The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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

A General Property of Matter

The Italian mathematician Piero Scaruffi offered his variant on panpsychism (“A simple theory of consciousness”, 2001).

I am conscious. i am made of cells. Cells are made of molecules. Molecules are made of atoms, and atoms are made of elementary particles. If elementary particles are not conscious, how is it possible that many of them, assembled in molecules and cells and organs, eventually yield a conscious being like me?

Many attempts have been made at explaining consciousness by reducing it to something else. To no avail. There is no way that our sensations can be explained in terms of particles.  So, how does consciousness arise in matter? Maybe it doesn't arise, it is always there.

No matter how detailed an account is provided of the neural processes that led to an action (say, a smile), that account will never explain where the feeling associated to that action (say, happiness) came from. No theory of the brain can explain why and how consciousness happens, if it assumes that consciousness is somehow created by some neural entity that is completely different in structure, function and behavior from our feelings. 

From a logical standpoint, the only way out of this dead-end is to accept that consciousness must be a property of the particles that make up my body.

When we try to explain consciousness by reducing it to electrochemical processes, we put ourselves in a situation similar to a scientist who has decided to explain electrical phenomena by using gravity.  Electrical phenomena can be explained only if we assume that electricity comes from a fundamental property of matter (i.e. from a property that is present in all matter starting from the most fundamental constituents) and that, under special circumstances, enables a particular configuration of matter to exhibit "electricity". 

Similarly, if consciousness comes from a fundamental property of matter (from a property that is present in all matter starting from the most fundamental constituents), then, and only then, we can study why and how, under special circumstances, that property enables a particular configuration of matter (e.g., the human brain) to exhibit "consciousness".

Any paradigm that tries to manufacture consciousness out of something else is doomed to failure. Things don't just happen. Ex nihilo nihil fit. Consciousness cannot simply originate from the act of putting unconscious neurons together. It doesn't appear like magic. Conductivity seems to appear by magic in some configurations of matter (e.g. metallic objects), but there's no magic: just a fundamental property of matter, the electrical charge, which is present in every single particle of this universe, a property which is mostly useless but that under the proper circumstances yields the phenomenon known as conductivity.

Particles are not conductors by themselves, just like they are not conscious, and most things made of particles (wood, plastic, glass, etc. etc.) are not conductors (and maybe have no consciousness), but each single particle in the universe has an electrical charge and each single particle in the universe has a property, say, C. That property C is the one that allows our brain to be conscious.  It is not that each single particle is conscious or that each single piece of matter in the universe is conscious. But each single particle has this property C which, under the special circumstances of our brain configuration (and maybe other brain configurations and maybe even things with no brain) yields consciousness.

Just like electricity and gravitation are macroscopic properties that are caused by microscopic properties of the constituents, so consciousness may be a macroscopic property of our brain that is caused by a microscopic property of its constituents.  Just like electrical phenomena can only be reduced to smaller-scale electrical phenomena (all the way down to the electrical charge of each single constituent), so consciousness can only be reduced to smaller-scale conscious phenomena.

Property C has not been found by Physics for the simple reason that Physics was not built to find it: Physics is an offshoot of Descartes' dualism, which strictly separated mind and matter and assigned Physics to matter. Newton's Physics was built to explain the motion of bodies, and that is what it explains. It did not find elementary particles and it did not find entropy. It was built to explain bodies. Relativity was built to explain the constant speed of light, electromagnetism and gravitation. And that is what it explains. It did not find quarks either, because it was not built to study atoms. Quantum Theory, on the other hand, found quarks, because it was built to study the atom. But it did not find black holes, because it was not built to study gravitation.

Scaruffi’s theory is neither dualistic nor  materialistic. Like dualists, he admits the existence of consciousness as separate from the physical properties of matter as we know them; but at the same time, like materialists, he considers consciousness as arising from a “physical” property (that we have not discovered yet) that behaves in a fundamentally different way from the other physical properties. So in a sense it is not a "physical" property, but it is still a property of all matter.  His is an identity theory, in that he thinks that mental corresponds to neural states, but it goes beyond identity because I also think that the property yielding consciousness is common to all matter, whether it performs neural activity or not. 

What made Descartes believe in dualism is the unity of consciousness. But electrical conductors also exhibit a unity of electricity, and nonetheless electrical phenomena can be reduced to a physical property of matter.

The main problem is the lack of an empirical test for consciousness. We cannot know whether a being is conscious or not. We cannot "measure" its consciousness. We cannot rule out that every object in the universe, including each elementary particle, has consciousness: we just cannot detect it. Even when I accept that other human beings are conscious a) I base my assumption on similarity of behavior, not on an actual "observation" of their consciousness; and b) I somehow sense that some people (poets and philosophers, for example) may be more conscious than other people (lawyers and doctors, for example).

The trouble is that our mind is capable only of observing conscious phenomena at its own level and within itself. Our mind is capable of observing only one conscious phenomenon: itself.

A good way to start would be to analyze why consciousness is limited to the brain. Why does consciousness apply only to the brain? What is so special about the brain that cannot be found anywhere else? If the brain is made of ordinary matter, of well-known constituents, what is it that turns that matter conscious when it is configured as a brain, but not when it is configured as a foot?


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