The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"


The Roman philosopher Lucretius of the first century B.C. once observed that "every creature with senses is made only of particles without senses". The paradox still stands. Descartes did not solve it by simply separating "sense" (conscious mind) from "non-sense" (matter) and subsequent philosophers did not solve it no matter how they looked at the relationship between mind and matter.

The solution to the paradox has always been around, and it only required accepting that our mind is nothing else than a natural phenomenon.

For example, in the 1920s the British mathematician Alfred Whitehead argued that every elementary constituent of the universe must be an event having both an objective aspect of matter and a subjective aspect of experience. Some material compounds, such as the brain, create the unity of experience that we call "mind". Most material compounds are limited in their experience to the experience of their constituents.

The US philosopher Thomas Nagel ("Panpsychism", 1979) reached a similar conclusion: that "proto-mental properties" must be present in all matter, and, suitably organized, become somebody's consciousness. He believed in one, common source for both the material and the mental aspects of the world. Mental and material are never separated: there is never the material without the mental, and there is never the mental without the material.

The Danish physicist Niels Bohr once suggested that the quantum wave function of matter represents its mental aspect, that the wave of the electron is the equivalent of the mind of matter. Niels Bohr suggested that the duality of waves and particles could explain the duality of mind and matter. After all, the wave of probability could be interpreted as expressing a "free will" of the electron, a primitive "mental life" of its own. The dual aspect of body and mind within an organism would derive from the dual aspect of the particles composing an organism, from the dual aspect of wave and particle.

Panpsychism (the notion that everything is conscious to some extent) is the simplest way to explain why some beings (e.g., me) are conscious. After all we don't wonder why we are made of electrons: everything is made of electrons, therefore no wonder that my body too is made of electrons. We wonder why we are conscious because we made the assumption that only some things (us) are conscious. All we have to do is remove that assumption and we have a simple theory of consciousness.

Panpsychism has attracted followers from many disciplines: philosophers such as Hermann Lotze, in "Microcosmos" (1864), and Charles Hartshorne, in "Beyond Humanism" (1937); physicists such as Ernst Mach, in "The Analysis of Sensations and the Relation of the Physical to the Psychical" (1886), and David Bohm, in "A New Theory of the Relationship of Mind and Matter" (1986); mathematicians such as William Clifford, in "Body and Mind" (1874), and Alfred North Whitehead, in "Process and Reality" (1929); biologists such as Ernst Haeckel, in "Our Monism" (1892), and John Haldane, in "The Inequality of Man" (1932); theologians such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, in "Phenomenon of Man" (1959), and David Ray Griffin, in "Unsnarling the World-Knot" (1998); psychiatrists such as William James, in "A Pluralistic Universe" (1909), and Theodore Ziehen, in "Epistemology of Psychophysiological and Physical Foundations" (1913), in which he named the fundamental constituents of consciousness "gignomena"; as well as a polymath such as Charles Peirce, in "Man's Glassy Essence" (1892). Alfred North Whitehead summarized the argument: "for consciousness to be anywhere in nature it must be everywhere in nature".

British philosopher Galen Strawson ("Realistic monism - why physicalism entails panpsychism", ?2006) showed that even physicalism itself must eventually turn into panpsychism: if there is one ultimate substance of the universe, and if consciousness is part of this monistic reality, conscious phenomena must be "physical" phenomena. Strawson argues that consciousness cannot possibly be an emergent phenomenon because conscious phenomena cannot possibly arise from purely non-conscious matter. Higher-order mind can emerge from lower-order mind, but no degree of mind can possibly emerge from no-mind. Strawson concludes that the one substance of the universe has to be "conscious" to some extent.

The Austrian philosopher Karl Popper, instead, criticized panpsychism. First of all, Popper thinks that there is no need to panic: something does get created ("emerges") out of nothing all the time. Properties emerge at higher levels of organization that did not exist at the lower levels. Hence consciousness could just be an emerging property just like the properties of a liquid emerge from molecules that don't have does properties. Secondly, Popper thinks that there is a fallacy in the very notion that panpsychism would comply with the "nothing comes out of nothing" dogma: if the constituents of matter have a lower degree of consciousness than humans do, then their combination must somehow create higher and higher degrees of consciousness, and that "is" a case of something that comes out of nothing (that higher degree of consciousness is not present in the constituents).

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