Consciousness is to Energy as Energy is to Matter
J. Kenneth Arnette
Transpersonal Institute for the Scientific Study of the Paranormal
There are many facets to the philosophical and scientific study of consciousness, but philosopher David Chalmers has identified a core issue, which he called the hard problem of consciousness. To paraphrase, the hard problem is: how can matter—regardless of the degree of complexity of its organization—generate something so radically different from itself, namely, thought, ideas, subjective experience, and consciousness? Indeed, it truly is a puzzle that the most tangible, least ephemeral thing we know—matter—could generate the most ephemeral, least tangible thing we know—consciousness itself. It would seem that in a fully material world, biological mechanisms would proceed on their own, without any accompanying awareness or subjectivity. The hard problem, as stated, reflects the assumption that the brain does generate the mind and asks how that can be accomplished. But just as easily, one could make the opposite assumption, that matter does not generate consciousness, and the hard problem dissolves (although other problems ensue). Chalmers’ own response to the question he posed has been called naturalistic dualism: consciousness has a natural ontological status equal to matter-energy and spacetime, the two other basic components of the universe, and cannot be reduced to the workings of these two. For Chalmers, consciousness is irreducible, but not supernatural. Thus, the brain does not generate consciousness or subjectivity, which are nonetheless natural phenomena. While appealing, this view ultimately is not satisfying. It fails to say what consciousness is, beyond irreducible and natural, neither offering nor explaining a mind-brain relationship. Chalmers’ response in fact fails to address the relationships among the three basic entities cited above. I propose instead that we turn the entire problem backwards: to entertain the notion that consciousness is the most fundamental thing, and that everything else is literally constructed from it. Consider as a starting point Einstein’s famous equation relating energy to matter. Besides the quantitative information given by this equation, there are some implicit ontological statements. One is that matter is merely a condensed form of energy; matter is constructed from energy. (Contemporary string theory suggests two forms resulting from this construction.) Thus, at some point shortly after the Big Bang, energy condensed into matter; the less tangible became the more tangible. Working from this model, dissolution of the hard problem can be accomplished by taking this energy- matter relationship one step back: energy is a condensed form of consciousness, analogous to the energy-matter relationship—consciousness:energy::energy:matter. This concept has advantages: (1) it is logical in that this is the order of tangibility of the three substances; (2) it is easier to envision a constitutive consciousness-energy relationship than the assumed relationship in which matter produces consciousness; and (3) it incorporates this part of relativity in a consistent and logical way. Consciousness thus is the primordial substance; self-awareness and subjectivity are two of its essential aspects, irreducibility a third. When consciousness condenses into energy, it loses this awareness, partially or, more probably, completely. When energy condenses into matter, any remaining awareness is lost. Therefore self-awareness is not to be found in the realms of matter-energy and spacetime, yet all of this is ultimately constructed from and composed of consciousness. Finally, I will suggest new problems revealed by this perspective, since it is clearly incomplete, and some brief comments on how these ideas relate to some well- known modern philosophical figures and their positions on the mind-body problem.
Recorded at the 30th annual SSE Conference in 2011 at the Millennium Harvest House in Boulder, Colorado, USA.
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Published on November 13, 2018