The consciousness gap and physicalism reloaded

The true illusion of existence

Our understanding of the Universe is, and always will be, limited by the capacity and structure of our hunter-gatherer brains. We are using consciousness to understand consciousness, which is rather like trying to work out the limits of your physical form by standing between two opposing mirrors. You can learn something about your physical form in this way, but only by making allowances for the infinite reflections surrounding you.

It is true I am an individual, living a separate life with my own thoughts feelings and experiences, distinct from every other individual I encounter in my lifetime. But I am also physically connected to that world wherever I go and whatever I do. My body is created from the food I eat, the water I drink and the air I breathe. If a nasty enough virus enters my body from the physical world I will get sick and die. I am therefore both separate from and an integral part of the world around me. This contradiction is reflected by the operation of our brains. We have two complimentary modes of perceiving our relation to the world that have served us well in evolutionary terms. I can view myself as part of my surroundings in the present moment – commonly labelled a ‘flow state’ – which was an invaluable mode for survival for our ancestors when hunting or escaping a wild animal, because it allows our brains to focus on the present moment.

But I can also mentally separate myself from my surroundings to analyse, learn from the past and predict future outcomes, the way most of live our lives in the 21st Century. So physically, psychologically and philosophically my individual existence is therefore absolutely true – while being simultaneously a complete fabrication. This is the ‘true illusion’ of human existence. While such a term probably sounds esoteric to many, it is intended to reflect the fact that the brain is a hunter-gatherer survival mechanism. It has made evolutionary sense for our brains to be capable of operating with these different modes. Neither viewpoint is more valid than the other. One is useful at times, at other times the other is more suitable.

Image of local woman crossing stepwells in Jaipur, India.
Local woman crossing stepwells in Jaipur, India.

Again recognition of our contradictory modes of perception is common to religions and philosophies with strong mystical traditions. But this recognition does not belong solely in the religious realm. Religions inevitably attach stories and moral values that take such a recognition outside of the realm of science. I have no intention to create a story, a myth or a belief system. Neither am I casting myself in the role of any sort of spiritual teacher. But this simple analogy to clarify what I mean by ‘true illusion’ may be useful here:

Have you ever been on a boat out at sea where tides meet and the waves appear to be moving primarily up and down, (rather than closer to shore where waves have a clear direction towards the beach)? On a simple level every wave you see is an individual wave but always remains part of the ocean. What you perceive, the wave or the ocean, depends on your focus. We can understand the existence of separate beings in the same way; so a wave peaks over here, that might be a person. A smaller one peaks over there, that might be a monkey or a cat etc, etc. This analogy may sound naive, but I believe most scientists would be fine this as an analogy for the temporary nature of humans’ and animals’ physical form, i.e. we are created from the energy and matter around us into the temporary form of a functioning body, which eventually dies, decays and becomes an indistinct part of the matter and energy that created it. That’s rather obvious. And logically the same could be said of consciousness.

Our perception of ourselves primarily as individuals is something relatively new in human history. Even 100 years ago men still went to the senseless slaughter of the battlefields of WW1 from a sense of duty to their country – people still in a way ‘belonged’ to their country. The trauma of WW1 then led to a significant shift in the social order, including a shift in how people perceived themselves within society. And extreme states like North Korea partly function with fear, but also because people are taught to believe their own rights and identity are secondary to their identity as part of the state. At the other end of the scale, Western consumer society continuously reinforces our sense of individual identity, mainly because it is good marketing.

(True illusion is also a reason I say qualia are primarily a neurological issue)6.

The measurement problem and black hole of solipsism

Including this famous paradox in the same discussion as consciousness may well be the point at which any scientists reading this switch off. Such discussions are frequently a scientific dead end, and a black hole of solipsism usually beckons! As stated previously I do not believe in a world created by the mind. The mistake of solipsism is not so much in saying consciousness is connected to matter – they are connected every time you reach out to pick up an object – but in centring the material Universe on consciousness, specifically human consciousness, thereby pushing matter and energy into second place.

As the classical double slit experiment was tested in the quantum world, a number of thought and real world experiments were devised to deal with the measurement problem, the most sophisticated of these being the delayed choice quantum eraser experiment. The results of these experiments are not in dispute, but their interpretation most certainly is. Whatever interpretation is applied (Copenhagen view, pilot wave theory, many worlds interpretation) the results still boil down to one important point. Particles seem to exhibit different behaviours depending on whether there is a genuine act of measurement is taking place. Whether the interpretation of this result is a multi-verse, or a decision about waveform collapse being sent back in time to the measured particle, the significant variable in the real world experiment is whether or not an actual measurement is being taken.

Some claim the measurement problem will soon be solved by the pilot wave theory and Bohmian mechanics. However if this debate really is over, why does a well respected physicist like Dr Al-Khalili still regard this a mystery in his Royal Institute lecture? And why has no-one been awarded the Nobel prize for solving one of the great puzzles of modern science?

The electron’s behaviour seen in the two slit experiment – no interference pattern when there is one slit, an interference pattern when given a choice of slits, then changing behaviour again when being measured – would suggest a level of awareness if observed in an animal going through a maze. It hints that awareness may be built into the fabric of the Universe at the most basic level, and by awareness I do mean the basis of consciousness. We expect intelligence to require a complex brain/body pairing. However awareness does not always require a brain in the natural world – in 2012 studies found types of slime mould have enough awareness and memory to navigate mazes, choose the most beneficial food, even anticipate future events. All without a brain or central nervous system.

My interpretation also has a significant difference from ‘observer effect’ interpretations, where it is claimed the presence of the conscious observer is the key factor in the experiment. In 2000 the quantum eraser experiment was designed to settle this question once and for all. The problem is, Materialists claim the quantum eraser proves there is no observer effect, those with a more Idealist philosophy argue it is evidence for the observer effect! I don’t know which of these is correct, and in fact the answer is not central to my argument, because the ‘observer effect’ is again centring debate on complicated human consciousness. My more panpscyhic perspective is to consider the experiment from the particle’s standpoint. Whether or not you believe a conscious observer is a factor, subatomic particles are behaving differently when presented with different circumstances (one slit or two, a measurement being taken or not taken), which can be interpreted as the operation of the most basic level of awareness in our Universe.

Perhaps because I’m talking about particles not animals I should invent a term like proto-consciousness, or awareness potential or some equally awkward phrasing. In the end that’s a semantic trick to get around a single word having strong connotations specific to complex human experience. Am I diluting the word consciousness to prove a point? Look at it this way, matter and energy have different labels for different states. Yet we still use the common term ‘energy’ to cover both the forces holding an atom together and the forces driving water over Niagara Falls.

Relating this to individual experience, I would describe what I label my individual consciousness as being a significant concentration of basic consciousness, largely but not exclusively in the synapses inside my skull. If you misunderstand this it may sound dualist. It may appear I’m saying consciousness is floating around different locations of the physical body and is therefore a ‘ghost in the machine’. In fact my point is the opposite. I’m arguing for a more strict physicalism and materialism. I am putting consciousness in with matter – with all matter – not just living tissue with an unspecified level of complexity. Consciousness, whatever that is, is inseparable from the energy and matter your entire body is composed of, because it is a basic building block of our world.

Logically it is simpler to conceive of consciousness – again if that word is too all encompassing call it proto-consciousness or base consciousness, being present in every atom, than a threshold of complexity having to be crossed in the formation of your brain structure, which then permits consciousness to spontaneously appear from nowhere. Quantum theory already encompasses multiple universes, time travelling particles, and ‘spooky at a distance’ quantum entanglements. Is it really that outlandish to consider the basic nature of the universe might include its own awareness, and then assess the reasons for taking that position?

The practical value of this philosophical shift is if we consider consciousness/awareness as a building block of the Universe, and find a way to factor it into the equations along with energy and matter, we may be able to solve more complex problems because it allows us to calculate for a Universe we already know cannot always be observed with complete objectivity. Accounting for the basic awareness of our Universe requires symbols so we can do the equations.

The difficulty for science is unlike energy or matter the measurement problem suggests we may not be able to measure consciousness directly – probably our best approach is similar to the way astronomers have for detecting a hidden planet by looking for its effect on other objects, rather than ever directly observing and measuring the thing itself?

Just supposing awareness/consciousness were inseparable from energy and matter, what problems might that solve? How could it be incorporated into the mathematics describing our world? It seems at least worth trying to ‘do the Math’ and trying to express what happens in the physical world when a self-aware Universe could affect the results, rather than our current approach of treating this as noise to be eliminated.

An interpretation without soul, after-life or re-incarnation

Many readers will assume any concept of consciousness at the smallest level requires some religious belief, an after-life, re-incarnation, or some sort of human soul. I do not believe in any of these. But I’m not trying to persuade anyone they should give up their faith. I cannot prove there is no God, and I recognize religious faith has a positive value for many. It is simply the case that I don’t happen to have a faith, so for me a soul wrongly extends the ‘true illusion’ of individual existence beyond the death of the physical body.

Scientists would rightly say there is no evidence for life after death, and the death of the physical body marks the end of that person’s consciousness. I would agree with that but think it requires another simple (hopefully not simplistic) analogy to account for where consciousness ‘goes’ after death. Imagine taking a glass of water from a flowing river, colouring it with purple dye, then pouring it back into the river, then taking another glass quickly from further downstream. You may get some purple dye in the second glass, but you’ll almost certainly never get the same glass of purple water again. The entropy of the Universe ensures the same glass twice is for all practical purposes impossible. That is the case for the energy and matter that once composed a person’s body. It is near impossible to assemble the same physical body twice. Again I believe applied to the physical body this is a description most scientists would have no issue with.

If consciousness were a property of the entirety of our material world then the same would apply to human consciousness – it is near impossible to get the same consciousness twice, so this interpretation does not indicate a soul going from one life to another. (I write as someone who does not believe in a soul. If you do, you can look at it this way; the immortal soul is something separate and not tied to your consciousness). Either way your consciousness is what is needed for your hunter-gatherer brain to navigate your hunter-gatherer body through its life-cycle, because it is a product of that physical body. This is not unique to humans as the same applies to an ant or a killer whale. Their experience of consciousness is what’s required for the ant body and killer whale body to function and follow their evolutionary purpose. And just as the energy and matter composing your body does not appear from nowhere and disappear back into nothing, it seems entirely logical that neither would the consciousness. It would only ever change form.

I believe there is no soul or spirit within me, and no re-incarnation because the ‘me’ is a temporary illusion of the mind and body I inhabit right now, an illusion that will end with the death of my physical body. This is something I find very matter-of-fact and very un-mysterious. So I have not added this analogy with any aim of ‘enlightening’ the reader. It is my simple logical account of what happens when we die, which is consistent with my main argument.

I find it interesting that peoples’ accounts of their near death experiences often match their faith and belief system, suggesting the brain is programmed to provide the most comforting idea of death as the brain shuts down. As the body and brain dissolve, I believe so too does individual identity. But I repeat I’m not trying to persuade anyone to give up their faith. Only observing near death experiences give an interesting insight into what may happen at the end of the individual illusion, rather than any real insight into what happens next.

Religious naturalism and religious experience as knowledge

As with materialism/physicalism, the term religious naturalism encompasses a range of views. Religious naturalism takes the same explanation for our existence as the rest of modern science, i.e. there is no creator, because the Big Bang and evolution and natural forces all explain life on Earth. However religious naturalism usually advocates the appreciation and experience of Nature as a way to enrich our understanding and possibly offer a moral code. So I would not describe myself or this view as religious naturalist as I do not believe such experience is necessary – understanding this post does not require any sense of awe or wonder at the unity of Nature.

Philosophies with a spiritual dimension often advocate spiritual experience as a route to knowledge by quietening the rational mind. Religious experience can be an important part of human experience but such experiences are not necessary to understand this view. When I first heard of the law of conservation of energy (energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only change form) aged 10, I applied it equally to consciousness because that was the most obvious next step. And nothing I’ve learnt since has led me to believe that is untrue. So I must emphasise this post is not the result of my having had any spiritual or religious experience – it is logical and deductive and no great moment of revelation or realisation has led me to this conclusion.

Perhaps what I’m describing is too simple to be regarded as a theory on its own? Normally anyone describing consciousness at the smallest level would be doing so from a religious or New Age interpretation, a narrative and a purpose to life would be added on. The reader may find it difficult to separate such a concept from such religious and spiritual attachments, which would therefore render it unscientific.

As stated in the introduction I need to clarify my view by differentiating it from related concepts. So again I emphasise, no religious experiences are required to understand this rational point. Although for many I recognize it is a considerable philosophical shift.

I certainly agree that a greater respect for Nature at this point in human history is long overdue: we are pouring pollutants into the land and seas, wasting precious fossil fuels and rapidly warming the planet to a point where it may be unable to support our existence. After millions of years of evolution and accumulated knowledge we are trashing our only available life support system in the pursuit of an abstract thing called ‘economic development’. The human race seems to have climbed to the top of the evolutionary tree, and now decided to entertain itself by throwing lit matches onto the dry tinder below. Aside from our species continuing to butcher one another in pointless wars, there is nothing more insane and against the evolutionary purpose of the survival of our species than the damage we are doing to the planet right now.

No why of consciousness beyond evolution

Although I said I was not addressing the why of consciousness, there is one exception. Evolution gives us enough of a why.

Some may imagine my account suggests rocks, trees and mountains could have their own consciousness. That perhaps there are rock and tree spirits to be honoured as in Animism. Or that it is possible to experience the consciousness of inanimate objects like rocks and tables, something people may experience taking hallucinogenic drugs, or in cases of severe mental illness. To me such experiences are interesting but ultimately just tricks of brain chemistry and imagination. I don’t believe my hunter-gatherer brain would have much use for the ability to perceive any base consciousness in rocks and mountains as they are not potential food! (In fact there is view that our species’ ability for abstract thought developed largely from our ancestors abilities to anticipate their preys’ behaviour, by thinking as their prey did).

The mind frequently has knowledge of things it cannot directly perceive, even though those things certainly exist. So although I know a rock and a table have energy in their atoms which are holding them together and maintaining their form, I don’t have a perception of that energy when looking at a rock or a table. My brain only needs a certain level of sensory perception to keep my body functioning in the material world.

Evolution provides the key difference between the animals and inanimate objects like rocks, which addresses the criticism of any panpsychic philosophies, that inanimate objects would have to in some way be conscious. Humans and animals have an evolutionary interest in staying alive and preserving a healthy body. Self awareness assists in that evolutionary purpose. But a rock can still be composed of atoms that have energy, matter and base consciousness. It’s just that arranged into a rock there is no ‘rock consciousness’ aiming to preserve an identity as a rock rather than as a pile of rock dust. With evolution there is an implicit motivation and intention behind human and animal existence that a rock does not have.

However the building blocks of consciousness are still contained in the rock, the table and every other atom just as they are in living organisms. In that sense the material world that surrounds us is not simply ‘dumb matter’.

Hey wow! theories and the wrong Pandora’s box

A quick scroll through the comments of any discussion of consciousness and quantum theory in particular will reveal a fair number of ‘Hey wow!’ theories. For example I read a forum post recently that said ‘….so Dark Matter is consciousness….’. Inevitably the strangeness in describing our existence, and the counter intuitive results of quantum experiments lead to people making connections that aren’t there and over-using the imagination. It’s easy for people to create an unnecessary mystery of consciousness, which can lead to arguing for unproven beliefs, like UFOs, conspiracy theories, astrology etc etc.

As far as I know there is no ‘collective unconscious’ store of accumulated knowledge. If your knowledge and experience are not recorded I believe they will be lost at death. It could be argued that scientists cannot consider consciousness as a building block of the Universe along with matter and energy because that would open up a Pandora’s box of unproven ideas, for example, the collective unconscious, telepathy or telekinesis.

While consciousness, whatever that is, being a basic property of the Universe may increase the theoretical possibility of these, that’s not a valid reason for rejecting the logical argument. The test of something unproven like telepathy or telekinesis is whether they can be proven by experiment – neither of these have been – not whether there is a related theory that might add theoretical weight to their existence.

In the last section I’ll briefly sum up my argument. Read part 3

One thought on “The consciousness gap and physicalism reloaded”

  1. Recently I have observed a family member, my father, succumb to the prion disease CJD. During the progression of this disease I watched his level of self awareness dissolve over a period of just a few weeks. As his brain deteriorated, at first he could not identify common objects, then he was unable to communicate or understand communication and in the final stages he appeared as an infant, could not feed himself and was bewildered by everything around him.

    This experience caused me to completely rethink my understanding of consciousness and I no longer believe it is something inside us. I believe it is something our “healthy” body and mind produces. Similar to how a flashlight produces light. The light is not inside the flashlight it is only emitted from it when activated. As in the case of my father, having his consciousness completely dissolve about two weeks before his body actually died, it appears to me that our concept of self, our identity, is really a product of what we are, not a physical property of what we are, therefore it only only exists while we are alive and biologically functioning correctly. I can see how in typical scenarios where the body deteriorates before the mind, it appears that the sense of self is the last thing to go, therefore “leaves” the body as some entity or life force. But I feel this is really a misinterpretation of what is being observed.

    I just wanted to share this point of view as I have not found much discussion regarding the understanding of consciousness this way or others that have reported similar experiences.

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