Consciousness, qualia, sentience, wakefulness. Words we have difficulty describing or defining, but words we all live and understand.
Anything that we are aware of at a given moment forms part of our consciousness, making conscious experience at once the most familiar and most mysterious aspect of our lives.
Consciousness is a subject open to interpretation. This is the reason why there are many theories and opinions about this subject. But every interpretation of what consciousness is, does have consequence. In this series, I will discuss these interpretations and their consequences. Existing ones, and possibly a few of my own.
The more we study the world, the better our understanding of it becomes. But no matter how well we seem to understand our physical world. our experience, our consciousness is still a mystery. Our physical way of looking at the world could do fine without it. Without consciousness the sun would still rise every morning, oceans would still have waves and electrical signals would still go through human brains to dictate their behaviour. People without consciousness (philosophical zombies) would still go to work, interact, play and otherwise live their lives. Yet, none of those things would be experienced in the fashion you experience. Depending on definition, it would not be experienced at all.
But from our own experience, we know this is not true. Even if your actions are being dictated by the rules of physics, you do experience them. Even though it cannot be proven by our sciences, our way of making sense of the world, you know it to be true. Even though you don’t have any explanation for it yourself, you are conscious.
And while we have little understanding about this most fundamental experience of existence, we do have a great intuitive understanding of the physical world. This is likely the reason that one is often attempted to be explained by the other. A world of matter over mind.
This article will venture into a world in which we assume the physical is indeed the seed of consciousness. What would this mean? What can we learn from it? What is a world in which matter exists over mind?
Even though questions about consciousness might be impossible to answer, they are one of the most logical to ask. For those questions are not questions about science but questions about ourselves.
Consciousness as matter. Matter over Mind
With emphasis on modern science, consciousness is widely believed to be a capability of the physical. And with good reason I might add: physical processes in- and outside our body influence our consciousness. With the rise of modern science it is even possible for these processes to be visualised from within. Complex networks of neurons and synapses exchange information with each other resembling a big, biological computer. Scientists can observe specific areas in the brain when people are concentrating on certain tasks and we have observed that people’s personalities can change if damage occurs.
So, case closed one might say: consciousness resides in the brain, and therefore is a physical process or state.
But is it really that simple? Even if we could map every neuron and every synapse, even if we can predict the next thought you are going to have and every decision you are going to make, we would still not have explained why you are you. The perspective only you have and no one could ever share. Consciousness.
Why do YOU experience all that complexity? Why do YOU experience those thoughts? Why are YOU?
I admit, this is an unfair question to ask. For if our brain, our biological machine truly has a perspective, it might wonder exactly the same thing, and it would probably feel the same way about this experience. On the other hand, we mostly agree a dishwasher is not conscious and we are still debating whether even most animals are.
This is again where we like to involve our brain. For our brain is relatively bigger or more complex than the brains of most animals, and it is certainly different from the computer chip in your dishwasher. When confronted with these questions we often say that there is probably a part of the brain that reflects upon itself. A part that observes and interprets itself. A part that we could call our physical consciousness.
But even if this is the case, what makes this part of matter different than others? What makes it special? Why is this clump of matter conscious, while all others are not?
The physical worlds
Before we continue, we should be aware there is not just one physical world in human perception. When talking about the physical world, most people will think about the world we navigate every day. But there might be some who think about electronic signals and computer chips instead. Or those who rather think about a world of mathematical equations and atomic particles.
All these interpretations fit in our understanding of the physical world. But as we do not know the place consciousness might have in the physical, all their interpretations of how consciousness would fit within it could vary.
To prevent confusion, this article will deal with two such interpretations separately. First we will look at the world through human eyes and after that, we will attempt to see the physical world in a more fundamental way. A world of particles and forces.
The human perspective: The chocolate cake
As humans, we experience a physical world that has people, trees, houses, cats and chocolate cakes. To us, the difference between a person and a chocolate cake is obvious. We have a clear understanding of what is the one or the other.
Humans have an instinctive familiarity with what we call the physical world. This makes it only natural to want to look for consciousness there. After all, would it not be great if we could make everything as understandable as we understand the world around us?
Still, accepting that it is a very human claim to make, does not make it an invalid one. What would it mean if we are to accept that consciousness is indeed the way we instinctively explain and categorise most of our familiar existence? Would it mean consciousness is just a thing? No more than a collection of the correct ingredients? Like a house, a cat…a cake?
Well…why not? If we are capable of giving more meaning to a collection of things than just a sum of its parts, why would this not be possible for consciousness as well? We might just be the sum of our parts, the flavor of the cake.
However, accepting our instinctive perspective to describe consciousness is not without consequences. Even though a cake is a cake, and a chocolate cake is a chocolate cake, at what amount of chocolate does one start tasting like the other? Adding one molecule of chocolate to a cake does not make it a chocolate cake as would removing one from the chocolate cake not turn it into a plain cake.
When looking closely at the definitions we assign to the world, we start seeing the many grey areas, showing the ambiguousness of our actual existence and revealing that the meaning we give to it only exists for ourselves.
Of course we can make our definitions more precise, and make rules for all exceptions we can think of. But that is just it. They are our rules. They are but a subjective layer of existence that we created on top of the objective one that our sciences agree on to exist.
Even then, this might just be what consciousness is. What existence is. After all, we only know of consciousness in this layer of the physical world. And for the same reason, a conscious part of the brain might not be so far fetched after all.
Aside from our own subjective interpretation of the physical, the sciences describe an objective one. Observations and measurements that should yield the same results, no matter the time and place. Measurements that describe a world of particles and fundamental forces. A world of fields and quantum mechanics. An objective world.
And it is this objective world that has shown its value time and again. Not only does it allow us to navigate and explain the world we experience, it also allows us to predict phenomena that were previously never observed. This is the power of science. The study of the structure and behaviour of the physical world through observation, experiment and mutual agreement.
Science is an important part of our culture. Children get introduced to the sciences at an early age, and modern success stories often involve at least an aspect of it. We could arguably say that the use of science has become second nature to us. It is a perspective that enriches, confirms and challenges our intuitive understanding of the world.
And because science has shown its value so often, it only makes sense we would love to explain consciousness, an aspect of existence, using science. Would it not be wonderful if consciousness could be captured in some mathematical formula or find its origin in a field we could study and understand? Consciousness as an inherent property of nature, just as “real” and predictable as gravity. The world would make much more sense. What is not to love about that?
Sadly however, one of the aspects of the scientific method, is objective observation. And the fact that we only observe our own consciousness makes it an inherently subjective one.
Besides that, we can not even define what consciousness is. Even though everyone probably has an idea what we mean by the word, we often have trouble putting it into words ourselves. Let alone make a clear, measurable definition for it.
But even with these facts, our past discoveries within the physical world often make us believe that not only the physical but also consciousness consists out of fundamental particles, forces or building blocks of any kind. Even though at this point it would be more a believe than anything else, we could still ask ourselves what this would mean for consciousness.
And why not? We experience consciousness as one of, if not THE true existence. Would it not make sense to be on par with all other building blocks we have discovered and predicted? Consciousness not as a capability, but consciousness as something fundamental. An objective force of nature.
The fundamental force
Whether it is a scientific one or not. With this perspective it would not make sense to see consciousness as the flavor of the cake. On the atomic scale, there is no difference between a carbon atom that is used to make up the cake, or a carbon atom that is inside you. It is there regardless.
If you were to look at existence with this perspective, all you would see are particles and forces interacting with each other. An oversimplification, perhaps, but chocolate cake does not even exist on this scale.
What would it mean if consciousness were to be more like an atom, or even gravity? Would it mean that everything is a little bit conscious, just like all matter has a bit of gravity? Does it mean every rock, every drop of water, every cell in your body is, or at least contains a shred of consciousness?
How would that explain us? The experience we currently have? Surely we are conscious of more than just one cell. We have thoughts, feelings and memories. All of these we have observed to be a result of vast networks of neurons working together. Suggesting we are more like the chocolate cake after all.
Or could would our accumulation of consciousness explain exactly what we observe? Not unlike the accumulation of all gravitational forces on Earth keep us grounded.
No matter how we look at consciousness, it is hard to deny its connection to the physical world. Our conscious state can already be predicted by phenomena we observe in the brain. And even if we would ignore that, one does only have to move an arm to see we are constantly affecting the physical world with conscious thoughts ourselves.
Even with a connection so obvious, its role in this connection remains a mystery to us. Is it a fundamental part of our physical universe, a chocolate cake or something completely different? We might never know, and depending on whom you ask, this is why consciousness is regarded as such a mysterious aspect of existence.
But is consciousness really so different from the physical, I wonder. Sure, science has unraveled and predicted quite some physical phenomena. And it is easy to agree on aspects we can all observe and verify. But no matter how far we look and no matter how deep we go, there will always be the question of why things are the way they are.
Even if we are able to predict the behaviour of all things physical, there will still be the question of how those things came to be. Why in the form we perceive?
And is this not exactly the same question we are asking about consciousness? Sure, there is less to predict as there are less objective effects to examine, but in the end we agree on its existence and we wonder about its how and why.
No matter how many familiar perspectives we might adopt about existence and no matter how well we can predict its behaviour, the true nature of existence will forever be a mystery to us. A statement that holds just as true for the physical world as it does for consciousness.
So in the end I ask you: Is consciousness forever a subjective experience that only exists in the world we observe as humans or do you think consciousness is quantifiable and objective? Or could it be something different altogether?
Whatever your answer to those questions might be, I do hope that this article has made you see the wonder of what consciousness is. And maybe even, the wonder of existence itself.