What precisely is ‘consciousness’? On the one hand, we know exactly what it is. It is ‘what it feels like to be us’ in our every moment of wakefulness. It’s the contents of what we call our ‘minds’. But on the other hand, we haven’t the slightest clue what it is. It’s a complete mystery.
It’s associated with electro-chemical activity in that lump of tissue we call the brain. The brain, however, is a material object, existing in space, and subject to the laws of physics. The thoughts and feelings, the sights, sounds, touches, tastes and smells which we experience in our ‘minds’ are not material objects. They don’t exist in space, and aren’t subject to the laws of physics. Brains and conscious experiences are qualitatively and categorically different from each other. We could borrow a metaphor and say that they’re ‘light years apart’. How can the one possibly ‘produce’ the other?
What consciousness is, and how it is that it exists, continues to completely defy scientific explanation. Faced with such a challenge, there are those who say (conveniently, one is tempted to suggest) that it doesn’t exist – that it’s an illusion. A philosophical objection would be that an ‘illusion’ somehow seems to require consciousness in order for us to be conscious of it, and to consciously call it an illusion.
An alternative approach is to say that consciousness is something that ’emerges’, when material structures like the brain reach a certain level of complexity, and that it’s an ‘epiphenomenon’ – a superfluous by-product of brain activity which can itself have no autonomous function or purpose. Put a coin on a table and try to ‘think’ it into moving. What is immaterial can have no causative effect on what is material.
Sometimes, however, what seems to be simple and clear cut, isn’t. Bearing in mind the vast difference between immaterial consciousness or mind, and the material brain, to suggest that the one ‘arises’ from the other when it’s complex enough, is reminiscent of the genie which ‘arises’ from Aladdin’s lamp when it’s sufficiently well rubbed. A likely story, one might say.
Another alternative, which is centuries old, but has recently begun to be re-explored by some top-ranking scientists, neuroscientists and philosophers (Roger Penrose, Christof Koch and Philip Goff are examples) is that of Panpsychism. In general terms, one could say that rather than consciousness or mind arising from matter, the one is the obverse of the other, like the two sides of the one coin.
The suggestion is that this indissoluble ‘combination’ of mind and matter is a given – it’s built into the bricks of the universe. Where there is matter there is mind, and where there is mind there is matter. We could say that matter is an expression of mind – mind made visible. We could rewrite the Bible verse to read, “In the beginning was Mind” and therefore also its expression in matter.
If we give that Mind the name ‘God’, then ‘God’ is neither separate from us, nor from what is traditionally called ‘creation’. A new depth of meaning is given to the Bible’s claim that “in God we live, and move and have our being”, and also to Wordsworth’s “sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused”.
Completely ‘interfused’ in fact ! One could say that mind matters, and what matters is mind.