After four posts suggesting that ‘common sense’ can be deceiving, I want to conclude this series by suggesting an area in which ‘common sense’ may be spot on.
One of today’s most obstinate mysteries is the origin and nature of consciousness, especially in the form of self-awareness. We humans, at present, are the most advanced species to have emerged from millions of years of evolution. We have a nervous system which, through our five senses, receives data from the world around us. We also have brains which process and interpret that data, using incredibly complex parallel processing, with built in feedback systems. All of this requires the continuous electro-chemical activity that empowers the almost unimaginable, multi-integrated functioning of 100 billion neurones, making the human brain the most complex entity in the currently known universe.
The brain itself is like a lump of convoluted jelly. It’s composed of the same atoms as any and every other ‘material thing’. The ongoing inexplicable question is, how can a lump of jelly-like matter experience the beauty of a sunrise, the ecstasy of falling in love, the scent of a lily, the taste of peppered mackerel? Above all, how can it possibly be aware of its own existence? There are those who say consciousness arises when the material brain reaches a certain level of complexity. The problem here is that matter and consciousness are categorically and unequivocally different. Matter exists in space, can be weighed and measured, and is subject to the laws of physics, whereas consciousness, like the experiences it gives rise to, is amorphous and intangible, with no material existence.
Some people seem to feel threatened by the unyielding mystery of consciousness. Their world view is that of materialism, and they fear the opening of any possible door to spirituality or religion. There are those among them who deal with this ‘problem’ by claiming that there’s no such thing as consciousness, that it’s an illusion. This is where it seems to me that ‘common sense’ comes to the fore. Is there anything else more immediately real to us than our personal experiences : our surging emotions, our never-ending thoughts, our feelings of joy or grief, of pleasure or pain. If you dare, try telling someone suffering from a raging toothache, that consciousness of pain is an illusion !
Common sense would suggest to us that something cannot arise from anything with which it has absolutely nothing in common. What conceivable relationship could there possibly be, between the immateriality of conscious experiences, and the physicality of electrical activity and chemical processes. The idea that consciousness arises from the material brain, is reminiscent of the genie emerging from Aladdin’s lamp when it’s suitably rubbed. It’s to enter into the realm of magic !
We are seeing today, on the part of some leading philosophers and neuroscientists, the revisiting of an idea, the origins of which can be traced back to humanity’s earliest days. It’s called Panpsychism and it possesses, I think, a common sense, basic simplicity. It says that consciousness, or awareness, or mind has not arisen from, or been ‘magicked’ out of, matter. It says that mind and matter belong fundamentally to one another. They are different sides of the same coin. Matter is the outwardness of mind, and mind is the inwardness of matter, and have always been so.
The word ‘consciousness’ can predispose our thinking to a human perspective. If we talk about ‘awareness’ instead, we’re more able to consider how a sub-atomic particle could be ‘aware’ of the approach of another particle, with implications for how it might then behave. From this primitive ‘awareness’ in the sub-atomic realm, we can move progressively upwards, through plant life and animal sentience to human self-consciousness, without any need for sudden, magical Aladdin’s lamp ‘emergences’.
Panpsychism can be understood from a purely humanist perspective. It can also, if one chooses, open a door to spirituality and even to ‘God’, but that ‘God’ will be far removed from the traditional version based on ancient books, and more like the “Ground of all Being” of more up-to-date ‘theology’. I can buy into that.
Highly Recommended reading : “Galileo’s Error : Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness”. Philip Goss. Penguin UK. 2019.
“Philip Goss has written an extraordinarily accessible and entertaining book … there’s no better introduction to this fascinating subject.” (Stephen Law, philosopher and prolific writer)