If you want to keep your sanity intact then I suggest you stop reading this now. If you want to see me blundering my way through an impossible logical argument then go ahead reading.
One of the hardest problems in philosophy and science right now is that of consciousness. There’s no real answer, or even an inkling, as to what it might be, where it originates from, or how it works, yet everybody reading this could (hopefully) say that they’re conscious. The community is even lacking a framework to talk about consciousness, or even a clear definition of what consciousness actually is.
It’s tricky, but let’s try to define what consciousness will mean in the context of this post. When I say consciousness here I mean the observer behind the eyes. I don’t mean your thoughts, or your sense of self. I mean the actual thing that does the perceiving, the awareness. That which does not produce anything but is.
Now, to introduce the problem, imagine that there exists a world just like ours in some alternate universe. Humans and other animals go about their business as usual. From the point of view of an external observer, this world is exactly the same as ours in every respect. However, there is an important difference that the observer cannot perceive from an external point of view. That is that all the beings in this world are organic automatons, they do what they do in response to an internal state they’re not aware of. In other words, these beings are not conscious. You could say that these beings think they’re conscious, but they really aren’t.
Could we say that this imaginary world is actually our world? If we asked people this question then we would likely find they separate into two opposing groups. On one side we would have those that hold the idea that consciousness is an illusion, a mirage, and that, like in the imaginary world described above, we delude ourselves into thinking that we’re conscious, that it’s really a trick that the mind plays on itself as a result of darwinian evolution (maybe it enables introspection and deeper thoughts?). On the other hand, we would have another group of people claiming that we’re conscious, and that this fact is undeniable because we can actually perceive it directly.
Consciousness is an illusion
A core point of this view is that we’re not saying that consciousness is not real or doest exist. Of course it does, because we experience it. However, what we experience might be a trick of the brain, an illusion.
People holding this view can pretty much be said to be followers of philosophical materialism . To quote the definition from Wikipedia:
Materialism is a form of philosophical monism which holds matter to be the fundamental substance in nature, and all things, including mental states and consciousness, are results of material interactions. According to philosophical materialism, mind and consciousness are by-products or epiphenomena of material processes (such as the biochemistry of the human brain and nervous system), without which they cannot exist.
I think this does a pretty good job of explaining what it is that this view entails. The last part of the quote is the main thing to consider: whether consciousness is a mental phenomenon or not. According to materialism, it is, and lives entirely inside the brain. It’s a physical phenomena, a things that has its origins in mechanics in the same way that a computer chip is able to process instructions because of varying voltage in its circuit, or billiard balls bouncing around a table.
It might be something weird to consider, but it is plausible, I think. Consciousness feels so real to us that it sounds crazy to consider the idea that it might be another kind of mental formation. On the other hand, if this was the case, how would we even know?
If this were the case then it follows that there is a quantifiable amount of consciousness that a given being may have, and this is limited by the complexity of that being’s brain. For example, humans have a stronger consciousness than cats.
It’s also likely that for consciousness to happen the hosting brain needs to have a minimum amount of complexity. So, amoebas and plants might not be conscious at all.
Another interesting thing to consider is that, being something linked to the shape of the brain, consciousness emerges from evolution, so it might be that we can have a complex being whose consciousness is drastically different from human’s, or they might not even be conscious at all (at least under what we define as consciousness).
Consciousness is real
Saying that consciousness is real means that we accept it as an intrinsic part of the universe1. When people talk about consciousness being real they usually call this philosophical idealism . Again, to quote from Wikipedia:
In philosophy, the term idealism identifies and describes metaphysical perspectives which assert that reality is indistinguishable and inseparable from perception and understanding; that reality is a mental construct closely connected to ideas. Idealist perspectives are in two categories: subjective idealism, which proposes that a material object exists only to the extent that a human being perceives the object; and objective idealism, which proposes the existence of an objective consciousness that exists prior to and independently of human consciousness, thus the existence of the object is independent of human perception.
In other words, Idealism holds that consciousness is the origin of, and prerequisite for, all (subjective) phenomena. Although I think idealism goes a step beyond what we’re talking about here, in that existence is inconceivable if a mind is not present to experience it2, setting the mind at the top of the existential hierarchy.
There’s another philosophical view that is closely related to materialism called Physicalism , with the difference being that the former considers everything to be the result of atoms bouncing around and interacting, while the second also considers all recent discoveries in Physics: electromagnetism, quantum weirdness, etc. I’m no expert myself, but I feel that under physicalism it would be plausible to have a universal principle of consciousness that just hasn’t been discovered yet.
An interesting effect of this is that consciousness can then be said to be equal for all beings. Of course it’s hard (impossible) to say what a cow, tree, human, or turtle perceive, but we can say they’re all aware in some way, which makes them conscious in my book at least. Also, an intelligent being from another galaxy would be conscious in the same way that a fish is conscious on our planet, in the same way that a human is.
Where’s the cake?
This is all well and good, but why should we care? Well, for curiosity mainly. If you don’t care then you can continue living your life as a happy philosophical zombie . There’s of course no real answer to be had, but at least we can summarize the possibilities.
- Consciousness is an illusion and we just think it’s real because we live inside said illusion.
- Consciousness is an intrinsic part of existence. Here we have two more possibilities:
- Consciousness is the cause for which everything exists (Idealism).
- Consciousness is a distinct phenomenon of existence, which allows the universe to experience itself.
In my opinion, all our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, are mental formations, things that the mind conjures up to interact and understand the world, but only exist within the mind. Consciousness on the other hand is probably the only really real thing there is, and it is the channel through which we (and here I mean us the consciousness, not our ego sense of self) experience the world. Consciousness can observe everything that goes on that is touching your perception. But it cannot observe itself, which makes it hard to think and talk about.
My own personal view is that consciousness is real and it’s everywhere. I imagine it as consciousness being a field that permeates the whole universe, and us seeing/experiencing our senses is the universe perceiving itself. This view is broadly called Panpsychism , although panpsychism has many (differing) historical interpretations, and in some cases religious ones. Panpsychism has been associated with other views such as Animism (that ascribes attributes such as life or spirits to all entities), so it gets a somewhat bad press from the scientific community.
However, imagine that the universe has a field of consciousness that covers the whole of existence. Or imagine that by some physical method we don’t understand yet, the mind of beings is reflected by this universal consciousness as in a mirror. It might even be the same consciousness behind all our minds, there’s no reason why that wouldn’t be possible[3^].
[3^]: Of course, at that level there wouldn’t be any concept of sameness or difference, in the same way that the force of gravity acting on my arm is neither the same nor different from that acting on the falling leaf outside.
This sounds good, but it does beg the question: “If minds are universally conscious then what about non-mind things?”. That is tricky, and I think there are two possibilites:
- The first option is that, non-mind entities are not conscious. But then we need to tackle the question of why, and what defines a mind, or what makes it special, and where is said mind to be found.
- The other option is that everything is permeated by this consciousness field, without any exception.
We could actually say that 1. is a special case of 2.. Suppose that my consciousness just happened to be that of the human typing this words, but all the components of this body, and all the components of them, all the way down, have access to consciousness. The chair on which I’m sitting and all of it’s components also have this same access, but lacking perception it might be that consciousness doesn’t perceive anything through them. The same argument could be applied to atoms and subatomic particles.
The idea of consciousness as a mirror that reflects everything that goes on in existence is consistent with all the premises we’ve been taking, and would work both for inanimate objects as well as minds.
Yet more questions
There are some questions which I would love to be able to answer, but alas, I have neither the intelectual capacity nor the knowledge to even start thinking about possible answers.
The first is the age-old question of what is the mind? From all we know, the brain is composed of neurons which fire messages in certain patterns, and a given mind state (for a given brain) corresponds to a given macro-pattern in these firings neurons. But then there is the question of how is it possible for us to introspect, how can we know the contents of our mind, how can we perceive that we’re happy, see the sun outside, and think about fond memories of the past, all at the same time, and with each phenomena affecting the perception of the others?
It seems like there is some unifying concept that is able to internally observe the macro state of the mind without getting bogged down in details. Either that, or we think that this is what is happening but actually it’s all an illusion (which is something that we already said we didn’t want to accept). Finally, this something that introspects (i.e. the canonical mind) could very well exist without consciousness, but it seems that consciousness does reflect the mind. Maybe it also reflects the individual neurons, atoms, and etc (since we said it permeates everything), so it’s natural that the mind would think itself conscious. But that would mean that there is something special, something that sits on top of the biological hardware that is our brain and is able to bring all the experience together, and that makes me feel like there’s something we’re not considering.
There are other questions like “is consciousness spatially located?”. Is it somehow attached to a specific part of my brain? What if a very skilled surgeon were to remove that part (assuming it’s small enough for me to continue living and not suffer any cognitive impairment), would I stop being conscious? If that is true, then what about adjacent parts? From what we’re assuming, these should all be conscious since they’re part of the consciousness field.
From my personal experience I can say that my consciousness has access to my mind-state, which includes all my perceptions, thoughts, and feelings. So that means that even if all the neurons in my brain are conscious, the consciousness through which I’m writing this is not any one of those neurons3. That either means that consciousnesses can conglomerate to form bigger, more complex, consciousnesses (an idea which I’m not prepared to accept) or my consciousness doesn’t correspond to any specific place in my body.
I think the most plausible explanation is that consciousness is not linked to space, and instead the field we’ve been talking about until now works in some other way we haven’t thought of. Maybe beings with minds are conscious because consciousness reflects everything in existence (so it’s bound to happen). And non-mind things still partake in the field of consciousness but in a more diffused kind of way.
Anyway, I could continue rambling about this topic for a while, but I think we’ve exhausted useful arguments and now we’re just entering the realm of wild speculation (to be fair, we’ve been there already for a while now). Even though we have no relevant answers to show at least we had fun considering some interesting questions.
Talking about interesting questions, here’s a last one to think about (I promise): If everything shares the same consciousness then where does the information experienced by that consciousness go? Who knows, maybe nowhere. Maybe the whole point of it is for the universe to have fun.
This is supposing that a single neuron doesn’t have access to the whole brain state, which seems very unlikely from what we/I know. As far as I know, neurons only limit themselves to receiving and sending signals with other neurons it is attached to, as well as forming new connections with other neurons. And while in our framework an individual neuron my well be conscious and aware of it’s internal state, there’s no reason for it to know that I’m thinking about a tall tree standing in the sun, or what I’m planning to have for dinner. ↩︎
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