The consciousness gap and physicalism reloaded

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.

Experience as knowledge

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, so a narrative and a purpose to life would be added on. No religious experiences are required to understand this rational point. Although for many I recognize it is a considerable philosophical shift.

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’.

You don’t need to believe in tree spirits to realise greater respect for nature is essential to our species’ survival. 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 concept 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.

Hey wow! theories and a Pandora’s box of supernaturalism

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 4

4 thoughts on “The consciousness gap and physicalism reloaded”

  1. I was attracted to your site by your comment on Aeon and was comforted in that your viewpoint paralleled to a high degree. One thing about consciousness which you worked around was that it is the product of the basic life force which is unique in the general dynamics of the energy functions in this universe in that it has intent. Living individuals, whatever form they take , are a collection of processes which demand the preservation of the mechanics of staying alive and generating more of itself. This is why I am somewhat uneasy over the standard search for life elsewhere in the universe which demands absolutely similar conditions for alien life as exist on this rather unique planet. It seems to me that this basic life function set has a very good possibility to exist in extraterrestrial environments thas has little or no relationship to water and oxygen.
    I am not a scientist but graduated Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan in 1943 and was stuck with a scientific attitude ever since, although my unsympathetic attitudes towards mathematics prevented me from following a life in science. But although I am more oriented towards graphic art and language the problem of consciousness has bugged me all my life and within the last few years I ave come to some conclusions out of the study of my own internal mental dynamics which are very close to your own analysis.
    Throughout your presentation you continuously are extremely cautious of being neutral towards theology but as an atheist from the age of about 4, I am not so kind as, with politics in general, the hierarchical constructions of religions seem to me more oriented towards control of a submissive populace rather than an honest exploration of what this universe might be like, As you admit, much of theology is beyond the area of proving anything definitely but, in general, it does seem to me to be rather unimaginative, naïve, and clumsily based on human psychology of a most peculiar inclination.
    My operative procedure in understanding consciousness is based on the concept that what we call consciousness is part of the operative living matrix of a life form that demands persistence and reproduction. The brain itself is gifted with a long genetic experience hardened into formulas that prevent obvious mistakes but the human brain especially has a flexibility immensely beyond that of the average jellyfish or drosophila melanogaster so that it does not complete its development until it is around 20 years old. The thing starts in darkness with various identified sense inputs to permit it to construct a rational understanding of what exists outside in what may be labeled reality. But each viable life form has a different set of sense inputs specifically designed through evolution to permit its success and the internal model of reality of each life form must be radically different specific to its sense capabilities to conform to its necessities. I am guessing that if consciousness exists in each different life form that consciousness must confront the limited model of the outside world properly to ensure existence. The human model is probably quite similar within each human out of inherited genetics but the internal models of each other species is a quite different slice of the massive possibilities presented from the total universe, I see each consciousness in the role of a simplistic representation of the dynamics of the brain much as a chess piece is a simplistic representation of a player on the chess board in that game. In like manner, living each life for each creature is a matter of playing with the rules possible for each attempts at success but the game boards for each form of life differ radically, That human consciousnesses pride themselves that they are sort of the captain of their ship is the foolishness many of us presume but it has been proven scientifically that our consciousnesses probably partake of an element of control but the total control dynamic lies elsewhere in the marvelous mystery of the entire nervous system which includes, not only the brain, but a large nervous node in the digestive system plus whatever the microbiome might contribute.
    There is another important point that seems to be neglected in brain function. Currently the digital philosophies liken the brain to a computer with similar dynamics but there are vast differences in computer and brain information compilation and storage . Data within a computer is something of a fixed informational crystal with a rather rigid possibility of presentation. When sense input is sent to the storage system of the brain it passes through various processing centers where a good deal is tossed away as irrelevant and that which is saved is flavored with various types of aspects and judgments insofaras importance and danger and pleasure etc are involved and since it is stored within a complex of living cells the information has a life of its own and reaches out in multitudes of directions to other cellular informational complexes to attach to generalities of various types. These informational complexes probably are in continuous formational flux which may be a form of basic thinking so that, over time, all sorts of unconscious changes occur which makes the brain nothing like a standard computer.
    These are only simple primary thoughts by someone with no profound scientific integration in the field, but I do seem to touch on areas that I have not seen elsewhere investigated or discussed.
    If you find my observations interesting, I have a blog at https://jansandhere.wordpress.com/ and some of my work at https://siivola.org/jan/

  2. It is speculation to ascribe consciousness to atoms, plants, simple life forms, etc. Reacting to stimuli can be automatic. In any case, if evidence can be presented for panpsychism, a Nobel Prize would likely result.

    1. So at risk of repeating what’s in this article, what I’m describing here is a philosophical standpoint, one that I cannot prove, but one that might have a practical value if it helps someone approach a problem differently.

      The multiverse, pilot wave theory, information theory etc, are all also speculation. None of them can be a true description of reality, only a way of understanding reality that might prove useful depending on how closely they match experimental outcomes. And these ideas seem to have a very short shelf life in modern science (whatever happened to String theory?). We are not prepared to consider our consciousness as a minor point of understanding in a living universe, because it undermines our status as the most important species to have evolved.

      And yes, reacting to stimuli can be automatic. But for example, no brained physarum polycephalum does far more than just react – it can navigate mazes, appears to have some perception of time, and given a clockface of foodstuffs, will regularly go towards the one with the best combination of proteins and carbohydrates. That’s far more intelligent behaviour than mere reaction.

      Does it have a complex inner world? Probably not. But it acts in it’s own self interest, so how do we know it doesn’t have some tiny perception of itself? All we can really know of consciousness is either our own first person experience, or the observed behaviours of entities we believe have something like consciousness. Which means we should entertain the possibility that awareness is more commonplace than just being a radically emerging product of the human brain.

      In fact as I argue here, https://www.theideastring.com/subjective-experience-like-screen-scraper/ our consciousness has similarities to a legacy computer system – it’s a highly mediated interaction with the world that may in fact be less, not more, than the sum of its parts. It may be human consciousness exists because it has to mediate, slow down and limit interaction with the world, in order for us to function.

  3. 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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