Mind Over Matter

Did matter create consciousness or consciousness matter?


It may be argued, scientifically, that matter originated first and the interactions of networked matter created everything else, including life, mind and consciousness. But, a deeper analysis suggests, as the physicist Max Planck believed, that consciousness is elemental and everything else is secondary. Is the mind matrix of all matter?

Our scientific quest, based on reductionism, tempts us into believing that fundamental particles are really fundamental. They create our universe at a basic level, as they do our body and brain. But, if the brain is just a collection of particles that constitute cells, it wouldn’t be much different than a rock or a piece of wood.

The cells that make up the brain interact within a complex network that communicates among various segments of the brain. This exchange of information gives rise to the non-physical attributes, such as mind, consciousness, and, as some believe, a soul within the human body. In the absence of such information trading, even when the brain is physically present, the meaning of existence is lost.

The scientific argument is appealing as it seems lucid and coherent, and is held by many modern researchers. It’s simple and plain — matter (elementary particles, atoms and cells in that hierarchical order) came first, followed by life and consciousness. Accordingly, consciousness is an emergent property of the interactions of fundamental particles. The tangible creates the intangible. The tangible matter generates the intangible and unbounded entity like the mind, which is considered the ultimate source of our inner voice.

While everyone agrees that consciousness defines existence and reality, the mechanism that generates this phenomenon is controversial and mostly unknown. In the classical approach, a trigger in the form of an electrical pulse in the brain caused by an external stimulus originates at one location and that information propagates to various cells, somewhat like a domino effect, yet it remains local in nature. The current neurophysiologic understanding of consciousness asserts that it is a manifestation of the emergent firing of neurons — the nerve cells in the brain.

Thus, if a sufficiently complex system can generate consciousness, why can’t machines mimic the same? Computers that execute algorithms, at some point, must be able to generate consciousness, because it is the result of complex networks performing information exchange among different components.

Our machines, such as computers, can store, process and analyze information. And, some advances algorithms, such as artificial intelligence, can imitate some other features, like muscle movement, pattern recognition or even the sense of taste, smell, etc. What on earth stops them creating other attributes of consciousness and self-awareness? What about emotions and feelings?

Is the brain an interface that bridges a super consciousness with human activities  or a pure source of consciousness?

It is generally agreed that all the laws of physics are computable. In other words, a complex machine can simulate the underpinnings of brain at some point. If the laws of nature are computable, the workings of brain and consciousness also must be computable. But, researchers have no clue about creating such rules, nor are they confident that our current algorithms are capable of doing that. That’s where the findings of Oxford physicist Roger Penrose become revolutionary.

Penrose argued, to the dismay of many researchers, that our current science is incapable of creating artificial consciousness. Even if we can amass unimaginable computing powers, consciousness will still remain a fantasy. There is some missing link. What could be that unknown piece?

Penrose sought a deep and initially somewhat vague connection between consciousness and quantum physics. His ground-breaking work came to the public domain through his popular book The Emperor’s New Mind. He suggested that brain cells seem to execute quantum mechanical antics rather than the classical tricks to generate consciousness. Precisely, consciousness is created by some mysterious quantum mechanical phenomenon that takes place in brain cells. And, unless we master that technique, consciousness will remain a mystery.

Working along with Stuart Hameroff of Arizona University, Penrose identified the cellular components that perform quantum mechanical mishmash or the nature’s quantum computers. It turned out to be long and thin hollow tubes of protein about ten-millionth of an inch in diameter that network the cellular structure known as microtubule.

Identifying the physical root of consciousness isn’t enough to know the mechanism by which these tubes perform quantum mechanical computations. Quantum theory describes the underpinnings of matter and energy at the most fundamental level. An object in a quantum state is a “wave of possibilities” and exists in coherent superposition of many possible states. When the brain attempts to solve a problem, billions of different choices exist simultaneously as available outcomes. However, the numerous wave functions collapse and return a single choice from the possible cellular traffic, the one that becomes the conscious thought.

Also, in quantum behavior non-locality is key. This essentially means the activity at one place affects the activity at another place of the brain without going through a domino effect needed by classical behavior. The information is entangled everywhere rather than being transported from one place to the other. Perhaps, quantum information is hardwired to the entire universe. It’s always been there in the universe waiting to be shared. Our brains are connected to the entire universe — a daring thought, some believe, that might one day explain paranormal effects such as telepathy or remote viewing.

The scientific approaches to unravel the workings of brain and consciousness have a long way to go even if the quantum mechanical behavior proposed by Penrose is proved right. Recent researches indicate that our sense of smell, the photosynthesis and even the navigation of birds all depend on strange quantum effects.

The dubious feature of mind-matter origin is passionately debated in scientific circles and will continue for a long time. But, the concept of consciousness is weaved into the fabric of Hindu philosophy. In Hindu thought, consciousness has independent existence and is part of the ultimate reality not an emergent phenomena as conceived by science. Our individual minds borrow consciousness from the omnipresent Brahman, which describes the realty as sat (truth or eternal), cit (pure consciousness) and ananda (ideal bliss). The existence is a universal reality that transcends the manifested universe.

The fundamental particles, considered to be the building blocks, are inseparable from the energy field that pervades the universe. Their existence may manifest as energy or matter, but the state of existence is eternal in nature. The bewildering activity our brain performs to create consciousness is neither local nor totally new. Our brain is entangled with the entire universe and pre-existing consciousness. It’s the intangible that creates the tangible. We do not have evidence, as of now, to establish such a principle, but it’s something researchers can’t ignore as they nail down the science of consciousness.

Sri Aurobindo, the great Indian philosopher and poet, introduced the evolution idea into vedantic thought through an unfamiliar and unexplored level of consciousness: “Evolution is not finished; reason is not the last word nor the reasoning animal the supreme figure of Nature. As man emerged out of the animal, so out of man the superman emerges.” He called it the Supermind. Our individual minds and bodies are parts of this principle and it is present in the Satchidananda. The Supermind generates mind followed by life and matter. Rejecting the idea of renunciation of the material world, proposed by some school of thoughts, he suggested it is possible to transcend and transform human nature and evolve spiritually not just materialistically.

Aurobindo said: “Be conscious first of thyself within, then think and act. All living thought is a world in preparation; all real act is a thought manifested. The material world exists because an Idea began to play in divine self-consciousness.”

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