The Nature of Consciousness and the Meaning of Life

Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.

December 20, 2005

 

"The 'hard problem' is easy! It's the 'easy' problems that are hard!" Michael J. Vandeman

 

"Consciousness is not to be found among physical objects", E. H. Walker, p.147

 

"The mind is all the information in the brain. Consciousness is the brain's awareness of some of that information." J. A. Hobson, p.203

 

"There is not an iota of evidence that humans have any special role in physical phenomena; there is no credible evidence that our interactions with the physical world are not subject to physical law. Further, there is no 'human factor' to be found in the mathematical structure of quantum mechanics, just as there was no 'ether factor' in electromagnetic theory." P. R. Wallace, p.29

 

1. If you try to find Mexico City, but you restrict your search to Canada, now there's a hard problem! But that is exactly what consciousness researchers have done: start with assumptions that are false, and then wonder why they can't find what they are looking for!

 

2. These assumptions, which seem to arise from excessive anthropocentrism, are, for example, that consciousness is restricted to humans, or "higher" primates, or mammals, or the brain - and this is in spite of the fact that we admit not knowing what consciousness is, or whether anyone but one's self is conscious, or what another's consciousness is like.

 

3. So instead of making assumptions, let's see what happens when we stick to what we actually know!

 

4. The laws of physics are the same everywhere. In particular, they are the same inside living things and outside them, or inside the brain and outside the brain.

 

5. It immediately follows that anything that can happen inside a living thing (such as life, or even consciousness) can also, potentially (given the right conditions), happen outside living things. For example, plants can split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. And humans can do it in a test tube. We can digest starch inside our bodies (i.e., break it into sugars), or outside.

 

Hydrolysis in a plant

 

Hydrolysis in a test tube

 

6. Therefore, there is nothing "special" about life or about consciousness. The processes of life can occur outside living things. And the processes of consciousness can also occur outside living things, outside the brain, and outside nerve cells. As far as I can tell, every consciousness researcher has missed this crucial point. ("Life is less mechanistic than we have been taught to believe [we obey probabilistic quantum mechanics, rather than the deterministic Newtonian physics]; yet, since it disobeys no chemical or physical law, it is not vitalistic [i.e., there is nothing "magic" or "special" about life]." (Margulis & Sagan, p.178))

 

7. Thus, it is foolish to restrict the search for consciousness to the brain, where it's difficult to operate, especially when the solution is staring us in the face.

 

8. It's clear from everything that we know about consciousness that there is no such thing as consciousness by itself: we can only be conscious of something.

 

9. Let's take as an hypothesis that consciousness is simply the registering of an effect, and see where that gets us. For example, if I put a book on a scale, the scale registers the weight of the book: the needle moves to a spot on the dial, say one pound. Thus, the scale is conscious of the weight of the book. It is even conceivable that some scale could be configured to register it's own weight, and thus be, in that one dimension, conscious of itself (for example, a fish scale, rather than dangling a hook on a spring, could instead hang from that hook, and register its own weight)!

 

Fish scale: conscious of weight

 

Self conscious fish scale (weighting itself)

 

10. It's also pretty obvious that there isn't just one way to be conscious of something. There are all kinds of scales. I can also be conscious of the weight of a book, and in more than one way: for example, I can hold it in my outstretched hand, and feel the tension in my arm muscles; or, I can lay the book on top of my hand while my hand is resting on a table, and sense the pressure the book exerts by means of pressure sensors in my skin.

 

11. Similarly, there are numerous ways of seeing, and the human version isn't necessarily the best. Birds of prey can see much better, in some sense, than we can. Likewise, dogs can smell far better (or perhaps I should say "differently") than we can.

 

Red tailed hawk

 

Bloodhound

 

12. While a scale is only conscious of one dimension - weight, humans are conscious of many other dimensions, in addition to weight. But this comparison is not monotonic (linear): many "lower" species are conscious of dimensions that we are not, e.g. insects can sense ultraviolet light, but we cannot.

 

13. Many writers make a big deal about consciousness (allegedly only in humans) of "the self". But we know that the self is a fiction! There is no way to separate the "self" from the rest of the world. Most of "our" atoms are with us for only a short while, and are replaced by new atoms of the same type (element). Thus it's foolish to use this alleged "faculty" to raise humans above other species.

 

14. Rather than a special (allegedly superior) type of knowledge, consciousness of the self is more easily understood as simply the consciousness of various aspects of our body (and mind, which is probably redundant). Antonio Damasio (in The Feeling of What Happens) points out that the sense of self depends on proprioceptive (from within the body) sensations. These sensations have a degree of constancy that externally-generated sensations do not. But this kind of consciousness is obviously not restricted to humans! And even machines have a certain amount of this "self" consciousness. This week a friend told me that when floating in a sensory deprivation tank, his sense of self disappeared! That lends support to the idea that the sense of self is simply another way of saying that we are familiar with proprioceptive sensations.

 

15. Clearly, by this definition of consciousness, all living things exhibit consciousness. Even bacteria register effects from their environment, and are able to respond appropriately. Such complex decision-making processes, as pointed out by Donald Griffin (Animal Thinking) fit the definition of thinking. Green plants detect (are conscious of) sunlight and turn their leaves so as to maximize the energy they receive. Humans are genetically 98.6% identical with chimpanzees, so it is unlikely that so important a characteristic as consciousness could be present in humans but not in chimps. But we also share a large percentage of our genome with all animals, and in fact with all living things! Since consciousness (awareness of things and events inside and outside the organism) is so integral to all life, it most likely is not simply a matter of nerve synapses, and probably is an essential feature of all living things: "All living beings, not just animals but plants and microorganisms, perceive. Mind and body, perceiving and living, are equally self-referring, self-reflexive processes already present in the earliest bacteria". (Margulis & Sagan, p.32) "Life is awareness and responsiveness; it is consciousness and even self-consciousness." (ibid., p.177) "Mobile microbes make selections -- they choose." (ibid., p.179) "The gulf between us and other organic beings is a matter of degree, not of kind." (ibid., p.182) "Thinking and being are the same thing." (ibid., p.188) Obviously, we can't know directly whether any other organism is conscious. We can only infer that from its behavior. That goes for our own friends and family, pre-verbal or dumb (unable to talk) humans, animals, plants, bacteria, etc. Bacteria and protists (e.g. protozoa) act as if they are conscious. Or perhaps I should say that we sometimes act like them -- turning our faces toward the sun, sniffing out attractive smells from the kitchen, reacting instinctively to environmental hazards.

 

Amoeba proteus (conscious of its environment)

 

16. How do we distinguish ourselves from machines? It has been alleged that this is easy: machines are predictable, and humans are not. But from the quantum mechanical understanding of nature, we know that all events are probabilistic! In other words, nothing is predictable. Machines are simply associated with higher probabilities (whatever those are!) than humans are.

 

17. In fact, it isn't even possible to distinguish life from non-life! For example, in Canada there are frogs that freeze solid every winter, and thaw out in the spring. When frozen, are they alive, or dead? According to our definition of life, they can only be one or the other. They can't be dead, because they are able to thaw out and continue living (death is, by definition, final). And they can't be alive, because they don't meet any of the criteria for a living thing (e.g. see Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, What Is Life?). They can't be doing anything, because they are frozen solid.

 

18. If you think that frozen frogs are detectably living, maybe another example will convince you: the seeds in the Pyramids that were idle for 3000 years, but germinated when watered! They obviously weren't dead, but they don't meet any of the criteria for living, either. If they had been doing anything during their idle period, they would long since have exhausted their store of energy, and wouldn't be able to germinate. In other words, they were doing absolutely nothing for 3000 years, and were therefore indistinguishable from "dead" seeds. Viruses and prions are two more examples of life shading into non-life; viruses are not considered alive, but they perform some of the same functions as living things, such as reproduction. In other words, it is not possible to detect the difference between life and non-life: i.e., there is no real difference! Life is an indefinable state of matter, kind of like (but even less definable than) the liquid- vs. solid state of water.

 

19. The point of this is that life is not "special", and cannot be distinguished from non-life. Some would say that everything is alive. But it is equally, if not more, logical to say that nothing is alive, in the sense in which we usually conceive of life.

 

20. Similarly, consciousness is not special. Depending on how we conceive of consciousness, it is either very common, both within and without living things (whatever they are), or nowhere.

 

21. But doesn't the fact that we feel conscious, and act conscious make us conscious? Humans are very good at deceiving themselves! We can easily talk endlessly about things that don't exist, such as unicorns. If we are unable to create an operational definition of something (i.e., a definition that allows anyone to determine in a finite length of time whether, for example, something is an oak tree or not), then maybe that thing doesn't really exist. I would like to suggest that consciousness, as usually conceived, is one of those things that doesn't exist.

 

22. Mathematics makes use of a principle called reductio ad absurdum: if you make an assumption, and as a result of that assumption are able to reason logically, but arrive at an absurd conclusion, then you know that your assumption was false. Consciousness, some allege, is immaterial, and yet able to have an impact on the material world. Some even say that the laws of physics are inadequate to explain consciousness, and that we will need some new laws of physics to deal with consciousness. Both of these conclusions are absurd: quantum mechanics plus relativity are able to explain everything in the known universe, to an unprecedented degree of precision. That leaves no room for much else in the way of explanation, just as classical physics left (and still leaves) no room for anything else throughout the vast majority of its domain.

 

23. While life has no single, canonical meaning (else we would long ago have discovered what it is!), each person's life has -- to them -- the meaning that he or she chooses to give it. (Of course, we get some ideas from others, past or present.) The same goes for morality and ethics: what is moral is what we think (based partially on input from others) is moral. Science and physics have little to do with any of this, except to keep us honest. Science can only tell us what is, never if it should be. Therefore it cannot be blamed for any alleged decline in morality. I suspect that "immorality" is like a recessive gene -- impossible to eliminate. We also can't depend on evolution to "improve" humankind. Evolution is like justice: blind. It only ensures the survival of those who survive -- not necessarily those with any given characteristic (including alleged "fitness", whatever that is).

 

24. Then what about free will? The fall of Newton's deterministic physics, and the triumph of "probabilistic" quantum mechanics, imply that our behavior is neither predetermined nor predictable. (That's nice! It would be pretty boring, otherwise!) The "butterfly effect" rules. But this also doesn't imply that our behavior is under our own control. And since it is apparently decided at a molecular (hence quantum) level, the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics prevents us from ever knowing causation for certain. In other words, we probably don't have free will, but we have no way of ever knowing for sure, and we feel that we have free will, so who cares? (Well, the criminal justice system may care, thinking that people should only be held responsible for what they deliberately do. But it's impossible to know for sure, and nature (evolution) doesn't care.)

 

25. This paper would be incomplete without discussing the purpose of life. The purpose of life is to have fun! I mean, what else could it be?! (Of course, that excludes hurting wildlife or other people, even if you happen to think that that's fun.)

 

References:

 

Damasio, Antonio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1999.

 

Ehrenfeld, David, The Arrogance of Humanism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

 

Griffin, Donald, Animal Thinking. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1984.

 

Hobson, J. Allan, The Chemistry of Conscious States. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1994.

 

Margulis, Lynn and Dorion Sagan, What Is Life? New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

 

Morrison, Reg, The Spirit in the Gene -- Humanity's Proud Illusion and the Laws of Nature. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999.

 

Soanes, Catherine and Sara Hawker, eds., Compact Oxford English Dictionary of Current Usage, Third edition, 2005, http://www.askoxford.com/concise_oed/conscious?view=uk.

 

Vandeman, Michael J. (mjvande@pacbell.net), "The Myth of the Sustainable Lifestyle". Presented at the Society for Conservation Biology meeting, University of Hawaii, Hilo, Hawaii, July 30, 2001, http://mjvande.nfshost.com/sustain.htm.

 

Vandeman, Michael J. (mjvande@pacbell.net), "What Is Homo Sapiens' Place in Nature, From an Objective (Biocentric) Point of View?" Presented at the Society for Conservation Biology, University of Kent, Canterbury, England, July 15, 2002, http://mjvande.nfshost.com/scb4.htm.

 

Walker, Evan Harris, The Physics of Consciousness: Quantum Minds and the Meaning of Life. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books, 2000.

 

Wallace, Philip R., Paradox Lost Images of the Quantum. New York: Springer, c.1996.

 

Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield, MA: G. & C. Merriam Company, 1981.