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Schouborg, Gary (2000).

"Critique of The Science of Enlightenment: Enlightenment, Liberation and God — A Scientific Explanation, by Nitin Trasi." Correspondence.



Thank you for the review copy you sent me of your: The Science of Enlightenment: Enlightenment, Liberation and God – A Scientific Explanation. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld, 1999, xvi + 320 pp. ISBN 81-246-0130-5. My comments are in two parts: the book's contributions and what remains for further inquiry.




The Science of Enlightenment provides a clear and systematic account of the Advaita Vedanta experience of pure consciousness. You provide a clear phenomenology of Enlightenment in common sense terms. By doing so, you go a long way toward achieving your goal "to demystify the entire subject of spirituality" (ix). Defining Enlightenment as seeing through the illusion of a separate self, and Liberation as the result of Enlightenment, you systematically and consistently weave those concepts throughout your exposition.


I particularly liked your distinction between necessary and unnecessary thinking, and their impact on unavoidable and avoidable suffering, respectively. Necessary thinking is "essential for day-to-day functioning of the individual (like crossing the road, or performing professional or technical duties)" (30). Unnecessary thinking is related to the illusion of a separate self, separate in two senses: "from the 'other' — which is the rest of the world, and with separate interests"; and "imagined to be distinct from, but inhabiting the body-mind complex" (31).


I profoundly agree that "ought" beliefs are a key example of unnecessary thinking and a key cause of avoidable suffering, and that in some sense Enlightenment is therefore "beyond morality" (88). Both your distinction and your linking it to emotions (72) pave the way for explaining how Enlightened Ones are not just passive creatures (65), but can participate in the real world in a uniquely detached way (91), so that "the Liberated One … lives in the everyday world, acting as if it is real, but knowing that it is not fully so" (43).


Your constant linking of your own formulations to those of well-known seers is illuminating in two ways: it clarifies their own statements and puts yours in historical perspective. Page after page, I thought how nice it would have been to have read your book at the beginning of my searching, how much confusion I would have been saved. If your book goes into a second edition, it would be helpful to include those sources in the Index.


Particularly insightful is your providing a naturalistic context within which to interpret the sages that you quote, thereby demystifying their formulations. Just one of many examples is your account of pure awareness (176-177). The naturalistic framework that you previously set out makes persuasive, or at least understandable, your interpretation of pure awareness not as some meta-physical, disembodied consciousness, but simply as consciousness devoid of unnecessary thinking. Similarly, throughout your book you make clear the difference in meaning a particular passage will have for the Enlightened compared to the average person.


Your naturalistic, demystifying approach thus provides for seekers a practical, common sense understanding of the Enlightenment process. There are two instances I particularly liked. First, you are the first person I've read who asserts that one does not necessarily require a guru to experience Enlightenment (129). I have always been chagrined to see authors flatly assert that one is needed, apparently not realizing the question-begging involved — if everyone needs a guru, where did the first guru come from? Second, in spite of the unpredictability of Enlightenment, you make it plausibly attainable by the Average Person and not just the spiritual genius. (It is unpredictable since one cannot achieve it at will [172-180]. Your analogy with a Gestalt shift [67] is helpful.)


Future Inquiry


Let me begin with a quibble over your claim to offer "for the first time a completely cohesive theory explaining spirituality" (ix). Even though you note some disagreement with Ken Wilber (175), I do not see how your theory is more "completely cohesive" than his, which you quote throughout your book.


My second quibble concerns your claim to offer a science of Enlightenment. I see your book as offering a helpful phenomenology -- i.e., a description of Enlightenment and related experiences. As such it is a naturalistic account, meaning one that avoids unnecessary metaphysical speculation and that adheres as closely as possible to human experience and to the scientific criteria of logical coherence and testability. However, although this paves the way for science, it is not yet itself science. There is really little actual science in your book, only some loose, though illuminating, references to it. Your references to quantum theory are speculative. Your argument that pure awareness is a function of the thalamus (123) is less so, but still is not scientifically convincing even though I find it intuitively plausible. Your account of the correlation of different brain waves with different conscious states (124-127) helps move us in the right direction.


In other words, I do not think you have achieved your goal "to establish that the phenomena of Enlightenment and Liberation do in fact exist, and that they can be explained very well in medical and psychological terms" (4) [my emphasis]. What you have done, and it is a worthy achievement, is sketch the broad outlines of how Enlightenment and Liberation might be understood in medical and psychological terms. I find your sketch very plausible in terms of both my theoretical work and personal experience. However, the actual scientific work "to establish" your hypotheses has yet to be done. Are you familiar with the Journal of Consciousness Studies? You might find it very interesting, since it pursues such questions from all possible disciplines. My particular expertise is philosophy, from which perspective I'll make my remaining comments.


You have nicely articulated a theory of Enlightenment from the perspective of the Advaita Vedanta experience of pure consciousness. However, along with it and every other religious tradition, both East and West, you suffer from conflating explanatory (ontological) and descriptive (phenomenological) levels of assertion. Thus, at the very beginning you define "'consciousness (with a small c) … as a function or property of the living human brain" (2), which is an ontological claim about the nature of consciousness in relation to other realities, in this case the brain. In the next breath, you refer to consciousness "in the sense of being aware" (3), which is a phenomenological claim about consciousness as we experience it. This ambiguity allows you to make unsubstantiated (and in my view, insupportable) statements about Consciousness (with a capital C) "to denote the collective or Universal Consciousness" (3).


Thus, you argue that your central thesis that "'Consciousness is one' [means] that although we feel [phenomenological claim] that we are each of us separate centres of awareness, each with our own individual, discrete, autonomous consciousness…, the actual reality [ontological claim] is that there is only one … Consciousness" (3) [my brackets]. The problem is that you never adequately explain how you go from the former claim to the latter. Your account of the experience of pure consciousness won't do the trick, for two reasons. First, if we take "pure consciousness" literally, then since we are not aware of any content, of course we are unaware of ourselves as separate entities. However, that is a phenomenological claim. The ontological claim that in reality we are not separate entities is a further step that you, and religious traditions generally, do not explain. Second, if we take "pure consciousness" only as consciousness devoid of unnecessary thinking, as you suggest (176-177), then you have explained neither why we should follow your suggestion rather than take the term literally nor why, by implication, the notion of a separate self is unnecessary.


Although I find your distinction between necessary and unnecessary thinking promising, it requires further development. As I already mentioned, I agree that "ought" beliefs are a key example of unnecessary thinking and a key cause of avoidable suffering. Still to be done, however, is the philosophical task of distinguishing various kinds of ought beliefs to see if perhaps some are unnecessary and others not. For example, you yourself note that the Enlightened One conducts daily life in a practical way, dealing effectively and realistically with his "duties" (30, 62). Since a duty is something one "ought" to do, to avoid inconsistency you need to distinguish further among necessary and unnecessary duties or "oughts". Distinguishing various kinds of desire will be similarly useful, since you define desire as insisting on what "should [ought to] be" (33) [my brackets] and not all desires insist on what should be.


A further issue concerns the scope of the distinction between necessary and unnecessary thinking, along with the correlative one between unavoidable and avoidable suffering. I find the distinction very valuable for myself and perhaps most other seekers. However, some Eastern writing suggests that any pain whatever is avoidable if one is sufficiently skilled. For example, some Enlightened Ones would feel no pain even if their foot were mangled. This issue awaits empirical testing.


Clarifying your distinction between necessary and unnecessary thinking would also help render more intelligible the traditional view that the Enlightened One's "(adual) vision is not really a 'point of view' at all, it is the actual reality itself" (56). If the vision is pure consciousness taken literally, then it is phenomenologically true that there is no point of view, but you provide no justification for leaping from that to the ontological claim that the vision is of "actual reality itself". On the other hand, if the vision is only devoid of unnecessary thinking, then wouldn't necessary thinking have a point of view? After all, my daily functioning and duties are mine, not someone else's.


Conflating the phenomenological and ontological leads you to three traditional, and traditionally unsupported, assertions: consciousness exists in dreamless sleep (95, 102); we are already Enlightened (105), it is our natural state (186); material reality exists within Consciousness, not the other way around (121-122).


Consciousness exists in dreamless sleep. As a phenomenological claim, this is self-contradictory, since one cannot be simultaneously completely unconscious and conscious. As an ontological claim it is unsupported. Ramana Maharshi's argument does not follow, that our being able to say we were asleep shows that Consciousness existed throughout the sleep (102). We can more readily and plausibly explain our knowing we were asleep by current cognitive theory of identiiy construction and physical continuity.


We are already enlightened, it is our natural state. This claim is stereotypical of Eastern literature. As such, it is a variation of another: "[T]he only perfectly normal and well-adjusted person is the Liberated One" (32), so that you agree with Alan Watts' conclusion that unenlightened psychology accepts "a definition of sanity which is insane" (35). From this same perspective, I might as well say that only Einsteins and Newtons have normal intelligence, whereas the rest of us are stupid. Now I certainly have the semantic freedom to define intelligence against such a standard, and similarly define natural state and normalcy as you do just above. But then to be scientific, you must explain the advantages of doing so over the currently accepted perspective, where something is normal that is usual. This latter usage allows us to say that most people have some intelligence and that Einsteins and Newtons are geniuses, where intelligence is the ability to understand and cope with one's environment. This usage allows us to construct a developmental theory of intelligence as a function that everyone has and improves upon, with individual differences in ability or skill level.


Similarly, although it is anathema in religious traditions to talk of Enlightenment as an achievement, I am aware of only one reason against doing so: one cannot decide to be Enlightened nor can one simply pursue some course of action that will reliably produce Enlightenment. In other words, Enlightenment cannot be produced by ego, where ego refers to executive functioning, which involves conscious deliberation and choice. However, the same can be said of any creative activity, since creativity comes from processes that are at a deeper level in us than that of ego; they come from non-ego, unconscious processes that we cannot directly influence by ego-level functioning. Thus, any Enlightened One can legitimately be said to have achieved Enlightenment in the sense that Enlightenment was developed from within that particular body-mind complex.


From the preceding perspective, we can create a developmental theory of Enlightenment that would involve, among other things, your own notion of unnecessary thinking. "Ought" beliefs then become primitive mechanisms by which the child incorporates her society's values. As she grows in cognitive capacity, she is able to deal with social expectations in a more objective manner, identifying what is important to her as well as to others, and deciding what to do about it. This is not a matter simply of "de-automisation" (87) and returning to some natural Enlightened state, but of growing cognitively and emotionally. It is an achievement, but one involving much more than ego.


Material reality exists within Consciousness, not the other way around. The issue here, like the one of normalcy, concerns perspective. Material reality is said to exist within Consciousness for at least two reasons. First, the problem of explaining how consciousness emerges from matter seems unsolvable. However, by the same token, no one has ever explained how material reality emerges from Consciousness. Nor are they likely to, since that problem is the mirror image of the other, and both involve the inexplicable conceptual gap between consciousness and matter. Exchanging one mystery for another solves nothing, so, again, to be scientific we must identify the comparative advantages of the different perspectives.


Consider mystics who take Pure Consciousness to be a literal event, so that there is no awareness of material reality, and who prize that Pure Consciousness Experience more than any other. For them, the assertion expresses their priority: they prefer Consciousness over materiality. Furthermore, from that perspective, they regard material reality as periodically barging in on their bliss, so that it is materiality rather than Consciousness that must explain itself.


In contrast, there are the mystics whom you say are the truly Enlightened Ones. They engage in our ordinary world. Now in that world, only some material things seem to enjoy consciousness. And we ourselves are conscious only part of our lives. What seems constant here is materiality, from which consciousness emerges periodically. Here, it is more natural to think of consciousness existing within the material world. Indeed, this is the perspective that science has adopted, to its great advantage.


The second reason for holding material reality to exist within Consciousness is related to "ought" beliefs. Our happiness is significantly (totally?) influenced by our attitudes ("ought" beliefs and preferences). In this sense, mental functioning has priority over material reality for having the more influence of the two on our happiness. However, that is an axiological and epistemological claim, not the ontological one that you and the tradition have expressed.


Concerning your chapters on immortality and God, let me just note that they follow straightforwardly from your premises, and as such share in those assumptions' advantages and disadvantages, which I hope I have successfully identified.


Finally, three incidental comments


I like your characterization of the Enlightened One as letting go of fleeting emotion (85-87, 95), but wonder if it is really as black and white as you suggest. Your distinction (97) between planning (OK) and worry (not OK) is worthwhile, but requires further development. For example, suppose I am rehearsing behavior to cope with a possible future event about which I am anxious. It seems to me that would involve worry, since the anxiety would not quickly come and go, but would remain as long as I am doing the rehearsing / planning. Still, it would be constructive because it would be preparing for something I can do something about. Destructive worry would seem to be remaining anxious about something that I cannot bring myself to admit I can do nothing about. If to all that, you say that anxiety is never an emotion that an Enlightened One would have, then please explain to me why anger is (110).


You characterize the separate self as "the feeling of separateness from the rest of the universe" (71; see 99, 105, 109, 111 for similar formulations). Since the Enlightened One functions seamlessly in the ordinary world, the feeling of separateness must be different from a sense of distinctness, which is necessary for practical functioning. For example, I am aware that I am writing to you. What then is the difference between an illusory feeling of separateness and a realistic sense of distinctness?


You have limited your discussion of the unconscious to the dynamic unconscious (96-97). However, most of our thinking is unconscious, but does not fit within psychodynamic theories. In this regard, I think you might like Baars, Bernard J. (1988). A Cognitive Theory of Consciousness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Nitin, I hope it is clear to you that, although I've spent a great deal more time on Future Inquiry than on your Contributions, that the former was not possible without the latter. For me, my Future Inquiry comments have clarified a number of issues that I've been working on and that I intend to develop further in a naturalistic, developmental theory of enlightenment. Your own clearly laid out and consistent thinking provided a wonderful platform for me to do so, for which I am very grateful.


Gary Schouborg

Walnut Creek, CA

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