Once upon a time the world seemed a pretty clunky and obvious place. Then the discovery of atoms showed it was a lot more complex and interesting. Not long after, quantum mechanics revealed it to be not only infinitely more complex, but downright weird.
Discoveries like these about the world around us evolve from earlier discoveries. By making such discoveries, we evolve too because these (and other) discoveries are not just about the world around us, they’re also about our perception of that world. Our consciousness evolves by interacting with the physical world. At the same time our physical selves evolve because, as we change the physical world, we adapt physically to accommodate those changes.
But how real is the physical world? We often forget that real things are only real for us because we’re able to perceive them consciously. Interestingly, everything we perceive is exclusively in our consciousness. In that sense nothing for us is physically real and never was.It’s hard to get your head around that because you’re not used to thinking of things as they really are. You’re not used to seeing things as they really are either. In fact all of your senses have been fooling you all along.
Sure this sounds nutty. As I said, before we realized that physical things were made of invisible bits of stuff (that we later called atoms), we assumed all the ‘real’ things were solid. Now we know that atoms themselves are made of far smaller and stranger stuff called quanta. These unimaginably tiny pieces of physical reality behave in ways that suggest nothing is what we think it is. They suggest that nothing is truly solid, or definite, or fixed, or certain. You could say they suggest that nothing is real, which in turn suggests that it’s down to us to decide what’s real.
That idea isn’t the standard scientific conclusion. it’s mine, but to think we have anywhere near a complete understanding – of physical reality or ourselves – is just delusional. Go look up the word hubris.
Now I’ll remind you that science thinks it knows pretty much all about physical reality, but nobody understands what consciousness is, so nobody knows how physical components – in the shape of brain cells – can create consciousness. Science just assumes that’s what happens, based on what we know about how the physical world works.
If you believe we’re entirely physical and our consciousness is an emergent by-product of physical processes, then maybe you also believe that physical stuff and mental stuff are, at bottom, just different forms of the same material. Like ice and water and steam are. Everything else is made from atoms, so maybe you figure that atoms and their smaller quantum particles might possess consciousness generating properties that we haven’t discovered yet. Maybe there’s some mysterious factor enabling atoms to conjure up everything that we experience in what we think of as ‘our’ consciousness.
Maybe there is no mystery; maybe all it takes to make consciousness is a steady progression of ever more complex physiological processes all working together to transcend the boundary between insentience and sentience.
But remember: We’ve gotten used to thinking of everything from the ‘bottom up’. (Or we think we have.) If you begin millions of years ago with a little consciousness that grows into ours as our brain and nervous system grows, naturally you’re going to assume consciousness is made by that brain and nervous system. This natural assumption is where neuroscience is still at. (The opposite notion – that the phenomenon we call our consciousness is not manufactured by atoms – is pure ‘top down’ thinking.)
Be clear about what physically real things are and what they’re not. An atom is a tiny central nucleus with a positive electric charge surrounded by negatively electrically charged electrons. There’s nothing about atoms that suggests they’re conscious, or that a lot of them together could create consciousness. The same goes for the quantum particles that atoms are made from. The fact that they behave in ways that seem strange to us doesn’t mean they have magical or mystical properties, any more than everyday solid objects do, all of which are made from quantum particles.
Despite being the most complex object we know of, the human brain is still just a collection of these basic components of physical reality.
Words like ‘magical’ and ‘mystical’ have no place in science, but they are real concepts, and as concepts (which are entirely un-physical notions) magic and mysticism are things that only consciousness can appreciate; only conscious minds can pretend, imagine or handle un-physical – aka unreal – stuff. These ‘unreal’ concepts play a very real part in our mental vocabulary and our understanding of reality. (Take my word for that; it’s too complicated to explain here. Maybe you can appreciate it anyhow.)
You could say that consciousness itself, as an un-physical notion (like magic and mysticism) is something that only consciousness can appreciate. Consciousness is also the only place where imagination and pretense can exist.
Question: Can the stuff we imagine, or pretend can exist, be said to exist? If not, why not? The stuff of imagination and pretense seems to be just as real as our consciousness. And we know our consciousness is real because without it, nothing else would be real for us.
If the pretend stuff of our imagination does exist in a reality that’s no less real than our consciousness, then maybe our definition of imaginary is wrong. Maybe imaginary things are, in their own way, just as real as – if not more real than – the things we always thought as of real. (More real would depend on whether we think our conscious reality is more real than the physical reality we’re conscious of. On that score, realize that our consciousness is all that makes the physical world real for us, and how much less rich the physical world would be without our consciousness.)
A ‘potential’ for being real is another concept that only consciousness can get a handle on. But the potential that our imagined ideas have for becoming real is what’s unique about consciousness. It makes consciousness a medium of creation, transformation and possibility. It’s also reminiscent of the strange behavior of the quantum world, where the particles and forces that govern atoms appear to behave with uncertainty. Investigation of our conscious perception of uncertainty can surely help us understand more about the relationship between consciousness and materiality.
If something has the potential for existence, then it’s in a special kind of proto-reality where it might possibly become real (at some time in the future). So it’s not actually the same as what we understand as absolutely imaginary (in that it couldn’t possibly ever become real).
To make this still more complicated in the broader sense of what can be real, we have to include stuff that we don’t know about yet. Not yet knowing about things that might turn out to either exist for real, or be brought into existence for real, is an uncomfortable notion. If we don’t know about a thing yet, then by science’s rules, strictly speaking, it’s not real. On the other hand there are things that have a greater probability of becoming real than others. Some of those have little chance of ever becoming real, while others are pretty much a certainty.
So there have to be shades of possibility that science can live with. Stuff that’s not real yet, but at the same time acceptable because it would build on what we already know. (This point can get stretched to fantastic lengths because science is often speculative, aka purely theoretical.) That said, the study of consciousness – by which I mean human consciousness trying to understand the reality created by itself – is hobbled by what we already know about physical reality. This knowledge pushes us down preferential avenues of further investigation, all based entirely on the notion that brains make consciousness, and excludes the possibility of any other explanation. The problem with that is, you can’t build on what you don’t want to know, or what you refuse to consider – even though you don’t yet know what that might be.
While we’re asking questions about what consciousness might be and how it might work, it seems only reasonable that we should seriously consider that maybe consciousness isn’t actually produced by a physical brain. But no. That idea is so open ended and important that mainstream science refuses to go anywhere near it except when ridiculing it. Certainly we need the strict scientific method to counteract all of the fantastical nonsense that’s a by-product of being human. At the same time, though, we need to be sufficiently open minded not to throw consciousness out with the bathwater.
Why is this subject such a big deal? Why so scary? Why is it sacrilegious to look right at consciousness as an autonomous phenomenon that’s not made by a physical brain?
The problem is that many people seem not just unwilling but unable to think seriously about that notion. They write books explaining in thinly disguised outraged detail how and why consciousness doesn’t have an autonomous existence. Judging by the time and effort they expend on refuting the possibility, you might imagine their life depended on it, or maybe their life’s work, and the way of thinking that underpins it.
Our consciousness works as if, by activating atoms in our brain so they interact in certain patterns, those patterns then correspond with something more than anything atoms alone are capable of…as if we’re accessing another phenomenon altogether. (Which of course we are.)
Citing some other phenomenon is anathema to neuroscientists, yet everything about our conscious awareness tells us it’s our access to an altogether richer, deeper, more refined, more potent reality than that occupied by atoms. In fact we can say unequivocally that another level or quality of realness is involved in our waking conscious state, otherwise we’d be unable to transcend the boundary between what things made from atoms are and do, and what consciousness is and does.