to do with the intensity of the experienced consciousness. Beings may perceive impulses in a dull and sleepy way, or perhaps in an intensity much larger than what we are aware of in our human life. This would include the possibility that some creatures other than humans may be much more intensely aware of colors, sounds, tastes, smells and feelings, of pain and joy and of forms of consciousness that we may not know of from our own experience, such as electric perception and side-line feelings of fishes. There could be innumerable types of sensations in the universe of which we can not form the slightest imagination. Their awareness may be dull, or perhaps tens or hundreds or thousands of times more intense than ours – in some field, or in all fields where consciousness resides. What do we know about the types of consciousness, awareness and intensity an insect may experience, and enjoy or suffer? What do we know about the types of consciousness, awareness and intensity living beings on other planets in other galaxies may experience, and enjoy and suffer?

Plants, one stage further in evolution on this earth than minerals, need a genetic code to organize the more complex structures they need to actively perceive and interact with the environment. But plants, though they have developed awareness, have not yet developed personal desires, for the fulfillment of which they would need an instrument to move and go out actively to fulfill such desires. Animals have. So animals need a nervous system – plants don’t. In plants we find only a precursor of a nervous system, as also inside individual living cells of any species in nature since the earliest phases of evolution. In plants we find only slow processes of data transfer from cell to cell, only slightly developed in a tissue for that purpose – so that all leaflets of a touch-me-not can bow down in time when another nearby part of the plant is hit by a first raindrop. Plants also recognize light, and many flowers open and close in direct reaction to intensity of light. There are other examples in the plant kingdom. This needs some data transfer from one place to another, to bring about the movement by cells specialized in the movement of leaves or petals etc.

In early stages of animal evolution, the jīva or soul or inner living being of these life-forms stretched out further into the environment and went out to actively perceive, investigate and act there. They need not only to touch the environment, but also reach out to be aware of it chemically – in fluid or gaseous form, i.e. taste and smell – electro-magnetically, i.e. light, and ‘etherically’, i.e. sound. They develop sophisticated systems to move their bodies to desires places, and thus need muscles, nerves, circulatory systems etc. They develop, according to the ‘con-sciousnessfirst axiom’, according to the promptings arising from their inner consciousness.

The field is which consciousness is active can be summarized as follows: 1) that of physical or metaphysical contact (feeling, i.e. perception of external, coarse vibratory qualities of materials); 2) and 3) the chemical – i.e. recognition of the inner (chemical) vibratory qualities of materials in fluid or gaseous form, 4) electromagnetically, i.e. the recognition of the vibrations of particles more refined than molecules and atoms, viz. photons, and 5) the field of sound, which is in its material reflection the information contained in the relative movement of the gas molecules of the air or of the electrified information in an electric wire or carrier wave, but occultly is a vibration still more subtle than light, namely a vibration of ether – the fifth element, beyond electromagnetism (the fourth element). The jīva, the living, conscious essence of each and every being explores ever further – and this is called evolution – rolling forth out of latency of inherent possibilities.

For locomotion the jīva needs a nervous structure – to start with simple nerve cells and their knots or ganglia, then becoming more and more sophisticated in evolution. Again, there is no necessary relation between the intensity of their world of experience and the primitivity and complexity of the systems they develop – which after all is only an instrument to be used in a particular environment. A higher mind is not necessary for locomotion – only a nervous complexity to process increasingly complex desires. The mammal and human type of mind are only required later, when an inner urge surfaces to know and understand begins to surface. Still later, beyond the monkey stage, when the jīva, after all its accumulated experience by means of the senses, vitalities and desires is ready to ponder its own reason for existence and origin and purpose – i.e. self-consciousness – and becomes awed about the divine essence and workings of the larger world or universe, and ponders whether he himself is a derivative or part of that: only then a sophisticated cerebral nervous system is needed. The complex human brain is merely a precipitation in physical matter of the channels the consciousness chooses to follow in its inner urge or kāma towards understanding the world around and within, including itself.

Here I must make a side note though. The desire into this direction by the inner jīva is far greater than what the human personal mind can handle. But the physical brain may have inherent possibilities to form trillions of still undeveloped connections between concepts. That is why the head of Einstein, or even the Buddha or Kapila or whatever great saint is not significantly bigger than average. So even when we are still relatively ‘stupid’ in our understanding of the universe, we have the potency to develop almost infinitely farther, into mental powers and cultures of which we can hardly have a premonition today. Our brain system already contains that option, and our inner urges will develop it further, into more refinement, more subtle intelligence.

Jains state explicitly, based on their sophisticated metaphysical views of life, that plants and minerals have only one organ of sense. Primitive animals, like worms and no doubt many now only found in our oldest paleontological records, have developed a second sense, then follows the third sense in evolution, then vision, hearing and finally mental perception. The senses correspond with the elements earth, water, air, fire and ether (or ākāśa, quintessence). Still we know today that even unicellular mobile organism can perceive light and chemicals and choose their direction. Of course the ancient Jains also knew that plants react to sunlight, and that ants and bees show great intelligence. Also intelligence is reflected althrough in the very sophistication of the chemical structures of even the most primitive organisms like viruses and prokaryotes. Plants are known nowadays to communicate through chemical signals through the air or underground through their root systems. Native Americans know since the hoary past that plants (and animals) can also communicate metaphysically, even when there are no threats like predators. What the Jains want to express is correct from an occult point of view. Souls, jīvas, do want to express and experience, and therefore develop specialized organs for that purpose to work in the field on which they focus. It does not exclude other necessary perceptions needed for survival or functioning, but these are perhaps unconscious or only semi-conscious, like most of the processes in our own body take place automatically outside the field of our personal consciousness. Sometimes we humans even react before the impulse has reached and been understood by our personal consciousness – so processses which are not picked up by our center of consciousness (or ego in the philosophical sense) are very common in nature. There is a great, though not principle, difference between greater consciousness and limited, personal consciousness.

The Jain scientist of millennia ago have recognized or categorized plant consciousness as follows in the following ten instincts: food instinct, fear instinct, sexual instinct, attachment instinct, the instincts of anger, ego, deceit and greed, direction instinct and time instinct. It would be interesting to apply modern methods of investigation to see if these instincts indeed exist as separate, genetically and physiologically defined entities. If that is found, it would be as interesting as the discovery of the relation of different regions in the human and animal brain related to various functions and aspects of consciousness.

Within the same Jain system, scientists have recognized ten physical life-forces (dravya prāṇas). They are related to the five sense organs, the three capacities known as mind, speech, and body, and to breathing and lifespan. All living beings are endowed with at least four (the simplest life-forms) up to ten (humans) of these life forces. Of these, the one-sensed beings like minerals and plants have four prāṇas: lifespan, respiration, physical power and the first sense organ of physical perception – touch. Adding one prāṇa with each step of the ladder of evolution, sentient five-sensed beings, humans and the highest animals have all the ten prāṇas (the above plus those for the five sense organs of touch, taste, smell, seeing and hearing and vocal power and mental power). Prāṇas are the energies of life with a variety of characters which stream forth from the soul, the inner essence of each living being. Apart from these life-energies or dravya prāṇas the Jains also mention four types of bhāva prāṇas, i.e. mental or spiritual life forces. These are four types: knowledge, perception, conduct and potency (vīrya). Every being has these spiritual forces with a variation not in terms of numbers as in the case of physical prāṇas but in terms of intensity or degree. In general the almost dormant beings have a minimum intensity of knowledge etc., the next category of one-sensed beings have a little more and so on. (Bṛhat-saṅgrahaniratna)1

Occult science teaches not that consciousness is merely an arising property of physical matter. It teaches not that consciousness is merely the surfacing of an inherent potency of physical matter. In modern Theosophy and all older occult science-philosophies it is clearly stated that conscious and life are eternal, though periodical in their manifestation. Consciousness, however, needs to form a vehicle to express itself. Consciousness per se, without an object to be conscious of (not even itself) has no meaning for human understanding. But the vehicle does not have to exist of physical matter. As said earlier, Theosophy talks of seven different principles, unfolding themselves from the most spiritual principle, the cosmic Self or the individual ātman: the one from the other: from ātman to buddhi, from buddhi to manas or mind, from manas to kāma or desire, from desire to the vital, astral form, from astral form to physical form. Each principle has its ‘vehicle’ or upādhi of expression on its own level.

Ātman, individual consciousness/ life is the all-containing source for any individual living being. There are many vehicles of expression of consciousness on each on the seven mentioned levels. (Each level is subdivided in again seven levels, making 49, etc., so that each principle is present in each other principle and so on for each ‘sub-principle’.).

From a Theosophical point of view, the birth, growth, evolution, decay and death and rebirth of any universe is from its very first prenatal stage an awakening and enfoldment of consciousnesses and life – conscious living beings. However most of these are unknowable for our present instruments, and unknowable forever along this way. Their task is to help each other. They co-evolve. The lower in development serve as building materials for the higher. Atoms, or any subatomic ‘particle’, whether physical or finer (etheric, astral, ākāśic – to use various terms for related concepts) are themselves living beings with consciousness on their own level. They are brought together by higher and larger consciousnesses, such as the physical consciousness of the growing human body.

Mind – mental activity – is an expression or form of consciousness itself. So is desire, so is vitality. Mind, desire and vitality need vehicles to express. In living beings that have no physical bodies, the vehicles consist of subtler forms of matter, called astral, ākāśic, etc. In primitive physical beings, in which mind is latent or almost latent, vehicles will be rather simple. We see this reflected in for example worms and insects on our physical plain of being: all they need is a few ganglia, knots of nervous interfaces, which serve locomotion and physiology rather than conscious mind. Higher animals and men need more complex structures, called a nervous system and brains, notably a cerebrum on our physical plane for mammals and much more in humans.

But gods and humans after death and before their next birth are also conscious – the gods2 even on a far higher and sophisticated level than humans. They have either no physical brain or no brain at all. Animals or higher beings, like men, when disembodied use matter of a more subtle nature than physical matter. Gods, who are invisible, beings of a higher type, use still more subtle forms of matter. Lower beings in the evolutionary cycle than animals, such as plants and minerals (when embodied) are conscious on their own level, but seem to have nothing like a nervous system or even the simplest ganglia. Then there are even lower forms of existence (lower than minerals) which never have any physical body at all – they will develop such only in future evolution and repeatedly incarnate in them – only to leave these behind after long cycles of evolution once they have crossed through the human stage of evolution. As even every simple-minded clairvoyant can tell us, they are fully alive, have their own characters and habits, and can be ‘naughty’ or ‘friendly’. The field and forests and waters etc. are full or them. They show reactions, and attraction as well as repulsion.

Based on the above, consciousness is not an arising property of physical matter, nor is it dependent on physical matter, so it is not a product of physical and chemical complexity on our plane of existence. As long as we search for consciousness as derived from matter we will not find it. We see that modern scientific theories like relativity and quantum mechanics have not found even a hint of what consciousness actually is in their terms. Still these scientists are also struggling with the concept. Some adherents to the ‘holographic universe’ idea (briefly discussed at the end of this book) often recognize consciousness as a factor outside physical matter; but strictly they don’t know how to define and handle it.

No physical telescope has revealed the invisible beings of the type that are daily companions for clairvoyant people, and also for the dead after dissolution of their body. This seems to indicate that science is on the wrong path if it tries to explain the whole living and conscious universe with all its phenomena by studying physical matter only.

It is clearly stated in modern and ancient Theosophical literature, Jainism, Hinduism and other spiritual-philosophical doctrines that elemental beings – those which together we know as the elements (physical as well as subtle) – and minerals have a jīva or ātman or monad ((A unit, a one; something non-divisible and which is therefore conceived of as real, in contradistinction to compound things which (as compounds) are not real. Monads [jīvas] are the ultimate elements of the universe, spiritual-substantial entities, self-motivated, self-impelled, self-conscious, in infinitely varying degrees.)), i.e. a conscious life-essence. They certainly have no organic physical brain structure. Innumerable are the reports throughout history of ‘magicians’ or shamans who could communicate with such conscious intelligent but subhuman creatures and make them their servants. All acts of magic or ‘miracles’ are based on this principle. Consciousness communicates with consciousness – so a magician or scientist who applies his own consciousness has access to all conscious worlds within his possible level of understanding if he knows the right formulae. It is thus also possible, and scientifically understandable that some can communicate with the dead, or that books have been written about the events experienced after death and decay of their physical body far beyond what NDE3 reports can teach us.

The factor in all this is: Consciousness was first – vehicles are formed due to its needs.

It is only for the already high development of the human mind through innumerable life-times that a high quality cerebral brain has to be formed in order to function on the physical plain. Thus consciousness communicates with the physical plane. Thus it is explained that we see living conscious creatures walking and swimming and flying around on this our physical plain. All of them are expressions, i.e. particular individual consciousnesses, the multiplicity of, and within, the One Consciousness which is the source and essence of all.

Consciousness, even as we experience it in our daily life, for example as beauty or ugliness, truth of falsehood, joy or sorrow, is of a far more subtle nature than can be imagined as to be an arising property of gross ‘unconscious’ matter4Theosophy rejects the idea of anything being unconscious in the absolute sense. The Vedāntic idea of an Unconscious behind all manifestation reappeared in occidental philosophy in the nineteenth century, notably in that of Eduard von Hartmann ((Karl Robert Eduard von Hartmann (1842–1906) was a German philosopher. Through his first book, Philosophy of the Unconscious (1869) he became famous.)). Unconsciousness and consciousness are used in the occult literature with direct reference to human understanding, so that what we call ‘unconsciousness’ is merely consciousness on a plane so high, and with a range so vast, that human understanding cannot contain it. And what we call consciousness would be unconsciousness to less evolved beings because these cannot contain or understand our consciousness.

We may look upon spirit as being both conscious and unconscious: active spirit we would call the consciousness of spirit; but those incomprehensibly vast ranges of spirit beyond our power of understanding we would call inactive spirit, merely because we cannot comprehend it and therefore we say it is relatively non-existent, although actually being the basis of all being. This is why the universe through our telescopes largely looks empty.

Unconsciousness is often used in a relative sense, as for instance when we speak of the state of the first two and one half root-races5 as being one of mental torpor and unconsciousness, or in speaking of the three lower, i.e. elemental kingdoms in comparison with the higher kingdoms. Also what is called unconsciousness may be only lack of power to register a memory, as in the case of a mesmerized subject on being aroused, or a person waking from sleep.

I would like to add that matter without overruling consciousness works towards greater entropy – i.e. the state to which it is by its very nature attracted. Higher consciousness does exactly the opposite: it moves matter or any lower state of existence away from its normal lethargy, just as a music loving person is by his very nature attracted to music.

  1. Yashovijay, Muni Shri (Ed.): Bṛhatsaṅgrahaniratna. (See Bibliography). []
  2. According to Theosophy ‘gods’ (i.e. ‘dhyāni-chohans’ to use a Mahayana Buddhist term) have been humans in the far past, as much as humans have been animals in their level of consciousness (not our physical animals) in the far past. []
  3. NDE = Near Death Experience []
  4. ‘Unconscious’ in this sense is only relative, in comparison with higher expressions of consciousness, like that of our own. Unconsciousness in the philosophical sense is defined in the online Encyclopedic Theosophical Glossary as follows:  “The universe being a vast aggregation of conscious beings, only the one source of all is unconscious.” [Do not confuse this with the ‘unconsciousness’ of gross matter – Ed.] It is absolute being and consciousness, and these are absolute non-being and unconsciousness from the human standpoint. []
  5. A Theosophical term for early, pre-mental, stages of evolution of humankind on this planet. There are seven and seven within each seven stages of evolution. []
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