As an avid fan of Sam Harris and disciple of his meditation app, ‘Waking Up’, I was interested to learn that his wife, Annaka Harris, is also a deep thinker on the topic.
After hearing them debate on Sam’s podcast, I investigated her writing on consciousness.
‘Conscious’ explores the inner workings of our mind. When we think of this term, we generally consider self-awareness and thought, but this may be far too limited in scope.
This summary explores the following:
- Is there external evidence of human consciousness?
- Is consciousness central to human behaviour?
- Might non-human entities also experience consciousness in some form? i.e. panpsychism
Experience and intuition
For such an immediate part of our lives, consciousness remains a mystery.
The philosopher Thomas Nagel ventured that,
“an organism is conscious if there is something that it is like to be that organism”
With this definition in mind:
If it feels like something to be you and experiencing life in this present moment, that suggests consciousness.
In contrast, if it doesn’t feel like anything to be a rock, that suggests an absence of consciousness.
With this definition in hand, we can explore the facets of consciousness.
As the definition of consciousness remains rather loose, however, this process relies heavily on intuition.
Intuition is the gut feeling we have when we know something’s wrong, but can’t pinpoint why.
That said, this sensation is unreliable, with many people feeling safer in cars that on planes, despite accident statistics proving otherwise.
So in our exploration of consciousness, we must listen to our intuition, but also be aware of potential errors.
Are we alone?
Human are conscious, but are we alone?
Often the traits we consider central to human experience aren’t so exclusive.
Plants demonstrate a host of behaviours that aren’t dissimilar to our own.
Fir trees have been found to send nutrients through their roots to other trees, communicating and identifying with their offspring and helping them survive environmental stress.
Plants can fight off rivals through toxins and ivy even explores above ground, finding the most supportive growth environment.
The Venus Fly Trap possesses a form of memory, knowing only to act when a second trigger fires.
Indeed, the genes that cause plants to react to light and darkness are the same DNA found in humans.
This leads to two possible scenarios:
- Plants possess some form of experience and therefore, consciousness.
- The phenomena of memory, danger response etc. described above aren’t components of consciousness.
Thoughts and decisions
Most of our behaviour, like removing our hand quickly from a hot stove, is cause and effect, and unrelated to consciousness.
This is because senses arrive at the brain a different times and what we consider conscious experience only occurs after sight, smell, touch etc. have undergone a binding process in the brain.
Much like a driverless car, which takes input from its surroundings and responds accordingly, consciousness (i.e. us observing), is the last to know what’s going on.
Likewise, complex thought is often considered a fundamental component of consciousness, but this too falls down under scrutiny.
In reality, we have little to no control of thoughts popping into our head. Rather, they’re a reaction to current events and our genetics, instincts and memories.
Even if we try to plan our actions ahead of time, our present behaviours are often automatic and instinctual.
Consciousness and the self
Consciousness creates many illusions:
- That we are in complete control of our decisions
- That our senses are unified – in reality, our sense of touch takes longer than our sense of hearing, for example. However our brains synchronise inputs to help us interpret the world.
- Our sense of self
Regarding the third bullet point, humans often consider that everything is happening to a central subject we call self. As a result, we imagine that self is separate from everything which influences it.
However, this sense of self can be challenged.
When taking LSD, we find that this self dissolves and rather than existing as a separate entity, people experience continuity with their environment.
This effect and the inherent peace within can also be found in meditation.
Heightened awareness can bypass the normal binding process of the brain and provide a feeling of being at one with the world.
These experiences suggest that the self is merely a mental construct, distinct from consciousness and dependant on our perceptions.
- Change our perceptions, change our sense of self
- The sense of self can even disappear, leaving only consciousness
If, as shown throughout this conscious summary, no human characteristics are fundamental components of consciousness, could consciousness also be a non-human phenomenon?
In other words, could all matter possess some form of consciousness?
Although this might sound far-fetched, humans are made of the same material as everything else, from plants to stars.
In this case, it’s unlikely that matter would gain consciousness in some instances and not others (radical emergence).
Indeed Panpsychism as a valid hypothesis is supported by many philosophers and scientists.
The theory is not suggesting that a rock possesses the equivalent experience of humans, but rather that there are countless forms of consciousness, unknown and unknowable.
If you can imagine what it would be like to experience light and darkness or heat and cold through recognition rather than thought, this might be suggestive of limited consciousness in other entities.
Predictably there is much skepticism around panpsychism and the notion that different forms of consciousness may exist all around us.
However, there’s even evidence that more than one consciousness can exist in the same human body.
Split-brain studies examine patients who have undergone treatment for seizures in which their two hemispheres of the brain are separated, thus cutting communication.
In such cases, people display two conscious experiences simultaneously.
For example, if a patient is asked to reference a key they’re holding in their left hand when they can’t see it, they’ll fail to do so.
Although the right hemisphere is aware of the key, their left hemisphere, responsible for speech and right-sided bodily control will be unaware.
Such phenomena demonstrate the versatility of consciousness and how easily it can adapt to incoming inputs.
It also suggests that consciousness could result from combining matter that would otherwise possess its own, less complex consciousness.
We remain a long way from solving the mystery, but just as Higgs Boson assisted in the advancement of physics, so too we may discover a particle that unlocks the secrets of conscious experience.
- The definition of consciousness remains elusive
- Humans have it, but does it exist elsewhere?
- Consciousness isn’t tied to any sole human attributes, actions or behaviours
- This opens the possibility of consciousness existing in other entities – i.e. panpsychism
- Extending that train of thought, could consciousness be an intrinsic element of all matter?
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