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The Mystery of Consciousness

Look at what you are experiencing at this moment. You are aware of your body, perhaps sitting in a chair, staring at a computer screen. As you read my words every few moments a competing emotion or sensation flicks across the screen of your consciousness and distracts your attention. And, this you are also aware of. Your eyes and attention flick back and forth between the words here.

Or consider this - you, eating a particularly good orange, savoring its sweetness, its texture, the juice flowing onto your tongue and lips; or this - conversing with friends, watching their faces, delighting in the dialogue but aware of subtle rippling of your emotions as you react to their remarks and weigh comments that you consider making.

This is the most fundamental aspect of the human experience - conscious awareness of self and the world around us: an external world filled with colors, sounds, and textures and an internal world full of feelings and emotions.

Our capacity to do this defines the human experience. We do it; mice to a lesser extent; fish, lesser still; trees – maybe not; rocks, robots, and the internet - not at all (or so we surmise).

Any good theory of consciousness has to answer at least the following two questions:
Why are we conscious?
What happens to our consciousness after death?

So what does science say about consciousness? You might expect science to have consciousness all sewn up and nailed down, but in fact science seems to have an ideological bias away from even admitting that consciousness exists in the sense that we are talking about it here, and so science has no coherent consciousness theory (feel free to debate this using the comments below if you disagree!).

And yet we can say some very interesting things about consciousness and consciousness theory if we stay within a more-or-less scientific framework.

Strange But True

The crucial thing to grasp is that any theory of consciousness has to explain why we have feelings and emotions at all, not just why we act physically as we do. If human beings (and other animals) were simply machines, as some scientists try to claim, we would not experience any kind of emotion. Machines do not feel emotion. If we were genuinely simply mechanical, we might act as if we were full of passion and feeling, but it would all be an empty show.

The fact that our actions are not an empty show, but are backed by an inner emotional experience, shows that science has got things badly wrong when it comes to consciousness theory. The question we need to tackle is not the difficult problem of why we act as we do, but the really hard problem of why we feel as we do.

A Vital Step Towards a Rational Consciousness Theory

Here's were it gets really interesting. There is a whole facet to human existence that science tries to avoid dealing with altogether, and that you can easily go through your entire life without thinking about. Yet its core facts are really beyond dispute.

The startling fact of the matter is that much of the world you see around you, the world of physical interacting objects that science takes as its ultimate foundation, is in fact created in your mind. Any rational consciousness theory needs to take this into account.

Consider this. Your brain is completely contained in a small box called the skull. The brain only receives on/off "digital"-type messages from the outside world, via the nerves. To take an example, when you walk over to an orange, pick it up, smell it, peel it and eat it, everything you experience comes to you via nothing more than a series of colorless, odorless nerve signals.

From these dry signals your brain constructs your entire experience of the world, including your sense of existing in a space and your sense of time passing. This simple fact calls into question whether science, in its classical form, is up to the job of creating a rational theory of consciousness.

Does the Brain Exist?

Since our experience of all physical objects is created in the brain, and since the brain itself is a physical object, it follows that the brain creates our view of itself. In fact we should properly not talk about what the brain does for us when we're creating a theory of consciousness, but what the mind does for us. The mind here is really what we mean when we use the word "I"; it is the thing that has experiences, including all experiences of the ‘outside' world.

Is There Life After Death?

If we stop taking physical matter as the basis of reality in our search for a theory of consciousness, and instead take mind as the real basis of reality, we are left wondering if the mind can exist without the brain. The answer is, no-one really knows. If the brain is damaged, certainly a person can lose many aspects of their personality, including all memories. But does that person cease to feel and experience? Is the problem of the "vegetative" hospital patient a problem of feeling nothing, or merely a problem of being unable to communicate with the physical world?

Even if we assume that a person loses all their memories and much of what makes them human when they die, does that mean the person has really ceased to exist, or does that person's experience simply take on a different form? The answer to this simple question, which seems to many people to have a simple answer (either definitely ‘no' or definitely ‘yes'), is in fact unknown by any truly rational means.

Towards a Scientific Consciousness Theory

Science is already making reluctant inroads into a true theory of consciousness.

Funnily enough, science really began to take significant steps towards a theory of consciousness with Werner Heisenberg's work in the 1920s.

Heisenberg and his colleagues were attempting to explain the properties of light emitted by atoms when they formulated the modern scientific theory known as quantum mechanics. Whereas previous theories of physics had regarded physical objects as truly existing ‘in themselves', independently of any observer, quantum mechanics was the first serious scientific theory to move away from an objective view of reality; instead of physical objects directly taking center stage in quantum mechanics, quantum mechanics takes the act of observation as its basis, together with an entity that represents all possible states of an object — but not any actual state.

In Heisenberg's quantum mechanics, mathematical objects known as matrices are used to represent the possible ‘states' of an object (including its location); these matrices are then acted upon by other matrices that represent the act of observation.

The implications of this formulation of reality for consciousness theory are deep; deeper than many want to admit. The truth is that no object can ever be proved to exist separately from the observations we make of it. Physical reality itself may well not exist independently of ourselves.

Consciousness is perhaps the most fundamental unsolved problem in science.

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