Like a lot of kids I asked myself those perennial questions as I lay in bed at night. How do I know the world is what my senses tell me? Do I really have freewill? Will I ever get a girlfriend? I remember being preoccupied by the idea that I was my brain. How is it that everything I think of as me – my inner thoughts and feelings – are somehow produced inside my head? And how do we know for sure that they are? At the time I assumed clever scientists already knew the answer, but as I got older, I eventually realized I’d been wrong. Today we call this mystery the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. It’s the question of how a subjective dimension of experience could arise from the objective processes of brains. There seems to be a vast difference between even the faintest glimmer of consciousness and no consciousness at all. David Chalmers, the philosopher that coined the term the ‘hard problem of consciousness’, offers a radical solution. For Chalmers, consciousness is real – really real. What is vitally missing from our understanding of the brain, he offers, may also be missing from our basic description of the world. For Chalmers, understanding the inner nature of consciousness, which seems mysteriously irreducible to physical processes, may necessitate an expansion at the very heart of our scientific ontology. He thinks consciousness or awareness may be fundamental to the physical world in a similar way that mass and charge are thought to be. Another highly respected thinker in contemporary philosophy, Thomas Nagel, agrees. Nagel’s famous thought experiment, What is it like to be a bat? is required reading for many philosophy students. Nagel has thought deeply about the question of consciousness. He argues that if, as he suspects, the subjective inner nature of minds cannot be captured by a complete description of physical brain processes, then we might need to recognize consciousness or awareness as somehow intrinsic, reflecting a fundamental aspect of reality.
As an undergraduate I was curious to find a growing number of philosophers and scientists taking similar positions. In addition to the external causal structure of things detectable by our scientific instruments, they contend that nature also has inner topologies. It is this inner nature of the world that, when integrated in complex structures like brains, comprises the rich inner landscape of our minds. I first became aware of this groundswell in contemporary thought as a psychology student. I was captivated by the feats of modern neuroscience, but I remained preoccupied by the mystery of consciousness, reading widely in the philosophy of mind. Deeper views of consciousness seemed, at least to me, not in conflict with the findings of modern psychology, and yet the standard thinking in the life sciences - that consciousness is essentially an illusion, seemed highly questionable to me. After all, if consciousness really is an illusion, how can it do anything? What function could it serve? Why should evolution go to all the trouble of developing this deep and complex inner landscape of experience if it serves no purpose or role – an ‘epiphenomena’ – simply ‘along for the ride’? Consciousness, as many philosophers have argued, cannot be an illusion. Indeed, as the philosopher René Descartes famously pointed out over three centuries ago, the existence of consciousness is the one thing we cannot doubt about the universe.
Increasing numbers of scientists now defend deeper views of consciousness. One of them is neuroscientist Christof Koch, the world’s foremost expert in the scientific study of the neural correlates of consciousness. Koch spent 15 years working alongside the Nobel Prize winning biologist Francis Crick, searching for the basis of consciousness in the brain. After Crick’s passing in 2004, Koch diligently continued the search they began together. In the last few years, however, his views have changed dramatically. In light of new theories and evidence Koch no longer believes that brains create consciousness, nor is it limited to biology. Consciousness, he now argues, is a fundamental quality of information. “The entire cosmos is suffused with sentience” he writes, “We are surrounded and immersed in consciousness; it is in the air we breathe, the soil we tread on, the bacteria that colonize our intestines, and the brain that enables us to think.”
In my early twenties a series of events brought into my possession a book titled The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena. The title beckoned to a long-forgotten childhood interest in parapsychology. I didn’t expect a convincing read. I think it was an anticipation of a sense of nostalgia that was most appealing. As I leafed through its pages I found a surprising treasure trove of evidence. It gradually grew apparent that the study of what researchers called ‘psi phenomena’ was far from the sloppy circus act decried by self-styled skeptics. Carefully controlled experiments conducted by highly qualified scientists had revealed compelling evidence of effects which are completely unanticipated by reductive or materialist views of the mind. The author of the book was Dean Radin, a scientist with an impressive education and résumé of academic appointments. He had compiled and carefully explained a wealth of rigorous published studies revealing that at least some forms of psychic phenomena are indeed real.
I was fascinated. After reading several other books on the subject, I found myself seeking out the original studies. I encountered a surprisingly large body of research literature. In one experimental paradigm, contributed to by many independent scientists, unexpected relationships have been reported between the brain activity of separate individuals when one isolated participant is shown a random stimulus, such as a flashing light. In other studies participants directing their intention to a physical process appeared to subtly influence the statistical distribution of its output. Psi effects also seemed to defy our usual assumptions about the mind’s relationship to time. One series of experiments showed that biological markers, such as skin conductance and heart rate, anticipated future events that the participant could have had no ordinary knowledge of. One thing was becoming clear: if psi effects really occur, and there seems to be a lot of evidence that they do, then fundamental assumptions about both the nature of mind and reality will need to be revised. The existence of these effects, I realized, didn't challenge our empirical observations of nature; what they did challenge was some of our prevailing interpretations. The assumption that consciousness is an illusion, that minds are isolated from each other, that minds play no active role in the world, are all paradigms directly challenged by the psi evidence. Psi suggests, among other things, that our minds are only ever superficially separate, and that consciousness may be grounded in a deeper principle of nature. We are engaged in an intimate participation with reality that extends to our inner most nature.
The call to reconsider the subjective as an intrinsic aspect of reality is also arriving from several other scientific fields. In considering fundamental questions of cosmology, such as why the universe is so precisely suited for the evolution of complex life, to how reality self-generates its own existence, to the mysteriously observer-dependent character of the universe revealed by modern physics, many respected scientists now call for us to recognize an essentially inner and perspectival aspect to reality. The physicists John Wheeler, Paul Davies, Freeman Dyson and Henry Stapp have argued that the rise of complex observers like us may have been woven into the cosmic code from the beginning - that life and mind play an active and participatory role in reality. There appears to be a modest, though growing shift occurring in academia – a growing openness toward deeper views of consciousness. In my book, Origins of Consciousness, I refer to this as the ‘intrinsic consciousness movement’. This flowering of intrinsic perspectives is found in the writings of leading minds in many fields of science, from psychology and neuroscience, to physics and cosmology. Among their disparate though often complimentary views can be found a common, provocative yet compelling conviction: that the search to understand the nature of consciousness will ultimately lead us to a new view of reality.
It is my belief that, when viewed together, the trend of ideas point toward a still-coalescing picture of reality. A wide spread shift in thinking may yet lie years ahead of us, yet I think we can already glimpse this consciousness-involving reality and see that it is both coherent and defensible. Out of the emerging view a new cosmology is forming – a new story of our place in the universe. In full acceptance of the discovered facts of science, the new view regards the human and all life as participators in the larger cosmic evolutionary process. As we recognize our consciousness as an irreducible and intrinsic part of nature, our values also change. The isolating and fragmented materialist worldview is replaced by a broader, more meaningful and unifying vision. We become extensions of the universe’s on-going creative activity. We can see ourselves, in Nagel’s words, ‘as part of the lengthy process of the universe waking up.’
Adrian's new book Origins of Consciousness
is now available on Amazon