How do we explain consciousness?
Philosophy really cannot help us. All philosophy can do is to assert that consciousness is logically plausible; but that does not explain how or why consciousness arises or exists or persists through time.
What about science?
Science does not do a good job with explaining or accounting for consciousness. Science deals with the physical universe and must use the tools and methods of physical science to study physically observed phenomena (we include here electro-magnetic energy as falling under the “physical” for purposes of our discussion). Science can be said to be materialist and reductionist.
Science asserts, or at least many neuroscientists do, that consciousness is produced by the electro-chemical activity within the brain. Complex interactions among neurons is the key to consciousness. However, at this time, science cannot give very precise, specific (detailed) answers about how such neuronal relationships and interactions produce consciousness.
We saw a program on TV once where a scientist postulated that consciousness may arise from complexity, or complex organization. Well, no one will deny that the human brain is the most complex object that science has come across so far. But, if we accept the assertion, would we say that a complex computer network possessed a level of consciousness? What about an automated factory staffed by robot workers – would there be a kind of consciousness in such a factory?
Here is the blind spot for adherents or aficionados of science: Not to allow for the possibility of a non-physical cause of consciousness. No, we are not going obscurantist here. We are merely suggesting that men (and women) of science often exclude from their thinking the possibility there is more in existence than just the physical. To be fair, limiting one’s focus to the material, to the physically observable and physically measurable is part of their training. As well, peer pressure within the ranks of scientists makes it very difficult for a scientist to speak to non-physical causes of phenomena.
There is another explanation for consciousness that lies outside of science. The atman, or soul, or basic spiritual essence of a human being, is non-physical, non-material, but nonetheless real. It can exist on the material plane of existence, but it can also exist on a non-material plane of existence that we can term the spiritual plane. It does not die when the body dies. It is the atman, the soul, that is the source of consciousness. There is nothing inherently illogical in such an explanation. (Philosophers, both East and West, have touched on this in the past.) This view of the soul as the source of consciousness is really not anti-scientific. (In the Vedic philosophy of India, this idea is quite old.)
One thing to be aware of is the strong faith that some people have in science and scientists. I am all for scientific investigation. But, we need to retain a certain healthy skepticism regarding science’s limitations.
If consciousness is ultimately non-material, non-physical in nature, it is a vain hope that science will be able to give a definitive answer as to how does consciousness arise. As well, science would not be competent to answer the question: does individual consciousness survive bodily death? For those who believe that consciousness is the source of life, the spark of life so to speak, then believing that consciousness survives bodily death is not such a big leap of “faith” as consciousness is not dependent upon the physical brain. For many individuals, the body is seen as being a vehicle of consciousness, and the brain is a filter (a reducing valve) for consciousness. Or, to put this another way, mind transcends (physical, protoplasmic) brain.
For one of our earlier posts on this topic, with notable quotes from men of science, click this link:
Thanks for reading.
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