Where does Consciousness come from?

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Materialism continues to be the view of ‘how things are’ for a great many people. They see themselves as material beings who live in a world of material things which obey the laws of physics, and can be weighed and measured. They seem to forget that there are ‘things’ that aren’t things. There are thoughts and feelings which can’t be weighed and measured, and pay no heed to the laws of physics. They are utterly different from material things. They are immaterial, and yet we know they exist because we experience them every moment of every day, even when asleep. Where do they come from?

We’re talking here about what we may call sentience, consciousness, mind or awareness. Let’s go with ‘awareness’, as a generic term that includes the others. Two questions arise. The first is, what is ‘awareness’? One answer is, it’s what something ‘feels like’. There’s something it ‘feels like’ to be a human being, but we’d probably not apply the same to the chair we’re sitting in. The second question is, how does it arise? As humans, we’re likely to say, ‘from the workings of our brains’ and think the question answered, but it isn’t ! 

The human brain is a lump of soft tissue made of the same atoms as our chair. How is it possible then that this lump of tissue can see its surroundings, smell a flower, taste honey, hear music, feel orange peel, and be aware of its own existence? Material things, we’ve noted, are utterly different from immaterial thoughts and feelings. How can the one give rise to the other? How can atoms and molecules, when in the human brain, produce awareness, consciousness, mind?

There are three current answers. The first answer is that consciousness is an illusion. It doesn’t exist, and so no explanation of its ‘existence’ is required. The problem is, that this is totally at variance with every moment of our everyday experience. Try telling someone with toothache that awareness of pain is an illusion! Come to think of it, for me to be conscious of the fact that consciousness is an illusion would seem require that I be conscious!  

The second answer is that when matter reaches a certain level of complexity, conscious awareness ’emerges’. The problem now is, that this sounds like the genie ’emerging’ from Aladdin’s lamp when rubbed. If, in the course of the evolution of life, a moment came when consciousness ’emerged’, what was different about the moment before that moment? If a developing foetus becomes conscious at 1:30 pm, what is different from how things were at 1:29 and 59 seconds? How can consciousness suddenly arise from what is unconscious? – unless we believe in miracles.

The third answer is that awareness is fundamental, in the same way that photons and electrons, and the laws of physics are. All of these have been built in with the bricks. We could say that where there is matter there is mind, and vice-versa. The problem here is that we tend to understand such words as ‘awareness’ and ‘mind’ from our richly complex human end of the spectrum. We then ridicule the idea of sticks and stones having thoughts and feelings, when there’s no suggestion they do. At its very simplest, consciousness or mind is about having awareness of surroundings and reacting to them. One sub-atomic particle, being approached by another, will have some kind of ‘awareness’ of this, and will react – will retreat from, or repel, or join it.

What I’m suggesting is this : that consciousness, mind, awareness is neither illusory, nor miraculously emergent from mindless matter. Matter and mind are the two sides of the same coin. This view of things is called panpsychism. It has a history as long as humanity itself, from ancient animism, through the ‘world soul’ of Plato, to a current resurgence in the thinking of philosophers, physicists and neuro-scientists (as an internet search will show)

There are those who are wary of it, because they see it as opening a back door for a re-entry of God. It can, however, be understood in an entirely secular way, so anyone allergic to God need have no fear. On the other hand, if we are happy to part company with the traditional, anthropomorphic, story book God, we might well entertain the thought that, “In the beginning was Mind,” and that God is not so much a big person as an ongoing process, which is growing in awareness of itself as consciousness continues to spread throughout the cosmos – a process in which you and I have the priceless privilege of playing, for a brief time, our own little, but in no way unimportant, or inconsequential part.

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