The consciousness gap and physicalism reloaded

japanese style wave pattern

(reading time: 30 mins)

How 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. 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. A problem I am calling 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. That is my aim, making the case for a kind of physicalism/materialism 2.0. My view is a type of panpsychism. which is a term that comes with some baggage – which means unfortunately some will not be able to see past the label, wrongly assuming woolly thinking, ouiga boards and crystals are involved at some point.

The first part gives an outline of the argument. The second part takes a panpsychic view of the measurement problem. The third part is about the individual experience, including my personal view of the most subjective question of all, where do we go when we die? And the last part is a summary of the argument.

I’m not trying to tie the reader up with philosophical gymnastics, or asking for any sort of leap of faith. I am only asking you to start by considering how plastic the term ‘consciousness’ is, and then consider how recent animal research, logic and observations of our own experience can be brought together to bridge that consciousness gap.

A basic definition of consciousness

Everybody has their own concept of consciousness, and the word itself has so many connotations an all encompassing definition is near impossible, so whatever I say here will inevitably be imperfect. But it is necessary, especially when you consider many of the essays written and talks given on consciousness don’t even attempt a definition of the word.

For the purposes of this post I define consciousness as an entity having some awareness of its environment and potential for some not essentially predictable reaction to the circumstances in which it finds itself.

I am excluding from consideration human inventions; artificial intelligence, thought experiments like p-zombies1, hypotheticals such as whether a brain grown in a laboratory would have consciousness.

These are interesting debates but deserve several essays of their own. I am only trying to describe the physical forces of the natural world, the cells, animals and human beings on planet Earth that evolution has given rise to. Any hierarchy of consciousness is also unhelpful – solving a maths equation is not employing a better or higher consciousness than lying in the bath staring at the ceiling – those are simply different states of consciousness. I’m also not addressing qualia, which I regard as primarily a neurological issue.

In my definition I say ‘not essentially predictable’ to keep the discussion within the living world. Many scientists would say our brains and consciousness are entirely predictable, as we inhabit a Newtonian world2. Again that’s an interesting but separate debate; like the weather, stock market, horse races and elections, none are for any practical purposes predictable given current technology. So by my definition a human, a dog and a mouse are conscious entities, whereas a rock is clearly not.

My definition of consciousness above is deliberately broad because as I will later explain, I believe ‘self-awareness’ clouds the issue. As the entry for consciousness in the 1989 MacMillan Dictionary of Psychology cautions:

“Many fall into the trap of equating consciousness with self-consciousness — to be conscious it is only necessary to be aware of the external world.”

Even in a debate with terms strictly defined and limited, consciousness is awkward enough to define. I could perhaps have avoided some of these issues by creating a term with fewer connotations, like ‘aliveness’ or ‘proto-consciousness’. But that is ungainly and unfocused. However in acknowledgement of these semantic difficulties I will frequently qualify the word like this; consciousness, whatever that is.

The consciousness gap

In simple terms because all conscious beings are made exclusively from the exact same atoms found in the inanimate world around us, then logically, consciousness, or if you prefer base consciousness, may exist in all the atoms that make up the inanimate world. Consciousness, whatever that is – could therefore be a basic property of our world along with matter and energy. The ability to be aware is then a property of the entire Universe, not just a by-product of highly evolved animals with the cleverest brains, such as humans.

I’m sure you’ve heard similar statements before. Such principles appear in many ancient spiritual traditions and new-age philosophies, although these mostly reduce to either theism on the one hand or idealism and solipsism (matter created by the mind) on the other. It is easy to obscure what is a very simple logical principle with extra layers of interpretation, adding stories and purposes in order to deal with the why of human existence, which for this debate is a distraction. As a result many scientists would regard any discussion of consciousness outside of neuroscience as necessarily a philosophical or religious discussion.3

There has also long been an assumption that as genetics and technologies for mapping the human brain advanced, the answer to what consciousness is would eventually become apparent, something I personally believe is unlikely4. Here I’m trying to demonstrate that consciousness being a basic property of our world is a logical starting point, which works without reference to any spiritual tradition or requiring the reader to have any spiritual experience.

The core of my argument can be expressed like this:

All living beings have life and a degree of consciousness (awareness).
All living beings are made exclusively of atoms,
Atoms are therefore the only building blocks of life and consciousness.
Atoms may in some sense be ‘alive’ and ‘conscious’ (aware).

So a common criticism of any flavour of panpsychism is that it would require inanimate objects like chairs to have mental attributes. To me mental attributes are by definition only to be found in biological organisms. These serve the purpose of keeping the animal alive and allowing it to reproduce. There is an obvious difference between a conscious animal and the base awareness I am describing. A chair and a rock are not conscious beings because they are not seeking to maintain any sort of existence as a chair or as a rock.

Humans also like to read between the lines, to save time by establishing where they think the author is coming from. So throughout this post I will often state what I do not believe in (conventional religion or new-age-isms) to show this interpretation is consistent with an atheist point of view. I believe our being here is a result of millions of years of evolution and involves no purpose or story around our existence beyond that. I am only attempting to answer the how of consciousness, not the why.

The consciousness threshold

The dominant view in modern science is that your consciousness is tied to the brain cells in your skull. Other than theism or solipsism, the alternative explanations end up being dualist on analysis, because they reduce to consciousness coming in from out there somewhere and temporarily inhabiting the physical brain.

I do not in any way believe in consciousness being ‘out there’, being ‘other’. I believe absolutely that your consciousness is a product of your material body and brain in the material world. But physicalism and materialism still have not bridged that consciousness gap. A carbon atom in your brain could have previously been a carbon atom inside a rock. The same atom is part of a conscious system in one situation, but not the other. So either consciousness is nothing to do with the brain’s constituent atoms and has been dropped into the brain from somewhere else, (like life into Frankenstein’s monster) which is then dualist; or a threshold was crossed where unconscious matter became sufficiently complicated to become conscious living tissue.

The radical emergence of consciousness, what I think of a ‘threshold’ of consciousness, is a not unreasonable explanation for the consciousness gap. Matter in different states could have different properties, including the capacity to generate consciousness when atoms are arranged into a human brain. So the process would be as life is forming, atoms form cells following genetic patterns, and cells reach a threshold of complexity where consciousness comes into existence. And when that being dies that complex biological structure breaks down and as a result consciousness ends.

This is probably the way many scientists without religious faith would view the appearance and dis-appearance of consciousness in humans and other animals, the process of life and death. The scientific explanation of consciousness then centres around how complicated a biological system is required for that to happen, and where in the brain is it located?

However, it seems to allow something (consciousness) to just appear out of nothing (unconscious matter) which is a fundamentally unscientific principle. And I believe there are two other significant problems with a threshold account of consciousness:

Firstly it comes from an historical assumption that human consciousness is fundamentally different from any other consciousness found in the animal kingdom. Very recent experiments into animal intelligence are showing much of what was regarded as being solely the preserve of human beings – the capacity for abstract thought, self awareness, moral behaviour, altruism etc – can be found in other animals to some extent. For example, apes, cetaceans, magpies, and in one 2015 study even ants5, have been documented to pass the mirror test, something human infants only start doing from the age of two. This suggests some very small and simple life forms have a degree of self recognition. This is not to say these animals experience life as we do, only to point out our concept of what counts towards an intelligent consciousness and where it can be found is having to change at the start of the 21st century due to more detailed explorations of animal behaviour. This means the connotations of the word ‘consciousness’ itself should also change. This is one reason why I regularly use the qualified phrase; consciousness, whatever that is.

Secondly any threshold explanation could be seen as having a logical flaw similar to the argument by design (teleological) for God’s existence. The argument by design goes we are intelligent beings in a natural world that operates with laws as if designed, so must be the work of an intelligent creator. A common objection to this argument being; if we must be the work of an intelligent creator, then the intelligent creator must also be have been designed and created by another intelligent creator. The believer’s reply is usually that God is omniscient, omnipotent and so Himself needs no creator. However, that means God is being defined into existence as an all powerful being without need of a creator, and the logical argument is simply being stopped at an arbitrary point. I think something similar happens when you examine any threshold explanation, because it assumes consciousness is something that can only be present in significantly complex biological systems, and complexity is stopped there at some arbitrary point, rather than following it through logically, i.e. we are material beings in a material world in which consciousness exists, so consciousness, whatever that is, may be a basic property of our world.

Lacking an explanation for consciousness means physicalism/materialism must treat the physical world as essentially ‘dumb matter’ into which human consciousness spontaneously appears and disappears by crossing an undefined threshold. Beyond studying the human brain, any account of consciousness is required to stop there. Science can explain the formation of living cells using genetics and mathematical biology, and this works fine for the everyday world. But it still leaves the consciousness gap largely untouched.

A consciousness switch or an emerging consciousness?

If there is a threshold there must be a moment when the unaware matter is switched on, becomes aware. This implies human consciousness going from an off state to an on state. I see instead a growing dominance of one type of awareness – complicated self awareness emerging from ever present base consciousness.

When describing human consciousness we usually focus on the fully developed adult, able to have a complex inner world and to reflect on the nature of its own existence. But that consciousness of self takes time to fully develop. We all start off as cells becoming embryos becoming newborn babies. At what point is the self-awareness switch tripped? At birth we have an emerging but limited sense of self. Self-hood is learned as our brains and bodies develop. The babies’ consciousness appears predominantly reactive rather than self aware. Recognising oneself in a mirror starts at around 2 years, (interestingly the time of the ‘terrible twos’ when toddlers test their level of influence over their parents) but this does vary from culture to culture. And at some point in childhood the sense of an individual self grows until misleading questions emerge in our minds – such as, if I’m looking at something, who or what is inside my head witnessing that image?

The difference between our level of self awareness at birth and the level reached during adulthood may be wider than many other animals. A newborn dolphin will be pushed to the surface by its mother to take its first breath. It must swim, recognise its mother’s signature whistle, and have a good awareness of its marine environment within minutes of birth. Being at risk from predators it must very quickly function as a dolphin. We cannot really know how much self-hood newborn dolphins or even humans have of course, but humans give birth to relatively helpless and uncoordinated young compared to many other animals. We have the luxury of acquiring our sense of self more slowly. The perception of a separation between the self and the world, the basis of what is regarded as more complex consciousness, is of evolutionary value, but does not appear to be needed by humans immediately after birth. However, this limited sense of self does not does not diminish the newborn baby’s status as a complex conscious being.

Perhaps we need more pragmatism about the complex consciousness and self-awareness we possess, rather than seeing these as the crowning achievements of the living world. Self awareness has an evolutionary value to a number of animals, including ourselves. Humans are a unique species with a unique understanding of the world, but not because human consciousness has any ‘X-factor’. Instead we can view our brains as a collection of modules of consciousness; language, reason, self-awareness, theory of mind, meta tool use etc, which recent experiments show can be found in other species to greater or lesser degrees. And while complex brain structure is more likely to lead to self awareness, the varied list of animals that have passed the mirror test suggests the two might not entirely go hand in hand.

So not only would I question whether we are the only species with a significant degree of self awareness, but I question the assumption that complex consciousness and self-awareness are a different category of consciousness, which requires somehow crossing a binary threshold. We can just as easily view self awareness as something consciousness does when concentrated in a complex animal like a human after a process of learning and development involving body and brain. Returning to my basic definition of consciousness as an entity having some awareness of its environment and potential for some not entirely predictable reaction to the circumstances in which it finds itself – all we can really know about consciousness are its effects; the action/reaction, the stimulus/response. Ultimately we only have our own first person experience, or inferring the presence of consciousness in other beings, using measurement and observation.

Considering the simplest forms of life, does an Amoeba form an image of itself inside its environment, drawing on memories and visualising possible outcomes? Unlikely, as it has a limited range of options compared to a human. But we cannot categorically say whatever rudimentary consciousness the Amoeba possesses does not include a 1/1000th participle sense of self, because its observed behaviour tends to one of self interest. We can only know about that which can be observed and measured. But basic consciousness, the awareness of environment and potential to react, is certainly there in all animals. So maybe all consciousness includes a tiny degree of self awareness, and there are no thresholds or binary switches from ‘dumb matter’ to complicated human consciousness.

Having outlined the argument, the second part looks at the limits of our hunter gatherer perception, and then considers evidence for the most basic level of awareness in the natural world. Read part 2