First I want to make a distinction between belief and faith. Belief does not require or equate to faith. One can “believe” that the day sky is blue, but such a belief can be subjected to a test. Since one can prove through various means that the color of the day sky meets the accepted definition of blue, believing that the day sky is blue does not amount to a faith based belief. One could also believe that the day sky is green, but that belief could be refuted through evidentiary means. For the purposes of this article, a faith based belief is one that cannot be proven through evidentiary means.
Belief in a soul, defined as an immortal conscious awareness, is rather different from believing that any given religious doctrine is “God’s word.” One does not need to believe in the Bible, Koran, Book of Mormon or any other religious doctrine to believe that consciousness is a separate, distinct, eternal and fundamental feature of this universe. Belief that any given religious doctrine is “the one true doctrine of God’s word” demands faith, since such claims cannot be proven, whereas consciousness is obviously something that definitively exists within this universe, and as such, can be subjected to various tests.
It should also be pointed out that belief in a soul is also distinct from a belief in God(s). It is not a logical contradiction to believe in a soul, yet not believe in a God, since the two could very well be separate entities. The existence of an all powerful, all knowing and eternal entity’s existence cannot be disproved. Such a God could have simply created the universe and set it into motion and then left it to its own devices. Yet neither can such a God be proven to exist, unless that God decided to make his presence manifest for inquiry. Presently, belief in the existence of such a God is an act of faith.
What I’m trying to point out with my arguments here is that belief in a soul is entirely separate and distinct from a belief in a God or a religious doctrine. One can believe in a soul, yet not be in a logical contradiction with one’s own beliefs if they did not also believe in a God or a particular religious doctrine. And, since consciousness indisputably exists, holding a particular belief about its nature is not the same as having faith in the existence of a God or religious doctrine.
That said, let’s take a closer look at the nature of consciousness. Modern scientific inquiry is unable to determine the causal properties of our awareness. We simply don’t know why the physical matter of our brains should give rise to the experience of awareness we deem to be consciousness. Science has provided us numerous deterministic theories in regards to how this may be possible, but there are no definitive answers that spell out precisely how inanimate matter can be organized into a conscious awareness. Nor does modern science tell us why the given organization of matter in our brains should give rise to conscious awareness.
However, modern scientific inquiry has provided us a wealth of knowledge in regards to the biological functions of the brain. So let’s go over some of the things we know to be true about the physical properties of the brain. Scientists surmise that synaptic bonds are the method by which memory is encoded into the brain. They make this assumption based on the fact that the inhibition of a specific protein kinase, which blocks the strengthening of synaptic bonds, leads to apparent memory loss in animal tests. However, there are some problems with this theory.
It is debatable that there are enough synaptic bonds to account for the amount of memory we know the mind is capable of storing. Further, we know from brain scans that short term and long term memories appear to be stored and recalled in differing areas of the brain. Modern science has not produced a plausible mechanism by which this transport of memories to differing areas of the mind could take place over time. Thus, it is accurate to say there is no proof that memory is entirely a physical construct of the brain. Obviously this is important given the intimate ties between experiential awareness and memory.
Further, modern science has not provided us with an origin point of thought within the brain. Brain scans reveal that thoughts appear as a cascade of bio-electrical activity originating at differing points across the entire brain. There is no singular point in the brain that scientists can point to and say, “this is where all thoughts originate from.” There is no decision maker in the brain that decides what we will think about at any given moment.
It is in the silence of the mind that we find a deeper understanding of the nature of consciousness. Science cannot tell us what biological mechanism provokes a thought into existence. Thoughts appear to coalesce in the mind purely at will. They appear to be willed into being by an unknown causal agent. A person can chose to think or not think at will, and as such, our consciousness appears to have total control over the thoughts we chose to manifest.
If consciousness were purely the product of deterministic bio-chemical processes, it seems doubtful to me that we would have such control over our own minds. How is it possible that I can chose to think or not think, at will, if random bio-chemical reactions are the process through which consciousness manifests itself? If bio-chemical reactions are not the initiators of thought, then what is?
At this point, I want to make a further distinction between thought and awareness. While most people consider them to be one in the same, there are notable differences between the two. You can have awareness without thought, but it is impossible to have thought without awareness. If we define thought as that which we think, and awareness as the ability to be aware of what we think, it should become clear that the two are not one in the same. For example, when I read something, I “audibly” speak the words I’m reading to myself in my own mind. My mind creates a mental voice that turns what I’m reading into a mental noise. The mental noise is what I’m thinking about, but the ability to be aware of that noise is my awareness. When I stop thinking, the mental noise is silent, yet I am still “aware” of my conscious existence.
Try it once. Notice the silence around you.
In order to notice silence, a curious thing takes place. The mind must become silent itself in order to notice silence. Noticing silence is a recognition of an awareness beyond thought.
Getting back to the science of the brain, modern science has been able to dissect the brain down to the atomic level, yet it still has not produced a causal initiator of thought. Nor has it produced a physical mechanism that would explain how animal life becomes aware.
Further, consciousness cannot be the result of macro processes if one believes in free will. This is because all macro processes are deterministic in nature. Probabilistic behavior of matter only occurs at the atomic/subatomic level. If we are to believe that macro processes are the causative agents of consciousness, then every thought and every action we have ever undertaken has been predestined to happen. I find this to be a rather ridiculous line of reasoning. Consider all of the judgments, emotions, and decisions that occur within an ordinary conversation between two people. Are we to believe that the reactions, judgments and emotions that arise between both parties are predestined to occur? How is it even possible for the two brains to coordinate a coherent response between each other if they are entirely separate entities governed by entirely separate deterministic processes?
Due to the lack of plausible macro causal agents, many scientists have moved their theorizing to the subatomic level. I regard this as simply obfuscating the problem of awareness behind the incomprehensible jargon of quantum mechanics; I will explain why in just a moment. While I agree that there must be some kind of physical agent that creates the cascade of brain activity we see in brain scans, I disagree that it is even possible for any physical agent to be responsible for conscious awareness.
Whether or not thoughts are physical manifestations of the brain is a debatable subject, but the nature of awareness itself is much more cut and dry. Natural philosophy makes it quite clear that it is very unlikely for awareness to arise out of physical matter. To prove my point, let’s start out with a thought experiment. If you have an unlimited amount of blue Lego blocks, is it possible for you to create a large red object by putting those blue Lego blocks together in various ornate ways?
Obviously the answer is no. This is because all properties of a system must be inherent in the components that make up that system. Since you only have blue blocks to work with, there is simply no way to produce a red object. Similarly, if I create a gadget that utilizes electricity, I must supply a flow of electrons into that gadget before it will work. If I want to create a soft fluffy pillow, I can’t do it if I only have steel nails to work with. This argument is called the problem of strong emergence.
To claim that a physical manifestation of matter, be it macro, atomic or subatomic, is the causal agent of awareness, is to simultaneously claim that the matter in question is also aware itself. For one cannot produce a system with properties other than those already inherent in its component parts. Have scientists found any evidence to suggest that atomic/subatomic particles are aware of their own existence?
Now which argument sounds more crazy? That atomic/subatomic particles are inherently aware, or that awareness is a separate fundamental component of the universe itself? Further, what are the implications if atomic/subatomic particles ARE aware? At this point we have entered the realm of faith again haven’t we? Since it cannot be proven nor disproved that atomic/subatomic particles are aware or have some aspect of awareness to them, isn’t it faith to believe they are the causal agents of awareness? On a philosophical level, we know physical matter exists because we are able to experience it. However, it is a fallacy to then conclude that because we can experience physical matter, that experience itself must be composed of physical matter.
So what does science have to say about the nature of quantum mechanics itself? Interestingly, many experiments have demonstrated that in order for matter to exist, it must be consciously observed. This means that consciousness must have been present before matter came into existence. QM is quite explicit in stating that observation must be present to collapse a wave function (ie. bring matter into a measurable state of existence).
Physicists often like to cite quantum decoherence as an solution to this problem; however, quantum decoherence on its own does not attempt to solve the measurement problem. Decoherence as an explanation for wave function collapse results in either a many worlds or many minds interpretation of the physical universe. This “chicken or egg” problem of consciousness is called the quantum mind-body problem.
A many minds interpretation leads to a continuous infinity of minds existing in an infinite number of universes. This leads to a system that is unable to explain single photon interference patterns in experiments such as the double slit experiment. A many-worlds interpretation implies that all possible alternative histories and futures are real, each representing an actual “world” (or “universe”).
A many-worlds interpretation that does not include a conscious observer leads to pure determinism and the absence of free will. No matter which one you chose, conscious observation is inherently necessary before a wave function collapse, or branching of the universe, occurs. The rejection of a conscious observer in QM theory leads to pure determinism, no free will, and no explanation for experiential awareness.
We can see that the fundamental tenants of QM theory are directly opposed to its use as an explanation for consciousness. Yet scientists have no other means to explain consciousness, other than through QM theory, because that’s the only avenue left that could possibly incorporate free will. The end result being that they are left floundering around in obscure mathematical theories trying to prove something that logic says cannot be proven.
Now that I’ve covered the big scientific and philosophical points, I want to move on to something more metaphysical. While many scientists have poo pooed near death experiences as being the byproduct of a dying brain, there can be no doubt that these experiences do occur. Many people who have had a near death experience are able to report on verifiable veridical events that occurred while they were seemingly unconscious, which could later be confirmed by medical personnel. Here are a few cases for your consideration:
Dr. Pim van Lommel, a cardiologist, conducted studies on NDEs that led him to conclude that consciousness is non-local (resides outside of the brain).
Dr. Lloyd Rudy, a cardiologist, reports on a patient that accurately described his resuscitation procedure while unconscious in a state of near death.
Dr. Eban Alexander, who was an associate professor of neuroscience at Harvard, underwent a near death experience that made him a believer in the afterlife. Dr. Alexander was an atheist materialist determinist prior to his NDE.
Pam Reynolds, a musician, reported events while in a state of clinical death that were verified by medical staff.
Hopefully these few examples will whet your appetite and cause you to dig a little deeper into this phenomena. What I find fascinating about these experiences is that nearly all of the people who experience a “deep” NDE report that time seems to lose all meaning. Many of them report that they experience the infinite, which is something that seems impossible for the physical brain to create.
Given that the best science we have today says consciousness must preexist matter, and given that logic dictates that the properties of a system must be inherent in the components of that system, and given that all macro processes are deterministic, and given that science has found no causal agent for the initiation of thought, and given that science is unable to explain a mechanism for the transference of memories between differing brain regions, and given that the number of synapses in the brain seems too small to hold volume of memory we know the mind is capable of storing, and given that atomic/subatomic particles show no signs of awareness, is it illogical to conclude that consciousness is not a property of matter, but is instead a separate fundamental component of the universe?
I say no.
I would also like to point out the timeless nature of awareness. No matter what we experience, we can only experience things that are happening at this present moment. We cannot experience the future, nor can we experience the past. Awareness seems to reside outside of time in this regard. We can experience time as a sequential flow of moments, but only ever experiencing one moment at a time. If time were to stop, would we cease to experience? Logic says no, since we don’t ever experience time in the first place. We only experience this moment.
While it is true that the senses need time to receive information and transport it to the brain for processing, the experiences those senses bring to us reside outside the flow of time. Physical things need time to act and react, sense receptors need time to encode and decode information that is sent to our brain, but experience is always instantaneous in the present moment. If experience was not instantaneous, everything we experience would be smeared across time. It’s impossible to even comprehend what that might be like.
In conclusion, I believe that consciousness is separate from the physical mind and that consciousness is infinite and eternal in nature, and I don’t need any faith to arrive at this conclusion.