Computers, yoga and the science of consciousness: A conversation with Subhash Kak
Subhash Kak is an Indian-American computer scientist who has made major contributions to cryptography, artificial neural networks, and is recognised as one of the pioneers of quantum computing.
Kak was awarded the Padma Shri in 2018 for his work on the history of science, the philosophy of science, ancient astronomy, and the history of mathematics. He is the author of 12 books including The Nature of Physical Reality, The Architecture of Knowledge, and Mind and Self.
We spoke to him about how the Vedic model of reality corroborates the findings of modern science, his pioneering work in quantum computing, now a catchphrase in the world of Information technology, the limits of science in dealing with the puzzle of consciousness and how asuras and devas reside in each person.
Describe the premise of mind and self. How is it different from other commentaries on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra?
Since my own research has touched upon many of the elements that go into the Yoga Sutra, I wanted my commentary to be informed by the newest ideas in science. In many ways, the Yoga Sutra is one of the most important texts of our times for it deals with the mystery of consciousness that has been called the last frontier of science. One might ask why, in spite of the many advances of physics and psychology, we are no closer to explaining the workings of the mind and its relationship to matter.
I also wished to place the Yoga Sutra within the larger context of Vedic wisdom and to separate the literal from the metaphorical. The Vedas speak of cosmic law, but they also argue that Universal Consciousness is beyond things. Thus the special powers described in part three of the Yoga Sutra are insights that can help one master the outside world but do it in a manner that is consistent with science.
I would like the reader of my book to see the Yoga Sutra as a text not just for spiritual awakening but also to reach the wellsprings of one’s creativity. Yoga is not just about esoteric and other-worldly things; it is to prepare oneself for living one’s life as fully as possible, and I do hope that my Introduction to the text and the translations have succeeded in communicating this central message.
Describe the yogic model of mind, self and consciousness. How does it tally with the findings of modern science?
Patañjali’s construction of mind is based squarely on the Vedic idea of two selves, one the detached witness and the other the conditioned individual. This is described in the famous image of two birds on the tree (the body) where one merely looks on whereas the other is eating the sweet fruit. The bird absorbed in sensory gratification is part of a causal chain, and really not free. Our minds act paradoxically when it comes to questions of freedom and knowledge. The Kena Upanishad describes this in terms of the riddle: the one who thinks he knows, does not; and the one who does not, does.
Our capacity to obtain knowledge is due to consciousness, and ignorance is caused by the coverings that are a result of habits or saṃskāras that obscure. The Self is like a lamp that shines light in the pool of the mind, but this light is scattered in so many different ways by ripples that distort the image. The purpose of Yoga is to make the pool of the mind clear so that one can reach one’s true self and become creative. These ideas go beyond either present-day psychology or physics, but both these academic disciplines may be ready for revolutionary new advances.
Let’s also not forget that Erwin Schrödinger claimed that one of the deepest ideas that led him to the discovery of quantum mechanics came to him from the Upanishads. This idea of Atman = Brahman led him to the notion of superposition of states which is central in quantum theory.
A term that you coined, “quantum neural computing”, posits that the brain is a machine which reduces the infinite possibilities of a “quantum-like universal consciousness”, itself a consequence of the recursive nature of reality. Please explain the philosophy of recursionism for the lay reader.
Quantum approaches to the mind have opened up ideas that were impossible to think of in classical approaches. Consciousness can be seen as a universal function that is reduced by the brain-mind of the individual.
Recursionism is an idea that is central in Vedic thought. It begins with the dictum that the outer is mirrored in the inner, as in the statement yat piṇḍe tad brahmāṇḍe (as in the cell, so in the cosmos). This expresses the relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm and it is this that makes both outer and inner knowledge possible.
The idea of recursion is expressed in the story of the churning of the ocean which leads to the emergence of gifts and poisons. This churning is not only mythical history; it is also the story of each person’s life. It tells us that the asuras and the devas reside within each person.
Describe the premise of your book The Architecture of Knowledge. When did you first begin to draw parallels between Vedic epistemology and modern science and incorporate that into your work?
I started examining Vedic epistemology as well as the philosophy of science in the 1970’s which culminated in my book The Nature of Physical Reality in 1986, of which a revised edition appeared just this year. The central idea that I wished to communicate was that corresponding to the paradox in modern science, seen both in physics and logic, we have the idea of parokṣa of the Upanishads.
The Upanishads tell us that reality cannot be fully described because all descriptions leave out the experiencing self and, therefore, knowledge is of two kinds: Aparā (lower, linguistic, outer-object based) and Parā (higher, related to the Self). Language is limited, and though it is all we have, it leads to paroksa. One needs new languages to describe new phenomena, but all this cannot touch the deepest mystery of consciousness.
I wrote The Architecture of Knowledge at the invitation of Debi Prasad Chattopadhyaya who was then, about fifteen years ago, editing the 100-volume Project of History of Indian Science, Philosophy and Culture. The subtitle of this book is Quantum Mechanics, Neuroscience, Computers and Consciousness and this is a more direct examination of the limits of science in dealing with the puzzle of consciousness.