Previous: Front Matter  Up: Consciousness and the Physical World Next: 1.  Mind and Matter

0.  Dreams and Awakenings 

The Dream of Matter

You are born into the world as a blob of protoplasm, the astronomically improbable result of a random recombination of genes and the confluence of a (literal) uncountable infinity of random events.  Had just one or two of these billions of random events had a different outcome, you would in all likelihood never have been born.  Your very existence could not be more improbable.

 You are nothing but your body and brain. Your inner self, your aspirations and strivings, your deepest emotions, and innermost thoughts are nothing more electrical discharges and chemical secretions in the wetware of your brain.  When that brain and body are gone, decomposed once more into their constituent elements, dispersed back into the Mother Earth, and finding new homes in her countless new creatures, plants and minerals, you will be no more. Aside from your works, influences on others, and the continuation of the all the myriad other causal chains in which you once participated, it will be as though you never existed.  

 Such is the dream of modern science and indeed of many modern enlightened religions that, perhaps prematurely, have rushed to embrace the materialist worldview of modern science, not wanting to be left behind in the dark ages from which they sprang.  

Awakening From the Dream of Matter

According to the physicalistic philosophies underlying modern science, one’s self is nothing more than one’s physical body and the physical world is all that exists.  We are identical to our physical bodies, our selves nothing more than the electrochemical activity of billions of neurons housed in calcium skulls.  In the Weltanschauung of modern science, the world/universe is comprised of a collection of blindly careening elementary and not-so-elementary particles, a spacetime stage for them to perform their antics in, and little else.   The behavior of these material particles is governed by the mathematical laws of physics and nothing else.  

But, if each of us does have a self that endures from moment to moment, from day to day, and year to year (however much it may be extinguished at death), then that self cannot be identical with any specified collection of material particles.  The material particles that make up our bodies are constantly changing.  Atoms and molecules are continually entering into and exiting from your body, so that the collection of material particles that comprises your body of today is a completely different assemblage of material particles from that which comprised your body of several years ago.  Yet you perceive that you are the same self you were then.  If this perception is correct, then you cannot be identical to any particular collection of material particles, including your present physical body.  

If each of us is identical with his or her physical body, it is most surprising that we would find ourselves conscious at the present moment of time.  A human lifespan is only several decades long. On the other hand, the universe has existed for approximately 13.5 billion years and will likely exist for billions more to come (to say nothing of the age of any “multiverse,” of which the universe may be only a part).  Thus, the probability that the moment in time that has somehow been mysteriously selected to be the “present” (something that physics, by the way, has no explanation whatsoever for) would correspond to a moment in one’s lifetime would seem to be vanishingly small.  Also, if one is to be identified with a particular physical body, the probability that the set of genes that formed the blueprint for that body would ever have come into combination is virtually zero (and still smaller is the probability that the particular configuration of material particles that comprises one’s present physical body would ever have formed, much less exist at the present moment).  Yet here you find yourself (a field of consciousness that is unique and special to you at any rate) existing at the present time.  This is most surprising (indeed virtually impossible) based on the view that you are identical with, or dependent on, the presence of a particular collection of material particles at a particular moment in time.   Hence, by a quick pseudoapplication of Bayes’ theorem in statistics, the probability that the standard view (that you are your physical body) obtains is also virtually zero.  

There is much merit in the worldview of modern physical science and its current avatar is supported by a wide array of scientific evidence.   However, scientists seem always to wish that their work is complete and that leisurely island life is only just around the corner.  Sometimes they are quite adamant in their defense of this position. 

This attitude is exemplified in a statement by the Nobel prize-winning physicist Albert Abraham Michelson, which he made twenty years after his paradigm-shaking experiment on the velocity of the Earth relative to the luminiferous ether.  Michelson’s experiment (conducted in collaboration with Edward W. Morley) established the speed of light as a fundamental constant of nature and eventually led to the downfall of Newtonian mechanics and its replacement with Einstein’s special theory of relativity.  Michelson’s remarks are as follows:

The more important fundamental laws and facts of the physical universe have all been discovered and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote [quotation taken from Feuer, 1974, p.253].

Michelson added that, although there were apparent exceptions to most of these laws, these were due to the increasing accuracy of measurement made possible by modern apparatus and that the system of known physical laws would be adequate to deal with the “apparent exceptions.” He went on to assert that “Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals” (Feuer, 1974, p. 254.)  What is most amazing about these statements is that they preceded rather than followed the publication of Einstein’s paper on special relativity, a paper that caused a revolution in science and that received its main immediate empirical support from the results of Michelson’s own experiment.  The development of quantum mechanics was another major revolution Michelson did not anticipate.  

In fact, the discoveries and revolutions just keep on a-coming. For instance, Science’s “Breakthrough of the Year” for 2003 was the discovery that 96% of the energy in the universe is comprised of dark matter and dark energy, the existence of which was not even suspected a few decades ago, rather than the matter-energy that is visible to us, which comprises a mere 4% of the energy in the universe.  A full 73% of the universe is comprised of dark energy, the existence of which was not even suspected until 1998 (Seife, 2003).  Many more surprises may be in store for us.

There is no real place for mind or consciousness in the great World Machine of modern physicalistic science (leaving aside for the moment certain interpretations of quantum mechanics, which will be discussed in more detail in Chapter 2 and elsewhere in the book).   Indeed, physicalistic science is at a loss to explain how the human brain, composed like everything else of supposedly insensate matter, can give rise to conscious experience (as contrasted with mere information-processing).  To be sure, modern cognitive neuroscience has achieved remarkable insights into the nature of the brain activities that are associated with various forms of cognitive experience.  What it has not thus far achieved is any explanation of how a three-pound hunk of meat can give rise to conscious experience in the first place.

Finally, there is a smattering of (hotly contested) evidence that conscious minds have powers such as precognition, telepathy and psychokinesis (collectively referred to as psi) that cannot be accounted for in terms of the known principles of physics.  This evidence will be discussed in detail in Chapters 3 and 4.  As modern science clings to the delusion that its grasp of the nature of reality is complete, it has steadfastly resisted the work of parapsychologists.  

Such an attitude is evident in the following comments of two eminent scientists, the psychologist Donald Hebb and the physicist Hermann von Helmholtz, regarding the early experimental work on psi phenomena conducted by J. B. Rhine at Duke University.  Rhine is generally regarded as the “father” of experimental parapsychology (the study of psi phenomena) and was the person who coined the term “extrasensory perception” (or ESP for short).  

Both quotations are taken from Collins & Pinch (1979, p. 244).  First Hebb:

Why do we not accept E.S.P. as a psychological fact? Rhine has offered us enough evidence to have convinced us on any other issue … I cannot see what other basis my colleagues have for rejecting it … My own rejection of [Rhine’s] views is in a literal sense prejudice.

Now Helmholtz:

I cannot believe it. Neither the testimony of all the Fellows of the Royal Society, not even the evidence of my own senses would lead me to believe in the transmission of thought from one person to another independently of the recognized channels of sensation. It is clearly impossible.

If psi phenomena are real, they have major implications for our understanding of the place of mind in the cosmos.  Psi phenomena appear to transcend spacetime separations and to violate the normal temporal ordering of causation (such as in the case precognition, or the ability to foresee the future, and retroactive psychokinesis, or the ability to influence events that have already occurred).  Because of their importance, a large portion of this book will be devoted to a discussion of psi phenomena and their implications for our understanding of the mind and the cosmos.  As they appear to represent phenomena that cannot be accounted for in terms of current theories of physics, psi phenomena have often been taken as pointing to the existence of an “immaterial” mind.  Many parapsychologists believe that psi phenomena may eventually be given an account in terms of an extension of current physical theories.  If so, psi phenomena may point to the existence of new physical entities and principles rather to an immaterial realm.

As we shall see, the existence of psi phenomena has not been conclusively established.  If the critics are correct and psi phenomena do not exist, the principal conclusions in this book regarding the nature of the conscious self will not be invalidated.  For instance, our recent awakening from the Dream of Matter was achieved without the “alarm clock” of psi.  Whether psi phenomena exist or not, our conscious selves cannot be identified with our physical bodies or brains.   

 The Dream of the Person

You are your mind, not your body, not even your brain.  You are your thoughts, your personality, your memories, your emotions.  In short, you are a person, not a blob of pulsating neurons.  While your body and brain might decay into dust, you may survive by being:

  1. Brought to Heaven (or Hell, Valhalla, Hades or the Dreamtime) in an angelic (or demonic) ethereal body,

  2. Reincarnated with some of your memories, emotions, thoughts and much of your personality intact, at least at a subconscious level,

  3. Transformed into an astral ghost capable of monitoring the events in this work and, occasionally, manifesting yourself to living,

  4. Resurrected in your present body or a replica thereof at the time of the Day of Judgment, or

  5. Transferred to a cybernetic “brain” by having your memories, thoughts and personality traits downloaded into a supercomputer or robot, or perhaps etched into the neuronal connections of willing or non-so-willing volunteers (or possibly even a mass of stem cells growing in a beaker in some remote laboratory). 

At any rate, there is hope for eternal life, at least if the Cosmos’s neuro-copying equipment and file retrieval systems are up to the task and do not go on the blink and if some Agent is sufficiently enamored of one’s personality to want to keep a copy of it on hand for eternity (or barring that at least until the heat death of the universe).

The first and fourth alternatives above are subscribed to by certain adherents to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religious tradition, as well as the great mythological traditions of the pre-Christianized world, who look forward to reunion with the deity (or deities) and loved ones in some type of post-mortem realm such as the Christian Heaven.  In the fourth alternative above, the resurrection is thought to take place right here or Earth or in some Resurrection World in a parallel universe.  Besides having one’s personality recreated, we will all be generously provided with idealized resurrection bodies as well (see Edwards, 1997, pp. 53-62 for an entertaining discussion of beliefs regarding the resurrection of the body within the Christian tradition).   Many resurrectionists believe that these will be the same physical bodies we occupied in life (although as noted above, each of us has already occupied several different physical bodies).  If this is the case, I hope will not have to fight with the likes of Socrates and Jack the Ripper over who owns a particular set of atoms that we shared during our respective physical lives.  (It is estimated that every minute, each of us inhales an atom once expelled in Julius Caesar’s dying breath.)  Thus, this process of sharing recycled atoms might well result in a heated game of “musical atoms,” much like musical chairs, at the time of the resurrection.  Thus, the resurrectionists are not only lost in the Dream of the Person, they are still lost in the Dream of Matter.

The third alternative, reincarnation, is subscribed to by many shamanistic traditions, by Eastern religious traditions such as Hinduism and Buddhism (although as well shall see later, many of the more sophisticated adherents to the Eastern religious tradition have awakened from the Dream of the Person), and by as much as one-quarter of the people in the highly-Christianized United States.  There is even empirical evidence for reincarnation in the form of children who report seemingly accurate memories of past lives (Stevenson, 1987).

Additional empirical evidence for the survival of the person has been provided by psychical researchers studying apparitions and hauntings, purported massages from the dead communicated by mediums or in dreams, as well as near-death experiences and the related phenomenon of out-of-the-body experiences.  A few other lines of investigation are highly amusing if not outright silly, such as attempts to detect messages from the dead in radio static or on one’s phone answering machine and to weigh and/or photograph the soul upon its departure at death.  We will duly consider this evidence empirical evidence for the survival of the personality in Chapter 6, presenting both the proponents’ and skeptics’ evidence and arguments. 

As for the fifth alternative, some writers, including Hans Moravec (1988), Grant Fjermedal (1987), and Frank Tipler (1994) among others, have suggested that one’s thoughts, memories and personality could be “downloaded“ into a computer or robot, allowing one’s essential self to survive after death in a cybernetic world or as a cybernetic simulacrum operating in the physical world.   This survival could be for eternity, or at least until the heat death of the universe (after which the universe may not be that much fun to play in anyway).

Awakening from the Dream of the Person

   Just as the collection of atoms and elementary particles making up your physical body undergoes continual change and replacement, so do your thoughts, emotions, memories and personality traits.  Your essential self persists, despite these continual changes in the contents of your consciousness (and, we might add, subconscious and unconscious minds as well).  Thus, you cannot be your personality or its “contents,” such as your thoughts, emotions, and memories.

During the past three decades neuroscientists have amply demonstrated that one’s sensations, feelings, thoughts, emotions, memories, ideas, and even personality can be radically altered through electromagnetic, surgical, chemical, and accidental interventions in the brain.  Thus, we live in a different world of knowledge than did the psychical researchers of a century ago, who searched for some trace of the continuing existence of the dearly departed in the garbled words of mediums uttered during séances.

If relatively minor modifications of brain states can substantially alter the nature of one’s experience and personality, as has by now been amply demonstrated, how could your personality and experiences manage to continue on in a more or less an uninterrupted fashion after the far more drastic event of the destruction of your entire brain?  Also, many of the concerns that drive the structure of your personality have to do with the preservation of your own physical body and those of people who are closely related to you (or perhaps to the propagation of your “selfish genes”).  What would be the point of the continuance of these concerns once your physical body has been returned to dust and your ability to intervene in the physical world perhaps radically curtailed?

Of course, there is the possibility, as suggested by Tipler (1994), that your personality may be resurrected by a benevolent and almost omnipotent Programmer that is so enamored of you that She creates a simulacrum of your personality in a semi-eternal cyberspace.  However, there is nothing in principle stopping a sufficiently ardent Fan of your personality from constructing a computer or robot to simulate your personality while you are still alive.  Surely it would be absurd to think that your self would then reside both in the computer and in your physical body.  The computer or robot is just a replica of you.  It is not you.  You are not your personality traits and behavior patterns. 

Along similar lines, it could be argued that, if you are not the particular collection of physical particles that make up your present physical body, perhaps you are the particular pattern of molecules that make up your present body (including your brain configuration and thus personality).  You would then remain the same person even if the physical particles that make up your body changed, so long as the general pattern remained the same. This is the basis of the famous beaming technique in the Star Trek television and movie series.  In Star Trek, one can “beam” to a new location by undergoing a process in which one’s physical body is atomized, information about the pattern of the physical particles that make up one’s body is sent to a distant location, and a new body is reassembled (presumably out of new atoms) at the second location. Peter Oppenheimer  (1986) and Derek Parfit (1987) have independently concluded that this beaming process would result in the death of everyone who used it as a form of transportation, followed by the construction of a replica of the person at the destination site. This replica may not be the original person any more than identical twins are the same person as one another. To make this example more compelling, assume that more than one copy of the person is assembled at the destination site.  Surely it would be difficult to believe that one’s self could simultaneously inhabit all the replicas of one’s physical body that are constructed at the destination site, insofar as a conscious self cannot have several separate and independent streams of consciousness occurring at the same time.

Thus, you cannot be the pattern of your neural activity, your emotions, your memories, your personality traits, or your present hopes and dreams.  We have now awakened from both the Dream of Matter and the Dream of the Person.   If we are not our physical bodies and not our personalities, then what can we be?  What further dreams await us?

The Dream of Atman and Brahman

The self that (seems to) persist over long time periods (from birth to death in the popular, common view) would appear to correspond to what Hornell Hart (1958) called the “I-thinker,” that entity that thinks one’s thoughts (although it may not have a primary role in generating them), feels one’s feelings, remembers one’s memories and senses one’s sensations, rather than being the conglomeration of the thoughts, feelings, memories, and sensations themselves.  After all, these contents of consciousness are fleeting and do not persist from one moment to the next.  One outlives one’s current emotional state, and one’s self may survive the demise of myriad personalities.  After all, how could we be the contents of our streams of consciousness when these contents change from moment to moment while we ourselves seem to persist unchanged from moment to moment, day to day and even from year to year? 

What seems to persist, at least from an introspectionist point of view, is the (contentless) field of consciousness itself.  Perhaps, as suggested above, our real selves are fields of pure consciousness, the “contentless consciousness” of Indian philosophy, as described by Rao (2002), among others.  In other words, we are the vessel of consciousness rather than the contents of that vessel.  

After all, how could we be the contents of our consciousness when such contents change constantly while we seem to persist unchanged from moment to moment, day to day, and even from year to year? It is one of the goals of Buddhist meditative practice to realize that one’s emotions, one’s cravings, and one’s personality are not oneself, to realize oneself as a center of pure consciousness and to extinguish the cravings and clingings that cause discontent and suffering. Similarly, in the Vedantic tradition of Hinduism, one of the ultimate goals in spiritual development is to realize the identity between Atman (one’s individual consciousness) and Brahman (the World Consciousness, or, to use a potentially misleading term from the Western tradition, God).  Under the Vedantic worldview, there is only one pure consciousness, and we are all the Universe looking at itself from different perspectives.

Of course there are those, such as Daniel Dennett (1991), Susan Blackmore (1991a, 1993, 2002) and Thomas Metzinger (2003), who deny the very existence of a continuing self, or “Cartesian theater,” as Dennett calls it.  The self, they maintain, is a convenient “story” we tell ourselves in an attempt to render our experiences coherent and consistent.  As such, the self is an entirely fictional concept, and “we” are nothing more than the scattered contents (fleeting sensations, thoughts, and emotions) of “our” minds.  To most people the existence of a continuing self is immediately given and obviously true. It is an integral part of our essential existence.  However, if thinkers such as Blackmore and Dennett are correct, there is no need to worry about whether the self will survive death.  Indeed, the “self” does not even survive moment to moment and in fact does not even exist at all. 

The Zen doctrine of “No Mind” also denies the existence of a continuing self.  However, the Buddhist doctrine seems more directed at the concept of the self as one’s personality, comprising one’s aspirations, motivations, cravings for material possessions, lusts, pride, and so forth, rather than at the existence of a field of pure consciousness.  A goal of Buddhist practice is to distance oneself from these transitory elements. In order to achieve a state of peace and tranquility, the Buddhists teach that one must suppress and eliminate one’s cravings and greed, which, unfulfilled, are the root of all human misery and suffering.  

As we have seen above, most branches of Buddhism and Hinduism teach that the true self is pure consciousness, not the contents or objects of consciousness.  Thus, rather than clinging to the hope that one’s personality will survive relatively intact in some sort of afterlife, the Eastern philosophies teach that our personalities are transitory and not our true selves.  One’s true self in this view is the pure consciousness that in Hindu philosophy is taken to be identical with all consciousness, including that of the World Soul or Brahman. Under the Vedantic worldview, there is only one pure consciousness, and we are all the Universe looking at itself from different perspectives.  Thus, according to this view, when persons temporarily abandon their individual identities and perceive themselves as merging with the Cosmos or as being in perfect union with God, as in the mystical experiences described by William James (1902) and others, they are seeing directly into their true selves.  All consciousness is the one Consciousness that underlies this and all other worlds.  We are fragmented splinters of the World Soul, our selves at once separate from, and yet identical to, one another.

It should be conceded that survival in the form of pure consciousness with little continuity of memories, emotions, and predispositions from one’s previous biological life may not be what most persons would consider survival in the true sense (i.e., survival with one’s memories and personality completely intact).  It would, however, be survival of one’s essential self, the central core of one’s existence.

If our true self is Atman, pure consciousness, is there any Brahman, any larger Consciousness for it to merge in, or be identical with?   In recent times, most scientists have turned their backs to the concept of Deity and a Creator, with the possible exception of such doddering old “fools” as Erwin Schrödinger and Isaac Newton.  Arguments for a Designer have largely been abandoned as regressive.  After all, if there was a Designer, who designed Him?  If there was a “preuniverse,” then what preceded that?

The noted mathematician and physicist Sir James Jeans, pondering the subtleties of the mathematics of laws of physics and the seeming dependence of material events upon observation by conscious minds, observed, that the “universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine” (Jeans, 1937, p. 122).  Another great physicist, Sir Arthur Eddington, remarked, “the stuff of the world is mind-stuff” (Eddington, 1920/1959, p. 200). 

Indeed, the base reality of the world appears to be one of quantum probability waves inhabiting an abstract, multidimensional mathematical space rather than the solid, marble-like electron and protons zipping around in a four-dimensional spacetime continuum that we imagine to be the firm underpinnings of our material existence.  The mathematical complexity and beauty of the laws of the quantum mechanics are remarkable.  It does indeed seem as though the Creator is, as both Jeans and Einstein thought, a great mathematician.  As Henry Stapp says, under quantum mechanics, the world has “an essentially  ‘idea-like’ structure” (Stapp, 2005a, p. 73).  Stapp’s remarks are echoed in a recent editorial in Nature, the flagship journal of orthodox science, in which Richard Conn Henry points out that modern physics has demonstrated that the universe is “entirely mental” in nature and that “nothing exists but observations” (Henry, 2005, p.29).

But if the universe is a thought, whose thought is it anyway?  In recent years, a seemingly endless succession of physicists have observed that the laws of the universe and the initial conditions set at the time of its creation seem extraordinarily finally tuned to support the evolution of complex life forms and hence conscious observers (see Barrow & Tipler, 1986, or Livio and Rees, 2005). This seeming evidence of intelligent design is often referred to as the anthropic principle.  Was the universe created as a vast cosmic amusement park? And why go to trouble of designing such an elaborate “roadside attraction” unless One intended to enjoy it Oneself, if only vicariously? Are our individual consciousnesses just aspects of the Creator’s (or Creators’) consciousness, lost in an unimaginable form of contemplation of the myriad creatures It has managed to generate from Its mathematical inventions, much as we may become lost in the adventures of a goldfish in the bowl in our living room or in the adventures of the cybernetic “life” forms we may create when we implement the mathematician John Conway’s “Game of Life” on our computer?

The anthropic principle is based on the observation that the laws and initial conditions of the universe must be extremely fine-tuned to support life as we know it (i.e. carbon-based life forms).  But there may be other forms of life (e.g., nucleon-based) that may arise under different conditions.  Also, there may be multiple universes created, so that we necessarily find ourselves in a universe capable of supporting conscious observers, with initial conditions and laws that would seem improbable had only one universe been created with a random assortment of physical laws and initial conditions.  Guth and Kaiser (2005), for instance, note that cosmic inflation (the currently favored model of cosmogenesis) may produce “pocket universes” in each of which the fundamental laws of physics might be different.  Again, we of necessity inhabit a pocket universe that is capable of supporting the existence of conscious observers.  Still, one must explain the laws and initial conditions that gave rise to cosmic inflation in the first place.

One might imagine that a consciousness so complex and vast as to be able to create (perhaps literally dream up) such a startlingly wonderful (and frightening) world as this one might well become bored with its omniscience and may wish to lose itself in its creation, if only temporarily.  It may need to fragment itself and temporarily shed much of its omniscience to accomplish this. We too might well begin to stagnate and become bored if we were to somehow become immortal and become trapped in our present bodies and mired in our present personalities and situation for all eternity.  Death may be the rope thrown to free us from the quicksand of our current identities. 

Beyond the Veil of Maya

We awake from the Dream of Atman and Brahman to find ourselves in still yet another, but this time possibly the final, dream.  We are, exactly as in the dream from we have just awakened, each of us specks of consciousness adrift in a universe whose vastness defies our understanding (if we can even be said to have an “understanding” in any real sense of the word).  There are as yet no planets, no stars, only a rapidly expanding rush of matter and light.  The universe is but only seconds old.  We may have come from a place before the universe, but being disembodied with no notepad or brain on which to record and preserve the events of this prelife, our memories of such a place are lost.  For all we know, and we don’t know much at his point, we may have just been fused together in some great computer of our own construction, of unimaginable computational and physical power, in a “Manhattan project” designed to produce a very Big Bang indeed (at least from our perspectives).   We are adrift in a rapidly expanding spacetime designed to captivate us in a way that is even more amusing and terrifying than Hollywood concoction our current primitive technologies can produce.  However, that all lies in the distant future.  Now, with our memories lost along with our cosmogenic computer, we drift among the beautiful clouds of quantum waves, admiring their beauty, touching them, drawing them this way and that as the potential universe is actualized.   Our consciousness is like that of a quark lost in a swarming buzz of photons and gluons

As Tim Hill points out in a recent letter to the Editor of the Skeptical Inquirer (Hill, 2005), the vast emptiness of space is totally hostile to human observers with its lack of air, pockets of intense radiation and unimaginably high temperatures, not to mention the total absence of fast-food establishments.  If the anthropic principle is valid, Hill suggests, the overwhelming evidence surely suggests that the universe was created for beings that exist in the vacuum of space, not for the amusement for a handful of abnormally smart “geek” apes confined to one tiny speck in a cold dark corner of a comparatively uninterested and desolate cosmos.

Perhaps then, we are more akin to antiprotons than to angels, small islands of consciousness born to force the amorphous clouds of quantum possibilities into the crystalled raindrops of actualized events.    In the view of many interpreters of quantum mechanics, observation by consciousness is what causes such quantum collapse (i.e., collapse of the state vector containing an array of possiblities into one definite outcome).  Walker (2000) has even proposed the existence of “mini-consciousnesses” or “proto-consciousnesses” that govern the collapse of quantum vectors that are remote from human observers.  

Indeed, some physicists (e.g., Wheeler, 1983) have suggested that the universe itself, conceived as a quantum process, could not have come into existence without some conscious observer to force the collapse of state vectors and thus to give rise to a definite history of the universe.  Wheeler terms this view the “participatory universe.”  Wheeler notes that this view may explain the fact that the initial state and physical laws of the universe seem finely tuned to support the existence of conscious observers.  Potential universes that do not support the presence of conscious observers could not become actualized in Wheeler’s view, as there would be no conscious observers to collapse their state vectors in the proper “direction” to create such a history.

But perhaps those observers are more akin to Walker’s “proto-consciousnesses" than to human beings.  If physics suggests anything, it is that the fundament constituents of the universe are more likely to very small in comparison to the human observers that formed the center of the medieval view of the cosmos.  Our essential selves are more likely to resemble an electron than a human body.

After our dispersal at the time of the Big Bang, we have surfed the quantum waves, finding our selves in neutron stars, methane oceans on moons of gas giants, exploding in supernovae (the matter comprising our physical bodies was formed in such explosions), shooting out of volcanoes, condensing into rocks, sheparding the bodies of amobea, gazing out of worried eye of a stegosaur, stretching with the leaves of a sequoia.  Through much of this, our consciousness would be dim, as we float in a universe largely separated from our fellow monads, deprived of any physical template to hold our memories or any hormones to drive our wishes and aspirations.  But time is on our side.

As the debris of supernovae cooled and their ashes condensed once again into stars and planetary systems, on one remote outpost (and probably on a virtual infinity of outposts), the physical templates (and the complex assemblages of our essential selves) grew more complex.  With the first protozoa, we began to gather, and after eons we were collected in assemblages in whales and crows and octopodes and in at least one malcontented bipedal ape.

Our common conception, and one that forms part of the Dream of Atman and Brahman is that we are each a single conscious self (field of consciousness) which in some mysterious manner became attached to our brains shortly after our conceptions and will persist in those brains until we die.  But our brains are powerful and unimaginably large in comparison to our single-celled ancestors, who, we might suppose, had the glimmerings of consciousness.  Our brains and bodies are in essence a colony of billions of amoebas.  Many of us may ride in a single brain.  Indeed (as discussed in more detail in Chapter 7), when a human brain is split into its two hemispheres by severing the corpus callosum (the primary bundle of neural fibers connecting the two hemispheres), two fields of consciousness seem to exist, sometimes with such differences in motivation that the right hand (controlled by the left hemisphere) may forced to grab the left hand (controlled by the right) in order to prevent the latter from carrying out an assault on one’s spouse. 

In fact, the findings of split-brain research are precisely the evidence Patricia Churchland uses to refute the existence of a nonphysical self or soul in human beings (Churchland, 2002, pp. 46-47). 

Churchland is likely correct so far as the “single soul” theory goes; but the evidence suggests that multiple centers of consciousness or “souls” may exist within a single brain, with each of them falling under the delusion that they are the single center that is “in charge of” the body.  Jonathan C. W. Edwards (2005) and Willard Miranker (2005) have even proposed that that each single neuron in the brain is associated with its own center of consciousness.  Due to the complexity of the input to each neuron, each such center of consciousness would likely identify with the body as a whole and fall under the delusion that it is the single center conscious self “in charge” of the whole body.

We directly experience ourselves as a single unified fields of consciousness that persist through changes in our brain states and bodily composition over periods of at least hours. We think we persist as the same selves over the lifetimes of our bodies.  In this we may be wrong.  If memories are, as an overwhelming body of scientific evidence indicates, stored as patterns of synaptic connections among neurons in our brain, how do you know that you are the same field of consciousness that inhabited your body when you fell asleep?  If you can become attached to your brain shortly after conception (or in the view of some people at birth) and become detached from it at the moment of death, it stands to reason that you can also become attached to it long after birth and leave it well before death.  Our association with our bodies may be only temporary.  We may be breathed out and breathed in like so many oxygen atoms.  Indeed, while many philosophers (such as Descartes) have thought that minds or souls are not extended in space and time and hence immaterial, the fact that we find ourselves stuck in physical bodies occupying in particular locations in space and (even more mysteriously) located at a particular moments in time, suggests that we too must (at least partially) be residents of spacetime ourselves, if only temporarily.  

Elementary particles such as electrons and quarks may become embedded in physical brains; these particles persist and remain stuck over “long”  time intervals such as minutes and hours. These particles appear, like our individual consciousnesses, to be indivisible (leaving aside the possibility of subquarks for the moment).  If an electron can “incarnate” in a body for a period of time, then be expelled, and then be “reincarnated” in another body or physical system, then so might we.   We may ourselves be material or quasi-material entities that can become stuck in individual brains on a temporary basis.  We may be a particle or field already known to physical science, although it is more likely we are an entity yet to be discovered and explained.  In the latter case we could be called “nonphysical” or “immaterial” in the sense that we are not identical to any particle or field already known to modern physics; however, if the theory of physical science were to expand to accommodate us, perhaps the label of “physical” could then be applied to us.   As Noam Chomsky once remarked, as soon as we understand anything, we call it physical; thus, “anything in the world is either physical or unintelligible” (Lipkin, 2005, p. 55).

The evidence for psi phenomena, to be discussed in Chapters 3 and 4, suggests that the mind may have abilities that transcend those of entities located at single spacetime location.  Such spacetime transcendence, if proven, may make the label “physical” more difficult to apply to minds (but not impossible, in view of the nonlocal behavior of material particles under the theory of quantum mechanics, to be discussed more fully in Chapter 2).

If we are continually being recycled, then when we wake in the morning, we may not be in the same bodies (or objects or plasma fields) that we were in the day before.  If, as the overwhelming body of modern research in neuroscience indicates, our memories, thoughts and emotions are largely a function of our brain states, we would not remember our existence as, say, a crow the day before.  Our previous “memory pad,” namely the crow’s brain, is lost to us.  We cannot find those memories in the same way that we cannot access a telephone number written on a misplaced piece of paper.  The telephone number and the pad it was written on are not parts of our essential selves.   Neither are we the memories stored in the stored in the brain of the crow that now perches outside our window or the memories and personality traits stored in the new human brain in which we have just awakened. What we will remember are the memories stored in that new human brain (sometimes after a period momentary of confusion upon awakening).  We will feel the emotions caused by the intense firing of our midbrain neurons and the hormones and neurotransmitters rampaging through our cerebral cortex.  Accessing the brain’s memories of our sixth birthday party, we will immediately come to the conclusion that we have inhabited this brain and body for decades.  The brain has evolved to serve the body and we now made to serve that purpose as well, overwhelmed by the delusion that we are the Person, that is to say, the body and the memories, thoughts and emotions that result from the neural activity of that body’s brain.  We think we are in sole command of the body, whereas in fact our nerves, the neurochemical soup in which they bathe, as well as numerous other centers of pure consciousness also mired in the same brain, may have as much or more to say about the fate of the body than we do.  In short, we fall under the illusion that we are the Person, the physical body that continues from birth to death, and the stream of memories, thoughts and emotions that courses through it, rather than the centers of pure consciousness that we are.  Blackmore and Dennett are correct in their analysis that the “person” is just a story that we tell ourselves (although it would be more accurate to portray it as a story that is screamed at us by a billion pulsating neurons).  Where Blackmore and Dennett err is in denying that there is any self or center of conscious that persists from moment to moment (i.e., a “Cartesian theater”).  The existence of a conscious self is given to each of us in our direct experience (or at least to me - I can’t speak for Blackmore and Dennett).  If I am to doubt that I am a center of consciousness persisting through macroscopic time intervals, then I must doubt everything and enter a state of total solipsism and nihilism.  However, I do agree that it is likely that spheres of consciousness are, just like electrons and quarks, continually being recycled, joining first one aggregate body and then another.  We are somehow stuck to our brains like an oxygen atom stuck to two hydrogen atoms, a view I once called the “chewing gum” theory of personal identity (Stokes, 1988).  But it is likely that such centers enter and leave the brain at times other than birth and death.  The idea that the conscious self enters into the body at some time shortly after conception and then persists in that body until death is just an aspect of the illusion produced by identifying ourselves as the Person.  We are not the Person, we are not even Atman (in the sense of a sphere of pure consciousness inhabiting the body from birth until death), and are likely no longer Brahman (although it is possible that we were once conjoined in an aggregate of consciousnesses that may have somehow “designed” the world, implemented that design, and are now walking through our “art gallery”).   

 As we have seen, through replacement of atoms, the body we inhabit today is a totally different body from that of a decade age and the spheres of consciousness that inhabit it (including ourselves) are likely themselves different as well.  There is no Person in the sense of a continuing aggregation of matter or a continuing self.  The Person is likely to be, as Blackmore and Dennett insist, a story we tell ourselves.  However, it is a useful story, just like the story of my car or my kitchen table.  It helps credit card companies to obtain payments for purchases we made the preceding month and guides our interactions with former classmates at a high school reunion.  But in an absolute sense, the Person is only a cognitive construct, a very vivid hallucination.   We may be eternal (or least outlast the Energizer Bunny), but “we” (the People) have only a momentary time in the sun and may only be cognitive constructs, much like the ever-changing body of water that is now called the Mississippi River.

We cling to our present form of existence thinking that there is no other, but when you stop to think about the matter, human bodies, with their ills, needs and subjugation into mindless repetitive jobs, may not be the best places in the universe to inhabit.  In fact, they may be “mini-Hells,” aberrations in Great Cosmic Scheme.   But we may not inhabit such Hells (or such Heavens as there might be) for as long as we think.    The best thing for us to do is likely to take the poet Robert Frost’s advice and momentarily stop the “horses” we are currently riding to enjoy the beauty of the falling snow.  As Frost suggests, there may be miles to go (although perhaps not so many as one might think) before we sleep (and enter yet another dream).

The Game Plan

The remainder of this book further develops the themes outlined above (and defends the foregoing thesis regarding the relationship between conscious selves and the physical world).  In Chapter 1, we well will explore the nature of the relationship between mind (consciousness) and matter.  Chapter 2 continues this exploration with a consideration of the implications of quantum mechanics regarding the role of mind in the cosmos.  In Chapters 3 and 4, we will consider the evidence for psi phenomena, such as ESP and psychokinesis, in some detail.  The defense of the primary thesis regarding the role of conscious observers presented above will in no way rest on the existence of psi phenomena.  However, such phenomena, if they exist, have profound implications regarding the role of mind in the physical world (and they are entertaining and instructive to explore in their own right).  Chapter 5 is devoted to an exploration of the implications of psi phenomena, if they exist, for our views of reality in general and the nature of mind-matter interaction in particular.  Chapter 6 presents the existing evidence for the survival of the Person (including memories, emotions, and even physical appearance) of the death of the human body.  In Chapter 7, we will explore in further detail the nature of the self and the nature of mind-brain interaction.  In Chapter 8, we will turn again to a consideration to the role of mind in the physical universe, this time on the grandest of scales, by considering the anthropic principle and arguments that the universe may to designed to support the existence of (and possibly to entertain) conscious observers.  Chapter 9 contains a final summing-up of the evidence and conclusions presented in the main body of the book. 

It is time to get started.

Previous: Front Matter  Up: Consciousness and the Physical World Next: 1.  Mind and Matter