Does consciousness exist?
I find this to be perhaps the most profound and interesting question a person can ask. On the surface it seems so unbearably abstract and philosophical, and yet it may be the most fundamentally relevant question we can ask ourselves.
the subjective experience by the mind of itself and the world.
Much of why this question is so relevant and interesting is precisely because the answer seems so blatantly obvious. Of course consciousness exists. Even if you strip away all claims of knowledge—one’s entire worldview and belief system—the one thing we can always be absolutely certain of is the existence of our own conscious experience. Regardless of whether we are living in a dream, The Matrix, or some other simulated virtual reality, it is impossible to deny that there exists some internal world that we call consciousness.
As the philosopher René Descartes famously put it, “Cogito ergo sum,” or, “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes attempted to build a worldview from the ground up, starting with absolutely nothing. Yet he discovered that one can’t actually strip away everything. There is always something—somewhere that we start from. At the very bottom there is always consciousness. He then made the seemingly logical leap from the existence of this internal world to the existence of a self—what we all call “I.”
Descartes later went on to postulate the concept of mind-body dualism, a concept typically in line with our natural intuitions. He stated that while the body is made of material stuff, the mind—consciousness—is of an immaterial nature. After all, how can the mind be material? It’s not made of “stuff” like our bodies are. It’s illusive, mysterious, abstract. It must be something altogether entirely different.
Well let’s test this hypothesis of mind-body dualism through modern neuroscientific means. First, though, an important aside:
Important Aside:Scientific discovery has this terrible habit of taking common intuitions and spitting in their faces, often to the horror and outright denial of the intuitors. Such may once again be the case on the concept of the mind. And especially the mind. We all think ourselves to be experts on the nature of the mind. Explain to an otherwise ignorant person the inner workings of a combustion engine, or how oxygen reacts with carbon and hydrogen, and most likely they willingly accept the knowledge you convey, perhaps even with a sense of wonder and amazement. But challenge the hardened intuitions of the nature of that person’s own mind, and you are far more likely to be met with a defensive—even outraged—response.
This is because our own mind is the one thing in this life we see as untouchable by outsiders. It is the one thing we see as truly belonging to us. After all, it is us, right? Only I know what “I” is like. And it is through our awareness of who and what we are that we are able to function in this life. Telling me my perception of “me” is wrong uproots not just some abstract understanding of myself, it uproots everything. Values, goals, self-worth, religious beliefs. These are all compromised when our understanding of our most fundamental selves is compromised. And such compromise is far too costly. Thus, we cover our ears and deny any such challenge to that which we hold so central and dear to us—that which is us.
But what are we to value if not the truth? What are we to seek if not the truth? Shall we dismiss all scientific claims that threaten our own personal identity and deeply held beliefs? How can we ever discern facts about the nature of reality—including the nature of our own mind—if we aren’t willing to engage with and be open to what the scientific world has to say? These are all rhetorical questions of course, but it is for these reasons precisely that I implore each of my readers to step outside the confines of limited human intuition and instead to be open-minded about the mind, knowing that whatever conclusion we come to, you will still be whoever and whatever it is you are, alive and breathing.
Question: how do seemingly immaterial events in the mind cause material events in the brain?
If we take Descartes’ dualistic hypothesis of the mind as being an immaterial entity distinct from the material brain—a view which typically lies close to our natural intuitions—then what we must determine is how the immaterial world of the mind connects to the material world of the brain. Note that the terminology here signifies “brain” as the physical gray matter inside the skull, while “mind” is used interchangeably with “consciousness.” So one question we can then ask is how immaterial events in our own internal subjective experience cause material events in the physical gray matter inside our skull?
Consider the concept of conscious decision making. When I decide to pick up a fork, for example, there seems to be an event that happens in my mind that is my choice to pick up the fork. This choice then somehow causes a physical reaction in the brain, sending a series of electrical signals along specific nerve cells in my body that eventually cause the appropriate muscles in my arm, hand, and fingers to contract or relax in such a way as to allow me to pick up my fork.
The mystery is how the choice that I make in my mind then causes a physical event to occur in my brain. If Descartes is right, then there must be some sort of link between the immaterial and material world that allows for the mind to control the brain in some sense. Descartes proposed that this link was the pineal gland in the brain, but as it turns out, the pineal gland is mostly just responsible for producing the hormone melatonin, which regulates our sleep cycles and circadian rhythms. It is not the seat of the soul.
Perhaps we could set up an experiment that would shed light on some of the causal relations between mind and brain. We could monitor the brain using brain imaging technology at the same time a conscious decision is being made. If we can precisely record the time of the decision as well as the time of the subsequent brain activity, then comparison of these times will give us a general idea of the causal relationship in time between mind and brain.
Such an experiment has actually been done, and quite famously so within the neuroscientific and philosophical worlds. In the experiment, volunteers were asked to press one of two buttons: a left button with their left index finger, or a right button with their right index finger. Moving the right and left hands each generate distinct signals in the brain, and the experiment monitored these signals in the brains of the volunteers through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Letters were also flashed in half-second intervals in front of the volunteers, who were instructed to make note of which letter was being flashed at the instant they made their decision as to which button they would press.
What the experimenters found was that the fMRI indicated a signal corresponding to the volunteer’s decision as much as ten seconds prior to the volunteer indicating their conscious decision being made. In other words, the volunteers’ brains were making the decision well before the volunteers themselves were consciously aware of having made their decision.
In the researchers’ own words:
”There has been a long controversy as to whether subjectively ‘free’ decisions are determined by brain activity ahead of time. We found that the outcome of a decision can be encoded in brain activity of prefrontal and parietal cortex up to 10 s before it enters awareness. This delay presumably reflects the operation of a network of high-level control areas that begin to prepare an upcoming decision long before it enters awareness.”
So what these results indicate as the answer to our question—to how the illusive mind causes physical events to occur in the brain—is that it doesn’t. In fact, it’s entirely the other way around; it is the physical events in the brain that cause subjective experiences in the mind. So strange is this inversion of intuition that many of us simply cannot accept it at first. If you are one of those people, I encourage you to approach our previous question again, this time through an introspective analysis.
Imagine you are one of the volunteers for the aforementioned experiment. You are asked to choose between pressing the left button with your left index finger or the right button with the right index finger. You sit there trying to make up your mind which button you’ll press. At some instant, you finally solidify your decision and choose the left button. The question is, what happens in your mind at that instant? For whatever reason, you had the thought, “I’m going to choose the left button,” and this caused the physical events in your nervous system that led to you pressing the left button. In other words, it was that thought that actualized your decision as having been made. So where did that thought come from?
Think about how thoughts in general enter our mind. Do we ever choose which thoughts to think? If you were to choose to think about a pink elephant, you would first have to have the idea to think about a pink elephant, wouldn’t you? In which case, you would already be thinking about a pink elephant. Choosing to think a thought requires that thought to already be in our mind, lest there be no thought to choose from, in which case, we’re not actually choosing the thought. The thought simply arises and we become aware of it. Thoughts in general seem to come and go in the mind outside of our control, a fact that can be realized upon introspection alone.
Furthermore, every conscious action we make is ultimately initiated by a thought. The thought arises—outside of your control—to choose the left button, and this thought causes the series of electrical impulses to travel from your brain to the nerves in your left hand and your muscles contract such that you press the left button. What the experiment shows is that this initial thought is itself caused by unconscious brain activity occurring prior to you becoming aware of the thought.
So through both external empirical analysis as well as our own subjective introspection we make the following conclusion: subjective experiences in the mind do not appear to cause physical events in the brain, but rather physical events in the brain cause subjective experiences in the mind. We can think of this sort of like events in the brain getting “uploaded” to the mind, while the brain is left incapable of “downloading” anything from the mind.
Yet isn’t there intuitively a fundamental problem with this idea? When you stub your toe, you have a subjective experience of pain, an experience that may then cause you to cry out in agony. Would this not then imply that an event within your subjective mind (pain) caused a physical event (crying out) to occur?
The answer is no. It’s true that stubbing your toe caused you to experience pain, but it was not the experience of pain that caused you to cry out. Rather, it was the stubbed toe itself—a physical event—that caused you to cry out in pain. The subjective experience of pain was simply a byproduct of the whole scenario; the experience itself had no influence on anything.
This conclusion leads us to the philosophical concept of epiphenomenalism, which classifies the mind as an epiphenomenon.
a secondary effect or byproduct that arises from but does not causally influence a process, in particular.
An example of an epiphenomenon might be the smoke and steam leaving the smokestack in a steam train. The boiler within the steam engine that powers the train produces smoke that gets exhausted through the smokestack. This exhaust is caused by the process that makes the train move, but the exhaust itself plays no role in moving the train. It is a mere byproduct of the whole process—an epiphenomenon.
Perhaps the most profound aspect of epiphenomena is the fact that you can take them entirely out of the picture without changing the process that gives rise to them. You can take away the smoke leaving the smokestack without affecting the locomotion of the train. And in the same way, because the mind can also be seen as merely a byproduct of brain activity—an effect that causes nothing—then under such a view it too could in principle be taken away without changing the slightest thing about one’s behavior. You could stub your toe and the resulting nerve signals would cause you to cry out in pain, regardless of whether you have any subjective experience of the pain.
Yet there may still be a problem with this idea. The very fact that I can think and speak about the nature of consciousness implies that consciousness is continually having a causal influence on my brain, right? If the mind had no effect on my brain, then how could my brain have any knowledge of the mind’s existence, much less be able to speak and philosophize about its nature? Knowledge of something requires that thing to affect you in some way. Anything that truly had no effect on the physical world would be utterly unknowable.
As it turns out, this challenge to epiphenomenalism is well known, and there have been multiple counter-arguments in defense of epiphenomenalism.
Let’s imagine that the mind did not exist, since from an epiphenomenalist perspective its nonexistence would be inconsequential to the brain, in the same way removing the exhaust from the steam train would have no effect on the train’s movement. Now what the epiphenomenalist must explain is how a person might come to have knowledge of a subjective experience that doesn’t actually exist. In essence this person could be considered a mere autonomous machine, responding to sensory input and processing information with no internal world at all. Here’s an argument the epiphenomenalist might give:
A human-like robot that possessed no consciousness whatsoever could in principle develop a concept for the collection of sensory information and processing going on inside itself, as this might be a useful concept to have. In other words, it could develop the concept of “consciousness” without actually being conscious. It could then convey this concept to other robots and proceed to philosophize about why it has this collection of sensory data, memory, etc., all the while having no internal subjective experience. It would simply be responding to the information processes going on inside its head. If you then ask the robot whether or not it is truly conscious, it might actually say yes, because it possesses such a concept in order to make sense of its information processing. And at this point, how are we then to discern whether or not the robot actually has an internal subjective experience?
The question then arises, am I one of these such robots? If my knowledge of consciousness comes not from actually being conscious, but from a useful concept the brain has developed in order to make sense of its internal processing, then might we come to the conclusion that consciousness does not actually exist? If we cannot have any knowledge of the mind, then why are we saying it exists in the first place? Under the dualistic view of the mind as being a separate immaterial entity, I think this actually seems to be a surprisingly reasonable conclusion. However, it’s a conclusion that has some pretty terrifying practical implications.
Descartes himself came to the conclusion that while humans do possess an immaterial soul—consciousness—animals, on the other hand, do not. Rather, Descartes viewed animals as mere machines, automata made of purely material substances. He considered them to be “philosophical zombies,” existing in the world with no internal subjective awareness or experiences. Thus, Descartes concluded that animals were morally irrelevant. He reportedly even nailed his wife’s dog by the paws to a wooden plank and dissected it alive to marvel at its internal machinery, unphased by the obvious agony from the dog, reasoning that its screams and whimpers were merely mechanical noises no different from those a machine makes.
As horrifying as such an image is, it raises an important point. If consciousness truly does not exist, then that would logically imply that suffering and well-being also do not exist, in which case everything becomes morally irrelevant. If our moral compass is guided by our knowledge of a creature’s capacity to consciously suffer or flourish, then in the absence of this knowledge do all ethical imperatives get thrown out the window?
OF COURSE NOT.
And I hope that’s what you were thinking as well. What the question of morality forces us to realize is that whether or not we conclude the nonexistence of consciousness, the fact remains that we all do have the capacity to suffer, regardless of whether or not such suffering is considered to be just an “illusion.” How can we possibly deny that?
Luckily, I don’t think we need to. I see that we have simply reached the conclusion that consciousness is not quite what we originally thought it was, but that doesn’t imply that it is nonexistent, it just means the time has come to shift our intuition with regard to consciousness. We need another way of thinking about consciousness.
So far I have adopted a Cartesian-esque “mind-brain” dualistic philosophy as we attempt to intuitively explore the nature of the mind. In particular, I have put forth the picture that there is the brain and there is the mind, and that the challenge is in finding how these two things relate to each other. I’ve asked questions like, “How does the mind affect the brain?” emphasizing this seeming dichotomy. And this is almost always how people intuitively attempt to understand the nature of consciousness. They see the brain as one thing and consciousness as a related, yet distinct thing. Yet evidence and reason have led us to the conclusion under this view that the immaterial mind—consciousness—doesn’t actually exist.
I’d like to instead propose a shift in how we think about this problem. Rather than viewing the mind as somehow distinct from the brain, what if we consider the mind to be identical to the brain? What if we play around with a monistic perspective as opposed to a dualistic perspective? Perhaps this might bring some clarity into this exploration, even if it turns out to be wrong.
As soon as we rid ourselves of the distinction between mind and brain, we are left with the task of explaining why we ever perceived there to be a distinction in the first place. In particular, we see the brain as being an object, while the mind is a subject. The whole thing involves the perception of identity. We perceive ourselves as having a brain, while being a mind. If there is no such distinction, then why do we think there is?
The nature of our brain makes the concept of consciousness seem far more complex to us than I think it really is. Our own intuitions are misleading us. The answer I see to be actually quite simple. The perceived distinction between mind and brain arises not from a genuine difference between the two, but as a simple matter of perspective. The mind is the brain and only the brain, the only distinction being that the mind is the brain from the perspective of the brain.
Once we admit this then the challenge that epiphenomenalism previously posed altogether dissolves. Our knowledge of the mind comes not from a separated causal influence of the mind on the brain, but from the fact that the mind is the brain. The brain having knowledge of the mind is no different from the brain having knowledge of itself. The mind is just the vantage point of the brain. The mystery and overspirtualization we so naturally impose onto consciousness makes it all seem far more complex a phenomenon than it really is. Granted, the brain itself is very complex, but consciousness is simply the brain's perspective of itself and the world.
The tricky thing is getting beyond our natural intuitions—particularly our intuitions of the "self"—in order to fully understand this idea. We typically view consciousness as just one aspect of the “self,” yet in reality the self is just one aspect of consciousness. And what’s more is that it is ever-changing and impermanent. It waxes and wanes depending on the state of your brain.
The perceived “self” we so intimately identify with is simply a model the brain constructs of itself in order to make sense of the world, in the same way it constructs, for example, visual models for various objects, informed by the trillions of photons hitting our retina every second. And through various means of manipulation of the brain’s physiology this “self-model” can actually be dissolved, whether through the use of psychedelic drugs or just a particularly deep state of meditation.
Religious and spiritual patriarchs and matriarchs have for millennia understood the significance of setting aside the self, of putting others before yourself, of dissolving the ego. Such a practice is the birth of love in action. When we learn of the material basis of the mind—of the ego as a changing and fragile arrangement of matter—then we see that there really is no distinction between “us” and “them.” We are all of the same fundamental building blocks that fill our universe; a confoundingly beautiful mosaic of unfathomable complexity; a dance of quarks and electrons woven throughout the entire cosmos.
Indeed, consciousness exists; it exists as the perspective of an elegant and precisely choreographed ballet of countless quarks and electrons. And you are part of this dance. In the words of the spiritual teacher and author Eckhart Tolle:
“You are not in the universe, you are the universe, an intrinsic part of it. Ultimately you are not a person, but a focal point where the universe is becoming conscious of itself. What an amazing miracle.”
fMRI actually measures changes in blood flow in various regions of the brain, changes which nicely correlate with neuronal activity. ↩
I actually came to the conclusion of the mind as an epiphenomenon before I had heard anything about epiphenomenalism. I had no clue the word even existed. And I subsequently realized this problem with epiphenomenalism before hearing it expressed anywhere else. I thought it was the grandest revelation ever. The moral of the story is if you ever have a philosophical revelation and think you’re a super genius for thinking of it, you’re very likely just ignorant of the fact that someone already thought of your idea long before you. ↩