Have you ever been in love? Do you recall what it feels like? What about the experience of joy? What was that like? I’m guessing you’re familiar with the experience of physical pain too.
Neuroscience can tell you exactly what your brain is doing while you feel love, joy, or pain. We know which areas light up, where signals transmit to and from.
But that’s not the same as having the first person felt experience of love, joy, or pain, what it is like.
Herein lies one of the hard problems in science, understanding what consciousness is and where it comes from. In fact, it’s even known as ‘The hard problem of consciousness’, a term coined by philosophy professor, David Chalmers, one of the most respected philosophers alive today.
Yet, to most of us, and to most scientists, it’s assumed that consciousness arises in the brain. And I say assumed because the matter is very far from settled. Professional philosophers, whose job it is to think about these sorts of things, still debate it hotly.
Most of us have simply learned to accept the idea because it works for all practical purposes (FAPP). That’s a term often used in science. It doesn’t necessarily mean that something is correct, only that it seems to work.
The notion that consciousness is produced by the brain is generally known as materialism, or physicalism. To materialists, consciousness is just something that we have, that we use to analyse and interpret the world.
But the root of the hard problem, according to Phillip Goff, professor of philosophy at Durham university, goes back to Galileo.
In his book, ‘Galileo’s Error’, he points out that Galileo made mathematics the language of science, which meant that there were no ‘words’ in science to describe anything subjective, like consciousness, mind, soul. Anything that couldn’t be measured or quantified in the language of science didn’t exist according to the scientific method.
We still hold this to be generally true today.
And it’s worked well for all practical purposes because it’s led to incredible medical and technological developments. The fact you’re reading this now means you have a computer or smartphone, which have ultimately been created thanks to a mathematical understanding of the laws of physics. But it also means we’ve never had the ‘words’ (in math) to discuss some of the deeper, personal questions we all have – spiritual ones.
And so we generally give short shrift in science to anything that isn’t physically measurable, like consciousness. In fact, we have no way to measure it at all. And so for most of us, we just ignore the hard problem because it doesn’t seem to matter all that much.
But to many it does matter, and quite a lot. Some of the most important questions that matter to us, that drive many of us at the deepest level, are “Who am I?”, “Why am I here?”, “What is my purpose?”, “What is the meaning of life?”
In making mathematics the language of science, Galileo’s error meant that we have no way in science to discuss these deeper questions, and so they have been mostly ignored, or left to religious leaders and philosophers to debate while science gets on with more seemingly serious business.
And yet, if we could answer these questions, perhaps our world might be a little different. Perhaps there would be more happiness, less anxiety and depression, and more people with a sense of purpose and contentment, comfortably rested on foundations of knowing who we are and why we exist.
The relegation of consciousness led to materialism. And materialism works for all practical purposes. But it’s also probably wrong! That’s according to a number of professional philosophers.
There are other things that also work for all practical purposes and that are also wrong.
Take gravity, for example. Most of us assume that gravity is a force that pulls objects down. We’re all familiar with the story of the apple that fell on Isaac Newton’s head that resulted in his theory of gravity. And thinking of gravity as a force works for a huge number of practical purposes in science and engineering.
But gravity isn’t a force. That much wasn’t understood until Einstein wrote his General Theory of Relativity in 1915. Gravity results from the shape of spacetime. Here’s a good analogy.
If you roll a marble over a trampoline, of the sort that many parents have in their gardens that their kids play on, it will follow a straight line. But if you put something on top of the trampoline at its centre, so heavy that it stretches most of the way to the ground, and then roll the marble, it no longer goes straight.
In fact, if you roll it anywhere on the trampoline it will go around in a circle and eventually spiral down to the heavy object at the centre.
Gravity works like that. Stars and planets are the heavy objects and it’s not the fabric of a trampoline that stretches, but the invisible fabric of space and time. Earth (and the other planets) follows a circle around the sun because it’s falling in towards the Sun on the spacetime trampoline, but its speed compensates for the fall, meaning it just goes around the Sun in a circle every 365.25 days.
The reason you land back on the ground when you jump up isn’t because gravity is a force that pulls you down, but because you slide down the fabric of spacetime towards Earth like a marble rolling on the trampoline.
To think of gravity as a force works for all practical purposes, but like materialism (probably), it’s also wrong.
Quantum physics has arrived at something similar to the hard problem. Looking inside any object reveals that it’s made of atoms.
For example, inside your brain are neurons, which are made of molecules like proteins, lipids, and contain DNA, all of which are made of atoms.
Now, if you look inside an atom, it is composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons. That’s the bit we learn in school.
The bit you learn at university is that protons and neutrons are composed of quarks and these are held together by gluons. At the deepest level of our scientific understanding, the particles that make up everything in our physical world, including you and I, are quarks, gluons, and electrons.
But what are they? Asking that question in a 2021 New Scientist magazine special edition, in an article titled, ‘What is Reality?’, physics Nobel laureate Sir Roger Penrose wrote that, “The best we can do at this stage is refer to the mathematical equations that they satisfy,” and that what they actually are “is a notion that can only be understood in terms of the mathematics used to describe them.”
In other words, he pointed out, we know what these fundamental components of reality do, but we don’t know what they are. We don’t know anything about their intrinsic nature.
Scale things up and we meet the hard problem of consciousness. We know what the brain, ultimately composed of quarks, gluons, and electrons, is doing while you have an experience, but we can’t account for what the experience is, what it’s like. What the brain does is not the same as having the felt experience.
Perhaps we have been going about things in the wrong way.
Indeed, some physicists, like Lee Smolin, a theoretical physicist at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada, in trying to solve the 100-year problem of the disconnect between relativity (gravity) and quantum mechanics, have recently been considering if consciousness is intrinsic to reality, and many philosophers are entertaining a similar possibility.
Panpsychism is the idea that all matter has experience. Quarks have soul, so to speak. This is not to suggest that a quark in an atom on my sofa enjoys watching Star Trek with me, but that it has some rudimentary experience, albeit vastly less complex than my own.
Panpsychists hold that it’s the combination of trillions upon trillions of particles forming complex organisms that give rise to human consciousness, animal consciousness, plant consciousness, and insect consciousness.
But it also means that everything is conscious to one degree or another, including rocks, crystals, water, clouds, planets, stars, galaxies, and even the whole universe, since everything is made of particles, each of which has experience.
It’s getting our heads around these things that has caused many to poke fun at panpsychism for so long and not take it seriously. However, in the world of academic philosophy, it is taken very seriously. It solves the hard problem of consciousness.
Consciousness doesn’t arise from the brain. The atoms in the brain already have conscious experience. It’s the combination of trillions of them, according to Panpsychists, that give rise to what we recognise as human consciousness.
Another idea that is taken seriously by some philosophers is Idealism. Here, consciousness is the fundamental component of reality such that everything that exists is merely an appearance of consciousness.
Just like light appears in different colours when it shines through raindrops to give us rainbows, so consciousness appears in a variety of different forms and colours. To Idealists, consciousness is infinite and appears in an infinite variety of forms, like people, animals, plants, insects, mountains, oceans, clouds, planets, galaxies, and universes.
If I were to place my cards on the table, I’d say that I believe that consciousness is the fundamental constituent of reality (Idealism), but that all things also therefore have conscious experience (Panpsychism), so for me, the answer lies somewhere between the two.
Experience is natural. It’s the most basic thing. Love, joy, pain, these things are natural.
Knowing what the brain is doing while you feel in love doesn’t mean that the brain is creating consciousness, but simply gives us a picture of how it appears during the experience. The brain’s changing state reflects the changing state of conscious, and unconscious, experience.
So what does all this mean for you and I?
Perhaps it’s not what you do in life that matters, but the experience of it. It’s not the destination that’s most important, but what the journey is like.
Seek out experience, then. Try new things.
Love, laugh, play.
Live life. Experience it, grab hold of it.
Hug your loved ones.
Smile at strangers in the street.
Breathe in the air. Feel what it’s like.
Paint a picture.
Sing a song.
Inhale each moment.
Experience the now.
Live your life!
Maybe that’s the point.
Copyright 2022 David R. Hamilton PhD.