Consciousness as a physical feature of the universe

A second line of thought that has begun to emerge in the physics of recent decades is even more tentative in its acceptance. Towards the end of the 20th century, once a new picture of matter began to come under consideration in which all matter was somehow to be understood as arising from a single unbroken wholeness, for the first time clues began to form that somehow the matter, the space-time continuum, might after all be made of animate material, not just inert stuff, but a mysterious substance, consistent in profundity and grandeur with the universe of the Upanishads.

A hint of this kind is present in the words of George Wald, one of the 20th century’s great biologists, Professor of Biology at Harvard for many years, and winner of the Nobel prize for his lifelong work on the evolution and functioning of the mammalian eye, wrote in 1984: “It takes no great imagination to conceive of other possible universes, each stable and workable in itself, yet lifeless. How is it that, with so many other apparent options, we are in a universe that possesses just that peculiar nexus of properties that breeds life. It has occurred to me lately — I must confess with some shock at first to my scientific sensibilities — that both questions might be brought into some degree of congruence. This is with the assumption that mind, rather than emerging as a late outgrowth in the evolution of life, has existed always as the matrix, the source and condition of physical reality — that the stuff of which physical reality is composed is mind-stuff.”

A number of the major physicists of our era have reached similar conclusions. For example, in 1955 the physicist Wolfgang Pauli wrote: “It would be most satisfactory of all if matter and mind could be seen as complementary aspects of the same reality.” In 1959, Erwin Schrödinger gave a brief argument which I have referred to, demonstrating what he considered as rather conclusive proof that there must, somewhere in our universe, be a single “One mind” in which we are all participants.

The identity hypothesis formulated in 1980 by C.F. von Weizsäcker says: “Consciousness and matter are different aspects of the same reality.”

David Bohm himself was perhaps foremost among great modern physicists who explicitly came to believe about 1980 that the universe is close to being made of a non-material ground, which he called a plenum, and that both matter and consciousness arise from that ground.

Others, too. In 1985, Brian Josephson, the discoverer of quantum tunneling, said “…we might hope that appropriate mathematical tools will be developed, so that in not too many years from now we’ll have a new paradigm in which God and religion will be right in the middle of the picture…”

John Bell, the originator of Bell’s theorem, wrote in 1986: “As regards mind, I am fully convinced that it has a central place in the ultimate nature of reality.”

And in 1994 Roger Penrose published a book arguing (for nearly the first time in the literature of physics) the necessity (his word) of accepting that consciousness is materially different from the other entities of physics — and cannot be viewed as emergent from them.

Footnote 23

[…] His argument will not be accepted by everyone. Yet, to me, the argument appears compelling and shows, nearly for the first time, a willingness of a contemporary physicist to recognize the existence of self as something that must be considered by physics.

You can’t accuse Alexander of not having done his homework. I’m not familiar enough with physics to know how this set of physicists represents the main strands of thinking in that domain, or if Alexander hand-picked the few that have said agreeable things. It is also possible that there is a kind of group-think in physics, because that topic has been approached in mostly mathematical and classical theoretical ways in the past. Another reason why I am so bullish on cognitive science as a completely different field adding new perspectives and different interpretations.

All in all, there is a slowly growing consensus among some leading physicists that mind must be an essential part of the material universe. But in spite of this growing consensus, nevertheless a huge problem remains. We do not yet know how to make sense of this idea. Just having this idea, by itself does not really solve any problem. This is not because physicists differ greatly on the likelihood that mind and matter must be united. The question is, rather, how this idea can be made to work. How can a relationship of mind and matter make a useful, and testable contribution to physics itself? How can such a picture enlarge our understanding practically and change, for the better, our view of how matter works?

Here I may have made a small but useful contribution. I have shown how the existence of centers in matter-space (the living centers from which life and all good building form arise) has a recursive character, and I have shown how this recursive character allows a field of centers to exist in space — if we recognize that wholeness is a structure everywhere in space. The intensity of centers and wholes arises within the wholeness, purely as a result of the mathematics of the space itself, as new centers proliferate and concentrate themselves. I have suggested that the intensity of these centers and wholes which are created can be recognized empirically when the observer appeals to feelings of wholeness within himself.

Footnote 24

The observation that regions of space are more or less coherent is fundamental, and has been dealt with in many ways by generations of writers including Whitehead’s early papers on coherent sets, Wolfgang Köhler’s discussion of wholes, and Arthur Koestler’s discussion of holons in Janus (New York: Random House, 1978). Only the concept of centers, itself, is somewhat new. […]

And the degree of organization can also be calculated by systematic measurement of the symmetries and subsymmetries appearing in the space.

Footnote 25

In Book 1, I have suggested that the centeredness of a given region is chiefly caused by the local symmetries which occur there. It has perhaps not been noticed before, that the centeredness of a given region might be calculated merely by calculating with local symmetries. But even so, this needs only the present view of space.

The idea that calculating the hierarchy of local symmetries present in a region of space provides a close approximation to the structure of centers, hence to the wholeness, is fully described with operational details, in Book 1, chapter 5, and in appendix 2. I have written “I think” in the text paragraph before as a matter of caution. Although the fifteen properties seem straightforward, I have found that attempts to formulate them exactly by giving necessary and sufficient conditions for their occurrence in a particular case, are surprisingly elusive. It is possible that this hides a greater difficulty than mere precision of mathematical draftsmanship.

At least in simple cases, these calculations, to a first approximation, do give the same results as introspective examination of the observer’s relative wholeness.

The conclusion that there is some actual relatedness between the observer’s self and the centers which arise in the field is reasonable. After all, this near-identity seems to occur more and more deeply, according to the extent of the living structure which is achieved. When the bootstrap aspect of the field becomes intense — or in the other language we have used, when profound life is created — then the observer experiences the most intense identity between his own self and the bootstrapped portion of the field which he observes.

But to make fullest sense of such arguments we need to know the ultimate substratum, the ultimate material out of which the space-matter is made — the ocean where the bootstrapping of centers occurs. It is in this context that I feel obliged to imagine that matter-space might be either made of, or attached to, or an aspect of, some deeper-lying “self-stuff”. Of course this self-stuff would be that ground of I which has been described throughout Book 4. It would be the source of the power we experience in works of art, and would be the same thing which has at different times in history variously been called the great self, or the ultimate source of being, or the void. But it would enter the picture now, as a graspable component, with a clear function, and a clear way of helping the generation of life.

(Pages 322-324)

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