Consciousness, What’s That?

For thousands of years, philosophers have been wrestling with the problem of our “soul.”  What is it? Where did it come from? Where does it go when we die? As impressive as recent advances in neuroscience have been, “soul,” “mind,” or “consciousness,” alternate terms for similar entities, remain inherently mysterious.

Most of the time, we don’t indulge ourselves in pondering these questions. They usually lead to some derogatory colloquial expression, like “galaxy brain.” Science has never provided convincing answers to the mystery, and the world’s religions long ago settled on some sort of mind-body dualism. As Rene Descartes wrote in the 17th century, there is something immaterial, external to our bodies, endowed by a Creator, which infuses us and informs the willful actions of our brain. In philosophy this is known as “Cartesian dualism.” Or perhaps there is something else, still immaterial, originating within us, which escapes the confines of our body through our good practice (meditation). Religions teach us either to communicate with that spirit, seeking unity, or to learn through practice how to expel it, thus achieving true freedom. Often, the boundaries between the conscious and unconscious mind are also considered important aspects of this dualism – as in psychoanalysis.

As if staking a political position in opposition to the whole mind-body dualism project, many scientists (especially neuroscientists, chemists, physicists) have hardened their belief that there is no such thing as a soul —  or even consciousness. This view is a direct development from Galileo’s Renaissance belief that science can only concern itself with the physical and mathematical. To Galileo, it wasn’t that the immaterial didn’t exist, just that he wouldn’t spend his time on it. This was, at best, a half-hearted slap at contemporary religious dogmas of dualism. Modern scientists, on the other hand, being numbed by the rate of recent advances in their respective fields, feel that If science has not yet explained subjective things like emotion emerging from sensory perceptions and cognition, someday soon it will! This school of thought is called materialism or physicalism. Someday, materialists say, we will be perfectly able to predict, with probabilistic data regression, all behavior — since that behavior amounts only to neurons firing through synapses in the brain in certain patterns. To the materialist, this truth includes even the most abstract processes of our cognition — our “feelings.”

There is an alternative to these two world views of dualism and materialism, however. Over the last 40 years or so, philosophers have begun to develop a new (or rediscovered) paradigm for explaining consciousness. It is called panpsychism. Panpsychism was the dominant philosophy in ancient Greece before Aristotle. It was common among Native American tribes and other pre-European, pre-colonial societies. Their Animism bestows a soul even to rocks and trees, although godlike properties are not usually features of modern panpsychism.

Australian philosopher David Chalmers, currently at NYU, has become one of its leading proponents. Chalmers posits that all matter, even the tiniest subatomic quarks, possess or are components of … “Mind.” There is no dualism. And materialists’ physical phenomena are, in fact, all instances of consciousness (although the term Mind is preferred). Causation is the new consciousness, and vice versa. One can imagine quantum mechanics having some influence on Chalmers and his Hard Problem of Consciousness, since it relies on alternate but simultaneous states of the universal Mind. Not surprisingly, Chalmers’ followers are known as mysterians. Facetiously, you might even call it “Schrodinger’s soul.”

The idea that all the atoms of our bodies, even as they break down and decay through entropy, contain their own consciousness is deep. It does provide solace for those who can understand existence as something shared, or corporate. Nothing in panpsychism gives much solace, however, for those who believe that their consciousness — lived experiences, memories, rationality — somehow belongs to them and them alone! Instead, these things are shared by all creation – all creatures, all inanimate objects, the earth, the cosmos – we are all one. By extension then, we are not individuals! Death may lose some of its sting, since our soul was never ours to keep, anyway. It was only on loan from the universe. We are renters, not owners.

It seems to me, in my more contemplative moments, that this view has merit. But there is still a missing dimension. Surely, one important aspect of consciousness must be the facility of communication between sentient creatures – both among those occupying shared space and time, and those long departed or yet to be born. Panpsychism does not deal with communication across time directly. Perhaps part of the panpsychic Mind is a “life urge” – to reproduce, perpetuate, fight adversity and competitors – in short, to survive. That life urge would be the reason why I write, why I read to my grandchildren, why I read myself. To learn is a defense, to care is to regenerate. Communication is the basic tool for this endeavor in my world system. That same life urge may also be an economic motivator. We accumulate wealth, including taking risks to create new wealth; then, we redistribute that wealth to others. You can apply these conscious activities to all organisms, not just humans. (A bit harder for inanimate objects).

In addition to communication, another question not dealt with directly by panpsychism is the undefined boundary between the conscious mind, which we all consider the source of our executive control, and that thing we know as our unconscious or subconscious mind, where our dreams live. The panpsychic considers the unconscious to be the source of some conscious processes; our cognitive space becomes something like the workspace of a computer operating system. In some philosophical traditions, like Bahai, the conscious mind gradually releases the unconscious until death, when the unconscious departs completely from the physical body. In effect, during life the physical body allows consciousness to imprison the unconscious.

However we envision the universe, whether we are interested in its origins or not, it is clear that our egos are mortal. A panpsychic mysterian still must grapple with the incontrovertible truth that all things are temporary. Infinity is nothing more than a mathematical abstraction. Panpsychism does not deal with that unpleasant fact any better than traditional religious mind-body dualism, scientific materialism, or the even fuzzier concept of idealism (no physical reality exists at all, only the immaterial and imaginary). Panpsychism merely posits the existence of a universal cosmic Mind; more synthesis of all other philosophical systems than antithesis of any. Hence, I might as well call myself a believer. The only question remaining: why does it matter?

— William Sundwick

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