The Two Deepest Mysteries

The first is that ‘something’ exists rather than nothing. The second is that consciousness exists, and is aware of that ‘something’, as well as of itself. There are, of course, those who say that consciousness doesn’t exist, but is an illusion. The question then arises – how is it that such an ‘illusion’ can exist, and that we can be conscious of its existence in the absence of consciousness? It sounds a bit like an illusion, of an illusion, of an illusion …

Science has made exponential progress by ‘forgetting about’ consciousness, and dealing exclusively with the material world, which can be weighed and measured, and mathematically described. The latest scientific findings, however, have pulled the rug from under the ‘solidity’ of materialism and have demonstrated that consciousness can’t be excluded if we are to have any comprehensive understanding of whatever is ultimately ‘real’.

The idea that consciousness is ’caused by’ the material human brain, is increasingly being questioned. It’s somehow reminiscent of the emergence of Aladdin’s genie as something ’caused by’ the rubbing of his lamp. Genies and lamps are utterly different, and so are consciousness and material ‘things’. Matter can be weighed and measured, occupies space, is governed by the laws of physics, is mathematically explicable, and describable in terms of quantity. Consciousness, as in thoughts and feelings, doesn’t occupy space, so isn’t governed by the laws of physics, isn’t mathematically explicable, and is only describable in terms of quality. One conscious experience can be more boring,  exhilarating, or terrifying, than another.

Conscious experiences are certainly accompanied by related electro-chemical activity within different parts of the brain, but this doesn’t entail that they are ’caused’ by these. ‘News at Ten’ is accompanied by activity inside a television set, but is not ’caused’ by such activity. The centuries’ old idea that mind is actually primary, and that matter is its ‘outward appearance’, has been regaining ground over the past few decades, and is being taken on board by some of the sharpest minds in physics, neuroscience and philosophy – Roger Penrose, Christof Koch and Philip Goff come to mind.

If you’re non-religious, you can call this Panpsychism. If you’re religious, you can call it Pantheism. What matters is that it implies that human beings are not simply  machines, with thoughts, words and actions, pre-determined by the inexorable laws of physics. There’s an aspect of us which can exercise at least a degree of  choice, which in turn can influence the continuous unfolding of the universe, and which makes us accountable for how we do so. We can call this our mind, self, soul or whatever. Beyond all such names, however, there is, it seems to me, a reality that unites us with one another, and with whatever or whoever, is the ground of all being, the reason why ‘something’ exists rather than nothing, and why consciousness exists to make us aware of that ‘something’ and of our own selves. 

Irrespective of whether our outlook is ‘sacred’ or ‘secular’, how awe-inspiring it surely is, to be a tiny part, for even the briefest of self-conscious moments, of such an overwhelmingly astounding and seemingly infinite cosmic process.

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