The consciousness gap and physicalism reloaded

japanese style wave patternHow real is your existence? Is your world constantly re-inventing itself around you? Or is human life no more mysterious than an actor playing a part on a lifeless stage set? Science is well equipped to account for all the matter and energy around us, from the the Big Bang onwards. Yet the most important tool in understanding our world, consciousness itself, is so subjective and potentially unscientific we struggle to account for it. As a consequence science lacks an account of how conscious beings, humans and other animals, can be composed of nothing more than the atoms that compose the unconscious inanimate world that surround us – what I call the “consciousness gap”.

In common with most scientists, I believe our consciousness is a direct product of matter and energy and cannot exist without them. As an atheist I agree our existence and behaviours can be largely explained by evolution, mathematical biology, chaos theory etc, all without reference to supernatural forces or an intelligent creator. Physicalism, materialism and naturalism give us the best explanation of our world to date and largely do so without mythologising human existence.

Yet science cannot bridge that consciousness gap in a way that is useful to our hunter-gatherer brains without some account of how living consciousness comes into being. Continue reading…

The Human Animal – a breed apart?

chick with blackboard

For the majority of Western history the only consciousness worth examining was human. Until recently scientists lacked the tools to examine the consciousness of other animals. But Western science has also developed within a Judeo-Christian cultural heritage in which only humans have souls – a religious tradition which taught that God has taken us and only us, over that threshold of animal consciousness into the realm of moral beings.

Although science has largely overtaken religion as a way of explaining human existence, like religion it has emphasised differences between humans and other animals rather than common ground. In recent years more detailed experiments into animal consciousness show much of what has been regarded as solely human characteristics, such as the potential for language, ability for abstract thought, the capacity for emotions, jealousy and cruelty even, can be found in other species to some extent. Here I want to consider some of that evidence with some observations of my own on how this might be interpreted.

Is there a danger here of Anthropomorphizing? Continue reading…

The electron tendency

thomas_youngIn the third and final episode of the excellent BBC series ‘Atom – The Illusion of Reality’ Dr Jim Al-Khalili asks the apparently unanswerable question: We are made of the same atoms as the rest of the material world, so why do we have consciousness when the vast majority of stuff around us does not? (I’ve paraphrased for brevity).

Similarly hard to explain, the measurement problem is the Achilles heel of physics as the more closely we study the building blocks of the Universe the harder it becomes to remain the independent observer of a material world and avoid determining the outcome of our experiments. The most stark example of this is the double slit experiment. The measurement problem remains because there is no entirely satisfactory explanation for what happens in the quantum version of this experiment.

I’m going to suggest there is a simple possible atheist’s interpretation. Philosophically based certainly, but with a practical value. A possible answer both to the measurement problem and the great unanswerable question of consciousness above. Continue reading…

Understanding Car, Goat, Pigeon

image of door, car and goat

Understanding something that runs contrary to ‘common sense’ is often about finding the right form of words, in this case The Monty Hall problem.

Here’s a quick description of the problem in case you’re not familiar with it:

You’re the contestant on a TV game-show, trying to win a car. You are given three doors to choose from. The car has been randomly placed behind one door, behind the other two are goats. The host knows where the car is, so once you’ve made your choice, the host opens one of the two other doors to reveal a goat – a ‘wrong’ answer. That door is then discarded. Now you are given a choice; stick with your original choice or pick the other remaining door. Surely it doesn’t make any difference if you change because with two doors your odds are 50/50 whatever you do?

Continue reading…