“No one knows they’re not dreaming. Not one of us. Not ever. Not for one single moment of our lives.” — Steven Moffat
Well, okay, you can read this if you’ve wondered about the mysteries of reality and have been puzzled by how consciousness can exist in a physical universe. Otherwise, skip to the next essay — or the next blog, for that matter.
For the rest of us, grab a seat and a bottle of Scotch. This will take some thought. And I make no promises that I’ll get you through it safe and sound.
Recently I read an essay by Dr. Michael Shermer, noted religious skeptic, about his debate with spiritualist Deepak Chopra. I noticed an unusual amount of ire in Dr. Shermer’s normally peaceful approach to these issues. With, e.g., evangelicals, he is tirelessly patient, but with Dr. Chopra, he gets his ire up. I wondered why, until it hit me that both he and Chopra were touching on an essential, unsolved mystery for science: how can the distinct realms of consciousness and hard reality exist simultaneously? Isn’t one a ghost inside the other? Chopra, in his struggling way, seems to have touched a nerve that hangs out, swollen and inflamed, in most people’s philosophies — even those of scientists.
Chopra’s metaphysical difficulty is that he assumes there’s a universe that exists separately from, and is brought about by, “consciousness”. Most scientists believe the other way around, that there’s a separate universe that generates instances of consciousness. Either position assumes two qualitatively distinct entities, namely, “consciousness” and “a universe”. Both beliefs require what I call “philosophical epicycles” — elaborate explanations for beliefs that presuppose that our consciousness exists as a kind of weird spirit floating just outside a hard, eternal physical realm. Religionists usually have crackpot notions about awareness that involve a mysterious “spirit”, whereas scientists tend to ignore consciousness altogether. Yet the notion sits squarely in the midst of both belief systems, and it makes for one of the central puzzles of quantum mechanics — namely, “How can subatomic phenomena become so qualitatively different when we merely look at them differently?”
Both world views can benefit by a good shave from Occam’s Razor. Instead of two realms — consciousness and physical reality — perhaps it’s possible to have one realm that manages to include the effects of the other.
A more robust version of Chopra’s viewpoint comes from what, in Western thought, is called “Subjective Idealism”: that there is no universe but only consciousness. If this is true, then all consciousness can do is make maps of itself, one of which it calls “the universe”. In that sense, the universe is merely a mental construct made up of sensations and connecting thoughts. (Instead of saying, “My car is in the garage,” one would more accurately say, “If I walk toward the garage, I will see my car.” Whether the car “exists” separately or not is irrelevant.) This viewpoint allows for the discoveries of science without invoking two separate universes, one of ghostly consciousness and one of hard physical reality.
It would appear that Subjective Idealism creates billions of separate awarenesses without a central organizing principle — where scientists would instead invoke a hard physical universe — so how can my awareness be congruent with yours? How can we share similar experiences if there’s nothing to bind us together? But the scientific viewpoint begs the question by ignoring how those zillions of consciousnesses are connected to a physical realm. With Subjective Idealism, the problem gets solved in much the same way that a mathematician solves an equation by manipulating the variables and coefficients: every instance of awareness is a transposed version of every other one. Thus, if I hold up my hand, you see the palm and I see the back, but it’s the same hand — not a separate hand that we each witness separately, but one hand that exists in transposed versions of consciousness. Every instance of awareness, then, is equivalent to every other one, the way an equation can be written in endless different ways.
(With a little work, we can flesh out this concept to help explain why we witness the vagaries of quantum uncertainty — slit screens and interference patterns and photoelectric effects, etc. — so they continue to comport with science without invoking “awareness ghosts” that invade a separate, hard physical reality. But that’s for another essay.)
Here’s a way to get to the nub of the problem: When you dream and then wake up, what happens to the universe of your dream? Did it ever really exist? That world depends on the dream; it exists entirely, and only, within your consciousness. In that respect, there never was such a separate realm to begin with; it was all part of the dream. The problem is: can you prove you’re not dreaming your entire life?
Awareness or consciousness (I’ve been using the terms interchangeably) isn’t a “thing” with a fence around it; it has no border, and thus can’t be located anywhere. Nothing can exist “outside” it; hence, no separate universe can dwell beyond this conscious realm that has no edge. In that sense, it really is all a dream.
Whether your fellow explorers actually have feelings, or are simply props in your dream, is ultimately imponderable. Most people shy away from this idea because it implies that the observer might be totally alone, unable to share feelings with similar beings who also feel. But which is worse from a scientific viewpoint — the possibility that you’re alone, or the possibility that your awareness is an unexplainable ghost that floats in parallel with some sort of physical universe? A worthy scientist would want to know how to account for those ghosts, no matter how lonely it got.
None of this is to deny the power of science — which, at the very least, increases the accuracy of the maps we make of our own awareness. Science is about truth, though not necessarily about “a universe” (whose independent existence might well be a topic for scientific scrutiny).
I’m a big fan of science and skepticism, agnostic in spiritual matters, but also skeptical of our too-easy assumption that there’s a separate universe out there, floating somehow beyond our awareness. To be sure, mine is an upside-down way of looking at these matters. Still, I can’t help but wonder why scientists often seem to presume a separate reality for consciousness even as they rail against the notion of “spirit” proffered by religionists. There’s an epicycle spinning here somewhere within the Halls of Science, a huge untested assumption lurking in the basement. And it grows bigger with every paradoxical discovery of quantum physics. Scientists ignore it at their peril; religionists will jump on it and try to go for a ride. Something’s gotta give.
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