WHAT IS CONSCIOUSNESS?
The goal of natural science from the beginning has been to explain everything. In modern times, this quest has been articulated as the search for a ‘theory of everything’ abbreviated as TOE. Einstein’s unsuccessful quest for a unified field theory, a theory combining all the forces in the universe in one consistent theory, has been interpreted by physicists since Einstein as a quest for a TOE, reflecting the belief that everything can be explained in terms of physical principles. For twenty years I have been saying to anyone who would listen that there can be no real TOE unless consciousness is included in the equations describing reality. See “Transcendental Physics”, page 208. I am not alone in this, others, like Peter Russell, Sir Roger Penrose, Stuart Hammeroff, and Vernon Neppe, to name a few, have been saying something similar. But mainstream science has not been able to define what consciousness is, let alone represent it in the equations of a TOE.
To understand why modern science has not been able to put consciousness into the equations describing the laws governing the physical world, and why modern science has found no way even to define consciousness in relation to physical reality, we must go to the roots of the axiomatic approach used in modern mathematics. We must go back nearly 2,600 years to a period of about 370 years in length, to the world of Pythagoras (582 -507 BC), Plato (428 -348 BC), Euclid (325 -265 BC), and Archimedes (287 -212 BC), and review the ideas of these ancient Greek natural philosophers, because they formalized the ideas that make up the foundations of the modern understanding of geometry, because, as I will explain, consciousness and geometry are intimately related.
The axiomatic approach, developed by the Greeks, starts with the definition of a set of self-evident facts (axioms) and then derives or deduces logical conclusions that must be true if the axioms are true. Pythagoras used the axiomatic/deductive method to prove his theorems. Plato regarded axioms as reflections of a ‘perfect’ reality of which matter and energy were only imperfect reflections. Euclid formalized the axiomatic approach applied to geometry in his ‘Elements’ of Geometry. And Archimedes applied the axiomatic approach to practical problems, and became the first engineer and experimental scientist in the modern sense. The difference between Archimedes’ pragmatism and Plato’s idealism is roughly the same as the difference between the experimental and theoretical scientists today. Most thinkers today will agree that we need both Platonic and Archimedean scientists, but in this discussion, I intend to show how the predominance of the Archimedean approach in modern science has led to a misunderstanding of what geometry and consciousness actually are. And we must go back to Euclid to see where and how the thinking deviated from the path that leads to defining consciousness.
Using the axiomatic approach that emerged from the thinking of the three Greek philosophers, Pythagoras, Plato and Euclid, as pragmatically interpreted by Archimedes, early modern scientists, notably Descartes and Laplace, diverted scientific thought into the dualistic interpretation of reality that led to the reductionist materialistic philosophy of science prevalent today, reflected in the ‘Standard Model’ of physics. Reductionist materialism leads naturally to a belief in absolute determinism as reflected in Descartes and Laplace’s statements in the 1700’s to the effect that it would only take a few years for scientists to determine the initial conditions of the universe, after which the complete history and fate of the universe could be calculated using Newtonian mechanics. A more recent statement of belief in determinism is found in Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time’, 1988, predicted a TOE by the year 2000. …Of course that didn’t happen.
In the reductionist worldview of modern science, geometry and consciousness have one thing in common: they are both relegated to non-substantive roles in the universe, related only secondarily to the dynamics of matter and energy. In modern mainstream science, geometry is seen as the description of space-time, a passive backdrop to the dynamic interactions of matter and energy. And consciousness is seen as an emergent feature of matter and energy at certain, as yet not well-defined levels of complexity. In this view, the geometric features of space-time are shaped by variations of mass and energy throughout the universe; and consciousness is seen as a more or less developed awareness, localized in complex organic life forms.
On the other hand, the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics, verified many times over by empirical data, suggest in different ways, that these conceptualizations of consciousness and geometry are flawed, and if not completely incorrect, at the very least, incomplete. Relativity, for example, reveals that the measurable features of physical reality depend upon the location and velocity of the observer relative to the objects of observation, and quantum mechanics tells us that the physical form exhibited by a quantum system depends upon choices made by a conscious observer. In both cases, the reality we can observe, measure or in any way experience is affected by the conscious observer. Based on these clues, is it possible that mainstream science has it backward? Could it be that instead of being secondary and emergent, geometry and consciousness are actually fundamental aspects of existential reality?
I will press on to show the relationship between consciousness and geometry as a fundamental feature of reality in the next post.