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Guide to Understanding Consciousness

Guide to Understanding Consciousness
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Table of Contents

The Mystery of Consciousness

In this moment, you are conscious. There is an experience of a world, of sensations, thoughts, of these words appearing in your mind. If you ingest a psychedelic, the contents of consciousness may change wildly. You may lose contact with the everyday world around you and find yourself in some previously unimaginable landscape. However, consciousness is the one thing you will take with you. As your experiences shatter and blend into each other, you may ask yourself, “Where is all of this happening?” It’s not happening “out there” in physical space, it’s happening “in here”—it’s happening in consciousness.

Mind from Matter

How is it possible that these experiences, any experience in fact, can arise from presumably unconscious matter? How can mere stuff think and feel? This is the greatest mystery facing our species. What is it about the physical operation of a naked primate with a complex brain that allows it to experience anything? Why does this arrangement of physical particles give rise to consciousness, while the same particles arranged into a clay pot presumably don’t? If you had access to a machine that could combine quarks, atoms, chemical elements, and all other parts of physical reality in any way you chose, how would you have to arrange the parts so that your creation would suddenly wake up and take in the world around it?

Figuring Out Consciousness

Today, we have yet to reach anything approaching a consensus on how to think about this issue. This also happens to be the core issue of your existence. It is by virtue of being conscious that anything matters at all. Consciousness allows us to behold wider reality beyond us. Understanding consciousness therefore impacts our understanding of reality itself. It may be precisely because the core issues of our very existence are at stake that the human species has failed to converge on a single way of thinking about consciousness.

The Mind-Body Problem

It seems likely that humans have reflected on the nature of consciousness and its place in the world ever since paleolithic religions developed around 100,000 years ago, as evidenced by the intentional burying of the dead. The question of whether one’s experience can continue after the death of the physical body goes to the very heart of the mystery of consciousness. The core issue of understanding the place of consciousness in nature has even been termed the mind-body problem. Specifically, how is it that seemingly immaterial mind relates to the physical body?


Several thousand years ago, the sacred Hindu texts known as the Vedas recorded the earliest solution to this problem on record. The people living in the Indus River valley, in what is now northern India, reported that they routinely consumed a psychoactive drink that they called Soma. It is thought to have consisted of cannabis, poppies and ephedra, a herb widely used in traditional Chinese medicine and sold in the West as a legal high, where it is marketed as having similar effects to MDMA. Others speculate that it may have contained psilocybin mushrooms, and amanita muscaria toadstools or Syrian rue, an herb that contains the same psychoactive harmala alkaloids found in the ayahuasca vine, but lacking the DMT found in the ayahuasca brew. Whatever its contents, the authors of the Rig Veda were impressed with its consciousness-altering effects. They wrote, “[W]e have drunk soma and become immortal; we have attained the light, the Gods discovered.”

Does Only Consciousness Exist?

These revelations informed the philosophy of the Vedas, seemingly resolving the gap between mind and matter by holding that the universe is actually a single, indivisible whole that is equivalent to “Brahman,” or God. Some traditions argue that the single substance making up the universe can be understood as consciousness. What appears to be the material world is therefore something like a dream, a mere apparition in God’s mind. Bishop Berkeley would later adopt this idea, give to it its own Christian flavor. It persists today in the works of cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman and philosopher Bernardo Kastrup. Both of them argue that only consciousness exists. Therefore, they maintain, there is no mystery of how consciousness emerges from the unconscious material world.

Why Science Struggles With Consciousness

Modern science was arguably founded by the Italian astronomer Galileo in the 16th century. Galileo argued that we could understand the laws that governed the natural world around us. He wrote, “The book [of nature] is written in mathematical language.” Science was to confine itself to quantifiable descriptions of the way that the natural world behaves, rather than weighing in on what the fabric of reality is made of. The material world is the shared world of objects that we all have access to in principle, the world that we can measure and run controlled experiments on. The material world is therefore incredibly well suited to the game of science. We have seen extraordinary progress in this area over the last several hundred years. Mathematical laws can just as well be applied to the patterns of consciousness. It’s just far harder to control and map out these patterns in a subjective mind that only one person has direct access to.

I Think, Therefore I Am

Science was making incredible progress in physics, but comparatively little on the mind. Philosophers hadn’t given up on thinking about how consciousness relates to the rest of the world. The 17th century french philosopher René Descartes famously wrote, “I think, therefore I am.” This phrase points to consciousness and the fact of existence as the only things we can be certain of. You could be dreaming right now or you could be in the matrix. But there is thought and experience, and in knowing that fact you can be certain that something is happening. The world around you may not be the real world, but there is no faking consciousness and the existence it entails. Even just doubting whether you exist and are conscious ends up proving that you do. Therefore, you are conscious.


Descartes believed that the material world and the conscious mind comprised two fundamentally different substances. He believed that the immaterial mind interacted with the material body via the pineal gland. This theory has received renewed attention in the psychedelic community since Rick Strassman, author of DMT: The Spirit Molecule, speculated that the pineal gland might create DMT, and that this could possibly be the chemical mechanism bridging Descartes’ two substances. The problem with dualism is that reality doesn’t seem to be divided in this way. There is a strong mind-body connection. Your experience of the world around you depends on the physical action of photons, sound waves, and a variety of other non-mental events. It is difficult to make sense of such interactions from the perspective that reality comprises two fundamentally separate substances that obey different laws.

Only Mind or Only Matter?

Most modern attempts to understand consciousness do away with dualism and instead opt for monism. This is the idea that fundamentally, only one substance exists. We’ve already seen one extreme form of monism, the idea that only consciousness exists. This position is known as “idealism”: the world is made up of ideas in a single cosmic mind. The other extreme is physicalism, the position that only the physical exists and consciousness is some kind of illusion. Philosopher Daniel Dennett argues this position in his book, Consciousness Explained. In addition, neurophilosophers Paul and Patricia Churchland support Dennett’s central thesis. British philosopher Keith Frankish is championing this idea as well in his current work.

Science Weighs In

By the 1980s, talk of consciousness was very much out of fashion in scientific circles. This was due in large part to the difficulty in probing this inherently private part of reality. Molecular biologist Francis Crick was a winner, with James Watson, of the Nobel Prize for discovering DNA’s structure. Crick later turned his attention to consciousness and the brain. He was a newcomer to the field, and the taboo around consciousness amongst neuroscientists surprised him. He used his clout to make consciousness a respectable area of study for contemporary science. Crick and his collaborator Christoph Koch steered clear of making arguments about the ultimate nature of reality. Instead, they tried to characterise the relationship between brain activity and consciousness. In doing so, they began to map out what they called the Neural Correlates of Consciousness (NCCs).

The Hard Problem of Consciousness

Philosophers working on consciousness since the field began did not take science’s intrusion into this area lying down. In observing the scientific work on the NCCs, philosopher David Chalmers argued that this work was failing to address the core problem at the heart of understanding consciousness. He suggested that there is nothing you can say about the brain from the outside that will give you an understanding of why it feels like something from the inside—that is, why it is conscious.

Given our current lack of understanding, one could imagine an organism with all of humans’ physical properties. But imagine further that it would be purely mechanical. It wouldn’t “be like” anything at all to be that organism. The scientific picture therefore fails to address the hard problem of consciousness,. It fails to solve the problem of how anything in the physical world accounts for the presence of consciousness. Despite all of our experiments and scientific knowledge, it seems that we are back at square one.

Is Everything Conscious?

Chalmers thought perhaps the problem seems so hard because we’re thinking about it the wrong way. Perhaps consciousness doesn’t emerge from complex brains but is instead a fundamental feature of our reality. This is a position known as panpsychism. Unlike idealism, panpsychism does not hold that only consciousness exists, but instead that consciousness is a fundamental property of all matter that can’t be reduced. From this perspective, every physical particle in existence has some kind of experience. There is something it feels like to be that particle. Panpsychism has its own hard problem, however, known as the “combination problem.” It asks, How do all of those atomic consciousnesses get combined into your human-level experience? There is currently a resurgence of interest in panpsychism. Contemporary philosopher Philip Goff, author of the book Galileo’s Error, captures its essence in his work

The Brain As Computer: Global Workspace Theory

Alongside running experiments over the previous few decades, scientists have also ventured their own theories of consciousness. Neuroscientist Bernard Baars proposed the earliest of the major theories in the 1980s, calling it the Global Workspace Theory. It’s based on the idea that the brain is like a computer, drawing inspiration from a particular feature of computer architecture. Computers consist of multiple processes running in parallel, running software and retrieving information from memory displaying patterns on a screen. But all of these processes draw on a central information storage space. Baars then applies this idea of a shared informational workspace to the brain. Perhaps we become conscious of particular information when it enters a shared neural workspace that can be accessed by multiple subprocesses, such as memory, perception, or planning.

The main issue with scientific theories of this kind is that they don’t account for why information in the workspace becomes conscious; they simply state that it is the case. Why doesn’t information outside of the workspace become conscious? Are our computers conscious? Such questions cannot be answered by this types of theory.

Integrated Information Theory

In 2004, the neuroscientist Giulio Tononi proposed a new theory of consciousness, Integrated information Theory (IIT). According to IIT, all complex systems that interact with themselves in a causal way have consciousness. This “intrinsic causal power” is what consciousness is. IIT can be thought of as a scientific version of panpsychism, holding that consciousness is a fundamental feature of our reality that exists as causal power in systems like atoms, bacteria, and the human brain. Currently experiments explore whether these theories can successfully account for the structure of human consciousness. Despite a range of new theories, there is no agreement that any particular theory answers the question of how consciousness relates to the physical world.

Beyond Matter and Mind

The gap between matter and mind appears so large in part because of our beliefs about what matter and mind are. Common sense tells us that matter is this hard stuff out of which the world is made. Meanwhile, mind is some kind of immaterial stuff that differs profoundly from matter in its lack of solid existence. However, when we look deeper into the nature of reality, through science or altered states, we discover that the essence of reality is deeply mysterious. Rather than being made up of a reliable, solid, preexisting substance, we find that the world is more like an unfolding creative process. It is made out of events happening, rather than static material. The core insight of the Vedas is that this process applies to the world around us and to our own minds. There is no fundamental division between you and the world, or between matter and mind. From this perspective, science can describe the laws that govern the emergence and behaviour of consciousness just as it does for the physical world. In both cases, the scientific theories simply map a deeply mysterious unfolding process, whether material or mental.

Is Consciousness a Feature of the Life Process?

We are all made of the same stuff as the rest of the universe. But living systems seem to separate themselves off from the world around them. Unlike a nonliving process, such as an avalanche, you have an inside and an outside. You engage in survival behaviour to keep your insides inside you; this is what the life process is about. Perhaps it is this process of pulling away from the universe around you and separating off from it that brings consciousness into existence. Perhaps in order to be, you need to attempt to know the world around you. Otherwise, you wouldn’t survive for long. If this is the case, the origins of life are also the origins of consciousness. Far from being a special human characteristic—as many currently believe—all animal and plant life would be conscious, sensing and experiencing the world around them. This is the perspective in the Living Mirror Theory of consciousness.

Is Nature Conscious?

Could all of nature be conscious? This intuition appears to have been widespread before the Western perspective of exploiting nature for our benefit as unconscious, inert material took hold. The concept of the spirit refers both to the animating force underlying life, as well as the thing within us that imbues us with consciousness. Today, people anecdotally report a greater open-mindedness on the subject of plant consciousness after physical experiences that change their perspective on the nature of consciousness. Psychedelic experiences can show people that concepts, thoughts, and the self are not necessary for consciousness. Consciousness itself is prior to complex thought. Therefore, it seems like something that life-forms without complex brains might possess.

Take Your Pick

Science and philosophy could not be further from a consensus around the place of consciousness in the universe. With our understanding of ourselves and the very nature of reality at stake, it seems unlikely that people will stop arguing for their preferred position anytime soon. On the positive side, that means you are free to select whichever story you find most convincing, most appealing, or most consoling from the current smorgasbord of perspectives on consciousness.

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