Fundamental cultural change, like an alteration of the way we understand reality and our place in it, often starts with an idea and subsequent conversation on the merits of that idea. Such a broad cultural conversation may take a long time to mature. It can take decades, even centuries, before its conclusions become part of our day-to-day experience. Take for instance the idea that the earth orbits around the sun, and not the other way around. It took us hundreds of years to accept that this was indeed the case and that, consequently, man was not the centre of the universe. Today there are two related conversations going on, which outcomes can, again, change the way we understand ourselves and the world we live in.
One of these conversations is already more then a hundred years old and has to do with quantum mechanics – the physics theory that describes how nature works at the smallest scales. The other conversation relates to the philosophy of the mind and to the neurosciences – the study of the nervous system and the brain. Both these conversations deal with the nature of consciousness and, consequently, with the nature of everything. And because people are starting to make cross-references between the two conversations, mixing them up, the odds are significantly increasing that something may emerge that will rock the philosophical foundations on which modernity is build.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s start with the first conversation, which is often referred to as the ‘consciousness causes collapse’ theory, or more accurately the ‘Von Neuman-Wigner interpretation’ [Wiki].
Spoiler alert: This insight will involve some abstract concepts. It may be a bit difficult to follow. If you find this the case: don’t be discouraged. Most people who take part in these conversations find these topics completely bizarre and unreasonable. Including, back in the days, Albert ‘god-doesn't-play-dice’ Einstein.
One of the key assumptions in quantum mechanics is that material reality is a field of all possible outcomes, which collapses into one observed outcome the moment it is measured. To illustrate this strange fact, imagine that you throw dice in a cup. Until you lift the cup and look at the dice, the dice are all possible combinations at the same time. The dice are now in a state known as a quantum superposition. This will end the moment you look. Besides the fact that this is already quite weird, the real problem is that physicists cannot agree on what the act of measurement actually is. Is the act of measurement, for instance, your eye catching the light that is reflected on the dice? Or is it your brain registering the incoming signals of the eye? Or is it your conscious self that becomes aware of the mental image of the dice that your brain produced? The question is: When does this collapse of all possible outcomes into one observed outcome actually occur, and what makes it happen?
Some physicist say that there needs to be a conscious observer that does the actual measuring, because the presence of just a measurement device – like a digital camera with an attached hard drive that films the dice – will have the same problem as the thing it is measuring. It will also be in a quantum superposition until it too is observed, including the content of the hard drive. Other physicists say that the idea of a conscious observer is inconsistent with materialism, which is presupposed by many – if not most – scientists. According to materialism all things, including consciousness, are the results of material interactions in a closed causal system. If consciousness were truly a nonmaterial something then the underlying premise of physics would have to be revised. And that is not something most physicists are prepared to do. (Oddly enough, these scientists are comfortable with probabilities, which, in a strictly causal universe, are also quite impossible.)
The idea of a nonmaterial mind is also at the heart of a conversation that is going on in the neurosciences. This conversation is often referred to as ‘the hard problem of consciousness’, a phrase that was coined in the 1990’s by philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers [Wiki]. According to Chalmers the hard problem of consciousness is the problem of explaining how or why we have experiences. Why do we, for instance, experience red as red? Why are we not a bunch of biologically automated zombies who go around their business without having any kind of experience? According to Chalmers this question cannot be answered from a materialistic point of view and he proposes to explore some radical different options. His favorite is panpsychism, the idea that consciousness is present in all things. [TEDtalks].
‘The easy problem of consciousness’, according to Chalmers, is to explain how the brain creates a thought, or an emotion. (The hard problem is how to explain how we experience this thought or emotion.) People who don’t agree with Chalmers claim that all problems fall in the category ‘easy problems’ and that the hard problem is nothing but an illusion [Aeon]. That it doesn’t exist. Basically they say that the experience of experience is generated by the material aspects of the brain. But this doesn't make much sense because an experience of an experience is still an experience that cannot be explained. Even the word illusion suggests an experience.
In both conversations, the one within quantum physics and the one within the neurosciences, the people who claim consciousness is nothing but a materialistic phenomenon seem to do this more from a desire to uphold the materialistic framework in which we understand the world. Although the arguments and counterarguments in both conversations are too wide-ranging and too complex to treat in this weekly thought, I have a strong suspicion that the materialistic framework in which we understand the world today is on its way out. And that we are already searching for a new paradigm.
If this is indeed what will happen then the cultural repercussions will be broad and deep. We will have to deal, for instance, with the fact that the universe is not only based on cold hard facts, but that it is a much more animated and subjective place then we previously thought possible. It may also force us to seriously investigate the option that not consciousness is an illusion but reality. And that consciousness might be the only real thing here. It may also lead to theories were consciousness will be accepted as a fifth dimension, or perhaps as a new natural phenomenon, like gravitation. We will probably also have to reassess what it means to be human. Or what it means to be alive. Do animals, for instance, also have consciousness? Or plants? Or self-learning algorithms? Or other complex information processing systems? There are many ways how this may play out, but one thing is certain; if materialism falters we will again enter uncharted cultural waters – like we did after Copernicus published his heliocentric model of the solar system – full of possibilities, and pitfalls. It will be a slow but epic transformation.
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