Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Partial Reading List

The last dozen years have seen a great deal of writings about the mysteries of consciousness by philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists, physicists and others. I’ve especially enjoyed reading a multi-disciplinary journal called the Journal of Consciousness Studies. Because contributors are trying to reach audiences outside their own specialty, most articles are good reading for laypersons. Especially good was a series beginning in Vol. 2 (1995), No. 3 on the topic “Explaining consciousness – The ‘Hard Problem’”.
Interesting books by philosophers include:
The Invisible Flame, Colin McGinn
The Conscious Mind, David Chalmers
Understanding Consciousness, Max Velmans
A History of the Mind, Nicholas Humphrey
A book that attempts to update and explain Whitehead’s process philosophy and how it relates to the problem of consciousness is Unsnarling the World-Knot, by David Ray Griffin.
A neuroscientist with an interesting perspective who is an excellent writer is Antonio Damasio, who has written Descartes’ Error and The Feeling of What Happens.

It is hard for me to resist the idea that there is a connection between the mysteries of consciousness and that of the deepest levels of physical reality. There have been many good books written for popular audiences about developments in modern physics. Some I have enjoyed are:
Dreams of a Final Theory, Steven Weinberg
A Brief History of Time, Stephen W. Hawking
The Elegant Universe, Brian Greene
The Life of the Cosmos and Three Roads to Quantum Gravity, by Lee Smolin

Evolution and Evolutionary Psychology
Recently I’ve been trying to read more on evolution, a topic which seems to touch so many relevant areas. Recent reads include:
What Evolution Is, by Ernst Mayr, which is a summary written by a premier evolutionist of the past several decades; and Darwin’s Ghost, by Steve Jones, which takes the form of an update to Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species.

Also, on the interesting topic of extending the evolutionary perspective to the broadest possible level is Cosmic Evolution, by Eric Chaisson

The writer Robert Wright is the leading popularizer of developments in evolutionary psychology. His books are The Moral Animal, and Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny.
Another book I read by a specialist in this interesting field is Darwinian Natural Right, by Larry Arnhart.

Monday, June 21, 2004

A Note on the Second Law

In my post on 'Conscious Experience and the Mystery of Time', I discussed the fact that the equations of our major physical theories are time-symmetric. There is no explanation for the one-directional and irreversible aspects of time in our experience. Of course there is one well-known theory within science which does incorporate an 'arrow of time': the second law of thermodynamics.

My paraphrase of the second law is that in a closed system, the dispersion of the energy within the system will increase in time. Of course, the constant flow of new energy into open systems can keep energy ordered and localized or foster an increase in order.

One of the interesting sub-plots of modern physics is to see whether a place for the arrow of time can be found as theorists work to integrate and surpass the twin monuments of the twentieth century: general relativity and quantum mechanics.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Toward a New Worldview

I think the ideas and arguments I’ve presented in the first seven posts can form a foundation for a new worldview. This new worldview makes sense of age-old philosophical dilemmas and helps bridge the gulf between the scientific perspective and religious beliefs about the nature of humanity and our place in the world.

The key to this worldview is the realization that the phenomenon of first-person experience, known to us through our own lives, must be a natural, fundamental, and irreducible feature of the world.

The universe, then, is not a world of "dead" matter moving in a void of space that we often picture when learning science. At the same time, our rich and compelling experience does not require a mystical explanation that a scientifically minded skeptic would reject. I envision us to be an integrated part of a world that naturally includes life, consciousness, knowledge, values, morals, and free will. Our experience is one of participating in the larger experience of this world.

Now, in my first introduction post I spoke about some of those difficult “big” questions that confront us. What about those? Well, to be sure, we can only begin to answer some of these. The new worldview begins to provide answers to questions about the fundamental nature of the universe and how our human lives arise from and fit into the universe. It is harder for me to yet envision answering certain other questions that represent an even higher “degree of difficulty”. For instance: Is there anything outside our universe? Why is there something rather than nothing? These sorts of questions are not about the universe and its contents but as phrased seem to demand an explanation transcending the natural universe as we now conceive of it. So, these embody an even deeper element of mystery.

Still, I think this new worldview represents progress. There is a lot more work to do, of course, and some of the ideas presented here may not hold up. But, I think the outlook is bright for us to gain an ever-greater grasp of our reality as time unfolds.

And what an exciting journey it is!

Conscious Experience and the Mystery of Time

In this post, I briefly offer a speculative guess at what might be going on at the most fundamental level of the universe. This involves thinking about the possible links between time, causality, and consciousness.

We exist in time. There is no experience other than experience in time. So, what is time? Interestingly, in scientific theories time is taken for granted rather than explained. For instance, in classical and quantum mechanics, time is assumed as a backdrop for motion and cause and effect. From what I have read, the mathematical equations involved work just as well if the sign on the time dimension is reversed from positive to negative. There is not any explanation for the one-directional and irreversible aspects of time in our experience. In general relativity, the structure of the universe is described in terms of four-dimensional space-time geometry, but the designation of one dimension as time is arbitrary. This theory also fails to account for time as we experience it. As a more general point, “cause and effect” only makes sense in time. Therefore, the concept of causality, which underlies the deterministic worldview of science, has an element of mystery given this lack of an understanding of time.

It is only in our experience that time has a direction – the direction in which our being unfolds. This leads to an idea: just as there is no experience without the passage of time, perhaps there is no passage of time without experience. I argued earlier that consciousness went “all the way down” in the universe. Given this, I now speculate that the smallest, most basic unit comprising the universe is not a particle or wave, but is an elementary unit of experience. We would reinterpret the happenings in the world as a chain of experiential events. Now, this is a very difficult concept to work through and reconcile with the scientific view of the world, but I think it is good to try.

In this way of looking at things, time is not a backdrop for causality, but is actually created by the process of experience. For the bigger picture, this implies that the evolution of the universe in all of its manifestations can be described as the process of the universe experiencing itself. Tying this back to my discussion of freewill in the last post, I would also say that the universe and we human constituents have at least some element of choice in what happens as the next moment of experience unfolds.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

A Quick Take on Free Will

While I'm bringing up old philosophical problems, I want to also address the free-will/determinism debate. On the one hand, we experience ourselves as having free will in all facets of our lives. Scientific analysis, on the other hand, seeks to explain everything in a deterministic way. So yet again we have a seemingly irreconcilable divide based on the duality of perspectives between the subjective and objective views.

Now, my first problem with determinism is that human beings (and many other natural processes) are too complex for anyone to really be able to compute what happens next. There are just too many parts to the puzzle (and I think the problem goes beyond just developing faster computers). A key point to remember is that systems do not exist in isolation; a human being is incessantly acting on and reacting to an incredibly diverse environment, both physical and societal. So you would really need to model the environmental factors as well. In fact it may be that you need to have a model of the whole universe to get it right. Finally on this point, the idea of modeling the universe down it its most minute level of organization takes us back into the realm of quantum physics, where strict determinism appears to break down.

But, let me leave this sort of argument aside for now. Let’s assume that I could predict a human being’s behavior – perhaps a model of the brain at the level of the neuron is used and let’s say there is no need to look further down the scale or out into the environment. Would the success of this predictive model mean that free will is an illusion? I would say no. That conclusion would unduly elevate the third person explanation at the expense of the first person experience. Following from my earlier arguments, the first-person perspective is a fundamental, irreducible feature of the universe. It is as valid a source of knowledge as any. This argument leads one to say that both determinism and free will are correct (in philosophy, this position is called “compatibilism”). This is a difficult conclusion to hold in your head, of course. However, I think it helps in explaining again why the perceived dichotomies we keep running into aren’t necessarily real divisions in the universe, but rather they simply stem from the fact that we are a part of the universe trying to understand the universe from the inside. We simultaneously live the universe while also looking at it from the simulated objective perspective.

At the end of the day, I am sympathetic to this compatibilist “solution” to the free will/determinism debate, but I don’t think it is the whole story. The shortcoming in how this problem is posed is the implied determinist assumption that the “billiard-ball” view of physics I've mentioned before essentially holds. One assumes human behavior stems from biology which in turn is based on chemistry which is then based on physics; then we assume we understand what’s happening in physics. I don’t think we do yet. For a more complete understanding of how first person experience really reconciles with scientific explanations we need to have a theory of how this works at the most fundamental level of the universe. For now, I assert that while the particulars of the history leading up to a given moment certainly constrain our choices, how the next moment unfolds will reflect an element of genuine free will.

Monday, June 14, 2004

The Origin of Morals

In my last post I argued that our access to truth is authentic, however it is true that a dualism of perspectives -- the subjective and the (simulated) objective -- leads us to have two ways of interpreting what we learn. On the one hand, we discover facts; on the other hand, we form values. This is another dichotomy which I think we can and should resolve.

A theme of my posts has been that we can help bridge the hard division between the scientific and religious worldviews by placing our first person experience squarely into a revised picture of the natural world. When it comes to first person values and human morality, we come to one of the most challenging parts of this project. Most people think that the ability to distinguish good and bad is unique to humans and is a critical contribution of our great religious traditions to our lives.

However, an increasing body of work in the field of evolutionary psychology has begun to provide natural explanations for human feelings and behaviors which have a strong moral or ethical content. Love of family and altruistic behavior are grounded in our evolutionary heritage according to some of this work (and by the way aren’t unique to humans). Negative impulses and behaviors such as war making can be similarly studied in the context of how our species developed.

A big key to accepting these explanations as valid is to realize that a scientific (third-person) analysis doesn’t devalue what the first person experience really means to the person having it. To give an example: an evolutionary psychologist might say my feelings of love for my children are an outgrowth of our species’ need to “invest” in the rearing of offspring until they reach reproductive maturity in order to perpetuate genes. How cold and uninspiring is that? It takes some practice to learn to simultaneously accept such an explanation while rejoicing in the experience of that parental love. Understanding why we can explain altruism as a natural impulse (helping each other aided our survival in primitive societies) doesn’t mean I still shouldn’t view it as morally good thing to aid someone in need. Our first person perspective is authentic; it is not any less real or important for the fact that it is grounded in our evolutionary past.

Now, this field of evolutionary psychology is still young and there is a long way to go in providing a fuller picture of how it all works. Because the topic is so complex, there is a lot of room for misunderstanding and drawing incorrect conclusions. One of the best examples is the recent popularization of the idea that men are more naturally prone to promiscuity compared to women given their greater potential to spread their genes widely through this activity. Obviously, some might succumb to using this as a scientific rationalization for bad behavior: it turns out that an urge to be a faithful mate also has a strong natural grounding. At the end of the day, living a moral life remains a challenging and nuanced personal journey, and the fact that our mix of moral impulses was shaped by evolution doesn’t change this. However, understanding the evolutionary origin of our values and ethics in the natural world helps further close the gap in how we consider the most fundamental questions of being. We are moral beings and we are grounded in the most fundamental stuff of the universe: therefore, we live in a moral universe.

One other point I’d like to make is that the natural grounding of morals in evolution does not mean that our moral progress is frozen in the hunter-gatherer era when our physical make-up was primarily formed. Because we are social animals, evolution continues in societal and cultural domains. Obviously, we see cultural evolution in many areas such as the spreading of tools and technology or development of new artistic forms. But moral development can continue in the form of cultural evolution, too. I think one example of this is to consider the impact of the progressive enlarging of our societal units. Beginning with our naturally selected impulses to care for kin and to engage in altruistic behavior, we came to identify with the collective welfare of a kinship-based clan. Over time, people extended their group identity to encompass larger tribes, cities and nations. There is an optimistic idea which comes out of this trend. As we absorb more of humanity into what we think of as our societal group, there is progressively less room for viewing other humans as enemies. If this process could develop to the point where the whole species is viewed as part of our extended clan, war could diminish. More speculatively, one might imagine we can extend our empathy even beyond our species. Given that we are seamlessly integrated into the larger natural world, I believe we can think of our moral connections extending without limit.

Friday, June 11, 2004

The Grounding of Human Knowledge

In parallel with the ancient debates over the mind/body dilemma I discussed in my post on consciousness, philosophers have dwelled over the centuries on problems related to what we humans can know about the world (epistemology). For instance, when we see an object in the world, do we know the thing itself, or do we only experience a sense perception (an “appearance”) which falls short of direct knowledge? And if this sense perception is really a phenomenon of our own mind, can we know anything at all outside our minds? Are we cut off from knowing the world as it is truly is in itself? Can we ever know Truth (with a capital “T”)?

Many think our ability to know about the world is so compromised -- both by the limitations of our senses as well as by our many cultural biases and other subjective distortions -- that at the end of the day there is no access to “real” truth. I think these sort of views are a result of a misguided notion about what constitutes truth. My argument tracks the path of my last two posts about consciousness in the universe and its evolutionary development in us. Of course it is true that we cannot know the world from a god-like perspective originating outside the world. We experience the world from within the world. Furthermore we do experience things in a particular way grounded in our evolutionary heritage. But the knowledge gained from this perspective is authentic. Since we are ultimately grounded in the most fundamental stuff of the universe, our perspective is as legitimate as it gets.

Now it is the case that we have a fairly idiosyncratic view of the universe – handed down to us through evolution. For instance we only can see the electro-magnetic spectrum in certain wavelengths. This follows from the fact that, given the kind of light that comes from our sun, seeing those wavelengths gave us a good practical ability to survive and reproduce. All of the details of human capabilities are a product of natural selection, and as such can be considered at least partly arbitrary in how they turned out. But the knowledge we gain as we move through our lives is true knowledge.

Taking evolution very seriously again is an important part of this argument. I think philosophers sometimes got off track both on the mind/body and knowledge problems by stressing insights gained from contemplative or meditative thinking. Our heritage is one of doing, acting, and surviving. These modes of being have been around a lot longer than reflective self-consciousness. Post-modernist thinking seems to miss this point. An undue focus on language can also lead one astray. As important as language is to human cognition today, the roots of our knowledge and our consciousness pre-date language. Stressing the conception of ourselves as a seamless part of the natural world rather focusing on what separates us from nature is a perspective that helps overcome much confusion.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Evolution and the Ubiquity of Consciousness

The theory of evolution could be the most powerful concept to come out of science. While the details are the subject of ongoing study, all of the remarkable features of living things are amenable to understanding through Darwin’s theory of natural selection, further extended by our modern understanding of genetics. Moreover, while the theory has been around for a long time, recently there seems to have been a deepening of appreciation for its significance in diverse areas. Psychologists and philosophers, for instance, are going back and rethinking their disciplines with an evolutionary mindset. This involves realizing that every human attribute needs to be informed by a view of how it may have emerged from natural selection. The strengths and weaknesses of humanity are shaped by how we evolved. I plan to pick up on this theme in a later post.

The power of evolutionary thinking can be extended beyond the life sciences to encompass phenomena throughout the physical universe. While the term evolution is not always used, scientists have analyzed many non-biological processes that have characteristics similar to evolution. What is common to these is that they are complex dynamic systems that exhibit a self-organizing character. Examples of this include crystal growth and star formation. One of the interesting things about these systems is that a reductionist approach has a hard time describing the large-scale character of the system: somehow, the parts “know” what the whole is doing and fulfill their role accordingly. It seems that as the universe has increased in complexity through time, new kinds of orderly structures and processes have arisen from this complexity. It isn’t magic; it is just something that naturally occurs.

So, here is a “big-picture” view of how evolution has proceeded in the universe. Starting from a set of conditions which prevailed a fraction of an instant after a “big bang”, the universe evolved in time to include a variety of complicated yet ordered systems, including galaxies and solar systems. Then conditions on earth fostered the evolution of the first living organisms within a billion years after its formation. After this, the somewhat more familiar story of the evolution of the variety of species unfolded.

Taking evolution seriously in its broadest applications reminds us that our origin is grounded in the most basic level of the universe. Many of us have been exposed to the idea that we are made of “star stuff”. This means that the atoms within us (specifically those heavier than hydrogen and helium) were created through nuclear fusion in the interior of an early generation of stars. These stars ended their lives, often explosively, and the atoms dispersed and later formed into our solar system. Our bodies, of course, are created on earth from these same atoms. But you can even take this story further. The subatomic particles trace themselves back to that time shortly after the big bang. We have a common link to every part of the universe which was formed in that early crucible.

The reason I’m going through this story is to help explain why I’m going to present a conclusion that at first glance may be hard to accept: consciousness is everywhere. Or, to soften it slightly: consciousness or at least its building blocks are ubiquitous in the universe.

There are just two steps which lead to this conclusion. The first, which I discussed in my last post, is to realize that consciousness must be a fundamental feature of the natural universe. The second step is the insight that, as a part of the natural world, consciousness could not have suddenly appeared out of nowhere. All of the fundamental particles and forces (or whatever else makes up the universe) have been with us since the beginning. Consciousness exists “all the way down”.

When this position is put forward in philosophical circles (often it is called panpsychism), it is controversial. Also, it is easy to make fun of or caricature: Am I saying that rocks can think? No, I’m not. Let me flesh out this picture a bit more and see if it seems more reasonable.

Our human abilities are unique in the world. Even our closest animal cousins cannot think the way we can. They can’t use language. They may not have much in the way of long term memory, etc. Reflective self-consciousness is newer on the scene and seems to be confined to humans. When I say consciousness is everywhere, remember I am using my limited definition of consciousness, which means a basic subjective awareness. Of course, even using this limited definition, I admit I have trouble conceiving what it could really be like the further away from the human version I get.

In the case of most animals, I think they have awareness in a sense we might relate to. One quality of our experience in particular most animals probably share is that they have feelings. Evolutionary scientists believe that emotions have an ancient lineage as internal markers of the instincts shaped by natural selection. Feelings and emotions are therefore more primordial than thinking and language.

In the case of primitive animals, plants, and all the way down to single-celled organisms, I may be able to stretch my imagination and picture that while they do not have the sense organs or nervous systems to replicate experience of our sort, it still is like something for them to exist and interact with their environment. Going to the inorganic world, things get even harder. I think there is something about the way living things are put together which elevates their consciousness. However, I do think elementary constituents of the universe must have at least a “proto-consciousness” which allows the increasingly robust version to emerge at higher levels of organization. As an aside, the importance of how something is organized is why a rock has no more impressive consciousness than its parts. A rock is basically a pile of molecules. A one-celled organism powerfully leverages its parts to operate at a higher level of consciousness. An organism further leverages its cells.

The shortfall of this theory is that we don’t know how this works (yet). We will need to solve the problem of how consciousness scales itself up when you go from an atom to a cell, or a cell to an organism. However, this is a problem that I believe can be solved.

Some people have speculated that structures going up the scale from ours could exhibit aspects of life or consciousness. The Gaia hypothesis considers the earth to be a kind of organism. Perhaps galaxies or other large organized structures have their own version of consciousness? I don’t know, but given my arguments I’m open to the possibilities.

If consciousness is somehow out there in the universe, why haven’t scientists seen it? Remember, consciousness is a first-person phenomenon, and our scientific view of the physical world is an outsider’s third-person perspective. At the sub-atomic level, for instance, physicists analyze the relations among particles and learn from how they impact each other. This is an assessment of their external qualities. If these particles have proto-consciousness, it is an internal quality. One limitation could even lie in the fact that the mathematics traditionally used in physics to model particles treats them as dimensionless points. These have no “inside” by definition. (I should note that recent ideas such as string theory are starting to move beyond points as fundamental units). It is my hope that revised thinking about the limits of traditional methods may lead to new scientific progress in understanding how consciousness operates in its various forms. We won’t be able to experience directly what it is to be like other things in the universe, but we may be able to learn about how their consciousness works once we start to look for it. I have some speculative ideas regarding how consciousness may fit in at the most fundamental level of the universe which I plan to post later on.

For now, I conclude that consciousness is a natural and ubiquitous feature of the universe. While the steps I took toward this conclusion are logical and rational, it gives us a picture which is very different from the materialist view. It’s a mistake to think the world is made of dead matter, and then struggle to reconcile this picture with the obvious evidence of our vibrant existence. Our lives fit squarely and seamlessly into this revised picture of a conscious universe: a universe that in time has evolved new ways of experiencing itself, including the human way.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Consciousness: An Integrated Part of the Natural World

There is a strong tradition in philosophy to begin analyzing the world by trying to consider carefully one’s own experience. After all, you could say that one’s own experience is all that one really has sure knowledge about. Descartes’ analysis of reality beginning with his “cogito ergo sum” is a famous example. However, from here you can get into all kinds of interesting philosophical problems. For instance there is the problem of solipsism: how can I really know anything exists outside my mind? This problem is related to the old mind/body dilemma: my private thoughts and feelings seem to be a different kind of thing altogether compared to my body and other external objects – so how can these “mental” and “physical” worlds co-exist?

The mind-body problem traditionally left you with 3 alternatives. First, you could accept that the world has two separate and distinct parts: this view is characterized as “dualism”. For instance, Descartes proposed a system which was a strong example of dualism, arguing that there was a physical, or extended, world interacting with a non-extended thinking substance (interestingly, he located the point of interaction in the pineal gland). Most philosophers reject this kind of “substance dualism” because of the problem of how two completely unlike substances could possibly interact. Also, most of us find the idea of a unified “holistic” world to be more attractive than a world split into two parts. A second alternative is to be an “idealist” and believe that the world consists only of mind and just appears to be split into mental and physical domains. This doesn’t work for most of us because it contradicts our everyday experience too blatantly; also it is hard for an idealist to explain why there appears to be a physical world. Finally, you could have a “materialist” or “physicalist” view and believe that there is no insubstantial mental realm at all: there is only the physical world. This is essentially the scientific stance: we assume that we will find a natural physical explanation for the workings of or character of the mind. One rejects any “supernatural” explanations. Those with confidence in this view might point to an analogy. Many folks used to believe in “vitalism”, meaning that living things carry an essential element missing in non-living things -- now modern biology explains life in a way grounded in the same chemistry and physics underlying non-living things.

Unfortunately, I believe materialism (or physicalism) is also not a good solution to the mind-body problem. One reason to be skeptical is that we tend be overconfident in assuming that we (via our scientists) understand the material or physical world at a fundamental level. We really don’t. When most of us non-scientists think about physics, we implicitly picture what you might call the “billiard-ball” picture of the world (based on Isaac Newton’s classical mechanics). This picture says that physicists have broken down the world into smaller and smaller pieces (down to the sub-atomic level) and have analyzed the forces and relations among these particles. Then, knowing the position and relations of these particles, you can predict the future course of the system. Actually, you can’t. For one thing, you run into the conceptual problems of quantum physics at the sub-atomic level. Most people have heard of quantum physics and may know something about it, but I don’t think it has penetrated into our everyday thinking. In the twentieth century, physicists overthrew the billiard ball world with the development of quantum mechanics and general relativity. In the case of quantum mechanics, the mathematics which best describe phenomena at the sub-atomic level have mysterious implications for the nature of reality. One finds that you can’t pinpoint the position as well as the momentum of a particle through observation (the uncertainty principle). Also, sub-atomic entities can exhibit the character of both particles and waves. Finally, in some circumstances particles seem to be able to act on each other instantaneously at a distance. While I won’t try to discuss the details of modern physics here, I just want to make the point that in considering how to address the mind/body problem there is arguably as much mystery remaining in the ultimate nature of matter and energy – the body side of the problem -- as there is in addressing the nature of mind.

However, at this stage I want to discuss directly why science has a particularly hard time explaining mind or consciousness. Also, this will set the stage for me to put forward a solution to the mind/body mystery. The reason for the difficulty lies in the scientific method itself.

Each of us has a unique and subjective point of view. Furthermore, our perspective on the universe comes from a vantage point within the universe. No person can claim to have a perfectly objective view, since this would require a god-like perspective coming from outside the universe. The power of the scientific approach is that one simulates objectivity. This is done by carefully examining things using methods which lead to repeatable results which can be validated by other people. This is very powerful and is the basis of the great success of science.

Now, pretend you are a scientist examining my consciousness. You would probably look at my brain very carefully. You would compare what is happening to my neurons and brain chemistry with what is going on with my behavior and my verbal reports about what I’m experiencing. When you are done, you will potentially have explained a great deal about my mind, but one thing will be left over: you will not learn what it is like to have my first person experience – to feel what it is like to be me “from the inside”.

Let me try to pin down what I mean. I have been using the word consciousness, which is a very vague term (and “mind”, which is perhaps worse). Consciousness can be interpreted to include thoughts, feelings, memories and many other related features or processes. The part I’m honing in on is the raw qualitative experience of being; our “bare” subjective awareness; the “what it’s like from the inside” to exist. We can probably successfully analyze and model (with computers or otherwise) many aspects of cognition, sense perception, and memory. But a “third-person” perspective cannot uncover what it is like to have a “first-person” existence. After we’ve explained everything possible through the scientific method, the fact that it is like something to be me is a further fact about the universe. The mind/body problem really collapses into a problem of reconciling subjective awareness with “objective” analysis. And this is not really a problem at all. It is understandable that we have a dualism of points of view: the subjective and the (simulated) objective.

So, consciousness cannot be reduced or explained the way other phenomena have usually been explained by science. (Note that going forward, when I use the word consciousness without qualifying it, I will be using it in the special sense of subjective awareness I have outlined above). However, this does not mean one needs to be an old school dualist. Here is what we need to do given this insight: we must redefine the natural world to include consciousness as a fundamental feature alongside its other features. It is in the nature of the universe to contain the stuff we know as matter and energy; it is equally in the nature of the universe to contain consciousness.

Let me go back briefly to a theme from my first post. I speculated that the common sense perspective of a large group of people was that for the most part science was on the right track but it would probably come up short on some of the most fundamental questions. What I have argued in this post is that in the case of explaining consciousness, this is exactly what has happened. However, “science” can certainly adapt to this insight about consciousness and get on with its investigations – there is no reason at this point to leap to an explanation involving a mind or soul which seems supernatural or irrational. I think this insight may narrow the divide a little bit.

But we have further to go. In my next post I’ll explore some other aspects of the conclusion that consciousness is a natural feature of the world. For instance, can we say where consciousness came from and whether it extends beyond humans?


Over the years, I’ve been thinking about the difficult “big” questions which confront us. The list is familiar to everybody: “What is the universe and how did it come to be?” “Who are we and how do we fit in?” Hardest of all are the “Why” questions about life and the world. Given how busy we all are, it is natural that we don’t have a lot of time to worry about these questions. On the other hand it is frustrating that we know so little about the mysteries underlying our lives. Through some reading and thinking I have done, I’ve had some philosophical ideas which I am convinced meaningfully increase our grasp on reality. This is my attempt to summarize and share these through time. As a caveat, please note that this is an amateur effort. My lack of training in any relevant subject is a big handicap. What’s been great for me is that so many talented philosophers and scientists have undertaken to write books and articles accessible to a general audience. Still, the thrust of many of my ideas dont' seem to have penetrated into the general public.

Here’s the problem: in our culture, the two approaches we take to these big fundamental questions couldn’t be more different. On the one hand, we have science, which most of us look to for ever-increasing insight into the nature of reality. On the other hand, we have the variety of religious beliefs which provide so many people a foundation for understanding the mysteries of being. To state the obvious: science and religion represent two non-overlapping visions of reality that historically have been unable to connect with each other. I find this very unsatisfying.

The responses of people to this state of affairs might be very roughly categorized into 3 types. The first response would be a total or near total confidence that while science may not answer all the questions today, eventually it will. A second response would respect the effectiveness of science but retain a feeling that the scientific method is (and will continue to be) incapable of answering some of the most fundamental questions. A third response would be to reject or devalue science and have a basically non-scientific worldview based on one’s religion. I suspect a great deal of people reside in group number 2, and this leads them to straddle the divide by embracing science while still looking elsewhere for ultimate truths.

For the last several hundred years in western culture, science has been in the ascendancy. The increasing confidence in science is of course well founded in the great advances in our understanding of the natural world. As I will sometimes argue, however, the great successes of modern science have been accompanied by lack of progress in addressing some long-standing philosophical problems. Figuring out why this is so gives us a good roadmap toward gaining in our understanding of reality.

I don’t intend to discuss religion or religious ideas here. For billions of people, religion and personal faith will continue to be the anchor for understanding the world and for providing a template for living. I do have some ideas which point to some potential bridges between the scientific perspective and religious thought. However, I’ll leave to the reader to draw any connections to specific beliefs. I should also note that many people have been become interested in non-traditional approaches to spirituality. The manifestation of “New Age” thinking in particular may stem in part from unhappiness with the dichotomy between traditional religion and science. I have read a couple of books that would be classified as New Age. The problem I see with New Age ideas (which I try to avoid) is that the thinking is too fuzzy to be convincing to the skeptical, scientific-minded individual.

To digress a moment: another topic I won’t generally discuss here (and can’t do justice to anyway) is the role of art in understanding reality. Some might argue that the divide between art and science is as important a dichotomy as that between religion and science. My feeling on this is that great art offers oblique glimpses of a reality beyond our normal conception, but that it is religion and science which purport to directly answer fundamental questions.

Amidst the divide between science and religion, philosophy as an academic subject appears to have had less impact on the typical person’s thinking about reality. Philosophers have not had a large influence outside their professional community (philosophy has this in common with some other university-level humanities subjects). This is in contrast to past centuries, when thinkers who had a great impact on western culture often straddled what are now the hard divisions between the natural sciences and philosophy (and even theology). There are a number of possible explanations of this, but part of the story may be that science seemed to be doing quite well on its own, while at the same time much of modern philosophy wasn’t easy for either scientists or members of the general public to relate to.

Today, however, I think ideas from philosophers or best categorized as “philosophical” can help. The goal of these ideas is to increase our understanding of reality in a way that scientists will respect and perhaps make use of. At the same time, the ideas may point to common ground with religious thought that had not been clear before. Finally, I believe all of us can benefit from a better grasp of reality as a result of these ideas being brought forth, developed and discussed.

So, that’s the goal. The next several postings will discuss some of these ideas, and then I plan to add more through time. As a launching point and touchstone for much of my thinking, the next post will begin by taking on the mystery of consciousness.