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The Nature of Consciousness

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In the last four centuries, science has made astonishing progress. We now understand so much, from the structure of an atom to the life cycle of a star. And yet when it comes to the most basic fact of all, conscious awareness, we remain baffled. 

Imagine a middle-aged woman named Helen. It is Monday morning and she sits at her desk in the sales department. She is aware, or conscious, of both her inner world (her thoughts, memories, toothache, indigestion, etc.) and her outer world (hot sunshine streaming through the window, a fly buzzing near her coffee mug, and so on). Consciousness, in other words, is subjective. We can guess what it is like to be Helen, but we can never truly know. Her consciousness is her own.

Understanding consciousness, therefore, means understanding what it is like to be Helen – or a mountain lion, or a giraffe, or Elton John, or whatever you care to name. But where do you draw the line? We can assume that Elton John is conscious, and clearly a giraffe is conscious, but how about a caterpillar? Are plants conscious? They seem aware of the sunshine, since they turn towards it, but is that consciousness? When a bird builds a nest, is it conscious of what it’s doing, or merely acting out its evolutionary programming?

The truly puzzling thing is self-consciousness: Humans are aware that they are aware, conscious of their consciousness. It needn’t be this way. Imagine some futuristic android with Helen’s voice and appearance. It catches the same bus as her, goes to the same office block, eats lunch in the same café, and yet does so without reflecting. Like the bird building its nest, the android has rudimentary awareness (if it did not, it would walk straight into a lorry), but no self-awareness.

The non-specialist cannot see the problem: Surely the brain generates consciousness, and the larger the brain the more conscious you are. In fact, the brain itself is part of the mystery. Neuroscientists have made huge advances in recent decades, but no matter how hard they study neurons and synpases and neurotransmitters, how consciousness arose from matter continues to elude them.

So far as we know, there was no consciousness at the Big Bang, nor in the billions of years that followed. Instead, there were exploding stars, dust clouds, and trillions of atoms – an objective universe of stuff, of things, with no awareness and no inner life. How did such lifeless matter give birth to consciousness? The neuron, though microscopic, is also an object; mind, or consciousness, is not. The two belong to separate realms. Philosophers know this as ‘the hard problem,’ and they cannot to bridge the gap.

Imagine someone buys you an ancient Roman coin. You hold it in your hand and stare in wonder, running your finger along the edge and holding it up to the light. The coin is part of the material world. It is out there, along with the box it came in, the table you lean on and the trees beyond the window. But your experience of that coin, your sense of awe and wonder, is yours alone. It is a private, inner, subjective experience, unique to you, something fundamentally different to the objective world of coins, boxes, tables and trees.

Attempts to explain consciousness can be crudely divided into the materialist and non-materialist. The materialists begin with the brain. Though they admit that consciousness is a mystery, and also that its relationship to the brain is unclear, they add that the brain obviously plays a role. You could remove someone’s arms and legs, and even an organ or two, but their consciousness would be unimpaired. When their brain is deprived of oxygen, or damaged in a boxing ring, however, their consciousness is affected.

Matter comes first, argue the materialists. First you have atoms, then cells, then microbes, then multicellular life and then, eventually, a rudimentary consciousness emerges. Conscious awareness, they argue, is a side effect of evolution. It gave living organisms an advantage in the struggle for food and sex, and thus it was favored by natural selection.   

The majority of scientists hold to some form of materialism. However, there are dissenters, such as the British biologist Rupert Sheldrake. In his opinion, there is nothing inevitable about scientific materialism. Rather than the ultimate truth, dispelling centuries of ignorance and superstition, it is merely a phase in the history of ideas, one suited to an age of machines and industry. Physics is already moving in a different direction, he adds, and it now suggests that matter itself is an illusion.

The non-materialist regards consciousness as the true reality. Instead of emerging out of matter, matter somehow emerges out of consciousness, or a ‘Universal Mind.’ According to this view, matter is like a mirage or dream. By breaking down the ego, the individual can experience this for himself. In a flash of insight (known as Satori in Zen Buddhism), individual consciousness unites with this single, universal consciousness.

Panpsychism is another non-materialist explanation. According to this view, consciousness did not emerge when matter organized itself in a certain way. It is itself a property of matter, like mass, and thus spread throughout the material world, found not only in plants and animals but even mountains and stars.

Consciousness is a huge subject, one that has filled bookshelves. And yet this most basic, simple phenomenon still has brilliant people scratching their heads. Some believe it always will.