Reading time: ca. minutes
"There is no consciousness. There is just a cloak of bones whistling into a silent abyss."
Benjamin Smythe on Facebook
You hear or read this a lot in "non-dual" and other "spiritual" circles: there is only consciousness. But what is this "consciousness" really? And how can we know this even exists?
How does our experience come about? What is the origin of what we call reality? And is this reality really that real? If not, then what is it? And can we even find out?
Let's speculate a bit (for fun of course).
For all we know, the universe we live in is a computer simulation designed by hyper-intelligent beings:
Thomas A. Anderson is a programmer at a software development company and has an illegal part-time side income under the hacker alias Neo. Neo is contacted by a group of "rebels" led by Morpheus. This one reveals to Neo that the world he lives in is a "make-believe world" which they name the Matrix. The Matrix is in reality a computer simulation of the world as it was in 1999, created to control people and tap their energy. Morpheus gives Neo a choice to escape from the Matrix to the "real world" and swallow a red pill, or take the blue pill and return ignorant and stay there. Neo chooses the "real world" and wakes up inside a giant "battery farm" for humans.
In the movie "The Matrix", the world is a simulation. And in a way, something similar is happening with respect to our experience, although, I think, no aliens are involved and there is no "real" reality that you could escape to.
How we acquire our view of the world and our belief structures as children is a subject of debate in developmental psychology. There are, among others, constructivists and behaviorists and adherents of still other theories. Most of these theories are dualistic in nature. They assume an organism isolated from the environment, with the environment playing a passive role and humans independently acquiring and/or manufacturing knowledge. But we are shaped by the environment as much as we shape the environment. Environment and organism are inseparable and unseparated. They are one and the same reality, one experience.
And because at every moment of our existence and development we are part of the world, are in fact the world, we come into the world with all the functions necessary to survive and thrive in that world. We fit into our environment like a hand into a glove, a glove that develops with the hand. Our worldview as adults, our reality, emerges organically through interaction, indoctrination and osmosis.
An interesting view on this subject comes from the cognitive scientist Donald D. Hoffman, who starts from the idea that evolutionary selection processes (resulting in the famous "survival of the fittest") have shaped our worldview resulting in an organism, whose perception does not so much show the truth of the world, but rather hides that truth behind a symbolic construct, much in the same way that a graphical computer desktop with icons hides the reality of a computer's hardware and software.
And in the same way that a graphic desktop greatly facilitates computer work, our perception and experience of colors, shapes, space and time ensures that we can deal as best we can with whatever that reality may represent and thus makes us fit enough to pass on our DNA.
In Hoffman's view, space and time are a product of this same evolutionary selection pressure and form the "desktop", so to speak, of our experience. The things we find in our experience are then the "icons" on the desktop. What those icons actually - that is, outside our perception - represent is impossible to know. We only have our perception and cannot "see through" it.
Our worldview is further augmented, as we grow into adults, by a linguistic and cultural overlay. This is the world as we experience it. There is no other reality for us to experience than the one we are already experiencing.
In "biocentrism" - the idea that life or "consciousness" creates reality - it is also assumed that the world, which we perceive and inhabit, is a construct that is evolutionarily driven, similar to the work of Donald Hoffman. Hoffman's view is called "conscious realism". And he too assumes that "consciousness", whatever it may be, is responsible for our perception of reality.
Of course, these are just as much (for now) unproven hypotheses and thus a kind of beliefs, yet the arguments are intriguing enough to give the dogmatic belief of scientific realism a formidable rival.
Meanwhile, a classical, materialistic theory of the universe has been largely abandoned anyway and replaced by something as utterly abstract and "immaterial" as the "quantum field theory" of the so-called "Standard Model".
In the end, what can ultimately be said about this life? What can we know for sure? Not very much I'm afraid. Science can tell us a lot, of course, but never about the living reality here and now. Science can study parts of life in isolation. It "freezes" something, takes it apart and studies the parts. Science sets up imaginary boxes of space, time and causality. It measures, compares, evaluates, tests and theorizes. It is very successful in its work and I appreciate what it does. It brings us tech, medicine, materials and energy. All great, but it cannot pigeonhole life, this universe, this experience. And it cannot know what is beyond experience — something that would be independent of experience, even whether something absolutely objective would in fact exist. Life cannot see life, because there is nothing outside of life. You can't put a box around it.
We can, of course, speculate about the ultimate nature of life, of the universe. We can ask questions like, "Is all life physical?" That is, the result of physical, elementary particles and the forces or fields that govern them. Or "is all life mental and is everything, including our bodies and brains, merely an appearance in the mind, in 'consciousness'?" Or perhaps reality is a mixture of mind and matter, or perhaps mind and matter are expressions of some unknown deeper substratum.
It's good to ask these kinds of questions; we can't help but ask them anyway. Exploring possible answers can be fun and informative. Believing the answers is something else. Then you are no longer engaged in science, but in religion. There are many possible answers to the ultimate questions of life and there is no way to find out which one is true.
"Absolute certainty is a privilege of uneducated minds and fanatics. It is, for scientific folk, an unattainable ideal."
Cassius Jackson Keyser, Mathematical Philosophy: A Study of Fate and Freedom
By the way, physicalism, let alone old-fashioned pre-quantum materialism, and atheism can, in my view, be as dogmatic and authoritarian as any other religious or anti-religeous club.
Nobody really knows.
We cannot see if there is a world, subjective or objective, independent of our own brain. We don't see the world, we see a world. Each of us lives in and as our own world. There is no way I can know what your world is really like. This does not mean solipsism. I do not believe that my mind/brain creates the only world, just that I see that I cannot know other worlds in the same way I know my world.
Many non-dual philosophies say that there is only "consciousness" and that everything that happens are indeed just appearances in "consciousness". It is also said that the world is a "dream". There is a famous Zen story about this belief. Robert Saltzman tells it as follows:
"I'll begin with the story of the student who, trying to impress the master, was ranting about "reality", and about his "deep discovery" that the entire waking life was nothing more than a dream - not very different from sleeping life. After hearing all the warmed-over misapprehended Vedanta he could stand to hear, the teacher took his student by the shoulders, and delivered a swift kick right to the guy's shin.
"Ow, ow, ow," cried the student. "Why did you do that?"
"How do you like THAT dream?" replied the teacher.
Robert goes on, saying:
"That said, in a sense at least we ARE dreaming the world because our perceptions depend (at least) upon the kind of nervous system which is doing the perceiving + the type of enculturation of that nervous system + the individual experiences which condition that nervous system. So at best we see "a" world, not "the" world. There may be other factors beyond our ken which are involved, but we do not KNOW what they are. When claims are made, then you have religion, which is belief in authority, tradition, etc, not KNOWING."
Robert Saltzman, Facebook posting, May 31, 2013
Anyway, I don't even understand what is meant by the terms "consciousness" and "awareness". Those words feel to me like nouns, standing for "things", like some kind of very subtle "stuff", or some kind of "container" or "space" in which experience takes place. Some people talk about "the unconscious" as if it were a kind of place or state. "The archetypes live in the collective unconscious", a Jungian psychiater might say for instance. Are there "levels" or "layers" of consciousness? I really don't think so. A geography of mind seems to me a fantasy and the origin of many misconceptions.
I know what is meant by being "conscious" or being "aware", I understand them to be functions or properties, similar to "temperature" as a function of the behaviour of many molecules in a container. But I don't know what being conscious or being aware are properties of. Some call it "mind". Others say they are functions of "brain states", depending on metaphysical preference (= belief). But those words actually represent a complete mystery. No one knows what it is that is alive and aware, or more or less conscious.
Some talk about "subjective experience" as if there is such a thing as "objective" experience. Some talk about the "hard problem" of consciousness, meaning that you cannot reduce the experience of the color "red" or the smell of roses to the properties of physical particles and force fields. But there is no problem at all. Not many people can stand to admit that this so-called "problem" is unsolvable in principle, period. It will never be solved. It is an ego-trip to insist that it must be possible to find a definitive solution.
As Michael Markham posted on Facebook, if everything is consciousness, then what are we talking about? The whole concept would be meaningless!
No one knows what experience is, what life is, what this universe really is. No problem. It does not have to be solved. But it can be lived. How about some fries on the pier?