Did consciousness arise from the physical world—or was it the other way round? Here's what (and how) we think today.
Several physicists have endeavoured to explain the mysteries of consciousness using quantum mechanics. On a related note, a number of their brethren have proposed that the Big Bang, and hence the universe, arose from a fluctuation within the quantum vacuum, whatever that may be.
According to the theory, this created both stuff and its modus operandi. “Stuff” in this case means matter and energy, and maybe even the space-time in which it exists. Its modus operandi, or the way it operates, is determined by the forms and laws of nature.
As a consequence of this creation, events were set in motion that would ultimately lead to the emergence of consciousness. That potentiality was there from the beginning, just as cocoa powder and flour hold potential for there to be a cake.
But, for that potential to be realized in a form we recognize, certain pre-conditions had to be met.
What do we presume to know about consciousness? We believe it corresponds to electrochemical activity in the brains of advanced lifeforms, especially humans. As one would perhaps expect from anything emerging out of a quantum event, it seems to have quantum-like properties of duality.
Like the electron, which can exist both as a wave and as a particle, the elements of consciousness can exist both physically and virtually.
This can be illustrated with an example. When you look at a tiger, the light bouncing off it is received by the retina in your eye. From there, it is converted to electrochemical signals which run through the optic nerve and on to the brain. There, the signals are processed into a representation of the tiger, which you see as an image.
A rough analogy of this is the picture on your TV screen, derived from electrical signals delivered along the cable.
So, the quantum-like duality consists of electrochemical signals, on the one hand, and a virtual representation of the tiger on the other. The first is physical; the second is not. It belongs to the mental world. Both are about the tiger.
Arguably, not only visual, but all other forms of consciousness would arise in much the same way. Our brain does a lot of things. Its entire day is spent thinking, calculating and remembering; planning, deciding, and executing; taking in information and sending decisions out the other end. All this processing would be self-monitored by the brain; and would be realized as representations or observations of what is happening within.
The brain processing is in the physical world; the representations are in the mental world.
Many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs believe that consciousness could also emerge from electrical signals in an artificial silicon brain, if that brain’s complexity rivalled that of a human brain.
We don’t yet know whether this can be done — but if it can, then it opens up the possibility that any sufficiently complex network of electrical signals, anywhere in the universe, even if not from biological life, could give rise to consciousness.
If we were ever to succeed in building a conscious robot, then what would happen to its consciousness if its circuits got blown and it ended up on the scrap heap? Would we perhaps expect its consciousness to go to some robot heaven?
On the other hand, what if the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are wrong, and consciousness can only emerge within advanced lifeforms? Such lifeforms may have evolved this faculty as a way to increase their chances of survival in a capricious and hostile world.
Is consciousness, then, an adaptation for survival, perhaps like sharp teeth and claws?
In this case, the opportunities for consciousness in the universe would be somewhat limited. Furthermore, the creation of consciousness in robots may be impossible until we understand how to make life out of non-living matter.
Let us return to the birth of the universe. Consciousness arose during this event as a potentiality. In order to be realized it had to wait for certain pre-conditions to be met. These had to culminate in the emergence of some substrate which produced complex electrical or electrochemical signals.
As far as we know, this waiting period was some 13 billion years, until the advent of advanced animal brains on planet Earth. The pre-conditions for this were threefold: first, there had to be production of the chemical elements of life within stars; this had to be followed by the formation of a planet that could sustain life; and finally, life had to actually emerge from non-living matter.
According to this model, consciousness emerges from an individual brain. It is not a one-size-fits-all; rather, it is uniquely reflective of you as a living being: your DNA, your brain and body, and the life experiences you have had.
What happens to it when the physical substrate — that is your body and brain — dies?
Electrochemical signalling within the brain would stop. Having lost its duality partner, your consciousness would no longer be sustainable within the brain and body. It would be left to return to the virtual realm of unrealized consciousness — that which could be but isn’t — there to join all the other souls which have gone before it, and those still to be realized once their DNA number comes up.
A third possibility is that consciousness may have a life of its own. This has been raised by a number of authors and not a few religions. In which case, it could have arrived before humans.
For example, physicist Danah Zohar in her book entitled The Quantum Self proposed that consciousness came into existence at the Big Bang in realized form, rather than as a mere potentiality. This we do not know, but if it were so, she claims, then such consciousness may have worked hand in hand with the forces of nature to craft the evolution of the universe. This is getting close to religion.
This kind of consciousness, if it exists, would presumably last forever, only changing from one form into another, depending on which body it happened to inhabit at the time.
The implication of this model for consciousness is that even the free sub-atomic particles that were dominant at the Big Bang are conscious. By extension, all matter, including non-living matter, must be conscious, since it is made up of sub-atomic particles.
To reduce human consciousness to that of the body’s sub-atomic particles is to use a method that has been highly successful in the physical sciences. There, the properties of matter have been reduced to those of its basic building blocks at the atomic scale. However, consciousness, as we know it, appears to emerge only from a network architecture of nerve fibres on a grander scale, although what happens at the atomic level is still important.
Hence, we note that the more complex the brain possessed by a species, the more signs of consciousness it exhibits. Of course, we have no way of knowing how it feels to an animal or to another human to be conscious. Only they can observe what is happening within their own brains in the way of conscious experience.
We can only infer consciousness in others by observing their behaviour.
Thus, we have identified three possible models for consciousness: that it emerges from any sufficiently complex electrical or electrochemical network; that it only emerges from living creatures of sufficient neurological complexity; or that it arose in its own right at the Big Bang before life existed in the universe.
To resolve the mystery, we must await more definitive experiments in neurobiology — or, perhaps, in artificial intelligence.