Consciousness and Cosmos

September 7, 2016
Adrian David Nelson

Like a lot of kids, I asked myself those perennial questions as I lay in bed at night. How do I know the world is what my senses tell me? Do I really have freewill? Will I ever have a girlfriend? I remember being preoccupied by the idea that I was my brain. How is it that everything I think of as me – my inner thoughts and feelings – are somehow produced inside my head? And how do we know for sure that they are? At the time I assumed clever scientists already knew the answer, but as I got older, I realized I’d been wrong. Today we call this mystery the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. It’s the question of how a subjective dimension of experience could arise from the objective processes of brains. There seems to be a distinct ontological difference between even the faintest glimmer of consciousness and no consciousness at all.

David Chalmers, the philosopher that coined the term the ‘hard problem of consciousness’, offers a radical solution. For Chalmers, consciousness is real – really real. What is vitally missing from our understanding of the brain, he offers, may also be missing from our basic description of the world. For Chalmers, understanding the inner nature of consciousness, which seems mysteriously irreducible to physical processes, may necessitate an expansion at the very heart of our scientific ontology. He thinks consciousness or awareness may be fundamental to the physical world in a similar way that mass and charge are thought to be. Another highly respected thinker in contemporary philosophy, Thomas Nagel, agrees. According to Nagel, the apparent inability to capture consciousness within even a complete description of all physical brain processes, suggests that the subjective interiority of mind is somehow intrinsic; a fundamental aspect of reality.

As an undergraduate I was curious to find a growing number of philosophers and scientists taking similar positions. In addition to the external causal structure of things detectable by our scientific instruments, nature may also enfold interior topologies. A growing number of philosophers believe that it is this inner nature of the world that, when integrated in complex structures like brains, also comprises the rich inner landscape of our minds.

I first became aware of this groundswell in contemporary thought as a psychology student. I’d been captivated by the feats of modern neuroscience, yet surprised to encounter a diversity of views about consciousness that, although defended by respected scientists, challenged the mainstream consensus that consciousness was essentially an illusion. After all, if consciousness really is an illusion, how can it do anything? What function could it serve? Why should evolution go to all the trouble of developing this deep and complex inner landscape of experience if it serves no purpose or role – an ‘epiphenomena’ – simply ‘along for the ride’? Consciousness, as many philosophers have argued, cannot be an illusion. Indeed, as the philosopher René Descartes famously pointed out, now over three centuries ago, the existence of consciousness is the one thing we cannot doubt.

Increasing numbers of scientists now defend deeper views of consciousness. One of them is neuroscientist Christof Koch, the world’s foremost expert in the scientific study of the neural correlates of consciousness. Koch spent 15 years working alongside the Nobel Prize winning biologist Francis Crick, searching for the basis of consciousness in the brain. After Crick’s passing in 2004, Koch diligently continued the search they began together. In the last few years, however, his views have changed dramatically. In light of new theories and evidence Koch no longer believes that brains create consciousness, nor is it limited to biology. Consciousness, he now argues, is a fundamental quality of information. “The entire cosmos is suffused with sentience” he writes, “We are surrounded and immersed in consciousness; it is in the air we breathe, the soil we tread on, the bacteria that colonize our intestines, and the brain that enables us to think.”

In my early 20s, while traveling in Far East Asia, there came into my possession a book titled The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena. This curious traveling companion beckoned to a forgotten childhood interest in parapsychology. I didn’t expect a convincing read. I think it was the anticipation of a sense of nostalgia that first appealed. As I leafed through its pages, however, I found a surprising treasure trove of scientific evidence, exploring phenomena like telepathy, mind-matter interaction, and precognition. The author of the book was Dean Radin, a psychologist with an impressive academic history. His book compiled and carefully explained a wealth of published scientific studies highly suggestive that at least some forms of psychic phenomena actually exist.

I realized that the study of what researchers called ‘psi phenomena’ was far from the sloppy circus act decried by the self-styled skeptics I’d seen on television. Carefully controlled experiments conducted by highly qualified scientists had revealed compelling evidence of effects. Furthermore, these effects seem completely unanticipated by dominant materialist views, in which mind is ultimately reduced to a kind of illusion. In fact, the evidence suggests consciousness or mind could be intrinsic to the basic organization of nature.

I was fascinated by this evidence. After reading several other books on the subject, I found myself tracking down the original reports. In one experimental paradigm, contributed to by many independent scientists, unexpected relationships have been reported between the brain activity of separate individuals when one isolated participant is shown a random stimulus, such as a flashing light. In other studies, participants directing their intention to a physical process appeared to subtly influence the statistical distribution of its output. Psi effects also seem to defy usual assumptions about the mind’s relationship to time. For example, an extensive series of experiments report that biological markers, like skin conductance and heart rate, anticipate future events such as a loud noise or light flash, the participant could have had no ordinary knowledge of.

If psi effects really occur, and there seems to be a lot of evidence that they do, then fundamental assumptions about both the nature of mind and reality will need to be revised. The existence of these effects doesn’t challenge our previous empirical observations of nature; what they do challenge are certain prevailing though largely untested assumptions; that consciousness is an illusion, that minds are isolated from each other, and play no active role in the world. The psi evidence suggests that our minds are only ever superficially separate, and that consciousness may be grounded in a deeper principle of nature.

The call to reconsider the subjective as an intrinsic aspect of reality is also arriving from several other scientific fields. In considering fundamental questions of cosmology, such as why the universe is so precisely suited for the evolution of complex life, to how reality self-generates its own existence, to the mysteriously observer-dependent character of the universe revealed by modern physics, many well known scientists now call for us to recognize an essentially interior and perspectival aspect of reality. The physicists John Wheeler, Paul Davies, Freeman Dyson, Menas Kafatos, Andrei Linde, and Henry Stapp each argue that the evolution and the rise of complex observers may have been woven into the cosmic code from the beginning – that life and mind play a necessary participatory role in reality.

There appears to be a modest, though growing shift occurring in academia – a growing openness toward deeper views of consciousness. In my book, Origins of Consciousness, I refer to this as the ‘intrinsic consciousness movement’. This flowering of intrinsic perspectives is found in the writings of leading minds in many fields of science, from psychology and neuroscience, to physics and cosmology. Among their disparate though often complimentary views exists a common, provocative yet compelling conviction: that the search to understand the nature of consciousness is ultimately leading us to a new view of reality.

A wide spread shift in thinking may yet lie decades ahead of us, yet I think we can already glimpse this consciousness-involving reality and see that it is both coherent and defensible. A new cosmology is coming into view – a new story of our place in the universe. In full acceptance of the discovered facts of science, the new view regards the human and all life as participators in the larger cosmic evolutionary process. The isolating and fragmented materialist worldview is replaced by a broader, more meaningful and unifying vision. As extensions of the universe’s on-going creative activity, we can see ourselves, as Nagel puts it, as the universe waking up.

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