So what is consciousness? Where does it come from?
Keep in mind that ‘we’ exist entirely in the non-physical environment of consciousness. Reality for us is the difference, and the resulting interaction, between the non-conscious physical world and our non-physical consciousness that perceives it. Our physical bodies (and brains) can’t ‘perceive’ anything consciously. As insentient atoms and molecules they’re nothing more than the raw materials of the stuff that consciousness thinks of as the physically real world.
Consciousness is a uniquely different phenomenon; the stuff of perception, knowingness, sentience. Whatever you choose to call it, it alone transforms the world of physically real things into another reality beyond the physical. Whether we as consciousness access another pre-existing reality or create that other reality (or both), that reality is unquestionably not the same reality occupied by the clunky atoms of a mindless physical world. Atoms can’t access our conscious reality, and we can’t access theirs.Which is why we can’t think of ourselves simply as physical organisms with added consciousness; all of our uniquely human – meaning uniquely conscious – qualities are made from whatever the stuff of consciousness is made from. Taking consciousness out of the equation would be taking the human being out.
As consciousness, we were never physical.
As consciousness, we can only ever know about, or come into contact with, anything outside of our own consciousness (other consciousnesses, or the things we call ‘physically real’) as purely non-physical conscious experiences. Consciousness is what we are, rather than merely something we have. Your perceptions of yourself and the world around you – everything from the most vivid physical sensation to the subtlest mental notion – only exist in your consciousness as non-physical ideas.
I know, it’s practically impossible to think of pain, anguish, joy or frustration simply as non-physical ideas, but this is what’s so remarkable about consciousness. In a physical body with a nervous system and brain, consciousness functions as if it is those physical components. Hardly surprising that we have so much trouble knowing what’s real.
If we only know about the world as a conscious experience, why does it feel so physically real?
Precisely because we are conscious of it. Strange as it sounds, our non-physical consciousness is what makes the physical world so real for us. Our consciousness is what brings all of the vibrant colors and nuances of our physical experience of the world and everything in it – ourselves included – into existence.
In a more mundane sense, physical things ‘feel’ real because we – non-physical consciousness – are closely integrated with a body made from physical matter. Our body is part of the physical world and interacts with it, and we have a conscious experience of that physical interaction. The body and brain act as a ‘middle man’ between our consciousness and the rest of the physical world.
What kind of a reality is really out there?
For a start, the apparent ‘realness’ of physical things is merely part of the illusion created by the precise way our consciousness experiences them. Our visual picture of reality, for instance, is part of a process where light waves bounce off ‘physical’ objects and enter our eyes, then cause nerve impulses to jump to our brain. Only then does our conscious mind become aware of ‘seeing’. (It’s a similar story for hearing, touch, smell, taste and the rest of our consciously perceived experiences of physical reality.)
In other words, what we ‘think’ of as physical reality isn’t discrete, solid, definite ‘things’. There are no pre-formed pictures of anything ‘out there’, no sounds, no colors, no textures. Our entire concept of reality – conscious and physical – is actually made from the countless vibrations of minuscule quantities of energy. What we ‘see’ and ‘hear’ and ‘feel’ and so on, we only perceive that way because a few billion years of physical evolution gradually shaped energy vibrations into structures that we now think of as our body, nerves, brain…and mind. As a result of that evolution, we experience other energy vibrations as ‘physical’ reality. On the quantum level of reality, everything is still made from those same energy vibrations.
Is the quantum level of physical reality the real version?
From what we can deduce, all physical things are made from a series of ever smaller particles – molecules, atoms, nucleons, electrons and quarks – the smallest of which are too small to imagine. All of your physical parts, and all of the other physical things in the universe – except for consciousness – are made from countless numbers of these particles vibrating as energy.
Trouble is, down there at those seemingly irreducibly small (quantum) scales, physical reality behaves a lot differently from how any of us evolved to think it should, or could. At quantum level, a single fundamental particle can be in different places at the same time. These particles appear to travel in waves, but when you look at a single particle, that causes the wave to ‘collapse’, leaving a particle whose speed you can measure, or whose position you can measure; what you can’t measure are both at once, because measuring one changes the other. Then there’s ‘entanglement’ where quantum objects affect each other regardless of how far apart they are. Another notion suggests quantum effects create parallel universes. Quantum level weirdness is so weird it has to be described using words like probability and uncertainty, even though some of its effects are verifiable scientific fact.
The quantum world isn’t ‘weird’; we are.
Our view of the quantum world as weird is a result of how our consciousness interfaces physical reality. The atoms of our physical senses and brains are made from quantum particles in the form of energy vibrations, so our conscious perceptions depend on quantum activity to tell us about the realness of the physical world both inside and outside ourselves. But as we don’t know where consciousness originates, what it is, or how it interacts with physical processes, it’s unlikely that science is anywhere close to understanding quantum level ‘weirdness’. (Quantum stuff is so excruciatingly complicated that our understanding of it only extends as far as telling us that it really is so complicated.) Even so, it’s simple compared with consciousness…
Note: The current scientific consensus is that physical brains make non-physical consciousness. If you accept that notion, you have to ask if there’s an as yet undiscovered inherent capacity for consciousness in every quantum particle, or every atom? Or does it take innumerable quanta/atoms to evolve complex physical processes before the boundary between the total absence of consciousness and the presence of consciousness is crossed? The latter seems more realistic to our human way of thinking, but if you read my other posts you’ll know that I don’t believe we can think about consciousness merely as a by-product of matter, just because we still aren’t smart enough to come up with the right explanation.
We decide what reality is.
The total extent of our scientific understanding of the physical world depends on our conscious awareness (our intellectual grasp of reality) to inform us about the essential nature and behavior of physically real things – atoms, molecules, their smaller quantum components. We construct mathematical proofs that the so-called real world really is the way we think it is, and we assume our view is correct because it appears to make sense of that world in great detail. But it’s an incomplete view, not least because we’re still evolving, and so too is our understanding of the deeper nature of physical reality that our mathematics is meant to represent.
Things are gradually getting more real.
For a growing consciousness, reality is an organic (ok, a consciously organic) and ever evolving concept. Our ability to perceive material reality in the way we do is unique, not only to our degree of consciousness, but also to our kind of consciousness. We have no conception of how a differently evolved – or a more highly evolved – consciousness might see reality. The cosmos is easily big enough and old enough to have produced far more capable intelligences than ours who are able to construct different mathematical proofs that to their way of perceiving reality are equally or more valid that ours.
Theoretical physics suggests the possible existence of as yet unconfirmed dimensions of physical reality. There may be other kinds of consciousness for which entirely different dimensions of reality – physical and/or conscious – exist; dimensions that our consciousness is neither equipped to perceive nor to imagine.