“The day science begins to study non-physical phenomena, it will make more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries of its existence.” — Nikola Tesla
by Daniel Ranard
3Quarksday.com from 1 January 2018
“I am in the world and at the same time in myself: is there geometry more beautiful?” —Abdelmajid Benjelloun
When someone learns you’re in academia, sometimes they ask questions you’re not qualified to answer. An economist friend was asked once: “Oh, so how long do eggs last in the fridge?” And so it is, perhaps, with asking physicists about consciousness. You may as well ask a philosopher, a neuroscientist, or really anyone else – after all, we all have first-hand knowledge of that spark of life inside our skulls.
But I want to write on what physicists think about consciousness. Not because they deserve special authority, but because they provide an important point of reference.
The physicist’s worldview usually contains some aspect of physicalism (asserting the only “real” things are physical things, governed by physical laws), reductionism (asserting all observable phenomena are explicable in terms of their microscopic parts), and positivism or operationalism (asserting that the only meaningful concepts are empirically testable).
And in recent generations more than any others, it seems, this web of attitudes permeates the zeitgeist. It is our inheritance from the success of 20th-century physics.
This inheritance alters the way we frame questions about the mind and consciousness. While Descartes asked how the physical realm interacts with the realm of the mind and soul (his answer: the pineal gland), today we immediately privilege the physical.
If the world consists only of the physical, how does the conscious mind arise? If your brain is a soup of electrons and protons, how does this soup come to harbor an interior experience? What gives rise to thoughts, feelings, and sense of being?
Philosophers have devised an intricate taxonomy of responses to the question of how consciousness relates to the physical world. Where do modern physicists fall within this taxonomy, especially as a community whose attitudes have historically shaped the framing of the question?
We might as well start Edward Witten, a theoretical physicist who already serves as something of an oracle within the field. In fact, when he speaks among physicists, it’s often accompanied by a hush in the room. So here’s Witten, in a video interview:
I think consciousness will remain a mystery… Understanding the function of the brain is a very exciting problem, in which probably there will be a lot of progress during the next few decades. That’s not out of reach… But what it is we are experiencing when we are experiencing consciousness, I see as remaining a mystery….
In short, Witten subscribes to:
Anticlimactic, maybe. But a strength of science is that its wisest practitioners only make scientific claims when they are capable of addressing a question scientifically. Witten is careful to distinguish two different types questions about the mind. One can first ask: what are the inner workings of the brain, physically and biologically, and how do these give rise to behavior?
Like most physicists, he assumes that scientists will eventually answer this question. The brain is a complicated physical system, but it’s governed by the same laws as all other matter. Meanwhile, there’s the second question of how the brain gives rise to conscious experience. What is the nature of your interior world, and how is it related to physical matter? This question Witten is unwilling to answer. Many physicists share his agnosticism.
It may seem Witten hasn’t said very much. But at least he maintains there’s some mystery. Compare that with:
The physicists’ legacy of physicalism frames popular questions about consciousness. If you believe the world consists of only the physical, then consciousness will present a puzzle: how do you account for the mental realm we inhabit? We have seen that one response is to claim agnosticism. But another is to stick hard to physicalism.
Such hardline physicists account for the mental realm by simply denying it, or denying the validity of the question. Their view is something like what philosophers call eliminative materialism.
It stems from the long and fruitful scientific tradition of only asking questions that can be empirically verified. You don’t ask, “What’s an electron really like?” or “What is the essence of the quark?”
These questions are dismissed as not only useless but also truly meaningless, questions about nothing. Instead, one asks, “What happens when you measure the electron in the following way?”
Likewise, many physicists reject typical questions about consciousness. If the ineffable interior life of conscious beings is not something we can ask valid questions about, then does it really exist?
To these physicists, you can’t ask, “What is Alice really feeling inside her head?” — a question with no verifiable answer. Instead, you ask questions like, “What will Alice say when I ask her what she’s feeling inside her head?”
The second question does have a verifiable answer, and one that you could hypothetically predict using the laws of physics, assuming you can solve the equations governing the particles that constitute Alice, calculating how her mouth will move in response to the question.
Physicists with View #2 will satisfy themselves with questions of the latter nature, while dismissing questions of the former.
To them, the “mind” is just another sort of abstraction, a useful bit of language. The question of how the mind arises from the brain is no more philosophically troubling for them than the question of how a “cloud” arises from a collection of water molecules hanging in the sky.
View #2 can be hard to stomach. To many of us, it certainly feels like there’s something special going on inside our heads. It feels like our thoughts have a special sort of existence that clouds don’t have. If one accepts that intuition, it leads the physicist to:
For these physicists, it’s possible to admit that consciousness is a special sort of phenomenon that occurs in certain physical systems. Particles arranged in the shape of a table aren’t conscious, but particles arranged in the shape of a person usually are.
Somehow, a particular motion of particles gives rise to a special interior world, a mind. At the same time, one can maintain that this “mind” has no causal control over the matter that composes it: it’s what philosophers call an epiphenomenon, a phenomenon outside of the causal order. Many physicists are somewhat epiphenomenalists, I think.
If you accept that the mind is real and not some simple abstraction, and you believe it’s a consequence of certain physical arrangements of matter, the question becomes: what arrangements of matter give rise to consciousness?
This question may be difficult, but at least it is (some believe) meaningful. One physicist who’s taken a stab at the question is Max Tegmark from MIT, in his speculative paper “Consciousness as a State of Matter.”
I won’t claim Tegmark is an epiphenomenalist of otherwise classify his philosophy, but he does ask the question: which sort of matter is conscious, and why? For a critical look at some related ideas, I also recommend the analysis of Scott Aaronson, a theoretical computer scientist and part-time physicist.
I suspect that Views 1, 2, and 3 loosely cover the majority of physicists. Then again, maybe you’re better off asking the economist how long you can leave your eggs in the fridge.
Daniel Ranard is a PhD Student at Stanford University at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.
In a new research paper in Frontiers In Psychology, David A. Oakley and Peter Halligan argue that our personal awareness does not create, cause or choose our beliefs, feelings or perceptions. Instead, the contents of consciousness are generated “behind the scenes” by fast, efficient, non-conscious systems in our brains.
All this happens without any interference from our personal awareness, which sits passively in the passenger seat while these processes occur.
They suggest we don’t consciously choose our thoughts or our feelings – we only become aware of them.
They ask us to consider that all the neuropsychological processes responsible for moving the body or using words to form sentences take place without involving personal awareness.
They believe the processes responsible for generating the contents of consciousness do the same.
They write that their thinking has been influenced by research into neuropsychological and neuropsychiatric disorders, as well as more recent cognitive neuroscience studies using hypnosis.
They say the studies using hypnosis show that a person’s mood, thoughts and perceptions can be profoundly altered by suggestion.
They argue that the contents of consciousness are a subset of the experiences, emotions, thoughts and beliefs that are generated by non-conscious processes within our brains.
“This subset takes the form of a personal narrative, which is constantly being updated. The personal narrative exists in parallel with our personal awareness, but the latter has no influence over the former.”
So, they argue, it is the ability to communicate the contents of one’s personal narrative – and not personal awareness – that gives humans their unique evolutionary advantage.
David A Oakley is Emeritus Professor of Psychology, UCL and Peter Halligan is Hon. Professor of Neuropsychology, Cardiff University. The full, unedited article was originally published by The Conversation, 22 November 2017, and as a research paper in Frontiers In Psychology, an open-access peer-reviewed academic journal covering all aspects of psychology.
The magazine is claimed to be the largest journal in its field, publishing rigorously peer-reviewed research across the psychological sciences, from clinical research to cognitive science, from perception to consciousness, from imaging studies to human factors, and from animal cognition to social psychology.
I’ve contemplated writing about my spiritual awakening experience for a while now, but it has never quite felt like the right time. Words aren’t always adequate to capture an experience that’s both deeply personal and is best understood as a felt, embodied sense rather than something that can be described and analyzed. But I am going to try my best because it feels important to begin sharing how my own path has included twists and turns for those who may have had their own interesting, unexplainable experiences…
Tara Cuskley is a psychologist and blogger passionate about all topics related to personal growth, healing, and spirituality.
In Review: What Does Mysticism Have To Teach Us About Consciousness? By Robert K.C. Forman, The Forge Institute and Program in Religion, Hunter College, CUNY. Originally published in Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2, 1998, pp. 185–201.
“A key strategy for understanding a complex phenomenon is to look at its simplest manifestations. The gene structure of E. coli, for example, has contributed significantly to our understanding of gene functioning in more complex organisms.
“Mystical experiences may represent the simplest form of human consciousness and thus, by the same token, may provide valuable insights into the nature of human consciousness.”
“Not everyone who meditates encounters these sorts of unitive experiences. This suggests that some may be genetically or temperamentally predisposed to mystical ability; borrowing from Weber, the “mystically musical.”
“One might suggest that the mystic’s awareness is categorically different than other peoples’, i.e. that it is connected to the world in an ontologically deep way that the rest of ours is not.
“I find this unconvincing since every mystic I have read says he or she began as an “ordinary,” i.e. non-mystical, person and only came to realize something of what he or she “had always been.”
“Whichever explanation we opt for, however, it is clear that there is some ability the mystics have been able to develop — through meditation or whatever — that most of us have not.”
Dr. Forman’s thoughts seem to be predicated on the mystical experience of Reality (MER) being a human emanation. Also that it’s directed to the human condition. In my mystical experiences over several times a year for 15 years, neither of these limited anthropologic conclusions are evident.
I am more inclined to accept there are fields of non-human consciousness some humans experience spontaneously, as in my case, not necessarily by will, and that the brain is a receptor of an outer, non-human consciousness.
Dr. Robert K. C. Forman is a long-term TM-practitioner and a critic of the constructionist approach to mystical experience. He was a professor of religion at the City University of New York, author of several studies on religious experience, and co-editor of the Journal of Consciousness Studies. (Wikipedia).
“Scientists say our consciousness is the product of our brains, with purposes set by evolutionary fitness.
“Theologians believe our consciousness reflects the God who created it, with majestic purpose of eternal life.
“Mystics hold my consciousness is a drop in the ocean of cosmic consciousness, with cycles and return.
“For sure, consciousness is a test case.”
Dr. Robert Lawrence Kuhn has a doctorate in brain research and is the author and editor of over 25 books. He explores cosmic consciousness and mysticism with some of the world’s leading scientists, scholars and philosophers in a freeTV series called Closer To Truth. His paper on Consciousness appeared in Skeptic Magazine. It is a comprehensive, up to date examination of mankind’s experience and exploration of the fundamental question of existence.
There is human consciousness and there is the vast consciousness outside human experience that according to those who have experienced it makes human consciousness only a small part of a real consciousness completely outside common human experience.
Scientists, in their attempts to construct a verifiable platform of experiments to understand human consciousness – why are humans conscious and how – are coming across persistent historical but unverifiable evidence of the existence of a human experience of a far greater consciousness than the one that only defines mere human experience* (The one I call the Mystical Experience of Reality, MER, and which some scientists have referred to as the “magical” * experience).
This MER phenomenon has happened spontaneously to individuals who had no known human attributes that qualified them. Why them? Nobody knows.
Scientists are finding this experiment versus experience challenging, an apparent dead end to all further human enquiry.
So, what is happening?
Perhaps human consciousness is in a process of evolutionary development that some mystical schools claim is leading to the dissolution of the human race into a pure spirituality that is merging with the vastness of a yet unknown consciousness so far only experienced by mystics?
Excerpts from the book OVOID THE VOID by Dr. Peter Steiner
‘The Void is the mysterious source of all there is, and I am part of the Source.’
Everything comes from the Nothing and I am part of the Everything, along with the Nothing. In the dichotomy of extremes the very definition of being Human is to keep challenging the edge of the envelope, be it the mysteriously small and the mysteriously large.
In the world of extremes the human mind cannot help but be an essential component of the Universe. By virtue of being a part of the whole, the human mind is forever blessed and condemned to the realm of extremes. The brilliant are likely to be manic depressive, the dull are likely to be spiritually even keeled.
The Mozart and the Salieri in us are selected by forces greater than ourselves, and have no choice but to emerge from the depth of our soul. They will battle for survival in our hearts, minds and souls, but the winner is never in doubt.
Salieri can curse God till the cows come home, he will never be Mozart. And similarly, Mozart could never live the life of the disciplined, systematic and ordered monotone existence of Salieri, even if he tried. The Oak and the Willow are what they are. Mozart and Salieri cannot trade places, bodies or souls.
“The strong will always break; the weak will bend and survive on the decay of the broken.”
There is a reason for the existence of all, the brilliant and the ordinary, the strong and the weak. The Universe is the way it is because it is the kind of Universe as IS. It will keep on unfolding the way it always had, whether we like it or not, whether we strive and fight the jihad, or surrender in monastic meditation.
Einstein, Gandhi, a miscarried foetus and I will never understand one another, for we were born and have died or will die for different purposes. Our uniqueness is the purpose, and the Universe made sure of that by mixing up slightly different combinations of base pairs on our DNA strands.
The less than 0.1 per cent difference in the DNA of Einstein, Gandhi, the miscarried foetus and I made us all different with differing paths, goals, and purposes in life. The 99.9 per cent of DNA that is the same in the four of us makes us human.
“The 1.0 per cent of DNA that is uniquely human differentiates us from our evolutionary cousins, the chimpanzees.”
Yes, 99 per cent of our DNA is common between humans and other primates.
Our essential purpose is both the same and unique. This is the dilemma and dichotomy that drives humans to madness and visions of clarity. Our individual purpose is different. The Theories of Relativity (both) could not have been written by Gandhi or I. Einstein or I would have made a very inferior Mahatma.
And a miscarried foetus may have been the change in the life of Einstein’s, Gandhi’s or Peter’s mothers’ lives that allowed for the three of us to be born and grow old. Part of the legacy of the unborn is to allow the rest of us to leave more visible signs of Inuksuk on the planet.
Inuksuk. I was here. Along with Einstein, Gandhi, and millions of the unborn. We have all participated in weaving a tapestry of humanity. Without any one of us the tapestry will survive, but it will not be the same. The way my essence permeated the Universe in an albeit temporary manner caused the Universe to never again be the same.
“I have come from the Void, the Source and found both of them inside me. I no longer feel the need to satisfy the existential hunger to find meaning in Life.
“The meaning is Life itself. The Life I live is the meaning. No one else has to prove it or approve of me. The meaning of life simply IS. Those of us who recognize the significance of the insignificant will never self destruct. Life seems to like the extreme along with the average, the multitudes. Those of us who hover on the edges between feelings of insignificance and folie de grandeur will always be at risk of self destruction.”
As denizens of the edge of insanity, the catatonic and Bonaparte of the asylum are two sides of the same coin. The sinner and the saint are the mirror images of each other, just exchanging cards in passing in the course of their lives. The mindless toil of the jihad, however always has the echoes of Zen in the background.
Chop wood, carry water – I reach enlightenment – so now I chop wood and carry water. And if I spout enlightenment, I have probably lost it. Observation affects the outcome – if I know that I am enlightened, I am probably not. If I know for sure that something is right, I am probably wrong.
“I will never see the whole picture. I can never see the world with your eyes or walk in your shoes. I am me and you are you.”
Do we have the power to change? We can tweak our existence by a small amount, but we cannot change our DNA (yet). I will not be Einstein, Gandhi or the unborn foetus. What I do with my mind is up to me – to a degree. So Steinbeck I shall not be. Neither do I want to be. This work was about what it means to be human, what it means to be a man. Not Mice and Men. Just Man. And Hemmingway can write To Have and not Have. I know that I have.
“I accept the Void as the Source of the Everything, and I also accept the Void in me as a natural consequence of being a part of the Universe.”
I do, however keep on being its partner in the ongoing process to create my personal reality. I wont try to eliminate the Void from inside me by trying to fill it with stuff – but I will not ignore it either. My awareness of the Void inside me allows the creative spark to burn inside me without endangering my sanity in the process.
I will continue to tweak this relationship with my inner Void and allow it to provide the space so that creativity can arise in me. This is an act of will that neither ignores the circle of emptiness inside me, nor tries to fill it with addictive stuff and processes.
I gently tweak the empty circle of Void in me in an ongoing manner, and thus keep on changing the circular Void into an ever shifting Ovoid shape. This Ovoid Void in me will keep on changing, without losing its predetermined locus and curvature. I Ovoid the Void. I will neither Avoid it, Denying it nor Fight it.
“This becomes a cooperative venture between the Source (God or the Universe) and the Vehicle of change (Me).”
The Void and I form the Bow and Arrow of Khalil Gibran, working together in creating a process that keeps altering Reality in an ongoing and unfolding mystery. The Universe is the mystery, and I am an active part of it. The mystery is both outside and inside of me. Outer Reality and my Inner Life are inseparable and interactive. I will never understand the Universe completely and neither will I understand my mind and my soul.
And this is all right with me, I am content with understanding 99 per cent of the Universe and 99 per cent of myself, and I am grateful for the ability to have reached so far. The symbolic one per cent of my mind and soul remains a mystery forever for me. When I understand the last 1 per cent, a part of the known will shift and offer a new and different 1 per cent to discover.
“I will never ever understand it all. Neither can you, nor anyone else.”
Excerpted from the ebook, OVOID THE VOID by Dr.Peter Steiner BSc., DDS.