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