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 this rather Zen like term will sound 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 a discussion about consciousness may well be the point at which any scientists would 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 centering 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 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 a) no interference pattern when there is one slit, an interference pattern when given a choice of slits. b) changing behaviour again when being measured – would suggest a level of awareness if it was 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.

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 observer effect  is not central to my argument, because it again centers quantum strangeness on complicated human consciousness. And something that is frequently missed about the controversial observer effect is that it is only half an explanation: it has nothing to say the strangeness of point a) above, only point b).

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.

Of course we expect intelligence to require a 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.

The double slit experiment also gives the same results with whole atoms, and buckyballs (60 carbon atoms), which starts to close the gap of scale between the subatomic and living no brain organisms, like the slime mould. So isn’t is possible that what we’re seeing here is a basic test of awareness and decision making, a situation that requires a behaviour, which is basis  of all animal consciousness?

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.

So in the next part I’ll relate this to our own existence, including my account of life and death. Read part 3