I came across an article that was written as a response to a broader discussion regarding the nature of consciousness and the mind. The scientist writing the article took the position that all mental activity, and therefore all subjective experience, is just neurochemistry. That is, all thought can be reduced down to the motions of molecules in the brain.
His point was that we can trace neural pathways in the brain, and because we can do this we have discovered the source of consciousness. In making this assertion he was arguing against the possibility of consciousness being a separate entity apart from the measurable neurochemistry in the brain. His reasoning was that there was no evidence that human consciousness operated independently of the neuron activity in the brain. From a scientific standpoint, he has a very strong argument. There is no evidence that has ever been measured of human consciousness operating independently of a human brain. As he put it, the “default hypothesis must be that brains cause consciousness.” There is nothing to prove otherwise.
In making his argument that there is no evidence for consciousness independent of a functioning brain, he gave the following challenge in the form of a question.
“Where is the evidence for consciousness being fundamental to the cosmos?”
We must acknowledge that we have not yet observed free-floating consciousnesses in the universe. We cannot look through a telescope, in a particle accelerator, or in a microscope and observe a consciousness apart from the neural activity in our brains. So what evidence is there for consciousness in the universe?
That it exists.
Right now as you are reading this you are aware of your own existence. That fact alone is evidence that there is at least one consciousness, and that it is fundamental to the universe. You may also realize that you cannot observe, experience, or measure my consciousness. You can observe the effects of my consciousness on how I act and speak, but you cannot directly observe my consciousness. (As a side note, if you were to insist that yours was the only consciousness in the cosmos and that everyone else was just clever machines then you would be slipping into the philosophy of solipsism.) So when the author of the article asked what evidence there was for consciousness being fundamental, the evidence is that it exists.
While his arguments may seem modern with their emphasis on neurochemistry, this argument is actually quite old and has been debated as far back as the ancient Greek philosophers. I can tell someone is a conscious being because of the way they act. I can observe their actions and how they react to language and conclude that they are independent-thinking beings. All we have done with modern neuroscience is to do the exact same thing, but now with fancy equipment. It’s a bit like inventing the car or the airplane and then concluding, “Now we have solved the puzzle of human motion! We now know how humans move!”
No, all we have done is take the same fundamental problem and wrapped it in a new shinier, more complex skin.
We have not solved the problem of consciousness. We still have not observed consciousness. We can observe the motions that result from consciousness, but we have not observed someone’s self-awareness. We may be closer to solving the riddle of human consciousness but we have not yet done it. Until then the idea that “brains cause consciousness” is not the “default hypothesis”. To insist that “brains cause consciousness” is to assume a conclusion for which there is no evidence, while our own self-awareness is evidence that our consciousness is independent of our own neurochemistry,
Until we know what consciousness, or self-awareness, is, and not just its effects, we cannot say that we have no evidence of consciousness outside the measurable motions of neurochemistry. But we do have evidence that consciousness exists.
Just think about it.