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Guest Editorial

by Dan Duda
from the March, 2020 issue of Penn Central,
the monthly newsletter of Central PA Mensa,
used by permission

OK, I’m obsessed with “consciousness” – again. And the scientific environment these days is packed with books and articles on the subject. But let me set the stage before I get into some new thoughts on the issue.

My feeling that we know almost nothing about reality has been repeated many times, and that means that I “believe” almost nothing – but that also frees me to feel that almost anything is possible. For example, if I had lived before Galileo, I would have accepted the then unpopular “possibility” that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Had I lived in the 16th century I would have been fascinated by the ridiculous “possibility” that the force that causes the streaking flashes of light (lightning) that occur during thunderstorms might someday be harnessed to provide light and do an enormous amount of work in a future society. Had I lived in the days of the Revolutionary War I would have been excited about the totally ludicrous idea that there would, someday, be heavier than air machines that would fly.

Among the myriad of impossible ideas and prophecies that exist at any point in time, there are some few that turn out to be not just possible, but true. And, given the fact that we currently know so little about the nature of our consciousness, I’m excited about the possibility that a breakthrough in understanding may be at hand. And, that breakthrough might just turn our understanding of all of reality on its head.

In a recent Scientific American article, Philip Goff says “Despite great progress in our scientific understanding of the brain, we still don’t have even the beginnings of an explanation of ... [what] gives rise to the inner subjective world of colors, sounds, smells and tastes...” He goes on to articulate the problem – science, by its very nature is based on quantitative study. It totally ignores all qualitative factors which comprise the category encompassing everything we “experience” consciously. Yet, we are so locked into quantitative analysis, which has been so incredibly successful, that we are mystified by our inability to comprehend the brain/ mind/consciousness enigma. Goff sums the problem up by saying “... there is a huge hole in our scientific story.”

Enter Bernardo Kastrup, a Dutch computer scientist and philosopher. He turns the study of consciousness upside-down by suggesting that it could not have been something that evolved – rather, it preceded evolution, and it possibly played an important role in it. His ideas are in-line with last month’s guest editorial, suggesting that the universe itself, and everything in it carries at least a rudimentary level of consciousness. According to Kastrup “Our phenomenal consciousness is eminently qualitative, not quantitative. There is something it feels like to see the color red, which is not captured by merely noting the frequency of red light.”

When you consider this hypothesis in the context of a (potentially) conscious universe some interesting ideas emerge. Could the brain exist to limit the volume of awareness we’re exposed to? Might the sheer volume of universal knowledge overwhelm us to the point of challenging our ability to survive? Could our path through time be a bridge to an evolving blend of material and qualia that will eventually allow the universe to experience itself through us?

As stated many times, I don’t “believe” this stuff. But I do find there is enough scientific logic in the approach for me to label it as “compelling.” It certainly would explain why we face so many conundrums in our search for truth. And why so many scientific principles hit brick walls and require re-thinking (the Big Bang; the Standard Model; etc.). In the words of Bernardo Kastrup “Phenomenal consciousness cannot have evolved. It can only have been there from the beginning as an intrinsic, irreducible fact of nature. The faster we come to terms with this fact, the faster our understanding of consciousness will progress.” And perhaps our understanding of many other things as well.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.

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