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.

26 COMMENTS

  1. Simple case of observational bias. The scientist has seen no observable evidence of a soul or conciousness, therefore it doesn’t, to him, exist.

    All his studies have proven is that stuff happens in the brain. Well, no duh. And the more we understand the physical side of the function of the brain the better we can understand how to mend broken ones (or break unbroken ones, or reprogram people yada yada yada.)

    That’s like saying “I have observed ants don’t eat salt, therefore all life doesn’t need salt.” Um, no. All it shows is that ants get whatever salt they need by eating things that contain salt, and thus don’t need to salt-lick their salt source.

    Consciousness, or a soul, is by definition not a physical manifestation. So how can one physically measure the unmeasurable? Just because we currently can’t measure it (unless you follow that study where some scientist measured people who were dying and found a small discrepancy between alive weight and dead weight) doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

    It’s like Aether. A vacuuous nebulous force that all things exist in. Modern science says “Poo, it is a false thing.” But… even deepest space has stuff in it, and there are measurable flows and ebbs of space currents and other stuff like if you travel close to the speed of light and you run into that Hydrogen atom, well, that ain’t a good thing. So Aether exists. Could also be ‘dark matter’ which the brains tell us may be everywhere, we just can’t see or detect it. Aether again?

    Malaria, bad air. Yes, we know that mosquitos carry malaria and other diseases, but the very swampy wet lands and air that mosquitos breed and thrive in, doesn’t that describe ‘bad air?’

    I miss the scientific method.

    Now, does he personally believe consciousness or the soul exist? Yes. But that’s a belief, not science. Funny, but some of fundamental science, like some aspects of Quantum Mechanics, being unprovable at this time, fit the concept of belief, as they are untested and unprovable/undetectable as of this moment. We can speculate, we can theorize or hypothesise, we can say “The missing X must exist because otherwise everything else observable falls apart.” But it’s still unprovable exept by accepting it.

    I’ve probably made a hash of this all and some big brain like drjim can probably tell me where I’ve gone wrong.

    • Beans, I will dispute your observations on Aether. In modern post Renaissance
      times, it was postulated as the medium through which light, gravitation and then radio waves propagated. The wave nature of electromagnetic emissions had been observed so there must be something that supports it like the mechanical waves in water or sound/pressure in air. Later theories and research found that a medium was not required. However, as you note of late, physicists have tried to label “dark matter” as the elusive Aether.

      I do accept that consciousness does exist outside the measurable. “Science” is only a description of what we observe; it no more supplants the reality of Creation than does a picture supplant the reality that it embodies.

  2. Me determining consciousness in another reminds me of the Turing Test.
    If consciousness is limited to a host entity, I assume there is a backup that God keeps for the resurrection. That implies soul sleep unless there is a “holding host” that the consciousness is migrated to first while waiting.
    But why must consciousness be fundamental the of the universe, unless we are speaking of that of the Designer?

  3. I personally have no religious sensibility, but I don’t deny the possibilities. This is not cowardice nor intellectual laziness — I just don’t have enough evidence one way or another. (Parenthetically, I find strident anti-religiousness to be identical, in practice, to the most obnoxious proselytizers. Only the latter evangelize about Something while the former demand I believe in Nothing. Who’s the obnoxious jackass now, Monkey Boy?) Anyway, I lean toward “its out there but I personally am lacking something to receive it”. Like color blindness or something.

    Solipsism is something that most teenagers (speaking of “obnoxious”) pass through, I imagine. I’d like to propose an extension of sorts: group solipsism. Obviously that’s a contradiction in terms, but go with me here. GS is where you believe that only those of your in-group are Real. Everyone else? It’s not that they are figments of your imagination, but that they are Things for your group to exploit. “Cattle” if you will. Which is doubly arrogant. Anyone with experience with animals knows they each have within themselves a reflection of that divine spark. Dogs, cats, mules, what have you: each has a personality, a will. I acknowledge that this is starting to sound suspiciously Buddhist. Apparently I’m a lousy agnostic. Mea culpa.

    TL;DR
    It’s not impossible that consciousness is entirely mechanistic and merely an emergent property of about 1kg of meat pudding with some electrical activity inside it. But not having yet found other evidence is not Proof of anything. It’s not merely arrogant, but Bad Science to claim otherwise.

  4. Or like Jesus said of the Spirit.
    John 3:8 The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.

  5. Imago Dei.

    And when we become Believers the Holy Spirit indwells, giving us that “more open” spiritual connection to Him. Call it intuition, a leading, or even conscience. We are His creation therefore have that “sense of being” and where “right and wrong” reside. Trying to unlock God’s Creation is part of our human DNA, so when we work to understand “our makeup”, one thought comes to mind:

    “The longest distance in the world from the head to the heart.”

    Science can unlock mysteries, but that’s a head thing, we can’t divorce the heart (soul) aspect, otherwise we only get half the picture.

    Nonetheless, what you present is something to ponder as I go through the day. Maybe I’ll get a revelation…via my conscience.

  6. The nature of the “soul” or “spirit” has been a matter of interest since mankind became sapient. Speculators have included: philosophers, shamans, occultists, witch doctors, artists, historians, scientists, psychologists, theologians, novelists, musicians, physicians and various charlatans.

    Do animals have souls? * Earth, wind, fire, water?
    Is the soul integral with the body? Where does it reside?
    Is it the “spark” that animates the body?
    Does it become extinct when the body fails?
    Or is it liberated to be translated elsewhere, integrated into a universal hive mind, or perhaps recycled?

    Is Death the end?
    Well, I confess I don’t know.
    Meanwhile, I’ll do the best I can.

    *No? Consult your faithful pet Dog.

  7. P.S.
    Larry, thanks again for providing this forum as a springboard for discussion.
    And thanks also to the commenters here.
    I appreciate your contributions.

    • P.P.S.
      I am currently rereading ‘Kim’ which brought this to mind-

      The Wheel
      (Garcia/Hunter/Kreutzmann)

      The wheel is turning and you can’t slow down,
      You can’t let go and you can’t hold on,
      You can’t go back and you can’t stand still,
      If the thunder don’t get you then the lightning will.

      Won’t you try just a little bit harder,
      Couldn’t you try just a little bit more?
      Won’t you try just a little bit harder,
      Couldn’t you try just a little bit more?

      Round, round robin run round, got to get back to where you belong,
      Little bit harder, just a little bit more,
      A little bit further than you gone before.

      The wheel is turning and you can’t slow down,
      You can’t let go and you can’t hold on,
      You can’t go back and you can’t stand still,
      If the thunder don’t get you then the lightning will.

      Small wheel turn by the fire and rod,
      Big wheel turn by the grace of God,
      Every time that wheel turn ’round,
      Bound to cover just a little more ground.

      The wheel is turning and you can’t slow down,
      You can’t let go and you can’t hold on,
      You can’t go back and you can’t stand still,
      If the thunder don’t get you then the lightning will.

      Won’t you try just a little bit harder,
      Couldn’t you try just a little bit more?
      Won’t you try just a little bit harder,
      Couldn’t you try just a little bit more?

      Songwriters: Jerome J. Garcia, William Kreutzmann, Robert C Christie Hunter
      For non-commercial use only.

      • A parable by Saint David of Clayton on Thomas:
        What goes up must come down
        Spinnin’ wheel got to go ’round
        Talkin’ ’bout your troubles it’s a cryin’ sin
        Ride a painted pony let the spinnin’ wheel spin

        & etc.

  8. Again, excellent sermon and the congregation applauds.

    Like the French at Waterloo, they do keep coming on in the same old way. Consciousness? Nothing but neurons. Love? A chemical reaction. Truth? A miserable social construct.

    But look what happens. The social constructor becomes suicidal when zhe transitions to being a womyn and zhir wife leaves zhim for the subconscious neuron he is.

    Per you, reality, not least spiritual/immaterial is important.

  9. Using physical means to measure the spirit. I suppose you could measure the number of beans in a Mason jar by using a color chart….but I wouldn’t recommend it.
    Heard elsewhere – we are eternal spirits on a temporary physical journey, here to learn some things.

    • We were born alone. We love our lives alone. We die alone in the dark. Our nature is to be selfish. If the second commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves it means that we need to change and to put off the natural man. Good parents learn to be unselfish. Brothers at arms often sacrifice themselves for others…greater love hath no man than this.

      If we return, able to walk that walk, then maybe, this life will have been worth the grief.

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