Consciousness is worth thinking about06 Aug 2013
I was astonished when I realized that there is a possibility that consciousness does not come from the brain. Based on scientific reasoning, combined with my experience from meditation (starting with a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat I did some years ago), I have come to think that consciousness is more likely not to come from our brains. Obviously, if this is the case, the implications are huge.
It all started when I was having a beer with a friend who is working on a PhD in neuroscience. I was explaining The Singularity and how I thought that eventually a computer would become conscious, and that we will be able to "upload" our consciousness to computer hardware.
At the time I firmly believed that consciousness came from the brain, and I thought that any other point of view was a belief in "magic." Where else would consciousness come from, if not the brain? Obviously, I thought, consciousness comes from the brain, because when you stop someone's brain from working, they lose consciousness. There are many reasons and many smart people who think consciousness comes from the brain - I won't list them here - but as of yet there is no proof.
Actually there isn't even an agreed upon definition of what consciousness is. From wikipedia:
"It has been defined as: sentience, awareness, subjectivity, the ability to experience or to feel, wakefulness, having a sense of selfhood, and the executive control system of the mind. Despite the difficulty in definition, many philosophers believe that there is a broadly shared underlying intuition about what consciousness is."
Isn't it interesting that something so fundamental to who we are isn't even defined, let alone understood?
My friend recommended that I look into David Chalmers, an Australian philosopher and cognitive scientist specializing in the area of philosophy of mind. David Chalmers came up with distinguishing the easy and hard problem of consciousness. I won't get into the details, but it basically says that the hard problem regards experience - "why does the feeling which accompanies awareness of sensory information exist at all?" What I love about this is that it brings to light the profundity of consciousness. How can something so profound come from matter? Why is consciousness so mysterious?
After reading and listening to David Chalmers, I came to realize that there is an intelligent argument that supports the idea that consciousness does not emerge from the brain.
Around this same time I became aware of the problem of observation in quantum mechanics. At it's basic level the issue is that you can affect particles by simply observing them.
Schrödinger's cat is a thought experiment about this, where the problem is that a cat in a box is both alive and dead before the quantum trigger (which releases poison into the box) is measured/observed. A fascinating further thought experiment is to place yourself in the box (instead of the cat). How can you be both alive and dead before the quantum trigger is measured?
Many physicists today think the many-worlds theory resolves this paradox by stating that there are actually infinitely many universes, some in which you are dead and some in which you are living, and that once the quantum trigger is measured/observed, a specific universe is followed.
Personally I think a more simple and elegant resolution to this paradox is that there is simply one consciousness, and that it alone observes (possibly, decides) these quantum states.
Also worth noting is that quantum physicist Amit Goswami wrote an interesting book called "The Self-Aware Universe," in which he argues that consciousness is primitive and creates the material world.
Consciousness = The Present Moment
Similar to consciousness, the present moment is not clearly defined or understood. Modern physics has not yet been able to explain the perceived aspect of "the present" as it transfers future into past. Physical laws are valid at any point in time, but don't have a concept of the "present."
"The direct experience of the present for each human is that it is what is here, now. Direct experience is of course subjective by definition yet, in this case, this same direct experience is true for all humans. For all of us, 'here' means 'where I am' and 'now' means 'when I am'. Thus, the common repeatable experience is that the present is inextricably linked to oneself."
Again, the most elegant and simple solution to the problem of the present moment is that there is one consciousness, and that we all share this as our source. Otherwise, why do all of these separate consciousnesses/brains experience the present moment together? What else would make the present moment a shared experience?
I think that it is possible that consciousness is the present moment, that they are the exact same thing. Can you have one without the other?
Aldous Huxley experimented with drugs, because he said they helped him remove the filter of his brain so that he could experience the "Mind at Large." He thought these drugs reduced brain activity and so helped to remove this filter. A recent study on psilocybin supports this conclusion.
A quote from his book, The Doors of Perception:
“I am not so foolish as to equate what happens under the influence of mescalin or of any other drug, prepared or in the future preparable, with the realization of the end and ultimate purpose of human life: Enlightenment, the Beatific Vision. All I am suggesting is that the mescalin experience is what Catholic theologians call "a gratuitous grace," not necessary to salvation but potentially helpful and to be accepted thankfully, if made available. To be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and the inner world, not as they appear to an animal obsessed with survival or to a human being obsessed with words and notions, but as they are apprehended, directly and unconditionally, by Mind at Large—this is an experience of inestimable value to everyone and especially to the intellectual.”
Many people have had similar experiences with LSD and especially DMT, "The Spirit Molecule." Below is an interview with volunteers who tried DMT:
What is interesting about DMT is that people using the drug often experience things similar to those with near-death experiences. Rick Strassman did studies on this and wrote an interesting book about his experiments.
Eben Alexander is a neurosurgeon who had a near-death experience and wrote a book about it. His brain was "completely shut down," and yet he described his experiences as "occurring in a realm more real than the physical realm."
Some relevant quotes from a recent interview:
"I believed when the brain dies, that’s the end of consciousness. I know now that’s not true. I have a far grander view of science today than I ever did before my coma."
"It’s the hard problem of trying to answer the question, How does the physical brain give rise to consciousness? that has puzzled scientists,” he said, adding, “I realize why it’s so hard to find the answer: Because the brain isn’t the source of consciousness at all."
If consciousness comes from the brain, it seems strange that we just luckily happen to exist and be conscious right now. Statistically speaking this is incredibly unlikely, since the universe has been around 13.77 billion years and we only exist a very, very small fraction of that. So to believe that consciousness comes from the brain is to believe in a statistical abnormality.
Similarly, everyone assumes that they will not be conscious some day, and that there was a time when they were not conscious (e.g. before they were born). But no one has ever experienced non-consciousness directly, because it is impossible to do so. To "experience" non-consciousness implies that you are conscious to observe non-consciousness, which doesn't make any sense. All you will always ever know is consciousness in the present moment.
Of course this doesn't prove anything, but to me the most elegant and simple solution to these issues is that consciousness does not emerge from the brain and simply always exists.
The above list are reasons why I think that it is possible that consciousness doesn't come from the brain. But what has made me believe this to be true is my experience with daily meditation.
When I meditate I simply try to turn off my thinking by observing my thoughts without judgement. My goal is to experience "pure consciousness" without ego - that is to say without any personal attachment (e.g. a past, or a future). The times where I have been able to be truly present and conscious, without an identity, have been very profound. Although it is possible, I don't see how this experience could emerge from matter.
If consciousness doesn't come from the brain, it has huge and amazing implications. It may mean, for instance, that there is no such thing as death, and/or that we are all intimately connected.
How would you live your life differently if you believed that consciousness did not come from the brain? How would it change your daily life, your interactions with your family, co-workers, and neighbors? How would it change you career and personal goals?
These are the things that I have been thinking about.