The Nature of Consciousness

The first step necessary to bringing union between science and spirituality is the scientific study of consciousness.

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federico-faggin

Physicists generally consider consciousness a still unexplained property of physical matter, something emerging from the operation of the brain that will eventually yield to scientific investigation.

They do not believe, however, that to explain consciousness it is necessary to discover some new physics, despite the clear evidence that there is no known physical principle that can explain the origin of qualia. For those unfamiliar with the word quale (its plural is qualia), quale is what a particular sensory experience feels like. For example, when we taste some wine, its quale is what the taste of wine feels like.

When a machine senses something, the electrical signals generated by the sensors produce no feeling, no sensation. When the machine responds to a particular sensory input, the response is simply a direct mechanical operation like: “If (pattern), then (actuation),” or “If (pattern), then (pick randomly one item from a given set of possible actuations).” A machine has no consciousness because we do not know how to endow a machine with qualia experiences. However, the author believes that consciousness may entail far more than qualia, qualia being just the tip of the iceberg.

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Physicists are much more interested in studying the fundamental properties of fields and elementary particles than the properties of very complex systems, like the human brain, and therefore leave the study of consciousness to neuroscientists and computer scientists. And such scientists are generally trying to explain consciousness as an epiphenomenon of the operation of the brain, using classical physics. For reasons that will be discussed later, this approach may not possibly explain consciousness since its characteristics are similar to the properties of quantum systems, at the very least.

Nonetheless, there is a hypothesis that can potentially explain consciousness, although it is considered radical and unnecessary by most scientists, namely: consciousness is the evolutionary product of an irreducible and primordial awareness already present in the very energy that created space, time, and matter. This is also the author’s view, where awareness is taken to be an irreducible aspect of the energy of the Big Bang. Therefore this primordial energy contains the seeds of space, time, matter, and consciousness.

Starting with this assumption, the next step is to create a conceptual framework of sufficient power to inspire the necessary mathematical theory of consciousness. This theory has to contain quantum physics (QP) and general relativity (GR) as special cases. It also has to make new testable predictions that are not made by either QP or GR. The author believes that, for reasons that will be explained later, a possible reason why the unification of QP and GR has eluded physicists for almost a century, despite an unprecedented effort by thousands of them, may be because awareness is not considered an irreducible property of the energy of the Big Bang existing ab initio.
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This paper argues that scientists need to take seriously the possibility that awareness is a primary property of the primordial energy of the Big Bang, and that the problem of explaining consciousness based on the properties of matter is as formidable, if not more so, than explaining the emergence of matter from aware non-physical energy, as proposed in this paper.

In this view, consciousness is a property emerging from a seed that is already present in the energy of the Big Bang, and this assumption can also help explaining the nature of space and time, which are actually subjective experiences, as Einstein proved in his relativity theory. It may also illuminate the nature of gravity, which is a geometric property of space, and the nature of the observer in quantum physics.

We generally don’t think of it this way, but to observe is to be aware, and it shouldn’t be surprising then that the nature of the aware observer is a fundamental aspect of both GR and QP theories. The relativity of space-time to the motion of the observer in GR, and the determination of whether the particle or the wave aspect of reality will be observed in a quantum system, depending on the information that can be extracted from the system, are fundamental properties of the basic laws of nature, and the essential connector is the nature of the observer.

Another way of expressing the same idea is that space, time, matter, and awareness are deeply intertwined and therefore the energy of the Big-Bang must also have created consciousness from a common seed. Therefore, awareness must be inherent somehow in this primal energy, just like space, time, and matter are. In this view, then, the primordial awareness of the energy of the Big Bang is the irreducible seed out of which evolved all that we observe, including the consciousness that each of us experiences within ourselves, 13.8 billion years after the Big Bang.

Loosely speaking, awareness is the inherent capacity of the primordial energy to observe itself and direct its evolution as it transforms into space, time, and matter of ever increasing complexity. Awareness is then an irreducible, self-reflecting property of the primordial energy, where self-reflection contains the germs of observation, identity, perception, feelings, memory, experience, knowing, learning, understanding, imagining, deciding, acting, willing, intending, creating, and many other higher aspects, all co-evolving together with the material forms.

Another important aspect of the Big Bang energy is its unified character, i.e. it is an undivided and indivisible wholeness describable by the yet unknown equations that will eventually unify quantum physics (QP) and general relativity (GR). This wholeness evolves, without ever losing its wholeness, by co-creating and co-evolving container and content, i.e. space-time-awareness and matter respectively.

This view postulates the nature of the universe as a co-evolution of consciousness and material forms, starting from a common unified seed.

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The material forms, then, are physical representations of the self-knowing achieved by the evolving consciousness of the universe. The intuition here is that for consciousness to know itself it needs matter to function as a dynamic mirror, reflecting to itself its own ever-changing and ever growing self-knowing.

Thus, matter and consciousness are tightly coupled, constituting the co-evolving inner and outer aspects of reality respectively. However, the author believes that the inner aspect conditions the evolution of the outer aspect, in the sense that the material aspect is subordinated to consciousness’ purpose to know itself. This is not obvious, but it could be taken as a fundamental postulate leading to a new worldview. This is a monistic position that attributes to consciousness the fundamental role that science now reserves for matter.

The crucial aspect of this conjecture is to consider a kind of symmetry breaking at the beginning of the universe that created an inner and an outer aspect within reality, similar to the separation of the gravitational force from the strong force. In a fully developed theory, it may be possible to connect the gravitational force with awareness, given that general relativity shows gravitation to be a geometric, i.e. a ‘spatial’ property of space-time; and space-time is deeply connected with awareness through the nature of the observer.

This view of reality regards as irreducible the awareness aspect that can be observed in its evolved form in humans. Therefore, by adding awareness to the properties of the primordial energy, the need to explain how consciousness emerged later as a property of matter is removed, though the problem now is to explain how matter evolved from consciousness. Furthermore, the emergence of consciousness from the Big Bang, once its seed is added to the energy that created all, is no more obscure than the emergence of space, time, and matter from the same energy. After all, the emergence of matter from the Big Bang is explained by using the a posteriori evidence of its existence.

Why then not use the current knowledge that matter and consciousness exist at the present time to look for the earlier conditions that would promote their manifestation and evolution from one basic seed? In the case of matter, such conditions are expressed in the exquisitely precise values of the fundamental physical constants for which physicists have no satisfactory explanations as yet.

Adding the awareness aspect to the energy of the Big Bang restores also the elements of purpose and meaning to the universe, elements that a purely materialistic theory considers unnecessary. A word about purpose and meaning is appropriate here: Purpose is the reason for which something is done; meaning is the measure of the significance of something. If the purpose of the universe is for consciousness to know itself, and since increasing the self-knowing increases the fulfillment of consciousness, then the meaning of the universe is to increase fulfillment.

There is a third element here, which is the dynamic element of increasing fulfillment via an increase of self-knowing. This inherent dynamism is what drives the evolution of the universe. Notice that there cannot be meaning without the capacity to feel fulfillment; there cannot be purpose without increasing self-knowing. Therefore the cognitive element, the feeling element, and the dynamic element are supporting each other and the result is the eternal evolution of the universe.

Physics explains the evolution of the universe by taking advantage of the time-symmetric nature of the fundamental equations of physics. By running time backwards, and using the present state of the universe to provide the initial conditions to the equations, the Big Bang emerges as the most likely scenario. In this fashion, physicists can explain how present-day complexity arose out of simpler structures, occasionally intervening, however, when they recognize that some symmetry-breaking must have occurred; for example, to plug in some additional, after-the-fact knowledge.

In other words, the so-called predictive capacity of the physical laws is guided by the a posteriori knowledge that certain properties exist. For example, why should matter emerge from the primordial energy? Only because it is now known that it does, can this fact be explained with the proper adjustments of some key parameters in the equations.

However, if an observer could have witnessed the situation at the time when matter did not yet exist, could he have predicted the emergence of matter out of the sea of energy?

Part 1: A Framework for the Union of Science and Spirituality
Part 2: The Nature of Consciousness
Part 3: Consciousness and Matter Co-evolve
Part 4: Explaining Consciousness
Part 5: What is Union?