Thursday 30 November 2023

Self-Consciousness: the Battle between Science and Philosophy

Self-Consciousness: the Battle between Science and Philosophy

By David Comfort

Thinkers have debated many questions about the nature of man, the most basic of which have been closely related existential ones such as: What is self? What is consciousness? A myriad of related questions arises, such as: is it possible for some advanced kind of consciousness to survive the death of its mortal envelope – the self? 

Broadly, there are two opposing perspectives: immaterial and material. The first school of thought is dominated by metaphysical philosophers (from the Ancient idealists through to more modern panpsychists); the second by empirical scientists. Metaphysicians regard consciousness as a transcendent faculty of the human mind, separable from self; materialists regard it as a neural phenomenon of the physical brain, inseparable from self. Metaphysicians assert that the body is an idea of the mind, materialists assert that the mind is a sensation of the body.

Step back a moment and consider the terminology. Con means ‘together’; scio, ‘to know’. Etymologically, then, consciousness in the self is an overriding sixth sense that analyses and organises phenomena for the purpose of knowing. Moreover, embodied awareness is only as integrating and potent as its five servant senses and neurological horsepower. 

The subject of higher consciousness in animals has always been controversial. Some argue it is nonexistent, while others allow it does exist but as a primitive survivalist awareness. ‘Wary’ creatures survive by being aware of danger. Self-preservation, then, might be said to be the mother of sentience and rudimentary consciousness. But humans seem to possess an advanced form: we are aware of being aware. So, introspective individuals can, at least theoretically, study their own consciousness. But, in doing so, they may find themselves in a reflection-on-reflection-on-reflection rabbit hole leading to infinite regress.

In ancient Greece, the Oracle of Delphi established the goal of all thought with a simple but difficult mandate: Man, know thyself then thou shalt know the Universe and God. This didn't mean focusing on the impermanent outer layers of the multi-levelled self – the physical, social, emotional, or psychological – but penetrating to its core: the spirit that transcends mortality and individuality. So, Plato said: ‘All philosophy is training for death.’ 

Through logic, logos, and purpose-discerning intelligence, telos, Plato and Aristotle, identified soul, or what they called psyche or anima, as the eternal essence of the self. Had they known about the later concept of consciousness, they may have considered it no different than the higher self’s anima.

Perhaps the first Western philosopher to venture a tentative definition of consciousness was John Locke. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), the British Empiricist identified it as ‘the perception of what passes in a man's own mind’. But since ‘perception’ is basically a synonym for consciousness, the definition is autological. Fifty years earlier, the body/mind dualist, Descartes, had declared: ‘I think therefore I am’. Locke might have rephrased this instead as: ‘I am conscious, therefore I exist’. 

Cracking the mystery of consciousness – what it is, how it works, and whether it can outlive its default object, the self – became a primary focus for philosophers at the turn of the 20th century when the phenomenologists, Husserl and Heidegger, made a case for a ‘transcendental’ form, while the existentialist, Sartre, countered by arguing ‘consciousness is self-consciousness’. At the same time, the psychological nature of self was first systematically analysed  by Sigmund Freud who introduced the ego-id-superego trinity, and by his young colleague, Carl Jung, who began to plumb the unconscious as a repository of mythic and dream archetypes.

To understand the nature of self and consciousness, their complementary functions in the individual mind must be studied. To organise, understand and predict, the mind divides the world into objects, then analyses them according to their apparent causes. Dividing phenomena requires negation: X is X but not Z. So, equation and negation are the definitive abilities of the discriminating conscious mind. Most importantly, negation creates the two interconnected dimensions of human life and cognition, the building blocks of the self: 3D Space (I am here, not there), and 3D Time (my present is not my past, my past is not my future).

‘The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once’, said Einstein, before proceeding to argue that time is not an absolute reality, but a mental construct affected by the motion of the observer relative to the observed. The kinetic present is nothing more than “everything happening at once”: it overwhelms the mind, preempting static objective thought. Without the idea of beginning and end, and without memory of the past and imagination of the future, the mind drowns in the disorder of the here and now.  

 So, while the body lives in space, the arena of movement, the mind lives in time, the measure of movement. Since time measures space (in light years), physicists collapse the two dimensions into one: Space–Time. Telescopes are time machines: looking into spacial distance, they peer into the past. When consciousness is ‘heightened’ in mystical or psychedelic states, space distorts or even dissolves, while time slows or even stops.

Modern physics renders the idea of a centered, stationary object or subject and a fixed point-of-view imaginary. Indeed, the body itself becomes a hive of hyperactive nerve activity. Outside, in global space, it spins at 1,000 mph while riding the earth’s merry-go-round at 67,000 mph around the sun which itself circles the center of the Milky Way at 450,000 mph. Nevertheless, the self remains body-centric, anchored in an illusory I-am-where-I-am spacial identity. Even so, while pondering consciousness, Locke concluded that the body is not so much ‘physical’ but the conscious sensation of the physical. Hence, even from his materialist point of view, he regarded the body’s assumed solidity and independent material reality as an unfounded conclusion. 

Some regard Heraclitus as one of the first materialists, at least in contrast to the aethereal Platonics. ‘No man ever steps into the same river twice’, he declared. From this fact, he concluded that all being is becoming, an idea that surely applies to the stream of consciousness. So, is everything both physical and mental indeed change – impermanence – hence impossible to pin down and to truly identify? In Einstein’s everything-happens-at-once pure present, the question is only valid in abstract time – when comparing a present river or consciousness to a past river or consciousness. In reality, the one-change ‘uni-verse’ is not all change, but all motion the manifestation of energy. To mentally break it into matter-in-motion is to replace a real kinetic with an imaginary static.

Heraclitus’ critic, Parmenides, argued that reality is indivisible as well as timeless, making change an illusion. Much later, Isaac Newton, working on his laws of motion, claimed that time and space are a priori (and thus ‘pre-time’) absolutes. Newton’s contemporary, Bishop Berkeley, challenged the premise in De Motu (On Motion), insisting motion is the absolute God-caused reality, while time and space are, a posteriori, human abstractions relative to it. And today, three centuries later, quantum physicists regard everything as an energy wave or vibration. The idea of the ‘particle’– and even the seemingly contradictory massless particle, the light photon – helps them escape mental chaos. Yet, as the father of quantum mechanics, Niels Bohr, pointed out, ‘Everything we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real. A physicist is just an atom’s way of looking at itself’.

Viewing self-consciousness in this light, then, could the compound term represent something that is not real but, instead, just a conceptual aid or verbal convenience? If more than that, is consciousness the self’s way of looking at itself, or is the self consciousness’s way of looking at itself? Either way, which came first, and which causes which, becomes a chicken-or-egg question. If not, it is a simultaneous birth question. 

Which, though, is it? Imagine consciousness as the mind’s flash camera. Depending on the F-stop and shutter speed, a nano-second separates the click/light flash (present) from an awareness of a developed photo (now representing a past sensory or mental event): that processing and re-cognition delay, that freeze-frame, creates time. Since we experience by being conscious of experiencing, our consciousness Polaroid stores its experience photos in the self’s temporal lobe headquarters. This artificial, subjectivised reality is the basis of the time-bound ego-sphere that dies when an individual’s embodied time is up. After self-purging the mind, some Eastern and Western mystics claim to have returned to the original universe lifeboat and entered eternal, disembodied consciousness. 

Shortly before his death, Einstein wrote to a friend mourning the loss of his young son: ‘A human being is a spatially and temporally limited piece of the whole, what we call the “Universe”. He experiences himself and his feelings as separate from the rest, an optical illusion of his consciousness. The quest for liberation from this bondage [or illusion] is the only object of true religion.’ 

 Individual consciousness expresses itself in symbolic language. The Word. This is the mind camera’s film capturing sense or cerebral experience. So, the hub of the five senses, the head, becomes a micro movie theatre of past and projected future images complete with a running commentary voice by its director: the ego. The ‘I’. The practical outcome of this abstraction is that, when viewing a present object, the mind also sees its composite idea of it based on past perceptions and understandings, an idea expressed by an identifying word – whether cow, cloud, cosmos, or whatever.

The first to believe that ‘The Word creates all things’. Egyptians referred to their priests’ writing as ‘The speech of the gods’. Early Christians adopted the idea: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’. (John 1:1). The first job God gave Adam was to name the Eden animals, and ‘… Whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name’. (Genesis 2:20). Thus, language became the foundation of the self’s conceptual universe. Words are structured according to grammar which itself reflects the mind’s own structure. In physics terms, nouns are substantial and static; verbs are waves and kinetic. Nouns come in cases that indicate their function: subjective, objective, possessive. Verbs come in tenses that indicate their time: present, past, future. 

Locke’s notion of consciousness as a seer presupposes a seen and thus creates subject/object dualism. Again, a person’s primary consciousness is self-consciousness. If consciousness is posited as the essence of a man, then he becomes schizophrenic: both the seeing subject – I – and the self-reflected seen object – Me. This divide leads to a daunting question: to comprehend what it is, can the seeing consciousness make itself into a seen object without becoming other that what it intrinsically is – the seer? In fact, self and consciousness seem in such close orbit that it is difficult to know which circles which, or if one reflects the other, or whether they are a two-way mirror.

A person is considered to be an individual, meaning ‘undivided’. Though the self may indeed seem unitary, to understand it, anyone trying to ‘Know Thyself’ becomes a spelunker of its layers, crust to core. The first level: consciousness of the body and its five senses. Second: of desire and emotion. Third: thought. Fourth: spirit, soul, or being. Materialists mostly live in the first and second levels; conceptualists in the third; mystics in the fourth. 

As Schopenhauer pointed out, the engine of the self, for most, is found in the second layer: will and desire. ‘My entire philosophy can be summarised in one expression: the world is the self-knowledge of the Will’, as he told a colleague. Predicated on the future, the ego’s Will creates time and turns life into a suspended animation for future gratification. Will becomes both a captain of consciousness and its corrective lens, or rose-colored glasses. It concentrates awareness on what it wants, while filtering out or airbrushing what it doesn’t. As time passes, the lens gets thicker, opaquer and more distorted, while the man behind it still insists he has 20/20 vision. 

All creatures possess the will to survive and reproduce. Humans go a step further, striving for well-being in love, fortune, fame, and/or power. But desire is the itch that increases the itchiness. Even the rare person who seems to have it all, often wants more. Anyway, whatever the self wants provides purpose and meaning to its life. In this sense, consciousness, being intentional, is governed by teleology. So, the mystery becomes: after the inanimate to animate evolution of things, climaxing in mortal consciousness, where did self-will come from? 

The question can’t be answered unless the age-old freewill versus determinism debate is resolved. Yet such a resolution seems unlikely since philosophers on both sides of the issue often present as logical conclusions what are ill-concealed presumptions. For centuries, mystics have taught that to be truly free -- to achieve transcendental consciousness -- one must escape bondage to the time-bound, desire-driven ego with all its attachments and anxieties. The few contemplatives who succeed realise that this self is a causa sui I-llusion. To return to the original primal self born of cosmic force – whether it be called divinity by Westerners or dharma by Easterners – mystics have for ages practiced self-reflection and self-mortification in many forms.  

Given that the self (illusory or not) operates conceptually and wilfully in space and time (mental projections or not), it is definable psychologically and philosophically. Any attempt to define consciousness, however, entails formidable problems since any definition is only as good as a majority agreeing with it. The more abstract and intangible the word-concept (God, Soul, Being, Truth, etc.), the more likelihood of a vague, subjective, and/or arbitrary definition. In the case of consciousness, its definition varies according to the disciplinary bias of the definer: the materialist scientist rejects subjectivity; the metaphysician embraces it. Thus, their definitions will never agree. Both materialist and immaterialist bias are problematic in their own right.

A century ago, Einstein energised the material, mechanistic Newtonian universe with E=mc 2, proving that supposed “solid” matter is in fact pure energy compressed by invisible forces (gravity, electromagnetic, and/or nuclear). Indeed, theorists see the early cosmos as pure, unbound energy with matter only being created hundreds of thousands of years after the Big Bang. 

Until the 20th century, scientists mostly studied matter macrocosmically. Then they turned their attention to the microscopic – to what the materialist Democritus first called the atom, Greek for ‘indivisible’. To their amazement, they discovered that it is indeed divisible into proton, electron, and neutron which themselves are composed of quarks bound together by gluons. To their alarm, they discovered that the atomic world seemed to operate according to completely different rules than the macro world. Rendering micro reality seemingly random – governed by chance if not by science’s mortal enemy, chaos or entropy – Einstein protested, ‘God does not play dice!’ 

More disturbing to the father of relativity was Niels Bohr’s proof of quantum complementarity and the Observer Effect. The first principle stated that the position of protean matter can be measured in space, or its speed measured in time – but not both simultaneously.  The second principle states that the observer, through the very act of observation, changes the observed object. In short, what we perceive is never the object in and of itself, but our interaction with it. Thus, the object has no independent reality, making scientific ‘objectivity’ an illusion, at least in the quantum realm. 

Taking Bohr’s complementarity and the Observer Effect into account, Werner Heisenberg derived the Uncertainty Principle in 1927. A major blow to the historic goal of science – certainty – - researchers were now reduced to conjecture based on probability. Kant had argued long before, in The Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science, that the science of the mind shouldn’t be based on introspection since ‘even the observation itself alters and distorts the state of the object observed’. Given that the synaptic brain is animated by the three quantum forces – electromagnetic, strong and weak nuclear – shouldn’t it be studied according to quantum principles? If so, then in the act of observing self, consciousness cannot know what self is independently, just as consciousness can’t know itself independently through reflection.

Coincidentally, in the same year Heisenberg introduced uncertainty, Heidegger published Being and Time and confessed: ‘Philosophy constantly remains in the perilous neighborhood of supreme uncertainty’. Later, the philosopher, renowned for his obscurity, embraced mystery, writing that ‘Making itself intelligible is suicide for philosophy’. Cynics, sceptics, and fallibilists had said much the same thing centuries before due to the subjectivity of metaphysics and its ambiguous words and concepts. 

Striving for precision and clarity beyond words, scientists invented a new language: mathematics. Using geometry for positions in space, and calculus for movements in time, it seemed an intellectual panacea. ‘Number rules all!’ proclaimed Pythagoras. ‘Mathematics is the language with which God wrote the universe’, seconded Galileo, going so far as to recommend, ‘Measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not so’. 

But in a universe of numerical quantities and intangible qualities, math can only measure and organize by equation the first, while ignoring the second. True, numbers can represent the degree of a quality – say, pain or spiciness on a on a 1 to 10 scale – but they can’t reveal the subjective experience of a specific kind of pain or taste, much less of self-consciousness. ‘Laws of numbers assume there are identical things, but in fact nothing is identical with anything else’, asserted Nietzsche, adding that logic itself is far too abstract, arbitrary, and simple to handle the complicated real world of quality or qualia – the unique nature of a thing which philosophers call ‘quiddity’ and Buddhists ‘suchness’. 

Charles Darwin, himself an encyclopaedist of the rich variety of nature with its countless evolving species, once observed: ‘A mathematician is a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat which isn't there’. By contrast, early in his career, Bertrand Russell called math the ‘chief source of the belief in exact truth’. But later, perhaps overwhelmed by surreal, irrational, and imaginary numbers, not to mention the gadflies of infinity and zero, he began to question this exactness. Math, he concluded, ‘may be defined as a subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true’. Especially where self is concerned: for mathematicians the symbol i represents the imaginary unit, or square root of minus one. 

The contemporary philosopher Daniel Dennett calls consciousness ‘the last surviving mystery… confusing to most sophisticated thinkers’. In his book, ambitiously entitled Consciousness Explained (1991), he defines it as the sum of physical brain activities and calculations. He dismisses subjective qualia as ‘brain pranksters’ and concludes that humans are soulless computing machines no different than ‘complex zombies’ or AI robots. Challenging the notion, the Australian philosopher, David Chalmers, has argued that materialists, in their quest for certainty, ignore the ontological elephant in the room: the ‘hard problem’ of qualia consciousness: ‘what is if like to be a human’, or more precisely, a unique self? But, since studying self leads to the slippery slope of subjectivity and solipsism, preempting objectivity, consciousness materialists avoid it.  

In his Toward a Neurobiological Theory of Consciousness (1990) another consciousness expert, Kristoff Koch – with his co-author, Francis Crick (the recipient  of a Nobel prize, with James Watson, for discovering the structure of DNA) – argued that awareness can be reduced to ‘a pack of neurons’. Later, Koch, a lapsed Catholic, challenged Chalmers, ‘Why don’t you just say that when you have a brain the Holy Ghost comes down and makes you conscious?’ Then he bet his rival that, within 25 years’ time, science would solve the mystery of consciousness by identifying all its neural coordinates. In 2023, he graciously conceded defeat. 

Since his collaboration with Crick (who some called the ‘Mephistopheles of Materialism’), Koch had come to support the most synthetic of the four leading math-based neurological theories of consciousness: Integrated Information Theory – or IIT. Developed in 2004 by the Italian psychiatrist and sleep expert, Giulio Tononi, this combined materialist and immaterialist elements to conclude that consciousness inheres not just in brains but all matter in the universe. Today, neurologists are equally divided on IIT: supporters call the theory ‘promising’, detractors contemptuously dismiss it as pseudoscience due to its untestability. But as all well know, in the history of science, experiment has always lagged far behind theory, especially any theory borne exclusively from higher math.

The root problem becomes clear: In viewing the human mind as no more than a computing physical brain, the strict materialist gets lost in the chips, circuitry, and motherboard, while subsuming the essential thing: the immaterial energy that animates and connects all component parts in synergism. Materialists seem to regard this energy as a product of magic meat in the skull, rather than the other way around. Thus, for physicalists, consciousness-brain-self are inseparable, so death – UnConsciousness – is an absolute and any idea of a numinous afterlife, much less a cosmic consciousness independent of the physical self, becomes occult nonsense. 

And so, today, in large part due to the Immaterialist/Materialist divide, philosophy and science are opposed fields.Until Newton, though, there was no such distinction – every philosopher was also a scientist, and the ambition of each was to figure out as much as possible from every perspective. Arguably, the most ambitious, such as the omnivorous Aristotle, strived to understand everything material and immaterial though they had no illusions about the difficulty. They hoped to arrive at what scientists today call The Theory of Everything. TOE for short. For physicists, a TOE would unify the four recognized forces – gravity, electromagnetism, weak and strong nuclear – proving each to be a different expression of one master force. But an all-encompassing TOE would have to connect every branch of knowledge and even solve the mystery of consciousness.

Einstein who strived to ‘read the mind of God’ was among the first modern TOE aspirants when discussing the vehicle of human understanding itself: consciousness. ‘No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it’, he said – a truism still ignored by many. A student of philosophy, he went on: ‘Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one’. As for the strict mechanical approach to physics’ mysteries, the father of relativity, an accomplished violinist, added, ‘What’s the use of describing a Beethoven symphony in terms of air-pressure waves?’ 

Einstein claimed that the only thing ‘incomprehensible’ about the universe was that it was comprehensible – held ‘wonder’ in the highest regard, calling it the ‘most beautiful thing’ and the source of all true science. Since, all systems of knowledge depend on open-mindedness to every possibility, inflexible certainty has always been the enemy of progress.

Again, as other physicists and metaphysicians have suggested, self-based ‘reality’ is not truly real but, for many reasons, illusory. Matter – the body -- is not solid, but compressed energy constantly changing form, while the space/time foundation of matter is a human invention for cognitive order in a chaotic, kinetic cosmos. Even with it, scientific objectivity is preempted by uncertainty and the observer’s altering effect on the observed. Moreover, abandoning imprecise words and concepts for numeric language – math – has not helped resolve these issues for neurologists since applying quantitative measurement and equation to a qualitative, subjective self-consciousness is trying to force a square peg into a round hole. So, the only solution to the problem is to regard the idea of matter as a product of consciousness, not the other way around. Moreover, if consciousness is regarded as a unifying energy, according to the law of the Conservation of Energy, it never dies but reifies itself in ever-changing forms.

As we have seen, self and consciousness are born together and act in concert: consciousness imparts to the self its idea of materiality in space/time, while its mortal envelope – self – imparts to consciousness its focus, will and purpose. And so, to bring our discussion to a conclusion, it seems that if a theory of everything is indeed possible, progress will only be made once materialist scientists and immaterialist philosophers set aside their biases, and instead start to collaborate together as part of a marvellous symbiosis. What that will look like we do not yet really know.

David Comfort’s essays appear in Pleiades, Montreal Review, Evergreen Review, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Stanford Arts Review, Johns Hopkins' Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Review, Juked and Free Inquiry. He is also the author of The Rock & Roll Book of the Dead (Citadel/Kensington), The Insider’s Guide to Publishing (Writer’s Digest Books), and three other popular nonfiction titles from Simon & Schuster.  

David can be contacted at