Saturday, January 24, 2009

Philosophical musings on death and consciousness

This is going to be a bit of a philosophical thought experiment.

I am fascinated and puzzled by the concept of consciousness. I am also fascinated by death.

There is, as far as I can see, a direct link between consciousness and death. We are conscious that we are going to die. We are probably the only species with this foresight. Because we cannot quite accept the notion of oblivion, non-existence - we have invented a number of hypotheses to get around the problem and these hypotheses are mainly enshrined within religion. We thus postulate an afterlife of one kind or another. Because we cannot understand our own existence, or even why anything should exist, the notion of a God, or many gods was mooted throughout the disparate societies of the planet to account for this. And so we have creationism.

Turning to the genesis of the universe, as you do, creationists espouse the notion that God created it because nothing can happen without a "first cause". Also, because God is God, He doesn't need a first cause to bring Him into existence because He is the eternal one, in whom and by whom everything exists. The problem I find with this idea is that there is no more reason for the universe to exist as there is for God to exist. If this god can exist without any beginning or first cause, and as this god must by definition be part of what exists, then by the same token, there is similarly no reason why the universe itself should not exist without a beginning or "first cause", and both concepts are equally conceivable - or inconceivable.

Consider this. We need a "first cause" because the laws of physics demand it. We are taught at school that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Also, there is the law of the conservation of energy which states that the energy in a closed system remains constant and can neither be created or destroyed, but changed from one form of energy into another. If we look at Einstein's famous equation of E=mc2 where E is energy, m is mass and c2 is the speed of light squared, we see that matter and energy are part and parcel of the same thing. We are made of energy. Anyway, these, and all the other laws of the universe exist because there is a universe within which they can exist and can work. However, if there were no universe, or any kind of anything (or nothing) in existence, there would similarly be no laws for anything to apply to. We thus find ourselves in a situation whereby there is, by its very non-existence, the potential for a universe to spring into existence complete with its own laws of physics which govern its evolution. My belief is, therefore, that the universe sprang into existence by the "Big Bang" because there was no law of physics to prevent it from doing so. There was no need for a first cause. There was no need for a god. There is no need for God, or any god; the universe just is, because there was nothing to stop it from being otherwise.

Consciousness is a real puzzle. How can something which is made up of matter, irrespective of how complicated our make-up is, have self awareness, or whatever it is that makes me "me" and you "you"? In his book "The Emperor's New Mind" by Professor Roger Penrose, the concept of consciousness is explored in depth, and without any firm answers. From Penrose's arguments, it would appear that we will never be able to re-create consciousness on a digital computer, no matter how "clever" we make the program. It is apparent that consciousness emanates from a much deeper level of existence than we have so far managed to delve. He looks at quantum mechanics and the uncertainty principle, as well as quantum entanglement and the other spooky effects of the sub atomic worlds, of which we know so little. From Penrose's perspective, until we have a proper understanding of the laws of quantum physics, there is no hope of us understanding the phenomenon of consciousness, because it is from this quantum level of existence that consciousness would appear to arise. We should also consider that scientists are developing a new type of computer which works using quantum mechanics as the basis of it's operation, and this type of computer is called a quantum computer. Still very much in its infancy, and a long way from appearing on the high street, the development of such a device holds out the prospect of our current most powerful computers looking like no more than pocket calculators by comparison. Such a computer may hold the way for us to either simulate or create (how would we know the difference?) an artificially conscious entity. Even so. this is no more than wild speculation and there is much we do not know about the sub atomic universe and the laws which govern it. Hopefully, when the Large Hadron Collider at CERN is finally repaired and up and running, we should make significant strides into a deeper understanding of the quantum world and, possibly, consciousness. Indeed, it may well be the case that only biological systems can exhibit consciousness, and we may never have a complete answer to this mystery. Even so, that is no reason to defer to a god, simply because we have not discovered a convincing answer to a question.

Moving swiftly on - what happens after death? Or, to put it another way, what happens to ME after I die? I have a simple solution to this conundrum, and it is tied in with consciousness. In order to be conscious of anything, you have to be alive, or to put it another way, in existence. I cannot be conscious of not existing as I have to exist in the first place to possess consciousness. In other words, death, or being dead, is not something any of us can experience. To put it as simply as I can, if I am dead, I am in the same state of non-existence as I was before I was born. I had no complaints then, and I do not expect to have any again when I have shaken off this mortal coil. The only thing I did have in this non-existent state, was the potential for coming into existence. In as much as I can never experience, or be conscious of being dead, by the same token I can only ever be conscious of being alive and I therefore have a kind of immortality. The only thing "I", if it be "I" can experience after death is being born again as a new conscious entity somewhere in the universe. In this respect, I am immortal, but will almost certainly have no recollection of any previous existence, notwithstanding the odd instance of apparent cases of reincarnation which appear to refute this notion. Either way, I do not think we should fear death, but only the manner in which we depart.

One final conundrum is this: why am I "me" and not someone else. What is it that indelibly links "me" to this body and personality, and not to anyone else. Or, to put it another way - when I awaken in the morning, why do I still find I am "me" inside of my own body and not someone else in a different body? You might think the answer to this is obvious, but think about it and you will see, hopefully, that the matter is not as clear cut as it might seem. Indeed, it might be that what we call consciousness is merely an illusion and the true nature of reality is actually permanently hidden from us.


The Retired One said...

And then, why not Aliens?

What is ESP?

What is a dream? (you are conscious,but you are often someone else)?

How does a dog travel thousands of miles and find their master?

What about ghosts and EVP's where clear words can be heard ???

How do you explain love?

Ahhhh...the questions are endless!!!

Andy Mule said...

I forwarded this to Stephen Hawkins. I have just had a phone call from his 'people' and apparently he was last seen instructing his aid to tear his book 'A brief history of time' in to tiny pieces, and to throw it on the fire. Apparently he was so bemused by your intellect, that he is going to give up thinking, and dedicate his life to watching repeats of 'Robot wars'!

ron mcadam said...

does the universe or anything actually exist without it being concious of itself?
Biology ie conciousness arose to make sense of this.
Through biology the laws of the universe achieved its greatest 'think' ....
anyway must go Deal Or No Deal has started.