Yesterday, I attended a talk about Samkyha (a type of Hinduism) at my local Theosophical Society lodge. I’m on friendly terms with the man who gave it, and we tend to have different views about consciousness (though we have a lot in common in other ways). One of our biggest points of contention is that I don’t believe in Witness Consciousness, which was the main topic of his talk. As it was a public talk, I didn’t bring it up because I didn’t want to bore the crowd with a technical debate that not all would understand and probably even less would find interesting. But for IPMS, the idea of the Witness seems especially important. It was discussed on the Gaia forum in the “cognitive loop” thread; a few members seem to believe in it, but others don’t. Maybe we ought to go into it in more detail here in our new (possibly temporary) home?
In last year’s Journal of Consciousness Studies, there’s a piece by Buddhist scholar Miri Albahari titled “Witness Consciousness: Its Definition, Appearance and Reality“. In the essay Albahari describes Witness Consciousness in a similar way to how some did in that thread on the old website, that of an objectless consciousness, a sort of awareness that stands behind everything we experience, perceiving but making no judgements. Specifically, he defines it as “mode-neutral awareness with intrinsic phenomenal character”. I’ll try to unpack that. By “mode-neutral awareness” Albahari means an awareness that does not depend on any particular sense or experience – it is neutral with regard to specific sensory modalities, i.e. it lies behind vision, hearing, etc. And by “intrinsic phenomenal character” he means that, despite being an objectless awareness, there seems to be something there, a sort of “background hum” (Albahari is paraphrasing David Chalmers here). He likens it to light, which cannot be seen directly but makes its presence known by illuminating other things.
Albahari apparently realises that, if witness consciousness does nothing (i.e. is completely non-conceptual, non-cognitive or non-judgemental), then we have no reason to suppose it exists. That is why he proposes the idea of intrinsic phenomenal character. Unfortunately, this addition changes Witness Consciousness from a sort of pure awareness that passively perceives everything, to something that is active – only active in a very subtle way, but enough that we can at least say it exists.
Is this analysis a good move on Albahari’s part, or is it a betrayal of the original idea?
In my opinion, it represents an embarrassing climb-down, an attempt to salvage a dodgy metaphysical idea. There is no pure awareness, or non-conceptual Witness Consciousness – the very idea crumbles before even the most basic analysis (which can be demonstrated easily enough, if anyone wants it). Perhaps instead of jumping through hoops and doing bizarre logical acrobatics in an attempt to save it, we should just jettison the idea of the Witness as a no-longer-tenable belief?
I don’t think we need to completely do away with the idea of a mystical consciousness, but we need to see consciousness as “embodied” (for lack of a better term) in the world, as the world, not as something separate that passively witnesses nature/manifestation which then has to be explained away as illusory (which my friend did in his talk – spirit “falls” into the illusion of matter, or something like that).