So. I've been on a brain binge lately, watching NOVA; NOVA scienceNOW; Closer to Truth; and Through the Wormhole. The magic of DVR's – I can rewind and watch, again, the challenging bits. There are a lot of those.
I have an idea. It's an idea from an untrained mind, but it's still an idea. I'm going to tell you the idea first, and then give the arguments that led me here.
I think that consciousness is not an illusion, it's real. I mean real in a material sense.
I'm thinking that consciousness is a force of nature, like gravity (another mystery) or time (even murkier.) It doesn't belong to us; it has nothing to do with us, really. It is not personal.
It's not an entity. It is not Truth or Beauty or Love. It's no more aware of us than we are of any single molecule in our eye. It's probably not aware at all.
[Click the photo for full credits and larger sizes at flickr.]
- At birth, an infant has almost no memory, only what could have been recorded since the brain developed the ability to record, a few weeks at most. She has no speech, no language (which some believe is required for thought) and no sense of herself as different or separate from the rest of the world. Still, we look into her eyes and we believe that she is conscious.
- Some of us, through trauma or disease, lose ourselves. You may have known someone like this. She has lost her memories. She does not know what year it is, where she is, who you are, or even who she is. She has lost her ability to speak; perhaps she has lost language altogether. Still, we believe she is conscious.
- Evidence accumulates that everything we think we are is a product of the brain: perceptions, thoughts, feelings, memories, and ideas (including this one.) Our entire sense of self appears to be an organically generated illusion, and can be significantly altered by damage to the brain. When the brain dies, so do we.
- Buddhists would agree with this, I think. They argue that what we think we are is ephemeral. Thoughts and feelings come, and go. They pass. Along with the material elements that make up our bodies, and brains, thoughts and feelings change. They are not what we are.
- This leads to the suspicion that continuity is an illusion. Neither our mental nor our physical selves are, in fact, continuous. What persists seems to be DNA and, possibly, some deep personality structure that filters how we perceive the world. Or not.
Still, one thing that we agree on, continuously, is that consciousness (whatever it is) exists, or seems to. I think I am conscious, and I think you are, too.
But maybe we aren't conscious. Maybe consciousness is in us, or we are in it. It's out there, as impersonal as gravity, pulling and pushing at us in some indefinable way. It's here, whether we are here or not.
Maybe it's that undiscovered (or unrecognized) thing that will reconcile the Standard Model and Quantum Mechanics. Maybe it has something to do with entanglement, or strings.
Or maybe not. Would any of this be testable, I wonder? If a scientist took the idea seriously that consciousness might be real, and measurable, could she devise experiments to find it?
How crazy is this idea?