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 girls ever like me? 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 that 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. The philosopher David Chalmers, who coined the term the ‘hard problem of consciousness’, has offered a radical solution to this mystery. 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. Consciousness or awareness, he suggests, may be fundamental to the physical world in a similar way that mass and charge are now 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. If the subjective inner nature of minds cannot be explained by a behavioural description of brain processes, then we might need to recognize that the interior dimension that we experience as consciousness, actually reflects a fundamental feature of reality.
As an undergraduate I was surprised and curious to find that a growing number of philosophers and scientists take similar positions to Chalmers and Nagel. 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 philosophical mystery of consciousness. 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 rich 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 one thing we cannot possibly doubt the existence of is consciousness.
Increasing numbers of scientists now defend deeper views of consciousness. One of them is neuroscientist Christof Koch, who is 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, 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 and psychic abilities. I didn’t expect a convincing read. Reflecting back, I think it was an anticipation of a sense of nostalgia which was most appealing. As I leafed through its pages, however, 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 real.
I was fascinated. After reading several other books on the subject, I found myself seeking out the original studies being cited. 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 presented with 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 not have had any knowledge of through ordinary means. As I continued to explore this literature, one thing was becoming clear to me: if psi effects really do occur, and there seems to be a lot of evidence that they do, then fundamental assumptions about both the nature of mind and reality would 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 contradicted 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. With our every thought, we are engaged in an intimate participation with reality.
The call to reconsider the subjective dimension of mind 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 acknowledge the existence of 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 now 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’. The flowering of such 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, but 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 reflective of an intrinsic aspect of reality, 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, and we can see ourselves, in Nagel’s words, ‘as part of the lengthy process of the universe waking up.’