The Consciousness of Reality

Consciousness is a truly puzzling phenomenon. For one, my own consciousness is the only element of existence I am personally aware of. Through the flow of subjective experiences I perceive an external reality and myself demarcated from it. I assume that other human minds—and to some extent non-human minds—experience a similar structure in this eternal moment of “now.” Strangely however, the subjective itself is very hard to objectify. The totality of perception, including every memory, is notoriously unreliable and misleading (Chap.  11). How then, should one try to comprehend the fundamental nature of consciousness? Moreover, is the external world our senses are seemingly reporting to us about really “out there?”

The latter question of how consciousness can acquire knowledge about the external world has a long history in philosophy. According to René Descartes and John Locke, a distinction needs to be introduced when thinking about material entities. In detail (Baggott 2009[1], p. 99):

[P]hysical objects possess primary qualities such as extension in space, shape, motion, density, number, and so on, all underpinned by the concept of material substance. […] Secondary qualities such as color exist only in our minds and therefore cannot be said to be independently existing real qualities of physical objects.

This view is compatible with empiricism and rationalism (Chap.  9). However (Tarnas 1991[2], p. 335):

Locke was followed by Bishop Berkeley, who pointed out that if the empiricist analysis of human knowledge is carried through rigorously, then it must be admitted that all qualities that the human mind registers, whether primary or secondary, are ultimately experienced as ideas in the mind, and there can be no conclusive inference whether or not some of those qualities “genuinely” represent or resemble an outside object.

Indeed (Baggott 2009[3], p. 100):

Berkeley’s logic is merciless but compelling. We can hold on to the idea of independently [of the mind] existing material substance, but at the cost of having to accept that we can ascribe no independently real properties to it, and can never hope to explain how this substance might give rise to the perceptions we have of it.

So, why do we appear to witness the same objective reality, if all things are intangible? For Berkeley it was clear (Tarnas 1991[4], p. 336):

The reason that objectivity exists, that different individuals continually perceive a similar world, and that a reliable order inheres that world, is that the world and its order depend on a mind that transcends individual minds and is universal—namely, God’s mind.

The next iteration in this line of reasoning came in the form of David Hume’s skepticism (Tarnas 1991[5], p. 337):

Like Berkeley, Hume could not accept Locke’s views on representative perception, but neither could he accept Berkeley’s identification of external objects with internal ideas, rooted ultimately in the mind of God.

He drove the critique of empiricism to its final extreme (Tarnas 1991[6], p. 339):

[A] more disturbing consequence of Hume’s critical analysis was its apparent undermining of empirical science itself, for the latter’s logical foundation, induction, was now recognized as unjustifiable.

[…]

If all human knowledge is based on empiricism, yet induction cannot be logically justified, then man can have no certain knowledge.

All is contingent. Hume’s philosophy stimulated “Immanuel Kant to develop the central philosophical position of the era” (Tarnas 1991[7], p. 340). In effect, Hume awakened Kant from his “dogmatic slumber.” The result was an existential blow (Tarnas 1991[8]):

In retrospect, the long-term consequences of both the Copernican and Kantian revolutions were fundamentally ambiguous, at once liberating and diminishing. Both revolutions awakened man to a new, more adventurous reality, yet both also radically displaced man—one from the center of the cosmos, the other from genuine cognition of that cosmos. [P. 348]

[…]

In the wake of Kant’s Copernican revolution, science, religion, and philosophy all had to find their own bases for affirmation, for none could claim a priori access to the universe’s intrinsic nature. [P. 351]

In detail, Kant argued the following in his Critique of Pure Reason (Kant 1781[9]). The Transcendental Aesthetic reads (translated by Meiklejohn 2003[10]):

From this investigation it will be found that there are two pure forms of sensuous intuition, as principles of knowledge a priori, namely, space and time. [§1]

Space is nothing else than the form of all phenomena of the external sense, that is, the subjective condition of the sensibility, under which alone external intuition is possible. [§4]

Time is nothing else than the form of the internal sense, that is, of the intuitions of self and of our internal state. [§7]

[…] if we take away the subject, or even only the subjective constitution of our senses in general, then not only the nature and relations of objects in space and time, but even space and time themselves disappear; and that these, as phenomena, cannot exist in themselves, but only in us. [§9]

In a nutshell (Tarnas 1991[11], p. 343f.):

Space and time are thus not drawn from experience but are presupposed in experience. They are never observed as such, but they constitute that context within which all events observed. They cannot be known to exist in nature independently of the mind, but the world cannot be known by the mind without them.

Space and time therefore cannot be said to be characteristic of the world in itself, for they are contributed in the act of human observation. They are grounded epistemologically in the nature of the mind, not ontologically in the nature of things.

A contemporary interpretation of this line of thought is provided by the philosopher Hilary Putnam. He pondered about the notion of brains in a vat (Putnam 1981[12]):

Here is a science fiction possibility discussed by philosophers: imagine that a human being (you can imagine this to be yourself) has been subjected to an operation by an evil scientist. The person’s brain (your brain) has been removed from the body and placed in a vat of nutrients which keeps the brain alive. The nerve endings have been connected to a super-scientific computer which causes the person whose brain it is to have the illusion that everything is perfectly normal. There seem to be people, objects, the sky, etc; but really all the person (you) is experiencing is the result of electronic impulses travelling from the computer to the nerve endings. The computer is so clever that if the person tries to raise his hand, the feedback from the computer will cause him to “see” and “feel” the hand being raised. Moreover, by varying the program, the evil scientist can cause the victim to “experience” (or hallucinate) any situation or environment the evil scientist wishes. He can also obliterate the memory of the brain operation, so that the victim will seem to himself to have always been in this environment. It can even seem to the victim that he is sitting and reading these very words about the amusing but quite absurd supposition that there is an evil scientist who removes people’s brains from their bodies and places them in a vat of nutrients which keep the brains alive.

The question now is (Baggott 2009[13], p. 105):

So, could you be just a brain in a vat? If all your knowledge of the physical world around you is derived from your perceptions and your perceptions were being manipulated to give you the impression of reality, then how would you know otherwise?

Putnam tried to argue that the brain-in-a-vat scenario is impossible. His reasoning is based on the idea that brains are usually in causal connection with real objects in the real world, making the statement “I am a brain in a vat” a self-refuting proposition. Not everyone agrees (Baggott 2009[14], p. 115):

This [the argument of causal connection and self-refutation] is, perhaps, a perfectly natural assumption. But it is an assumption.

Such musings about the nature of the objective world our subjective experiences seem to bear witness to—from Berkeley to Putnam—only represent the tip of the existential iceberg. Some other radical explanations for the content of my personal conscious perception in this very moment have been listed in the introductory part of Chap.  1. Needless to say, all of the alternative explanations of existence cannot be proven or disproven. To recapitulate:

E1

It is all just one big coincidence and happened by pure chance. We know the fundamental laws of nature and consciousness is simply the result of how the brain works. There is no mystery and that is all there is to say. [Materialism, scientific realism]

E2

A God created the universe. Perhaps 13.8 billion years ago or perhaps 6,000 years ago with fictitious properties making the universe appear older (or even 5 seconds ago, with false memories implanted in all human minds) . [Creationism in Abrahamic religion]

E3

Reality is a vast and impermanent illusion (anicca) comprised of endless distractions and suffering. The quest of the mind is to cultivate a state of awareness, allowing the illusion to be seen for what it is. Then the enlightened mind can withdraw from the physical realm and enter a state of pure bliss. [Buddhism]

E4

Only the Self exists. Life is the endless play of the Self (lila) losing itself only to find itself again in a constant game of hide-and-seek. [Hinduism]

E5

Only pure consciousness exists. In endless cycles, it manifests itself as separate physical embodiments, allowing for an experiential context, only to merge in unity again and start afresh. [Spirituality, panpsychism]

E6

We are dreaming this life and will some day “wake up” to a richer reality which is unimaginably more lucid and coherent. Physical death marks the transition of consciousness from the dreaming state to a higher-dimensional reality or maybe a reality entirely outside the realm of space and time. [Esotericism variation]

E7

We live in the multiverse, the infinite set of all possible universes. As a consequence, we naturally find ourselves in that corner of it which allows for intelligent and sentient life. [String/M-theory, cosmology, many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics]

E8

Our physical three-dimensional universe is an illusion. It is a hologram that is isomorphic to the quantum information encoded on the surface of its boundary. [Holographic principle, AdS/CFT duality]

E9

We inhabit a simulation that has these features programmed. [Simulation hypothesis]

The human mind’s scientific quest to comprehend the world and its own nature is detailed in Part I. The limits of the current materialistic and reductionistic scientific worldview are outlined in Part II. Then, Chap.  13 offers a novel scientific understanding of the world, based on an information ontology. Creationism is discussed in Sect.  12.2.2[15]. Buddhism appeared in the context of mindfulness (Sects.  7.4.2.1[16],  9.3.5[17], and  11.1[18]). The Hindu concept of lila is discussed below, as is the notion of panpsychism. Recall the words of the philosopher of the mind Thomas Metzinger, reminiscing about his experience of an episode of false awakening (Sect.  11.2.2[19]):

So, how do you know that you actually woke up this morning? Couldn’t it be that everything you have experienced was only a dream?

Elements of string/M-theory are introduced in Sects.  4.3.2[20],  10.2.2[21], and  13.4.1.2[22], while the notion of the multiverse is discussed in Sect.  10.3.2.2[23]. The holographic principle is introduced in Sect.  13.4.1[24]. It is motivated by theoretical findings related to the novel information-theoretic paradigm outlined in Chap.  13. So too is the simulation hypothesis, which is explained in Sect.  13.4.2[25]. In conclusion (Baggott 2009[26], p. 228):

We must now come to terms with the fact that there is no hard evidence for this common-sense reality to be gained from anywhere in the entire history of human thought. There is simply nothing we can point to, hang our hats on and say this is real.

How should the human mind proceed from here? Should we simply concede that information is the fundamental nature of physical reality and that our minds are forever unknowable enigmas? In other words, subjectivity allows the objective to be grasped while remaining ethereal itself. This chapter argues that the human mind can take a final step in understanding itself. It is a small step within the informational ontology, but a huge step conceptually. Only the brave mind can reach the destination, as it requires a radical reassessment of all things believed to be true. For one, radical open-mindedness is asked for (Sect.  12.4.4[27]). Indeed (deGrasse Tyson 2007[28], p. 305):

One thing is for certain: the more profoundly baffled you have been in your life, the more open your mind becomes to new ideas.

In the words of an influential neuroscientist introduced in the next section (Koch 2012[29], p. 134f.):

Let me end with a plea for humility. The cosmos is a strange place, and we still know little about it. It was only two decades ago that scientists discovered that a mere 4 percent of the mass-energy of the universe is the sort of material out of which stars, planets, trees, you, and I are fashioned. One-quarter is cold dark matter, and the rest is something bizarre called dark energy.1 Cosmologists have no idea what dark energy is or what laws it obeys. […] Our knowledge is but a fire lighting up the vast darkness around us, flickering in the wind. So, let us be open to alternative, rational explanations in the quest for the source of consciousness.

Finally, the list of phenomena which are deemed impossible requires a re-evaluation. In essence, to understand itself, the human mind needs to entertain “crazy” ideas and break taboos. The Nobel laureate Francis Crick once gave the following advice (quoted in Bilger 2011[30]):

The dangerous man is the one who has only one idea, because then he’ll fight and die for it. The way real science goes is that you come up with lots of ideas, and most of them will be wrong.

Only now, freed from prejudice and preconceived notions, can the information-theoretic paradigm shift become truly earth-shaking by encompassing the human mind.

References

  1. ^ 2009 (link.springer.com)
  2. ^ 1991 (link.springer.com)
  3. ^ 2009 (link.springer.com)
  4. ^ 1991 (link.springer.com)
  5. ^ 1991 (link.springer.com)
  6. ^ 1991 (link.springer.com)
  7. ^ 1991 (link.springer.com)
  8. ^ 1991 (link.springer.com)
  9. ^ 1781 (link.springer.com)
  10. ^ 2003 (link.springer.com)
  11. ^ 1991 (link.springer.com)
  12. ^ 1981 (link.springer.com)
  13. ^ 2009 (link.springer.com)
  14. ^ 2009 (link.springer.com)
  15. ^ 12.2.2 (doi.org)
  16. ^ 7.4.2.1 (doi.org)
  17. ^ 9.3.5 (doi.org)
  18. ^ 11.1 (doi.org)
  19. ^ 11.2.2 (doi.org)
  20. ^ 4.3.2 (doi.org)
  21. ^ 10.2.2 (doi.org)
  22. ^ 13.4.1.2 (doi.org)
  23. ^ 10.3.2.2 (doi.org)
  24. ^ 13.4.1 (doi.org)
  25. ^ 13.4.2 (doi.org)
  26. ^ 2009 (link.springer.com)
  27. ^ 12.4.4 (doi.org)
  28. ^ 2007 (link.springer.com)
  29. ^ 2012 (link.springer.com)
  30. ^ 2011 (link.springer.com)

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