Here is a simple question. Is your consciousness solely a by-product of biochemical processes?
In other words, is your awareness of the world and who you are, simply a condition of electrical and chemical interactions between cells?
This is a very simple question. It’s the simple answer that reveals enormous problems. Yes, or no.
My consciousness is considering the ramifications of either answer right now. Don’t mind me. It’s just some chemicals sloshing about. But consider – the answer, yes or no, is important. If known with certainty, the answer to this simple question would topple many fundamental assumptions we currently entertain. Either way it goes. And most of these fundamental assumptions we do not consider. In grossly simplistic terms, do we have a spirit? What does it mean to be conscious?
If our consciousness is a by-product of chemical interactions, there are few compelling reasons that we should also have a spirit. If I feel joy as a result of something I hear, it’s just chemicals flowing around in one area, which trigger a blob of chemicals in another area which creates a “sensation” (whatever that is) of joy, which in turn triggers more blobs of chemicals in another place which may bring back memories to my consciousness of similar joyful things, in whatever region of the mass of neurons in which the consciousness actually manifests.
However, if our consciousness is spiritual in nature, how do we explain the oftentimes profound alteration of our conscious state through brain injury, biological diseases, or chemical alterations? If we have a spirit, how can our personalities be so radically altered by physical changes to a materialistic brain?
These issues may seem purely academic, with little importance in our daily lives. But the issue is significant. Both science and religion exert tremendous force upon our lives. When considering the nature of consciousness, each “team” plays by a completely different rule book, and their game effects us all both directly and profoundly.
For example, brain drugs are now prescribed to people of all ages, even children, with alarming frequency. These drugs represent a major portion of pharmaceutical profits. They are backed by science and the belief that consciousness is, at least, in large part a materialistic process. But if we believe our consciousness is purely biochemical, why not throw chemicals at our biology? Doing so, we can alter our state of mind to happily accommodate any feelings or perceptions we have of the world, or ourselves. We can alter our consciousness to be content with any stimulus or situation. In essence, we can engineer a paradise for ourselves that is completely independent of anyone or anything in the external world. If we are simply biochemical, why not have this bliss?
Well, for one, the people handing out the drugs could get away with murder. But so what? Isn’t some notion of morality and ethics dangerously close to spiritual considerations? I admit there are possible reasons why not, that do not require us to have a spirit. For example, if we all were engineered happy and content regardless of our environment, we might find ourselves soon extinct as a species. Why does it matter that a plague kills everyone? We are happy. Perhaps there is some biologically hard-coded imperative for survival. If we have engineered ourselves into happiness, have we engineered out this imperative? This could be a valid reason to avoid engineering our biochemical consciousness that is not dependent upon having a spirit.
But even this raises a question toward the spiritual. Is our biological imperative toward survival an imperative for only our own survival, and not necessarily the survival of other people? It would seem so. If many other people were to die, there is less competition for food, for mates, and less chance that I will be killed by someone else. Though rational, this is not how most people think. For some reason we find it important that other people should live, instead of die, even when they are not part of our “pack”. Perhaps we feel this way because mirror neurons in our brain somehow allow our consciousness, whatever that is, to place ourselves in the position of others. And because we can imagine ourselves in another person’s shoes, we choose to want them to live, rather than die. Of course, this argument skips the whole problem that we simultaneously know that we are not that person, yet still choose that they should live. That argument relies upon us having, at minimum, empathy. Who knows what combination of cell types and chemicals would cause our consciousness, in whatever grouping of cells it lives, to experience empathy. But maybe empathy isn’t a feeling. Maybe it’s a purely mathematical phenomenon.
One of the largest problems science faces when trying to explain consciousness is providing an account for consciousness in the first place. Is consciousness inside our brain? Where is it? Does it simply manifest itself somehow as a combination of all biochemical processes which occur in the brain? Would our consciousness exist if we had no body, other than a brain, nor external senses? You see, it is one thing for us to affect consciousness in some physical way, but it is quite another to actually pin it down.
The prevailing wisdom of science says that consciousness does not exist, in and of itself, but is rather an illusory result of electrical and biochemical processes that occur within the brain. What we consider our self, or our consciousness, is really an illusion. Our consciousness is just a systematic and recursive material, or mechanical, process that results in some meta-state that we imagine we experience, which we call consciousness. But really, this consciousness is nothing more than a plethora of mechanical processes occurring, which give us the illusion.
To some, believing this explanation turns us into little more than zombies who wander about doing our mechanistic things. You might appear conscious to me, but really you are a mass of predictable mechanics. I must confess there are times when this seems true. But is it the whole picture?
In the West we have a long history of separating the mind from the body. Our thoughts, and therefore our ability to reason, are dependent upon our ability to sense and observe the world. Our mind, which most agree is the seat of our consciousness, is dependent upon our body to provide the sensory input we use to consider the questions of science, and even questions of our own consciousness.
One of the first questions we must ask is, why would this mechanical process have a curiosity about its own consciousness? Is it another biological imperative related to survival that has trickled up over centuries of evolution, that makes us curious in growingly abstract ways, as our brain power develops? I wonder, also, at what point during our evolution, did consciousness, or our illusion of it, spring into being? Are dogs and cats conscious? It is evident to me that they do, at least, have something equivalent to mirror neurons. Or are they just different models of a machine?
But if we believe that consciousness is an illusion, then what, exactly, is being tricked? Is it an illusion that fools itself?
Something rationally critical breaks when we say that consciousness is an illusion that rises up from materialistic processes. But we can fix that. If we say that consciousness does, in fact, exist, and that it is not an illusion, but is solely dependent upon materialistic biochemical processes in the brain — that works. In this sense, consciousness really does exist, but not without our physical gray matter.
This seems far more likely to me than consciousness being an illusion. But it does little to explain how our consciousness comes into being from these material processes. The best explanation I have heard claims that the brain operates in an electro-chemical “loop”. When it operates above a certain frequency, we have consciousness. Below that frequency, we do not. Perhaps it is just a matter of putting all the materialistic pieces together, and eventually we will have our answer about the nature of consciousness. Or, it may be that we are only side-stepping and delaying the inevitable problem: trying to tie the metaphysical to the physical.
But what is metaphysical about having consciousness arise from something material? The same question confronts the science of artificial intelligence. How can something intangible and unphysical, like consciousness, be created from a machine? Their answer? Well, we find ourselves back to the original, predominant scientific position: that there really is no such thing as consciousness — it is mere illusion. By saying this, science does not have to confront any questions about the metaphysics of consciousness. Consciousness just doesn’t exist. Our sense that we are conscious is an illusion. Then here I am again, fooling myself. Or my consciousness. Or whatever. Brainsss!!
Another way to consider the problem is to return to Descartes. The one thing I can say with certainty is that I have consciousness. Anything I learn beyond this comes to me through my senses which may be wholly inadequate to determine any true reality. In this scenario, our consciousness becomes the most fundamental thing in the universe, while all other things are speculative. There is something comfy in this manner of thinking, but it is also an isolating and wholly inadequate position to explain consciousness.
In a similar vein, we might say that consciousness is our spirit which inhabits a materialistic body. In this, we are back to dualism, and we also cannot easily explain why our consciousness is altered by physical changes to our brains. It just doesn’t work.
So, if we look at big score board so far, it appears the spiritualists lag far behind the materialists — yet of the materialists, the ones supporting a true existence of consciousness, rather than some illusion of consciousness, are ahead. OK. Now let’s give the spiritualists some game.
Let’s think of our life, clear back to childhood. Remember how different you were back then? Imagine how different you were, all along the way of your life, up until where you find yourself right now. Some people can’t believe the things they used to believe. It’s almost as if you were another person. But you weren’t another person. You were you, all along the way. It still is you. But you’ve changed. Your consciousness has changed. It’s evolved. You perceive things differently, yet still the “essence” of what makes you, you — it’s still there. And it’s the same. This is one quality of our observed experience of consciousness that materialists will have a difficult time resolving satisfactorily. Not only do we have a current sense of self, but we also have the sense of a meta-self that has always remained in place throughout our life’s experiences.
In many ways, the older civilizations of the world, such as India, have dealt with the concepts of the spirit in relation to science for far longer than the West. Their philosophical works are an interesting read. Interestingly, a good deal of their philosophy deals with an integration of the mind and body, including through such practices as yoga. Yoga seeks to bring the mind and body into a harmony. It does not treat the mind separately from the body — they are one organism, and that organism is you. They take it even further, though. The mind may have many thoughts and ideas running around within it. The practice of yoga seeks to still that chaos in the conscious mind. In their terms, the content of the mind is constantly changing. However, the context of the mind is unchanging. This contextual representation of consciousness is what we might call a spirit, and it sits beyond both the mind and the body. In this way, if the mind or body is damaged, the spirit remains, while life remains. This is true, even when our mental consciousness appears radically altered — the content of the mind can change, but the context of the mind does not.
In this way, the essence of who we are, or our spirit, escapes the logical problem associated with having a notion of spirit in the event of brain damage. In other words, just because our behaviour or personality changes after physical brain damage does not mean that the essence of our spirit is changed. It is only the mental processes that are changed, much like a broken bone. This escape trick is no worse than the escape trick of saying that consciousness is only an illusion. It also explains how we maintain an abstract sense of self despite radical changes to our consciousness over time, even though the natural acts of learning.
If we can look internally, which is, of itself, another argument against illusion, we can actually get a hint of the difference between the content of our thoughts, and the context in which those thoughts occur. Similarly, most people in the world believe in reincarnation, where after death, and before we were born, we were someone else, or even something else. We might have been male or female. We might have been a dog, or a spider. In each of these, the content of our minds would change. However, the context would always be us.
As rigorously as many scientists rail against any notion of spirit, claiming access to tangibly provable and all-encompassing knowledge, it is somewhat ironic to hear, so often coming from them, this notion that we humans are “star stuff”, and, in essence, the universe trying to understand itself. Perhaps they mean this purely mechanistically. Why would the universe seek to understand itself? Is that mechanical?
Who knows? I like the idea, though. Unless I just seem to like it. But maybe that’s enough. It certainly isn’t going to keep from exploring more. And it’s certainly not going to cause me to just patently accept all sorts of things that stem from people believing one way or another on these issues. Perhaps that makes me a squeaky cog in the great cosmic zombie machine. Perhaps it damns me. I just want it to be an honest game. And this game is far from over.