Does Consciousness Alone Truly Exist?

In his 1995 paper, Australian philosopher David Chalmers formulated what he called the “Hard Problem of Consciousness”.

The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. When we think and perceive, there is a whir of information-processing, but there is also a subjective aspect. As Nagel has put it, there is something it is like to be a conscious organism. This subjective aspect is experience.

According to Chalmers, the “easier” problems such as the ability to categorize objects, observation of internal states, the direction of attention, etc. were explainable within the framework of physicalism — as the result of entirely physical processes. Recent advances in artificial intelligence research, particularly with the advent of neural networks, have shown that this is mostly accurate. The “hard” problem of subjective experience, however, can not be explained materialistically.

This point is also illustrated by the philosophical zombie (p-zombie) thought experiment. A p-zombie looks and acts like a regular human being but has no inner subjective experience. It will laugh at your jokes, scream out when hit and maybe have long discussions on the philosophy of mind. But, there would be no inner subject to any of its experiences. As computers get better at performing tasks that were traditionally considered hallmarks of sentient beings, I’m more convinced that such a being could theoretically exist.

Since consciousness is such a heavily overloaded term, it makes sense to clarify what I mean. I take consciousness to be the substrate of all mental experiences — sensory perceptions, thoughts, feelings, etc. I’ll use the terms experiences and consciousness somewhat interchangeably in this article.

So, where does consciousness stem from?

Physicalism is the doctrine that posits that reality fundamentally consists only of physical things (like matter) and any other kind of thing (including mental phenomena) is ultimately derived from a physical basis. An extreme physicalist will deny that anything like subjective experience even exists because it cannot be objectively measured and quantified by an external observer — as Daniel Dennett argues in his book Consciousness Explained. In other words, we’re all p-zombies. This argument seems a little ridiculous to me, since it basically tries to “define away” the problem — if only this worked for all my problems in life. And also because we can only objectively measure things through subjective experiences. Even Descartes, who started from a place of radical skepticism of all knowledge, famously postulated “cogito, ergo sum” (I think therefore I am), establishing the existence of an experiencing self as axiomatic.

A slightly more reasonable physicalist will claim that mental experiences exist but are an epiphenomenon (a fancier way of saying side-effect) of bioelectric neural activity that occurs in our brain. But, the causal link is unidirectional, i.e. physical causes produce mental effects, but mental activity does not affect the physical realm. This was a theory that I previously subscribed to. Until, it was pointed out to me that if this were so, and the mind does not influence the physical, how are we reflectively aware of the fact that we have subjective experiences? There would be no need to explain the presence of a thing that we would have no knowledge of since the basis for any knowledge would also have to be something physical.

Then there’s the view that mental experiences are emergent from sufficiently complex interactions between physical systems. Emergentism proclaims that although mental experiences are the result of purely physical processes, their properties are somehow novel and irreducible to the properties of their constituent physical parts. These emergent properties can also interact with the lower level physical systems through “downward causation”. While this theory seems alluring because it doesn’t require postulating an additional class of elementary substance, it does require a spooky set of laws that kick in once things get complex enough. I find it hard to believe that apart from fundamental physical laws (standard model and gravity) that govern the behavior of every other thing, there’s a mysterious set of hitherto unknown laws that apply especially to things once they hit some threshold of organizational complexity.

Now, we enter the territory of ontological dualism, the idea that reality consists of distinct mental and physical realms, although, there may be a set of bridging laws governing their interaction. First, there’s substance dualism, the idea that mental phenomena are the product of a different kind of substance, a kind of élan vital. The issue here is that the influence of élan vital on physical objects would violate other physical fundamental principles — like the conservation of energy. And given that biologists have for centuries been looking for evidence to support vitalism and found none, I’m inclined to believe this theory is going the way of luminiferous aether.

There’s also the issue that it’s not entirely clear whether mental and physical properties are clearly separable and if one can exist without independent of other. Gilbert Ryle argues in his book The Concept of Mind that the Cartesian dualist conception of a mind separate from a body is a fallacy resulting from a category mistake.

Then, there’s property dualism which suggests that like other physical properties (charge, mass), fundamental particles also have mental properties. This implies some form of panpsychism — the idea that all objects have some form of consciousness. But, this isn’t representative of consciousness as we experience it. Even though my body consists of zillions of fundamental particles, my own experiences every moment seem remarkably integrated. This brings us to the combination problem, to which I haven’t found a satisfactory explanation yet.

Let’s step back for a moment and recognize the primacy of subjective experiences. The experience you’re probably feeling this very instant as you read this sentence — unless you’re a machine learning model being trained on a dataset of mediocre Medium articles. Subjective experiences are the only carrier of reality through which we “know” of anything else.

Tired of looking from the outside in for the source of consciousness that was leading to nowhere, I decided to flip the script and start with consciousness as the fundamental primitive and tried to explain the apparently independent physical realm in terms of consciousness.

Occam’s razor suggests that a monist ontology is superior, if it has the same explanatory power as a dualist one. So, why do we need to assume a thing outside of consciousness? To explain a couple of things really.

To start off, we intuitively perceive external objects as physical things. But, things don’t really need to actually be physical in any sense for us to perceive them as external. Just consider your own experience from when you dream. You perceive objects (of a somewhat lower fidelity) that are external to you. But, the basis for these objects is entirely mental. You could conceive of a dream where you perform Rutherford’s gold foil experiments, but it doesn’t make the dreamt up gold foil any more physical.

Then, there’s the fact that reality displays remarkably stable patterns of regularity and is also incredibly consistent across observers— contrasted with the transience and impermanence of our internal mental realm. If I measure how long it takes for my cup to fall from my desk to the floor today and repeat the same experiment tomorrow, regardless of how I’m feeling then, the values will be the same. And, if you measure how long it takes for my cup to fall, you’ll likely get the same value as me — unless you happen to be moving close to the speed of light.

The idealist explanation for consensus reality is that all sentient beings are just localized dissociations in a higher being or universal mind (Advaita Vedanta’s Brahman, Hegel’s Das Absolute, Spinoza’s God). This higher being subsumes not just all experiencing beings, but also insentient things-in-themselves or noumenon. The higher being manifests itself through the order that we perceive in the world around us, in the fundamental laws of time, matter, space and causation. There is no ultimate cause that brought about this being because causation itself is just another concept that operates within the being. This is similar to pantheism — the idea that all of reality is identical with an immanent God.

I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind. — Albert Einstein

As a former “new atheist”, I was initially very skeptical of the existence of any kind of higher being. But, the more I thought about it, the less it seemed like an unsubstantiated leap of faith and more as an extrapolation from what is readily observable. In fact, the burden of proof seems to lie more on the side proposing the existence of an entirely separate ontological category that we can never experience directly but only know through indirect abstractions.

Science is simply a collection of explanations and predictions about everyday experience and doesn’t promote any particular metaphysical viewpoint. Self-important experts on science, however, would have us believe that they know all there is to know about the nature of the universe and it consists only of abstract material things that operate under complex rules hard for the average person to understand. Anybody who disagrees or suggests an alternative viewpoint is either stupid and holding on to archaic views.

When it comes to the nature of reality trust the preeminence of your own experience over the word of some intelligent-sounding elite in an ivory tower. Or some random dude’s post on the internet for that matter.

P.S. If you’re interested in knowing more about absolute idealism, I’d highly recommend reading Brief Peeks Beyond by Bernardo Kastrup.