You might think that digital technologies, often considered a product of ‘the West’, would hasten the divergence of Eastern and Western philosophies. But within the study of Vedanta, an ancient Indian school of thought, I see the opposite effect at work. Thanks to our growing familiarity with computing, virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI), ‘modern’ societies are now better placed than ever to grasp the insights of this tradition.
Vedanta summarises the metaphysics of the Upanishads, a clutch of Sanskrit religious texts, likely written between 800 and 500 BCE. They form the basis for the many philosophical, spiritual and mystical traditions of the Indian sub-continent. The Upanishads were also a source of inspiration for some modern scientists, including Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg, as they struggled to comprehend quantum physics of the 20th century.
The Vedantic quest for understanding begins from what it considers the logical starting point: our own consciousness. How can we trust conclusions about what we observe and analyse unless we understand what is doing the observation and analysis? The progress of AI, neural nets and deep learning have inclined some modern observers to claim that the human mind is merely an intricate organic processing machine – and consciousness, if it exists at all, might simply be a property that emerges from information complexity.
However, this view fails to explain intractable issues such as the subjective self and our experience of qualia, those aspects of mental content such as ‘redness’ or ‘sweetness’ that we experience during conscious awareness. Figuring out how matter can produce phenomenal consciousness remains the so-called ‘hard problem’.
Vedanta offers a model to integrate subjective consciousness and the information-processing systems of our body and brains. Its theory separates the brain and the senses from the mind. But it also distinguishes the mind from the function of consciousness, which it defines as the ability to experience mental output.
We’re familiar with this notion from our digital devices. A camera, microphone or other sensors linked to a computer gather information about the world, and convert the various forms of physical energy – light waves, air pressure-waves and so forth – into digital data, just as our bodily senses do. The central processing unit processes this data and produces relevant outputs. The same is true of our brain. In both contexts, there seems to be little scope for subjective experience to play a role within these mechanisms.
While computers can handle all sorts of processing without our help, we furnish them with a screen as an interface between the machine and ourselves. Similarly, Vedanta postulates that the conscious entity – something it terms the atma – is the observer of the output of the mind. The atma possesses, and is said to be composed of, the fundamental property of consciousness. The concept is explored in many of the meditative practices of Eastern traditions.
You might think of the atma like this. Imagine you’re watching a film in the cinema. It’s a thriller, and you’re anxious about the lead character, trapped in a room. Suddenly, the door in the movie crashes open and there stands… You jump, as if startled. But what is the real threat to you, other than maybe spilling your popcorn?
By suspending an awareness of your body in the cinema, and identifying with the character on the screen, we are allowing our emotional state to be manipulated. Vedanta suggests that the atma, the conscious self, identifies with the physical world in a similar fashion.
This idea can also be explored in the all-consuming realm of VR. On entering a game, we might be asked to choose our character or avatar – originally a Sanskrit word, aptly enough, meaning ‘one who descends from a higher dimension’. In older texts, the term often refers to divine incarnations.
However, the etymology suits the gamer, as he or she chooses to descend from ‘normal’ reality and enter the VR world. Having specified our avatar’s gender, bodily features, attributes and skills, next we learn how to control its limbs and tools. Soon, our awareness diverts from our physical self to the VR capabilities of the avatar.