I’ve been reading and listening to a lot about what it means to be conscious lately. I am always amused at how the minute an idea that is new to me attracts my attention, I continue to run into more and more information on the same subject without effort. The nature of consciousness has been no different, but it is probably not such a coincidence. After all, it is a constant curiosity to all of us, even if we don’t or can’t articulate it.
In a previous post of mine called “Judy And The Universe,” I touched on something I didn’t have a word for. I wondered about the possibility of an infinite universe inside of us, scaling down beyond cells, molecules and atoms, farther and farther into a space we can never access. Then I pondered the force that drives everything within these units to come together and arrange themselves to become us and everything we can identify in our known world. What is that force? Is it self-aware as we are? What are “we”? If the protons and neutrons that our bodies are made from are not aware, are atoms? If not atoms, cells? At what point do they become conscious?
This is what the scientific community calls “the hard problem of consciousness” or, more typically, just “the hard problem.” Most believe that worms, ants and spiders are not sentient—able to reason, think and feel pain—but rather just operate on instinct. I snicker a little as I type that because what is creating the drive that develops and evolves the instinct, right? I promise, we are getting there. We do tend to agree that mammals and birds are sentient as we are. But, when or why does that happen in a collection of matter? When do we emerge from this cosmic driving force into self-awareness?
As I mentioned before, I didn’t have a word for this intuition for the thing that drives matter to do what it does, but I found it accidentally when I read Annaka Harris’s book, “Conscious.” It turns out, there is an idea out there called panpsychism, which basically proposes that all matter is conscious on some level. Hearing it put this way immediately resonated with me and made me feel less alone in my intuition. What does this mean? First, it seems panpsychism is not a widely accepted or even respected hypotheses within the scientific community, at least not openly. This is apparently because most scientists see the idea as too fantastic and even hinting at the paranormal. There are also several versions of it, which make it even more—you should pardon the term—loosey-goosey. You’ll not find any qualification here to explain the differences, so please refer to my postscript at the end of this piece. I concede that I am not an educated scientist. I understand scientific method well enough to understand why such an idea would not be welcomed with open arms by the people who do move in these realms. But it does tickle the frontal lobe—at least mine—and begs us to ponder the implications.
I am reverent to science. I believe in and respect the staunch skepticism and rigorous, adamant demand for empirical evidence. It is why most of us are alive today. It is how we came to understand gravity, current and other physics. Without the commitment to science, we would have much harder lives and understand our world much less. It is important.
But then, there is always room for wonder. Wonder and curiosity are the things that lead us to scientific discoveries and to the nearly inexplicable technological revolution that we have witnessed over the last 100 years. Without a curious and open mind, we stay stagnant, and nothing new is discovered. Wonder and curiosity mapped the Earth and founded the theory of evolution. Everything starts as a notion or hypothesis. Many times, hypotheses thought to be unlikely or even lunacy have been scientifically proven or promoted to scientific theory. Crazy ideas like hygiene being connected to disease, or the realization of tectonic plates. The great and challenging thing about real science is that it is beholden to the understanding we have today. We cannot prove that which we don’t have the capability of understanding, seeing or processing. The universe is a very strange place. Stranger than Einstein wanted to believe. Stranger than anyone alive today will ever know.
And then, there is God. I know in the minds of many as I write this. It is not lost on me, either. As you will already know if you’ve read my previous posts, I do not subscribe to a religion. I find that I am not really an atheist, either. After reading the actual definition of agnosticism, it is probably what best describes me:
“a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God.” Thank you, Google
The thing is, there is just too much we don’t know to discount that which we cannot disprove altogether. That’s the great and challenging thing about science. Even science does not say there is no God. Rather, it says there is no empirical evidence to support the theory of a god, let alone a god as prescribed by any known faith or doctrine. I really love this and view it as the most powerful example of how none can “know the mind of God,” which is my paraphrase of a bit of scripture that has stayed with me since my teenage years. Nor can we know the nature of such a being, as it turns out, scientifically.
So, what am I getting at? Well, we live in a real weird place with lots of unknowns and room to roam within your mind. Let yourself consider the possibilities without fully subscribing to them. Use science, be a skeptic, but allow yourself to be curious and contemplative. As weird as we can observe it to be, it no doubt gets way weirder, still. Maybe one day we will know. I wonder if Einstein does now.
P.S. If this subject interests you, please do yourself a favor and read the very well researched and written book “Conscious” by Annaka Harris. I think you will find it fascinating, and there is never enough of that in our grown-up lives