One of the great fundamental mysteries challenging philosophers, neuroscientists and contemplatives is the question of what makes us experience consciousness. What makes each of us have the experience of being me.
This moment to moment self-field of consciousness is known as qualia.
Qualia can be thought of as the is-ness of tasting coffee, the this-ness of holding a stone, the thus-ness of a bee sting.
The American philosopher Thomas Nagel defined consciousness as: the feeling of what it is like to be something.
I’m sure you know with 100% certainty that you feel conscious right now. And for all intents and purposes it feels like this experience of being me is located somewhere between your ears and behind your eyes.
But despite significant scientific advances in the study of the brain and its functions, there is still no clear correlation between the brains activity and the arising of a self.
There is no specific area or set of systems within the brain that we can point to and say: that is where consciousness or awareness is produced.
This is what is known as the hard problem of consciousness.
But what consciousness is, we know not; and how it is that anything so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as the result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as unaccountable as the appearance of the Djin when Aladdin rubbed his lamp in the story, or as any other ultimate fact of nature.Thomas Henry Huxley (1896)
Many theories of consciousness have been proposed in recent years and the topic is far too complex and fenestrated to cover in any depth here (code for, I don’t understand most of it).
But broadly speaking, there seem to be a few categories of thought.
Some believe that consciousness is nothing more than a function of the brains’ activity, and that it is only a matter of time before the whole hard problem will be explainable as specific neurobiological processes occurring within the gob of wet tissues inside our skulls.
Its just that we dont have the instruments and understandings to have figured it out yet.
Of course, the depressing result of this theory is that once those neurobiological processes cease, so does consciousness. Lights out. Game over.
Includes the idea that consciousness may be non-local. That is, it actually exists outside the structures of the brain.
Panpsychism is one such theory: that consciousness is ubiquitous in varying degrees throughout the universe. From a sort of proto-consciousness in electrons arising in increasingly more complex ways up to our own experience (and presumably beyond, in even more complex systems).
Whilst I find it easy to perceive ants and even plants may experience consciousness, it is a stretch to think that an electron can be conscious (even if it is a proto-consciousness), let alone a rock.
Yet, in a panpsychism world, it would be no less of a stretch for the electron to understand my experience of consciousness.
Brain as radio reciever:
There is also the non-local idea (popular within the spiritualist community) that our brains may act as a sort of radio receiver that accesses some form of universal consciousness.
Just as you cannot open up a radio and point to the place where the music resides, you cannot point to the consciousness centre in the brain. Because it just ain’t in there.
Radios come in many shapes and configurations, but they are all accessing the same electromagnetic signal.
And just as radios are limited by their components to ‘experience’ a particular band of the electromagnetic spectrum (for example a radio cannot access TV pictures, or ‘see’ purple) our brains and their sensory components (hearing, smelling, touching etc) limit access to only a small window of the full spectrum of consciousness.
Another suite of theories that propose the nature of consciousness cannot be explained within the framework of classical physics. Instead, the phenomenon of quantum mechanics is used to explain the arising of awareness.
One model, for example, proposes the collapsing of quantum probability waveforms into a coherent flow of awareness occurs within neuron microtubules.
Again, we are getting into the realms of quantum physics here. Way above my paygrade.
To paraphrase Albert Einstein’s thoughts on the topic…it’s pretty much just spooky things happening.
We are a simulation:
It sounds improbable at first, but this theory (popularised by Nick Bostrom in his seminal paper “Are We Living in a Computer Simulation?) is taken seriously by many scientists (including Neil deGrasse Tyson) who think there is actually a high likelihood that we are part of some hyper-advanced computer simulation.
Think the movie: ‘The Matrix’.
But a simulation run by whom? And for what purpose?
And what if the entity running the simulation is themself part of a bigger simulation?
My head hurts.