To be is to become
On consciousness: relax, there is no problem
All of a sudden, so it seems, consciousness is taken more seriously in the scientific debate. There is an openness to the idea that the natural world is not as void of consciousness as we thought it was. Consciousness is hot topic. What we’ve always felt was a part of reality but was long denied by reasonable science, may not be so unscientific after all. Exciting new prospects for science arise and perhaps other ways of shaping our everyday lives as well.
The ongoing scientific debate however, does not seem to progress so swiftly. Various categories of consciousness are put forth, such as awareness, access- and phenomenal consciousness. Discussions revolve around the question as to which parts of nature could be conscious and to what degree? Panpsychism, for instance, supposes all parts of nature to possess at least an elementary bit of consciousness. Partial panpsychism holds that only the living part of nature can have a consciousness (or vice versa). Idealism puts forth consciousness as the defining ‘substance’ of all that is, manifesting itself in matter and all other physical phenomena. Particularly stubborn discussions are held over the hard ‘problem’ of consciousness: how can material stuff have a consciousness at all? Where in our material brain is consciousness located? Related to that is the easy ‘problem’ of consciousness: how does consciousness lead to the particular experiences that we have?
It is my impression that the ‘hotness’ of the debate about consciousness as well as the stubbornness of the issues that immediately arise in its discussion, stem from the materialistic perspective which is ingrained deeply in our automatic understanding of the world and our dealing with it. Ironically, this is the same perspective that has long kept science from taking the concept of consciousness seriously. In other words: our paradigm is not helping us here. Our upbringing in a deeply materialistic frame and design has led to reflexes contrary to the essence of what we all sense that consciousness is. This makes it hard to find acceptable ways in which to speak about it and exchange insights so as to facilitate its progress and application.
Consciousness is about sensing, feeling, thinking, intuition and about processing, striving, meaning. It has a feel of fluidness and of connection between past, present and future, between the here and the there. And yes, it also has a feel of identity and being someone other than the person in front of you. To approach such a concept with the instruments of a materialistic paradigm, such as definition, categorization, localization, measurement, analysis and calculation, is not very promising. It leads to stubborn materialistic questions like ‘I experience a consciousness, what material structure could be responsible for that?’, and ‘which parts of the material world around me could possess a consciousness and which could not?’. Before we know, there is the ‘problem’ of consciousness, because we have no shared and agreed upon definition of consciousness and no one can point out the material structure that could account for it. But how could something so intimately present in our experience of what life is, be ‘problematic’? This rhetorical question serves to plea for yet a different approach in the plethora of approaches, to which I will be happy to contribute (pun intended). I propose a ‘bottom up’ approach that starts from scientific knowledge of the basic substance of physical reality. Although it does not start from the question of what consciousness might be it does offer a science based answer to that question. And what’s more, it does so in a natural and intuitive way.
The standard scientific take on the basic building blocks of nature has long been one of mindless matter as the basis for all that is. Free will, mind and purposeful actions were seen as illusionary by-products of material action: you may experience free will, awareness and meaning in your life, but it is not really there. In fact, it is merely the result of the interactions of the material chemicals in your brain. These interactions were set in motion long ago, governed by the laws of nature and will continue long after you have gone, unaffected by what you think or feel about them. In short: consciousness is only there as an illusion.
Meanwhile, as far back as the year 1900, quantum physics has come to deny matter as the basic substance of reality and put forth quanta as the even more fundamental substance. Although it is hard to find a definition of quanta on which everyone agrees their essence is that, while lacking objective qualities of their own, they are possibilities for becoming some quality. In other words: on the most basic, elementary, sub atomic level reality is not an objective state. Rather, reality is a possibility to become some(any-)thing. These possibilities include the possibilities of entangled states, fields in which there is a mixture of individuality and dependency of various quanta, sometimes called meaningful coincidence or synchronicity.
Moreover, quantum physics reintroduces ‘mind’ into the equation, as a necessary element for quanta to actualize into some sort of quality to be observed. The mind of the observer is one example of how willful action has a place in our understanding of reality. On the quantum level the willful actions of the observer - e.g. a physicist making measurements of the very small portions of nature - prove to co-determine which quality the observed quanta will take on. If she chooses to set up a measurement configuration for measuring light waves, the observed quanta will take on the quality of waves. Setting up a configuration for measuring light particles, they will show up as such. The choice of measurement configuration is an act of free will. It is a mind-aspect of nature weaved into the outcome of the empirical observation of a part of reality that is supposed to be mindless if we were to follow classical science. Our minds are thus a defining factor in the coming about of a tiny part of reality. And what’s more: the observation of either the light waves or the particles is by definition an ‘experience’, with a mind aspect.
To make some sense of this situation, Schrödinger came up with the metaphor of reality as a ‘wave’ of possibilities. An observation (an act springing from the conscious mind of the observer) causes the wave of possibilities to ‘collapse’ into an actuality, into the things we actually observe. Schrödinger added that the mind of the observer is surely not all-powerful. Its influence on how the wave of possibilities actualizes only applies to micro situations of atomic or molecular scale at most. The influence of the observer’s mind is negligeable for macro situations in which sets of possibilities have such a high probability that everyone always experiences the same outcome of their observations. Hence Schrödinger’s second metaphor of the dead/alive cat in the box, in which the cat will be dead or alive regardless of whether we observe it or not.
It could be said that even Schrödinger’s collapse metaphor is rudimentarily materialistic. It supposes a (macro) material observer to cause the collapse of something that only exists as a possibility wave ‘out there’ and to transform it into something actual, material, real. However the observer herself is essentially a wave of possibilities (quanta) as well. She may be a large scale wave with a very high probability but still, she is essentially a wave of possibilities. This would imply that there is no collapse but rather a merging of various waves (the observer and the observed) into a new wave and so forth. In that sense, nothing ever actualizes into a final state, only transforms into new possibilities such as new knowledge and new potential for mindful acts. It means, I suppose, that possibilities are the physical though immaterial ‘substance’ of which reality is made. Finally, it can be said that this possibility substance is endowed with a tendency to combine with other possibilities. For instance, consider atoms combining into molecules, thoughts and emotions into meanings. There is a formative tendency so to speak, directed at ever more complexity. Then, what is an ‘actuality’? First and foremost it seems to be a possibility for becoming (lots of) other things. To be is to become.
This is where my consideration about the present debate on consciousness comes in. Just like the macro objects which Schrödinger excluded from the realm of quanta, consciousness seems to be thought of as something outside of this realm as well. As if it were not ‘made of’ the same substance as everything else. This assumption seems like yet another dualistic, old style materialistic reflex caused by our paradigmatic training. Likewise, this assumption is usually left implicit in the scientific debate on consciousness, why? Moreover, central aspects of the concept of consciousness show parallels with the behavior of quanta. For instance, I can see how a conscious experience such as my awareness of a painful toe is always fluid, changing: the pain is pulsating, increasing, decreasing, sharpening, numbing, or even replaced by a more urgent experience. Just like quanta, my consciousness is first of all a process of becoming something else. Consciousness, as far as it is experienced, could be the experience of how it is to be a set of possibilities. Not from the outside, but from within. Consciousness does exist, it is. But at the same time this being is a becoming.
Following this line of bottom-up of reasoning, in which consciousness naturally fits in the conception of quanta as the basic substance of reality, there is no need to understand consciousness in the terms of the present materialistic paradigm such as definition, localization, exclusion, measurement. Consciousness is everywhere because quanta are everywhere. Consciousness is possible because quanta are possibilities. Consciousness is fluid, non-local, non-temporal because quanta are. There is no ‘problem’ there, not even an easy one. Now, shall we move on?
TB January 9, 2022