This week I listened to Sam Harris interview his wife Annaka on his podcast Making Sense. She has recently written a book entitled Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind, which I should note I haven’t read. An interesting moment occurred when she said it was not altogether obvious why consciousness should exist from an evolutionary perspective, because there is very little, if anything, that we cannot imagine occurring just as well without a conscious witness to the proceedings. We can visualize a computerized intelligence, for instance, with the right programming, that could behave much like a human being without actually being aware of what it was doing, or how it felt to be doing those things.
This led Annaka to ponder the possibility that consciousness is not something that is the product of matter and energy, but is a fundamental part of nature, or fundamental to physical reality let’s say. It exists in the same way that matter and energy do, as a given. I’m a little unclear on exactly what to say about what she really means, because I haven’t read her book, and because its admittedly a challenging topic to review in detail. She and Sam were very careful at this point to note that this is a scientific conception of consciousness, wholly unrelated to New Age ideas of the topic. It always amuses me when people insist on these distinctions, because it’s sort of like saying we have a scientific theory of why things fall down to the ground, and just so you know, it’s completely unrelated to the layman’s delusional awareness that things fall down due to a mysterious force.
These false categories do nothing but sustain false lines of demarcation. We draw them because it makes us feel good to be on the right side of them, but they are of no real value to the process of inquiry.
Enough on that. What brought me to the page this evening was an interesting idea that struck me as Sam and Annaka were exploring this topic of panpsychism, which is the word for a range of ideas related to the idea that consciousness exists—in some form—at all levels of physical phenomena. I realized there is an insistence when approaching the topic scientifically to note that atoms have such a miniscule, dim, and protean form of consciousness that it would barely be considered consciousness at all. In other words, humans are at the apex of known forms of consciousness, and atoms have the awareness of comatose bricks in a wall. The idea that struck me is that we quite possibly have this backwards.
I’m going to get New Age now and refer to A Course in Miracles, which for me is as valid a source of information as any scientific experiment. It also is irrelevant, as core ideas in the Course can be found in essentially all spiritual teachings that aim at offering its practitioners the experience of non-duality. The Course is just one form of what I believe is a universal truth, and this particular form happened to appeal to me. At any rate, there is an idea presented early in the Course, and which only appears on a few occasions, but which made a big impact on me when I first encountered it. It goes like this, “…the mind is naturally abstract.” I would like to relate this to the notion that human consciousness is quite possibly a much more limited form of consciousness than that which obtains throughout the universe. It’s just a fun idea to ponder, so bear with me please.
Now, when the Course speaks about the mind, it is speaking about the One Mind, or the whole Mind, or the instantaneous totality of being of which all that exists partakes. It’s hard to describe in words. You can’t describe it in words. But you can give some inklings, just as you can give kindling some heat, and hope that at some point awareness catches fire… The basic point in the Course is that specificity, and the situational awareness so conducive to winning professional sports titles, is really secondary. It is illusory, and fundamentally related to what Annaka and Sam would both describe as delusional notions: one being the sense of a personal self, and the second being free will. These don’t exist as we think they do, according to Sam, and I agree. I’ll actually agree and disagree simultaneously on the notion of a personal self, because it’s paradoxical to a certain extent. But for the purpose of this discussion let’s equate a personal self with an egoic awareness—with the idea that there is an “I” that exists separately from all other “I’s.”
The Course says, “Everything the ego perceives is a separate whole, without the relationships that imply being. The ego is thus against communication, except insofar as it is utilized to establish separateness rather than to abolish it. The communication system of the ego is based on its own thought system, as is everything else it dictates. Its communication is controlled by its need to protect itself, and it will disrupt communication when it experiences threat. This disruption is a reaction to a specific person or persons. The specificity of the ego’s thinking, then, results in spurious generalization which is really not abstract at all. It merely responds in certain specific ways to everything it perceives as related.
“In contrast, spirit reacts in the same way to everything it knows is true, and does not respond at all to anything else. Nor does it make any attempt to establish what is true. It knows that what is true is everything that God created. It is in complete and direct communication with every aspect of creation, because it is in complete and direct communication with its Creator. This communication is the Will of God. Creation and communication are synonymous. God created every mind by communicating His Mind to it, thus establishing it forever as a channel for the reception of His Mind and Will. Since only beings of a like order can truly communicate, His creations naturally communicate with Him and like Him. This communication is perfectly abstract, since its quality is universal in application and not subject to any judgment, any exception or any alteration.” (emphasis added, quotes taken from the Text, Chapter 4, Section VII, Paragraphs 2-3)
What does it mean for the mind’s natural state to be a perfect abstraction? It sounds kind of ridiculous. But what it means is that the mind, in its natural state, might say, “I love,” and stop there, instead of saying “I love ice cream.” There need be no object—no specificity—to the mind’s natural extension of Love, since it extends love simultaneously to all that exists with it, and as it, and thus has no concept whatsoever of inventions or schemes (such as the ego’s concept of a separateness between beings) that do not ultimately obtain.
What I’m proposing when I suggest that the scientific notions of panpsychism as presently framed are fundamentally backwards, or upside-down, is that the simplest forms of matter and energy are the least constrained. We like to think consciousness is all about having experiences, and for us that means having experiences as a human being. For the vast majority of us, that means having experiences as a particular human being. The forms of conscious awareness most readily available to us are those bound by this beautiful complexity we call a body. But a particle—whose behavior in quantum mechanics can be explained perfectly by presuming that it explores every possible state available in the entire universe simultaneously—is not bound at all by this complexity. It could, conceivably, possess a far more abstract form of awareness, which for us is indeed unfathomable. We could say it is so dim as to be nothing at all… or we could flip the coin and say it is so bright as to be everything at once. It really is not possible for us to distinguish between these two possibilities.
The long and short is that I find it very interesting to consider that complexity is, paradoxically, proportional to limitations when it comes to consciousness. That’s not to say there are not beautiful and holy spaces to explore through this lens. There are. But I suspect a valid theory of panpsychism will need to reframe the very idea of materialism, by considering that physical systems do indeed inform consciousness—not by building it up, but by focusing it down into very specific pathways, in order to yield very specific forms of experience. Materialism would then predict that the formation of complex systems is the product of collapsing the natural, unbounded and unified form of consciousness that ultimately exists within and as everything, into localized, ephemeral, illusory, but instructive vehicles for the creation of novel experiences.
The body in this view is not an exemplar of heightened consciousness, but an exemplar of specificity, giving rise to a very limited form of consciousness.