WHAT IS THE ROLE OF CONSCIOUSNESS IN THE PHYSICAL UNIVERSE?
This may seem to be just another form of the question raised by ancient philosophers: “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Every complex living organism on Earth today, including every human being, began as a fertilized egg, and that egg was fertilized in a similarly complex living organism. Religious thinkers reason that since eggs must be protected by the living organisms that produce them in order for a species to survive, God must have created living organisms first, not just a bunch of eggs. Evolutionary scientists like Charles Darwin on the other hand, looking at biological and geological evidence, noted that things have not always been the same as they are today, and that the fossil record suggests that living organisms evolved incrementally from one-celled organisms to the extremely complex organisms that exist today through the mechanism of the ‘survival of the fittest’ over a long period of time. They reason that the first spark of life may have been an accident in a randomly evolving physical universe. At first glance, this seems to eliminate the need for any pre-existing form of intelligence acting as a creator or guide toward meaningful evolution. But theologians counter that there are serious problems with this view, with no explanation of why and how physical organisms are self-conscious, and there are missing links in the fossil record.
So an emotional argument began and still rages on, fueled by the egos of scientists who believe everything can be explained in terms of the random interaction of matter and energy, and followers of the religions of the world who believe in the existence of an intelligence behind physical reality. I will argue that both sides are partly right and partly wrong, and that he truth lies somewhere in the middle. Both sides argue that they have the truth, but history reveals that neither side has had the whole truth, since our knowledge of the nature of reality has been incomplete at any point in the past, and we now know that it will always be incomplete. We know this because all theories of reality are logical systems developed on the basis of incomplete knowledge with belief-based assumptions. We know now that this will always be the case, because of the proof of the incompleteness theorems by mathematician Kurt Gӧdel, who proved that no system of logic can ever be complete.
As I said, the question “Which came first, consciousness or the physical universe?” may sound like just another form of the question: “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” But it is not. It is a much deeper question, with much more profound implications. I will elaborate on this below.
When Dr. Neppe and I published our first book together: “Reality Begins with Consciousness” in 2012, a number of well-known scientists praised it with comments like:
“Vernon M. Neppe and Edward R. Close have written what is destined to become a classic in the literature on shifting paradigms and worldviews[EC1] .”
“This is the book of books. Close and Neppe have succeeded in articulating a unified theory that explains everything known through human experience and observation, including, not only the data obtained by the five senses, but also the data that comes through mind and feeling. Former scientific thought has considered the material universe to be the total universe with consciousness to be the result of matter. Neppe and Close have shown the reverse. Matter is inseparably linked with consciousness. They have succeeded in the ultra-complex task of including everything we know through the material laws of Classical Physics, Quantum Physics, and Relativity, with the non-material observations gained through psychology, parapsychology, and spiritual vision, into a unified metaparadigm with consciousness as the foundation of all creation, including the origin of creation, itself. This is a book you will want to study, absorb, and return to again and again to experience the thrill of understanding how the billions of bits of the universe all fit together as a unified whole, and how we are a participatory part of everything. The authors' many years of labor will be appreciated for centuries to come.”
Some scientists however, dismissed our work as “nonsense”. The following statement, a composite of such comments, summarizes their views: “The physical universe existed for billions of years before anything like conscious life forms emerged. Modern science has shown without a doubt that the physical universe began as an explosion of hot dense matter, without consciousness. So how can anyone say reality began with consciousness?”
This opinion reflects three unscientific, but common beliefs held by many scientists and laypersons. They are not usually stated explicitly by those who believe them, but they are the beliefs that:
1. Consciousness does not, and cannot, exist outside of living organisms.
2. The universe was devoid of consciousness for billions of years and is largely devoid of consciousness now, except for the life on Earth and possibly on a few other planets somewhere else in the universe.
3. Consciousness is created by the evolution of matter. At some level of complexity, matter becomes conscious.
These statements may sound like very convincing rebuttals of the idea that consciousness existed prior to physical reality, but they are simply statements of belief, not statements of fact. It is often stated that belief has no place in the scientific method. This is not true. Belief is the basis of what are called a priori assumptions in logic. If beliefs can be stated as positive assumptions, and rendered as valid scientific hypotheses, they can be proved or disproved by direct observation and/or mathematical logic, and emotional arguments about whose beliefs are correct can be avoided.
The correct scientific approach, whether you believe these statements to be true or not, is to state them as hypotheses to be proved or disproved, and then look for real evidence and irrefutable logic proving or disproving them.
As hypotheses, these statements are problematic for the following reasons:
1. Science currently lacks a clear definition of what consciousness, the only thing we experience directly, is, but these statements assume that there is no form of consciousness other than the awareness of self and other than self, as it exists in living organisms. Consciousness is equated with biological life, even though there is no clear evidence proving this.
2. The second statement does not qualify as a scientific hypothesis, because it can be neither proved nor disproved. It is impossible to directly observe a world without consciousness.
3. There are serious problems with the third statement as a scientific hypothesis: The laws of physics discovered so far, do not favor the accidental growth of complexity; they actually suggest just the opposite: Newton’s laws of motion, and the laws of thermodynamics are formal statements of the observed fact that physical systems when left alone, with no energy added, consistently break down and decay toward a state of maximum entropy (the complete lack of organization or structure). So the apparent emergence of consciousness as material structures become more complex, is more likely to be the manifestation of an underlying logical substrate.
The problem with belief, however heart-felt, whether it is the belief that the universe is a meaningful creation, or the belief that the universe is an accident that has resulted in the evolution of living organisms by survival of the fittest, is that neither belief system explains consciousness. If our self- awareness is a finite reflection of a pervasive higher form of consciousness, we must be able to prove it through direct observation and mathematical logic, otherwise, it is just unsubstantiated theory. If consciousness is produced by a certain level of physical complexity, we must explain why less-complex unconscious material structures would be able to want to survive, and how particulate matter could overcome the entropy of a violent explosion.
So in this discussion, we will not state beliefs as if they were fact. We will take the proper rational approach and consider the following scientific hypotheses, stated as questions leading to positive statements to be proved or disproved:
1. Can or does consciousness exist in some form outside of living organisms?
2. Has consciousness existed in some form from the beginning of the physical universe?
3. Are the complex living organisms we see in nature manifestations of a pervasive form of consciousness?
Stating these questions as positive hypotheses, we have:
1. Consciousness can and does exist outside of living organisms.
2. A pervasive form of consciousness has existed from the beginning of the physical universe.
3. Living organisms are physical manifestations of this pervasive consciousness.
Notice that the materialistic beliefs currently expressed by many if not most mainstream scientists are simply negatives forms of these positive hypotheses.
In subsequent posts, I will present the evidence for and against the three scientific hypotheses stated above, and show how valid conclusions are reached. The next post will discuss the pros and cons for hypothesis #1: Consciousness can and does exist outside of living organisms.