It must be easy…

…to tell people searching for a greater truth that they can accomplish near miracles without the hard work. To write about enlightenment, personal growth, spiritual awareness – call it what you like – without also explaining that such head in the clouds ideas are meaningless unless you also have your feet firmly on the ground, literally and metaphorically. Yes, we may be angels in disguise, but the ‘disguise’ is there for a good reason: to be a vehicle through which to learn about ourselves in this material world.

Why enlightenment isn’t an easy ride:  As a learning tool, the physical vehicle – our body – is designed to adapt to our progress and evolve. The problem is that everything that makes us who we are – our ideas, hopes, joys and dreams, our aspirations, memories, knowledge, and our awareness of those – are all essentially immaterial concepts; they’re properties only of our consciousness. When consciousness is absent, ‘we’ cease to exist. That means conscious awareness isn’t something we have, it’s everything that we are All ‘we’ are is a collection of immaterial concepts. But this is not the way we’ve evolved to see ourselves, or reality. On the contrary, we’ve come to think of our ‘real’ self as the physical body, and our consciousness as a mysterious side-effect of that body’s evolution.

By choosing to see reality as a material process, we’ve actually become masters of self delusion, thinking and behaving as if we are material too. We’ve decided that all of the immaterial things that ‘we’ are – our ideas, hopes, joys and dreams, our aspirations, memories, knowledge, and our awareness of those – are somehow produced by the same stuff that material reality is made from. And it’s precisely by allowing material things to govern our understanding of reality this way that we create all manner of problems for ourselves and each other.

All of the perceived difficulties we encounter in life stem from this fundamental self deception. What’s more, our ‘spiritual’ aspirations, arguments for belief in an afterlife, higher dimensions of consciousness, God and etc., appear vapid and unreal, simply because they make no sense in a material reality. Making matters worse, those arguments suggest our immaterial consciousness is in some sense more real than so-called physically real phenomena.

Testimony from the many thousands of people who’ve reported NDEs, or been hypnotically regressed to the ‘life between lives’, tells us that as immaterial conscious beings, the awareness we bring to this material world is only a small part of our real conscious self. Most of our real self remains in higher dimensions of consciousness, though we’re always connected to that greater self. Through that connection we can access what our higher self knows – about who we really are, and our real reason for being here.

It seems we can find not just enlightenment but can overcome our human problems and failings by learning to strengthen that connection; to ‘be’ more of our real self. The stronger our connection to our real, higher self, the better able we are to see through the illusion created by material things. The pitfall is that in our eagerness to embrace these concepts, we might be tempted to believe there’s a quick and easy way to achieve enlightenment.

This belief only perpetuates our delusions. There is no soft option. The illusions and delusions – and problems – that come with being human are only dissolved gradually by a long learning process over many lifetimes, and it’s often hard work.

But that’s not what we want to hear. For one thing, the concept of reincarnation and many successive lifetimes of learning can seem incredible. An immature mind, steeped in this ‘I want it now’ culture, prefers an easy ride, imagining it’s possible to ‘become enlightened’ more or less instantly, simply because we want to be, or because our belief system says we can be.

It’s not about what we want. Enlightenment, personal growth, spiritual awareness – call it what you like – is not about what ‘we want’. Wanting per se isn’t about our real self, it’s only about material things. We only become more of our real self not by getting but by giving; by doing things for others. Enlightenment is entirely about giving, and it happens only when we learn to recognize what’s real from what’s illusory.

The crux of the ‘learning program’ we’re all a part of is to realize that giving and getting are part of the fundamental machinery of reality that we’re here to learn to manipulate in our capacity as co-designers of that reality. In a material world like this, our understanding of giving and getting can make the difference between heaven and hell. We can so easily make life difficult for ourselves and each other by failing to appreciate the science of giving and getting. A science, because it’s about how reality really works. It’s the science of reality if you like. You could think of it in terms of energy, but that’s too simple a word for the stuff that powers reality

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Just imagine…

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.

Did evolution design our thoughts?

Science tells us that evolution designed our brain, and our brain makes our consciousness. So our consciousness must be designed by evolution too. (Our consciousness produces our thoughts, our perception of the world, of ourselves and anything else. So all of those must also be designed by evolution.)

You might wonder how evolution could ‘design’ the thoughts in a brain with 80 billion neurons, all of them linking up in 1000 trillion connections. And what about free will? Assuming we have it, how can free will be designed?

To put things in perspective, if our perceptions, our thinking and even our so-called ‘free’ will, are made by our brain, they must also be limited by the elements our brain is made from, and by what those elements are capable of.

Our brain, along with everything else in the material universe, is made from combinations of a mere hundred or so atomic elements; these are governed by a few elementary laws of physics. The structure and behavior of those elements and laws keep the universe’s evolution in relatively narrow channels. Relative to what? To an alternative kind of universe with more elements and laws? Different elements and laws? Scientists suggest the possible existence of many other universes – perhaps an infinite number – each with its own elements and laws. But the evolution of each of these universes would still depend on the limitations of its own unique set of elements and laws, as our universe is. So any consciousness and ‘free’ will would be bound by those elements and laws, as we are.

Even so, looking out from inside a brain with 80 billion cells and trillions of connections between them – the most complex thing we know of in our universe – you might think we still have plenty of scope for thought…until you realize that our consciousness has only the physically real things, made from those few elements and laws, to be conscious of. Those few elements and laws have effectively ‘purpose designed’ our understanding of reality as an experience limited to, and by, physically real things. In a nutshell, our cognitive scope is confined by the stuff that made us.

Our science and our ideas about everything are constrained by the understanding that ‘reality’ is the physical things that evolved in this universe. As part of that understanding, evolutionary science tells us our bodies, brains and consciousness all evolved ‘just’ to maintain the accurate replication and reproduction of genes. (In our limited human terms, to help us survive in a hostile world.) So all the ideas embodied in the words I’m using here – ‘existence’, ‘survival’, ‘hostility’, ‘the world’, our ‘self’, ‘realness’, and any other word you can think of – are confined by the narrow boundaries imposed by those few chemical elements and basic laws of physics. That’s why you can’t imagine a reality made of anything but physically real things.

But what if reality could be made of something other than physical elements and laws? A reasonable enough question, but to answer it we have to step outside the limitations imposed by physically real things. How can we do that?

We already did. As consciousness, we’ve always been outside of those limitations. But we’ve also always been deluded by physically real things into thinking that our conscious reality is somehow ‘the same as’ physical realness. 

Ask yourself: Can physical things think? Can they be conscious? Brains are just physical things, yet science says they ‘produce’ our consciousness. That must mean brains are conscious. If it doesn’t mean that, then brains and consciousness would be two separate things. Are they?

Hold it. We’re not supposed to ask questions like that – it could mean there’s another kind of reality besides our familiar version. A reality that’s not constrained by physical elements and laws. Such notions are sacrilegious in a reality built on physical things.

Although we are conscious, we don’t know what consciousness is, what it’s made of or how it works. Yet it’s the only thing that tells us the world of physically real things exists. It does that by transforming the mindless world of physically real things, into our even more real world of consciousness. (If you doubt that our conscious view of the world is more real than the physical world itself, you lack imagination.) What’s more, consciousness is the only thing that tells us we exist, consciously and physically.

The simple fact is, our understanding of this relationship between our consciously real world, and the world of physical realness, didn’t evolve anywhere near far enough yet to tell us what consciousness actually is. So the meaning of everything in these words is still based entirely on the evidence of the physical world, as are our thoughts, beliefs, behavior and science. And so too is the notion that physical brains produce consciousness. It’s not a scientific fact, it’s a supposition created not by what science knows about consciousness, but by what it knows about the physical world.

We can’t help thinking this way. Because all of our knowledge is a consequence of the limited way we’ve evolved to think of realness as physical things, we’re all reductionist. Most scientists believe that everything – consciousness included – reduces to (and so is somehow made by) atoms and the smaller particles that they’re made from. Yet consciousness refuses to be reduced; an apparently immaterial phenomenon, it has no observable or measurable physical parts or properties. And while some scientists might grudgingly accept that’s the case, they continue their campaign to convince us that our physical brain somehow extends itself to become our conscious experiences of the physical world.

Common sense and introspection might tell us our consciousness is something altogether different from physical stuff, but we’re stuck with the notion that reality is fundamentally physical. It’s instinctive; on levels of our mind below everyday awareness, we’re certain that we ‘are’ a physical body, and with good reason. As consciousness gradually emerged in proto brains, it had no choice but to take itself for just another part of the gene replicating and reproducing process. Millions of years later, we’re totally dedicated to staying alive as the bodies that genes evolved for themselves, and to reproducing those genes as if they were our own.

As consciousness, replicating and reproducing for genes is now our prime directive because we’re conditioned by the evolution of physical things to think that’s what we want. Seeing things some other way would conflict with what bodies and brains evolved to do: look out for the genes that built them. So far as we’re concerned, it wouldn’t make ‘sense’ to see things any other way – but only because it wouldn’t make physical sense. The evolution of physically real things is pulling all our strings.

Another take on evolution. The interesting thing about evolution is that it’s forever changing things. Note the word ‘forever’; it’s a concept we can’t conceive of. It might extend not only into what we think of as the ‘past’ and the ‘future’, but in other inconceivable directions as well. And even through unimaginable dimensions of time, space, and other realities beyond those. This way of looking at the concept of evolution – from outside of our limitations, as it were – pretty much makes anything possible. Perhaps it makes everything possible. Perhaps everything always was possible. Personally I’m convinced that Darwin hardly scratched the surface of what evolution is, and we haven’t even begun to appreciate what it is yet – again because we didn’t evolve far enough yet.

How conscious are we anyway? Apart from the other organisms on this planet that seem to have some consciousness, we have nothing to gauge ours against; we have no way of knowing how valid our understanding of reality is. We might all agree on what ‘real’ means, and share much the same experience of it, but that doesn’t mean human perception is the only way things can be perceived, or anywhere near the most conscious way. The universe we see is 13.7 billion years old and has countless billions of galaxies, each with billions of suns, many with planetary systems. And what about other universes that might exist alongside ours; that could have existed far longer than ours? (Forever leaves plenty of time for anything to have happened.)

The overwhelming odds are that conscious awareness has arisen elsewhere, and some of it could be as far ahead of ours, as ours is ahead of bacteria, with correspondingly more dimensions to its understanding of reality. So it may well have progressed far further than our current understanding of physical realness, and seen far deeper than ‘our’ laws of thermodynamics, entropy, gravity and so on that we assume physical matter has to obey so as not to violate the narrow channels of our limited thinking.

Which came first: consciousness or physical matter? Evolution, so far as science has managed to ascertain, is entirely physical in that it acts on physical things, like bodies and brains, which are just atoms. (A speculative notion that everything has consciousness is known as panpsychism. From there – and purely as a thought exercise – you could wonder if consciousness starts in the smallest component parts of atoms at the quantum scale. Or in the superstrings that String Theory suggests are resonances in fundamental energy that create everything in our physical reality.)

Most scientists firmly resist the notion that consciousness, in any shape or form, could exist independently of physical matter. There isn’t supposed to be anything, anywhere, other than physical matter. (Apart from the consciousness our brain is said to ‘make’.) Neuroscientists are working to try and reverse-engineer consciousness to discover if/how it corresponds with the machinery of the brain. The problem, though, involves figuring out how something immaterial with no physical parts, could be manufactured by something made only from physical parts.

To the knotty question of how or why physical components could even begin to design something exclusively non-physical, remind yourself that everything you are is what your consciousness is. No consciousness, no you; just anonymous atoms. So when you go, where do you go to? Although you think of yourself as physical, it’s when you realize what ‘thinking’ of yourself as physical actually means that things become difficult. The conscious you has no trouble thinking of itself as physical (even though it is a delusion). But can you also delude yourself that the physical you is capable of thinking of itself as conscious?

I’ll end this by saying space isn’t the final frontier – consciousness is. Space is just more of the same old thinking on physical phenomena. The spacetime we perceive is only a few of the physical dimensions that came out of the big bang. The thinking is that there need to be 10 or 11 to make sense of our current physics. Were we to confine our thinking to these physical dimensions and go on trying to wring consciousness from physical matter, we’d go in ever reducing circles and get nowhere. But that won’t happen. Our consciousness will evolve to encompass what now seem like heretical ideas. The dinosaurs that perpetuate old reductionist dogma will die off and be superseded by warm blooded new thinking on the idea of consciousness as a reality that’s more real than physical phenomena.

Is the world real? (pt 2)

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.

Is the world real? (pt.1)

Of course the world’s real, you say. Realness is the solidness of things. But most real things aren’t solid. Air for instance. Sound. Vision. And what about thought? Ok, so realness doesn’t necessarily mean solid. Maybe it means physical, as in things made from atoms or the particles inside atoms? Everything we know about is made from those, isn’t it? Air, sound, vision, all of our physical sensations and experiences? No. In fact everything we know about is made from something that isn’t physical: Our consciousness. Everything that we are, and even who we are – it’s all made from our consciousness.

As consciousness, we’re not physical beings. Conscious awareness is the one and only thing we know about that isn’t physical, and isn’t made from atoms or their component particles. Conscious thought has no texture, dimensions, weight or etc. We can’t measure it by the same means we can measure anything else. Consciousness is something totally different from the physical world. Even more interesting, if we had no consciousness, nothing else would exist for us, because we wouldn’t know about anything, real or otherwise, in a conscious sense. And not knowing about anything in a conscious sense, is the same as not knowing about anything period.

So is the world real? Is anything real? What does real mean? First off, why do we think physical things are real? There are two reasons: They have ‘real’ qualities. And we experience those qualities consciously. But there’s a third component to realness for us: We know that we have a conscious experience of the qualities of real things.

Think of yourself as three people in one. There’s your physical self (the body that you’re consciously aware of). Then there’s the self in your mind who’s consciously aware of that physical body (and, as it happens, is also conscious of being surrounded by other physical things). And thirdly there’s your more astute mental self who recognizes that you’re conscious. (Not just of physical things, but of non-physical ideas as well.) You might say this third, smarter self is conscious of being conscious. This third self is the most important part of you, but it tends to forget it’s there, being so busy with life’s physical concerns. So you might have to take a mental step back to become aware of ‘knowing that you know’.

Note: It’s not possible to know that you know that you know, and so on; once your third self knows that you know, anything else is just part of knowing that you know.

Things can have some consciousness without knowing they do. Those two conscious versions of you I mentioned are actually just two of many evolutionary levels of consciousness in each of us, all interacting in such complex ways it would be impossible to separate them. While your higher level conscious self is aware of these ideas as you read this, and knows it’s conscious of them, the lower levels of your consciousness don’t even know they’re conscious. Many organisms with some consciousness don’t know they have it. Think of a cow. It’s low-level conscious of physical things, but I doubt that it’s aware of being conscious. Even for the most advanced non-human organisms – like apes and dolphins – being conscious is probably little more than an interesting extension of the physical sensations they experience. Without the crucial ability to know that you know, you wouldn’t be ‘reading’ or actually ‘thinking’. You’d lack the necessary dimensions of mind to understand anything in the special way that defines human beings. You’d be no different than most other animals.

Consciousness is an iceberg. There’s a lot more to your mind than you’re consciously aware of. Besides the stuff you’re aware of right now, there’s also the deeper stuff that you access on unconscious levels of yourself. (The information in your memory that you’re unaware of until you retrieve it.) Because that’s happening constantly, your unconscious levels are as much a part of your moment to moment self as your everyday thoughts and feelings. But let’s get back to the interesting stuff.

Would the physical world still be real if we were not conscious? Everything in our personal world is made from conscious experiences. So without consciousness there’d be no ‘we’; there’d only be the physical world of atoms. What you think of as your physical self is made entirely from atoms; it didn’t just come from that world of atoms – it was never anything more than part of it. Atoms aren’t conscious. So your physical self, brain included, was never consciously aware of anything. So the real question is: Can the world be real for physical things that have no consciousness? In other words:

Does our consciousness brings the physical world into existence? Yes. By telling us that physical things exist, our conscious perception brings the physical world into existence for each of us. And yes, the physical world would still exist for everyone else’s consciousness if our personal consciousness didn’t exist. But would the physical world exist on its own account if nobody’s consciousness existed to perceive it? And if it did exist, what would it look, sound or feel like without consciousness to see, hear or feel it?

That depends on whose consciousness we’re talking about. As human beings, we know the physical world only from our personal conscious viewpoint. But other organisms, conscious or not, have their own personal view of the world, and most of them perceive it in ways that would be alien to us. (An extraterrestrial consciousness might perceive physicality in even more alien ways.) Consciousness (such as it is in other creatures) is tailored by evolution into a myriad shapes and sizes by all manner of different nervous system, brains, bodies and environments.

What’s real for other organisms? As your human self, your conscious interpretation of the physical world is a series of purely conscious ideas. It’s our human degree of consciousness that’s actually responsible for the qualities of our physical experiences. But if you were an organism with a negligible amount of consciousness or none at all, your physical experiences wouldn’t be ‘experiences’, they’d be straight-forward biomechanical causes and effects governed by electrochemical processes, as they are for the simplest organisms.

You can’t imagine being less conscious of reality. But maybe you can imagine gradually reverting through earlier evolutionary levels, and along the way your conscious perception of the physical world making less and less sense – in human terms – as your higher level brain functions (and thus your human knowledge and understanding) diminished. Instead of what you know now as conscious awareness, you’d perceive the physical world as fewer and simpler experiences. Eventually the last vestiges of consciousness would disappear, replaced by an instinctive awareness of physical sensations, some originating internally, others externally.

Does your brain make you?

Can the atoms of your brain read and understand these words? Can they feel emotions, experience anger, disappointment, frustration, pride, etc? Can they see the world the way you do, and know that it was different yesterday, and will be again tomorrow? Can they put themselves in someone else’s shoes, or imagine all the things you can possibly imagine?
Of course not. Those abilities and countless others like them are unique to our conscious interface with the world.
And yet scientists are convinced that lump of fat inside your head makes your ever changing mind, thoughts, ideas, desires, memories, passions, aspirations and the rest. The problem is, they don’t know how brains could do all of this, or even what consciousness is.

The hard problem.

Trying to figure out ways that brains might create conscious experiences is known in the philosophy of mind business as ‘the hard problem’. The biggest reason why it’s so hard is that all scientific thinking is based on the premise that the only stuff that exists is physical matter in all its states and forms. This materialist kind of thinking says that we and our conscious minds are reducible to fundamental particles of matter, along with everything else in the known universe. (The notion isn’t actually that brain atoms ‘are conscious’, but that they’re capable of somehow generating consciousness.)
The hard problem is so complex that if we confine ourselves to materialist-reductionist thinking, it could stay hard indefinitely. On the other hand, were we to introduce a less dogmatic, non-reductionist approach, new possibilities might arise. But there’s something in the way.

The witchhunters.

Occasionally someone makes a brave attempt to push the envelope and is accused of intellectual heresy by the self-appointed guardians of materialism, who fear we might breach the membrane separating our safe material reality and maybe fall off the edge of the world. The materialist dinosaurs are scared because more enlightened inquiry threatens to lead us into the forbidden realm of metaphysics where lurk ghosts, time travel, and the strange goings-on of the quantum world in which paradoxes aptly illustrate the way our understanding of reality can’t simply be an open and shut, black and white matter.
The keepers of materialism have no pre-ordained claim to absolute truth, nor even to knowing what’s around the next bend. Yet they’re ever ready to cite the plainly ridiculous ideas of Creationist belief and intelligent design (and maybe even remind us of the Roman Catholic church’s old claim that the Earth was the center of the cosmos) just to discredit opposition to equally dogmatic reductionist ideas.

We really don’t need complex and highly authoritative-sounding arguments detailing the finer points of evolutionary theory to prove that life works regardless of any outside interference from some old guy in the clouds. Some critical introspection might be useful though.

Smart, but in a stupid way.

Clever as we think we are, the scope of our ability to reason is limited by our origins and our circumstances. We’re here in the guise of mere genetic organisms and occasionally need to be reminded that our version of ‘reality’ comes in little boxes that get gradually bigger as our knowledge expands. We must constantly try to see beyond what already exists within our preconceived notions of reality, because limited as we are, we know tomorrow’s reality will be different for our ever-developing consciousness.

As genetic organisms we’re also fiendishly complex; regardless of our intellectual dexterity, our personal view is subject to psychological factors that sometimes inhibit a truly open minded approach. We mightn’t actually want to reason in ways that we’re perfectly capable of because of outdated intellectual baggage. Procedural doctrine can close off avenues of thought that might otherwise lead to new insights into even the hardest problems.

None of us is fully protected from these traditionally enshrined limiters, or the urge to sometimes use existing knowledge to stifle new thought. This is hardly different from permitting religion to do our thinking.

An open mind.

None of us is born with a closed mind; whether we choose science or religion, our mind only becomes narrowed by experience. In either case it often seems as if we’re walking backwards into the future, only seeing how things were.
In science we’re caught up in a view of reality where cause and effect, linear time, entropy and the other conventions of science are practically sacrosanct. Of course this is how the material universe works, and not only at classical scales. Even at the quantum scale we feel an irresistible urge to make interpretations based on a reality we already know. Yet the reality we know is almost certainly only one aspect of a bigger, more comprehensive reality.

Visionary ideas emerge not from doggedly building on what we already know, but from forcing our mind open to ideas that often seem counterintuitive. Just because our brain is biomachinery doesn’t mean our conscious mind has to work the same way. It’s for us as consciousness to train our brain to work the way we ‘think’ it should.

Consciousness itself is all that sets us apart from materialism and the biological machinery of evolution, and only by setting us apart does it allow us to ponder the most perplexing question of all: what are we? Whatever some of us might think to the contrary, we have no satisfactory answers.

There’s just too big a gap between what brains are made from and how they work, and what consciousness is made from and how it works, for these two utterly different phenomena to have any appreciable causal connection. Everything points to consciousness and matter as two fundamentally different but equally natural – though not necessarily equally real – phenomena. But what does real mean?