The great mystery of consciousness is why matter lights up with felt experience. After all, we are composed of particles indistinguishable from those swirling around in the sun; the atoms that compose your body were once the ingredients of countless stars in our universe’s past. They traveled for billions of years to land here—in this particular configuration that is you—and are now reading these words. Imagine following the life of those atoms from their first appearance in spacetime to the very moment they became arranged in such a way as to start experiencing something.
Many assume there is probably no felt experience associated with the microscopic collection of cells that make up a human blastocyst. But over time these cells multiply and slowly become a human baby, able to detect changes in light and recognize its mother’s voice, even while in the womb. And, unlike a computer, which can also detect light and recognize voices, this processing is accompanied by an experience of light and sound. First, as far as consciousness is concerned there is nothing, and then suddenly, magically … something. The mystery lies in the transition. However minimal that initial something is, experience apparently ignites in the inanimate world, materializing out of the darkness.
But how does felt experience arise out of non-sentient matter? The Australian philosopher David Chalmers famously termed this the “hard problem” of consciousness.1 Unlike the “easy problems” of explaining behavior or understanding which processes in the brain give rise to various functions, the hard problem lies in understanding why some of these physical processes have an experience associated with them at all. And the fact that the hard problem has persisted for so many decades, despite the advances in neuroscience, has caused some scientists to wonder if we’ve been thinking about the problem backward. Rather than consciousness arising when non-conscious matter behaves a particular way, is it possible that consciousness is an intrinsic property of matter—that it was there all along?
This notion sounds crazy, but the question has been seriously posed. It falls under the category of theories referred to as panpsychism, which entertains the possibility that all matter is imbued with consciousness in some sense. If the various behaviors of animals can be accompanied by consciousness, the thinking goes, why not the reaction of plants to light—or the spin of electrons, for that matter? Panpsychism postulates that consciousness is embedded in matter itself, as a fundamental property of the universe. And while the term has been attached to a wide range of ideas throughout history, contemporary panpsychism describes reality very differently than the earlier versions, and it is unencumbered by any religious beliefs. Modern panpsychism is informed by the sciences and fully aligned with physicalism and scientific reasoning.
We have a deeply ingrained intuition that systems that act like us are conscious and those that don’t are not. We strongly believe, as a result, that consciousness arises out of complex processing in brains. But are these useful assumptions? When our intuitions don’t match the mounting evidence, the goal of science is to push past them—e.g., the earth is a sphere, disease is caused by germs, gravity warps spacetime. The idea that consciousness emerges out of non-conscious material, in fact, represents a kind of failure of the typical goal of scientific exploration: to arrive at as simple an explanation as possible. The celebrated biologist J.B.S. Haldane, for example, argued that the notion of the “strong emergence” of consciousness is “radically opposed to the spirit of science, which has always attempted to explain the complex in terms of the simple … If the scientific point of view is correct, we shall ultimately find them [signs of consciousness in inert matter], at least in rudimentary form, all through the universe.”2
My own sense of the correct resolution to the mystery of consciousness, whether or not we can ever achieve a true understanding, is split between a brain-based explanation and a panpsychic one. So while I’m not convinced that panpsychism offers the correct answer, I am convinced that it is a valid category of possible solutions that cannot be easily dismissed.
Is it possible that alongside the conscious experience of “me,” there is a much dimmer experience of each individual neuron?
When considering panpsychic views it’s important to first distinguish between consciousness and thought. We should be careful not to reflexively rail against the idea that rocks and spoons are conscious, which is obviously false when put this way. If consciousness is fundamental, all matter must entail consciousness by definition, but that doesn’t mean it makes sense to specify such things as “moon consciousness” or “tree consciousness.” We would expect that the region of spacetime occupied by a rock, say, entails consciousness because matter is present there. We can’t imagine what that region of particles feels like (or that it has a unified perspective at all, which seems unlikely). What we can be fairly sure of, however, is that it doesn’t contain a humanlike experience or even a single “point of view.” Just as we wouldn’t expect (the collection of atoms that make up) a rock to get up and walk or sing—that’s not what atoms configured in such a way do—we also wouldn’t expect it to feel a single, unified point of view. And we certainly wouldn’t expect it to have anything like human thoughts or intentions.
If some version of panpsychism is correct, we would still assume that information in a complex and integrated form is required to produce experiences like ours. We shouldn’t feel compelled to wonder if there is a specific “rock consciousness” any more than we’re compelled to wonder if there is a “rock-plus-the-five-blades-of grass-the-rock-is-touching consciousness.” That description of consciousness is based on an anthropomorphic view, projecting separateness in isolated packages: me, you, rock, spoon. But perhaps there is a felt experience present—in a form we can’t imagine—across the matter in any given area of spacetime.
The question arises: If the most basic constituents of matter do indeed have some level of conscious experience, how is it that when they form a more complex system—such as a brain—those small points of consciousness combine to create a new conscious subject? For instance, if the individual atoms and cells in my brain are conscious, how do those separate spheres of consciousness merge to form the consciousness “I’m” experiencing? What’s more, do all of the smaller, individual points of consciousness cease to exist after giving birth to an entirely new point of view? This is referred to as “the combination problem,” and according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, it’s “the hardest problem facing panpsychism.” It has kept many scientists and philosophers otherwise willing to entertain the idea that consciousness is a fundamental property from fully endorsing panpsychism. However, it seems to me that the obstacle one faces here isn’t a combination problem but the confusion of consciousness with the concept of a self.
There are different ways of using the word “self.” There’s the autobiographical self, which is the story of who I am: My name is Annaka, I have two daughters, I’m a good swimmer. And if I wake up tomorrow with amnesia and don’t remember my name or anything else about who I am, I’ve lost my sense of being the “self” called Annaka, and I now feel like a very different person. But the sense of self I’m referring to goes deeper than the autobiographical self and isn’t necessarily bound up with a specific identity. The deeper sense of self would still be present if I lost my autobiographical self. It’s the “I” that amnesiacs refer to when they say, “I don’t know who I am! I don’t remember my name or where I live!” The deeper sense of self is the experience of being a single, concrete entity that has a precise center or location and is doing the experiencing. And this concept of the self is an illusion.While it’s admittedly a tough illusion to relinquish, we know it does not offer us an accurate representation of the underlying reality.
When discussing the combination problem, philosophers and scientists tend to speak in terms of a “subject” of consciousness, which is just another way of pointing to the experience of self in its most basic form. Therefore, rather than speak in these terms, it may be more accurate to instead talk about the content and quality of conscious experience at any given location in spacetime, determined by the matter present there.
The combination problem may, in fact, be a reason to favor a version of panpsychism in which consciousness is fundamental in the form of a continuous, pervasive field, analogous to spacetime. Just as spacetime and gravity have an interactive relationship, consciousness can be thought of as a fundamental “field” that interacts with, and is integral to, matter. We typically don’t think of spacetime as bits and pieces that build on each other (it’s simply everywhere), and I don’t think we should be tempted to think of consciousness, if it is indeed a pervasive field, as divisible into building blocks either. Rather, it makes more sense to talk about a field that contains a range of content—the content depending on the other forces or fields it’s interacting with. In the same way that gravity is a two-way street—matter warps spacetime and the shape of spacetime determines how matter moves—a consciousness field would imbue matter with another property, giving rise to the range of content experienced. Under this view, content is divisible, but consciousness isn’t. Therefore, consciousness is also not interacting with itself, as it would be in the act of “combining.” Considering consciousness to be fundamental allows for matter to have a specific internal character everywhere, in all of its various forms.
If consciousness is fundamental, then the questions that prompt the combination problem are potentially the same as all the other questions we might ask about spacetime in which we don’t anticipate this problem. All matter would entail consciousness, and complex systems, such as human brains, would give rise to certain types of content in those locations in spacetime. Even if each individual atom has its own experience, consciousness itself is not necessarily isolated. The matter might be isolated, and therefore the content associated with the consciousness at that location is isolated. But consciousness itself would not be said to be isolated. Again, we can think of consciousness as analogous to spacetime: How it’s affected by matter depends on the matter in question (its mass, in the case of spacetime). Similarly, a consciousness field might be “shaped” by matter in terms of experiential quality or content. And this line of thinking yields interesting questions. How does the content that appears in an area of consciousness depend on the configuration of matter present in that location in spacetime? Are there experiences of overlapping or merging content?
Experience apparently ignites in the inanimate world, materializing out of the darkness.
In a related conversation I had with the neuroscientist Christof Koch, we discussed what might result from a hypothetical experiment in which two brains were connected together as successfully as the two hemispheres of a single brain are connected. Since various experiments with split-brain patients—people whose right and left hemispheres have been surgically disconnected—have shown that the contents of consciousness can be separated, would two brains wired together produce a new, integrated mind? If Christof and I had our brains wired together, for instance, would it create a new Christof-Annaka consciousness—a new single point of view? Would a new mind be produced, with access to all of the content that had previously been experienced separately by our brains—all of our thoughts, memories, fears, abilities, etc.—constituting a new “person”?
Even if the answer is yes, I don’t think we encounter a combination problem in this thought experiment. We run into problems only if we see the conscious experiences of myself and Christof as “selves” or “subjects”—permanent structures of consciousness with fixed boundaries. In the instance of connecting two brains, we might simply have an example of consciousness changing its content or character. In the same way the content of your consciousness changes when you close and open your eyes: The trees and sky are available to your field of view and then they’re not. When you dream, you experience environments quite different from your actual surroundings, maybe even feeling yourself to be a different person altogether. During both of my pregnancies, I found myself experiencing drastic variations in the contents of my consciousness—sensations in my uterus I had never before known were on the menu of experience, an obsession with tomatoes and tomato sauces in every form, feelings of panic and other more amorphous emotions, physical pain, insomnia. I didn’t feel like “myself,” and I expect I wouldn’t feel like myself during a mind meld with a 62-year-old male neuroscientist either. But it doesn’t necessarily point to a combination problem for consciousness.
We have a deeply ingrained intuition that systems that act like us are conscious and those that don’t are not.
We run into a combination problem only when we drag the concept of a “self” or a “subject” into the equation. The solution to the combination problem is that there is really no “combining” going on at all with respect to consciousness itself. Consciousness could persist as is, while the character and content changes depending on the arrangement of the specific matter in question. Maybe content is sometimes shared across large, intricately connected regions and sometimes confined to very small ones, perhaps even overlapping. If two human brains were connected to each other, both people might feel as if the content of their consciousness had simply expanded, with each person feeling a continuous transformation from the content of one person’s consciousness to the whole of the two, until the connection was more or less complete. It’s only when you insert the concepts of “him,” “her,” “you,” and “me” as discrete entities that the expanding or merging of content becomes a combination problem.
It reminds me of the classic device of characters switching places in a story or film. But when we look closely at what this actually entails, it becomes obvious that there’s no “self” to transport from one person to another. Being someone else would be no different than what it’s already like to be that person. It seems paradoxical, but we end up simply stating the obvious: “That’s what it’s like to be over there as that configuration of atoms, and this is what it is to be over here as this configuration of atoms.” It’s analogous to saying, “The configuration of atoms that compose a leaf result in all of its expected leaf properties, but if you take all of those atoms and reassemble them into a collection of H2O molecules, they will take on the expected properties of water. That’s what molecules do in that configuration and this is what they do in this configuration. Likewise, that’s what molecules feel like in that configuration, and this is what they feel like in this configuration.” We are again led back to consciousness and content—where matter (and therefore content) is combining, but consciousness isn’t.
If consciousness itself doesn’t combine, then we no longer face a combination problem. The experience of consciousness need not be continuous or maintained as an individual self or subject. Nor is it necessarily extinguished when the smaller constituents of matter combine to make more complex systems, like brains. The human sense of being a self, along with an experience of continuity over time through memory, may in fact be a very rare form of content. Is it possible that alongside the conscious experience of “me,” there is a much dimmer experience of each individual neuron, or of different collections of neurons and cells in my body and beyond? Could the universe literally be teeming with consciousness—with content flickering in and out, overlapping, combining, separating, flowing, in ways we can’t quite imagine—ruled by physical laws we don’t yet understand?
Perhaps the term panpsychism, because of its history and associations, will continue to pose obstacles to progress in consciousness studies. We might need a new label for the work in which scientists and philosophers theorize about the possibility that consciousness is fundamental. However, we’re so far from having a working theory that it seems premature to label it with an “ism,” and perhaps it’s more helpful to simply give a name to this category of theories, such as “intrinsic nature theory” or “intrinsic field theory.” At the very least, it seems clear that the current incomplete picture gives us good reason to keep thinking creatively about consciousness—and specifically to continue entertaining the idea that it perhaps goes deeper than our intuitions have led us to believe.
Annaka Harris is the New York Times bestselling author of Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind. She is an editor and consultant for science writers, specializing in neuroscience and physics, and her work has appeared in The New York Times. Annaka is the author of the children’s book I Wonder, a collaborator on the Mindful Games Activity Cards, by Susan Kaiser Greenland, and a volunteer meditation teacher for the Inner Kids organization.
1. Chalmers, D.J. “Facing up to the problem of consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies 2, 200−219 (1995).
2. Skrbina, D. Panpsychism in the West MIT Press, Cambridge, MA (2017).
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