To give us some common ground to start the conversation, I Googled the word, and found Merriam Webster’s definition: consciousness is, “the condition of being conscious : the normal state of being awake and able to understand what is happening around you; a person’s mind and thoughts; knowledge that is shared by a group of people.” The dictionary continues into a much longer definition, but this is enough for our purposes.
Early Exploration of Consciousness
Consciousness has been the subject of inquiry and investigation for at least as long as we have been recording human thought. Over two thousand years ago the Greek philosophers were developing theories of existence that toggled back and forth between theories of “being” and “becoming”; Hindu spiritual practitioners were cultivating the tools of meditation and exploring the Upanishads; and Buddhists were writing the Abhidharma, a massive and astonishingly sophisticated theory of mind and consciousness.
With the birth of modern science during the enlightenment, the study of consciousness was dignified with new trappings and became formal scientific inquiry. The Seventeenth Century French philosopher Renee Descartes (also creator of the revolutionary and now ubiquitous Cartesian Coordinate system of (x, y) coordinates) famously said, “Cogito ergo sum” – “I think therefore I am” and looked for the physical seat of this consciousness inside the human skull.
But still we search.
It seems that every few months another study or theory is put forth. “Scientists Closing in on Theory of Consciousness” is the title of an article from last year in Live Science, which repackages and digs a little deeper in some of the old favorites. There are many more.
Modern Philosophy of Mind – and Philosophers of Mind
Several years ago as a newcomer to the practice of meditation, I was fascinated by the nature of consciousness and spent a lot of time exploring it. Among the many great books out there, ones I particularly enjoyed are Steven Pinker’s “How The Mind Works”, Chalmers “The Conscious Mind” and above all Daniel Dennett’s “Consciousness Explained”. This last is a wonderful book and provides a comprehensive analysis of how our mind really works. Highlights of topics it explores include:
- the mind’s natural ability to fill in “gaps” – for example making us see a string of flashing lights in the distance as a single moving light, or filling in a pattern (like repeating wallpaper) in our peripheral vision even when it is not there, or filling in the blind spot where our optical nerve leaves the eye;
- the related tendency to interpret things in a sequence that makes sense – for example a series of taps moving sequentially up the arm are felt as such…but so is a the sequence even when one of the steps is a large step backwards, completely out of place;
- the distributed nature of the mind, with different thoughts and perceptions occurring in very different parts of the brain, and no central “theater of the mind” in which it is all brought together or coordinated;
- a series of thought experiments around the “Chinese Room” (originally used by the Berkeley philosopher of mind, John R. Searle) analogous to the Turing Test (a test recently developed playfully and intriguingly in the sci-fi movie “Ex Machina”);
- expansion of ideas about whether consciousness is observable by thought experiments comparing the behavior of conscious beings with zombies.
Consciousness Explained Away
“Consciousness Explained” is a wonderful narrative, but when it concludes in a chapter titled, “Consciousness Imagined” and the sub-section, “Consciousness Explained, Or Explained Away”, one realizes that we have been on a fascinating journey which actually brings us no closer to understanding what conscious IS. And Dennett acknowledges that he has taken us on a journey into our selves and shown our sense of identity to be the result of mind tricks, without answering the question he sought to explain.
Modern scientists and philosophers – Dennett included – acknowledge a problem developing an understanding or theory of consciousness, because (in Dennett’s words), “Only a theory that explained conscious events in terms of unconscious events could explain consciousness at all”, and “thinking. mistakenly, that the explanation leaves something out, we think to save what would otherwise be lost by putting it back into the observer as a quale – or some other “intrinsically” wonderful property.”
It is this “other intrinsic property” that seems to be the crux of the problem. The very brilliant and fascinating Roger Penrose wrote “The Emperor’s New Mind”, a massive tome, to expound on and explain a premise is that consciousness is an emergent principle at the level of quantum uncertainty, and that this emergent principle is exploited by the machinery of the human brain to create the mind and consciousness.
This is the crux of where science goes astray in its consideration of consciousness – and where it takes our materialistic society into the ditch with it. Modern science is trapped by a logical inconsistency – one perhaps permitted by the increasingly fragmented and piecemeal approach of a discipline which is necessarily becoming ever more specialized as it moves beyond the ability of any individual to grasp even a small portion of its whole. The inconsistency is the role of the observer in quantum theory and the role in theories of consciousness.
According to quantum mechanics, nothing really comes into existence as we would recognize it until there is an observer. In other words, in quantum mechanics the crystallization of quantum probability fields into “reality” requires a pre-existent – or at least simultaneously arising – observer. The nature of this observer has, as far as I can tell, never really been defined within this system, but it seems no coincidence that the label and its very nature sound a lot like the observer which we are trying to explain in the philosophy and science of mind. But if this is the same observer…. then how can he or she be explained by non-conscious events which only came into existence as a result of the observer?
This is a completely unsatisfactory state of affairs. Perhaps it suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of consciousness. At the very least it seems to require some regrouping and rethinking.
Out of Body Experiences and Universal Consciousness
The whole approach to the science and philosophy of mind is centered on the idea that consciousness is an emergent property of the human mind.
What if this idea is wrong?
What if consciousness came first. Or at least co-arose. And what if the relationship between consciousness and the brain is not the direct, one-way causal relationship we have assumed it to be – and taught ourselves it must be – ever since the Seventeenth Century?
This would be utterly radical to the scientific mindset, but it would fit with centuries – millennia – of spiritual journeys and experiments, with myriad narratives and traditions and highly influential stories and experiences. It is a framework in which stories of “out of body experiences” and “universal consciousness” would fit. And it is a framework which would give a very interesting perspective on the ancient problem of freewill.
Let’s look at these.
Stories of out of body experiences show up all over the place: those returning from near-death often report traveling from the body, even floating above it and looking down on the physical shell beneath them; and out of body experiences are often a desirable and even intended effect of partaking in hallucinogenic drugs. In fact much of our culture of alcohol and drugs seems to be to do with separating body and consciousness. In the extreme, the alcoholic blackout arises when a person is so affected by alcohol that they have no memory of their behavior – not a direct out-of-body experience, but an experience of not experiencing consciousness of what we regard as “our body”. And when taken in moderation drugs and alcohol are used to soften and mute the conscious experience, to dull not the physicality of being human, but rather the experience – or consciousness – of being human.
“Consciousness Has Us”
Let’s move on to universal consciousness. A wise man recently said to me that “We don’t have consciousness, consciousness has us.”
Allow yourself to look at your conscious experience from this standpoint for a while. Within this framework it makes no sense to talk of having an experience of universal consciousness…because consciousness is that thing out there that “has” you”, and “you” can’t ever have “it”. A corollary is that universal consciousness is always there, quite happy just being. It doesn’t need anyone to connect with or experience it: “it” just is.
If consciousness has us, then your personal consciousness is a small subset – a tiny subset – of this universal consciousness. To paraphrase a Hindu metaphor, it is like putting a thimble in the ocean and declaring that the water in the thimble is “you”. The water is both the same as, and connected with the whole: it is not distinguishable in any way, and is constantly inter-changing. But nonetheless you see it as very special and call it “you”.
This is also a gateway into the spiritual idea of connectedness. It has oft been said that we are all made of stardust: you are just the small residue left behind after the universe, in all of its vastness, has been defined; your body contains atoms that were part of Jesus and Mohammad and Buddha; and no atom has been in your body for more than seven years. That you are materially connected with and inseparable from the universe can easily be grasped intellectually, but it is a scientific and not a spiritual perspective. The spiritual definition of “I” is in terms of spirit or soul or consciousness. The great spiritual discussions are about where does the self go when it die – which is to say what happens to the consciousness or would or spirit which really defines you.
It’s a huge leap for ordinary, practical experience, but what if the truth behind quantum mechanics is that consciousness comes first, and that everything we see, touch, and feel, arises as a consequence of a universal observer that we call universal consciousness. What if the Big Bang is the explosion of the experienced universe out of the first spontaneous arising of consciousness?
It’s a huge leap, but even within the traditional theory of mind we have learned that we are not who we think we are, that there is no central locus of self, of identity, or of consciousness in the body or mind. If you are to truly understand yourself, you already know that the sense of self you hold so dearly is either an illusion or a manifestation of something which science cannot explain. Either way consciousness is misunderstood and we need to look in a different place.
But this is not an answer, I’m afraid. This still does not explain where consciousness comes from. What it does do, though, is to challenge dogma. It completely turns the tables on our cultural understanding and scientific approach to consciousness. It provides a completely different framework for exploration of consciousness, and sets up an exploration into tricks and illusions that make those Dennett uncovered look like child’s play. But importantly it returns power in that exploration to you, for your identity, yourself cannot be seen as a scientific consequence of quantum-level brain activity, but as something which you, and you alone have the ability to explore.