The Consciousness of Reality

On the surface of the reality that we perceive, we experience both diversity and complexity. Mathematical descriptions have been developed to teach us about how the fundamental entities of this reality relate to each other. Although the details exceed my own knowledge and understanding, there is certainly beauty to be found in mathematical formulas and complex models created by so many genius thinkers throughout history. Dating all the way back to Pythagoras 2,500 years ago in ancient Greece, many still believe in a universe of mathematics where everything is based on numbers. But how can complex phenomena emerge from simple ingredients and create such wonders? Have we created math to (better) describe the world around us, or are the mathematical structures out there for us to discover? 

These are questions that have driven human inquiry for centuries and have been the starting point of many philosophical discourses. Such inquiry led to 20th century modern physics, which had completely new views that attracted a new group of followers who were also convinced that the laws of physics are built or described by mathematical equations. The field of quantum mechanics—partially based on Austrian-Irish physicist Erwin Schrödinger’s famous equationgave birth to various theories of hidden variables and deterministic and non-deterministic views of the world. Scientists believe Schrödinger’s equation itself is a description of how the (physical) world is (perceived). While there is common consensus that quantum physics is real, beneath this fascinating world of numbers and equations it is tempting to believe that there must be something more to the story putting the ‘fire to the magic’, something that sparks the ‘it’. The challenge for physicists and mathematicians is trying to find explanations for how ‘it’ (i.e. nothingness) turns into a measurable and calculable ‘bit’ (something) of information. 21st century progress in physics has led to beliefs that, at the subatomic level, ‘everything’—from the fluid world of waves and energy to the world of solid particles—comes together in a unifying field. So, even without a deeper understanding of the underlying math, quantum physics seems to have revealed—or at least brought humanity closer to—some kind of fundamental truth about the universe. 

This postulated world of potentiality is what drove even the great Albert Einstein to question his own beliefs, and made one of the greatest analytical minds of all time turn into a philosopher during his final years. Einstein was trying to match a description of the world based on mathematical functions to the world we experience around us. But the ‘funky’ new kid on the block—quantum theory—didn’t fit with Einstein’s own theories in his search for a unifying theory of everything. One hundred years later, describing the diversity we experience in the world while connecting the theory of general relativity to quantum mechanics seems very much to be a weird puzzle. As long as there is no such unification, no underlying mathematical description of the universe, it is also legitimate to believe that there is a non-mathematical element to nature that plays an essential role for a ‘complete’ understanding.

One such belief is that consciousness is a fundamental force or element of the universe, something yet to be discovered or scientifically described. Maybe consciousness is even a ‘missing’ fundamental building block in our physical understanding of the universe. Or it is the fundamental ‘building block’ of our reality. Whatever the case may be, the science of consciousness poses a number of questions that keep philosophers and scholars around the world up at night. Is consciousness a consequence of evolution, or simply a yet-to-be-understood form of information processing? Do physical bits of matter become conscious once they reach a certain level of complexity or structure? Or is consciousness something that emerges out of ‘nothingness’? If so, how can something emerge out of nothing? Or is there maybe something very simple at the ‘very bottom’ that could teach us how simplicity creates complexity? Until now, philosophers have tried to explain the phenomenon of consciousness in a number of ways over the centuries.

Physicalism—or materialism—holds the belief that perceived consciousness emerges from matter, instead of believing that it is a fundamental or unifying phenomenon in the universe. Such an explanatory view lies at the very heart of physics. The challenge for materialism is to show how specific compositions of physical matter can produce mental experiences; in other words, to explain why any physical state would be conscious at all. This question of why there is such a thing as conscious experience is what David Chalmers referred to as “the hard problem of consciousness”. At the same time, more and more thinkers and practitioners are beginning to grasp and approach the unanswered questions and potentially hidden secrets of our universe from various points of view. Many are starting to show more openness towards spiritual and theological concepts and the history of such thinking—where of course there is very little room for materialist explanatory models. Being open to such viewpoints is of course highly philosophical, and might even lead to finding bridges between various Weltanschauungen—between contradictory world views and fields of study.

In contrast to the scientific, materialist view, where the brain produces consciousness through physical states, the other prominent philosophical position declares there to be a dualism between the body and the mind: that the mental and physical spheres are distinct from one another, or that the mind and the body are separable. The idea that the physical body is separate from the mind gives rise to one of the earliest fundamental philosophical questions out there: how is the mind, thought and consciousness related to the physical body? This question was perhaps most famously described in the 17th century by French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes as the mind-body-problem, and his answer to the question is what is now called Cartesian dualism

Over the past few decades, debates surrounding consciousness, dualism, and materialism have led to a revival of one of the oldest concepts in the field of philosophy of mind called panpsychism. Although it dates all the way back to the works of Thales and Plato, panpsychism has become en vogue again. In its modern incarnation, panpsychism can be seen as a family of theories which hold that ‘mind-like aspects’ are fundamental and omnipresent features of reality, which means that everything in nature—from spoons and rocks to our mystical mind—has some kind of consciousness, obviously with more primitive versions or states where complexity is ‘lower’ than human consciousness.

Once categories and gradients of consciousness are established without an underlying understanding of consciousness itself, the terminologies used become limited. What do we mean by ‘different’, ‘higher’, etc? Regardless of how we approach it, there seems to be something more to the story of understanding ‘everything’ than simply information processing. At the same time, if we are able to reduce everything to the (relatively) simple material world, and we are able to ‘crack the code’ and reach some kind of explanatory ‘end state’, it might even open a path to some kind of eternal realm of bliss and divinity. Can we become aware of awareness itself? Can we tune into consciousness and therefore bend our own reality to our will? Might ‘reality’ evolve from consciousness itself, or do fundamental bits of physical reality or information processing give birth to consciousness? One could come to the conclusion that if we truly believe in consciousness and then take it away, then nothing would remain. 

Whichever view we tend to favor, our answer has implications for how we operate and organize our society. One can sympathize with a mentally constituted world view where the Mensch, and our perception and understanding of the world, gives rise to the idea of how the world is. Such idealist views of metaphysis may also offer a plausible way to interpret a theory of relativity and even a theory of evolution that gives rise to a transcendental connection between minds. Yet still, the explanatory and practical power of mathematical models—of ‘hard facts’—leads us to an intuition or gut-feeling that there is, in fact, some kind of objective truth(s) or reality that is detached from our minds, e.g. there is either a life after death or there isn’t.   

All this goes to show why now is the time to move towards a more holistic view about how we build our society through our economic system(s). Like in Descartes’ day, what we need is a kind of digital enlightenment to guide us forward. We need to realize that we cannot fully describe our economic and social worlds using mathematical (algorithmic), materialist explanations alone. How we feel, our emotions, and our sensory experiences lie at the very heart of how we organize human life, arrange trade, and manage business. The taste of a strawberry, the feeling of a paper-cut, our anxiety, fear and arousal: all of this is part of being a Mensch—a conscious, creative and participatory human being. By applying philosophical contemplation to our daily lives, we can free ourselves from what we hold to be self-evident—our Selbstverständlichkeiten, and move towards a more holistic understanding of the world we live in. And because we simply do not know the one correct path to follow, we should always be open to other viewpoints and disciplines in order to continue our journey towards wisdom and welcome new attendees to the debate.