A rollicking carousel ride through the history of hubris and illicit abstraction edified with quotes and misquotes from authorities and geniuses. A lively discursion laced with satire, jest, profanity and irrefutable logic. There will be poets, fairy tales, daring insights, hidden allusions, veiled mysteries, and tipsy jollity.
In every age the sky above tells man he is afloat in a colossal mystery. It is a riddle that invites a solution. And man never ceases to answer the mystery with metaphysical supposition. Though he longs for the beyond, at the same time he is profoundly attached to his immediate physical reality. The historical arc from the “epicycle” to the “epiphenomenal” illustrates how we have arrived at the present day world theater with its pandemic metaphysical script.
Humankind has been repeatedly dethroned from an assumed epistemic privilege. Each time we arrive at a seeming safe platform for the interpretation of reality, paradigm shift happens (Kuhn). And with each new paradigm, a new epistemic privilege is supposed. This raises the burning question, what paradigm shifts lie ahead? What metaphysical views might constrain our vision of reality? Or, has the throne been recovered through the scientific method and man crowned the master of reality?
Beginning with Aristotle the world was stationary and the center of the universe. Ptolemy added “epicycles” to the orbit of planets in order to preserve the geocentric worldview and metaphysics of Aristotle. And today in similar form we describe consciousness as “epiphenomenal” in order to preserve the materialist worldview and metaphysics of reality.
Copernicus simplified the Ptolemaic system by making the sun the immovable center of the universe with the earth and the planets moving around the sun. This made the ad hoc epicycles of Ptolemy unnecessary. And today our science would be simplified by considering consciousness to be phenomenal rather than epiphenomenal.
A phenomenon is a phenomenon is a phenomenon.
It took more than a century for the heliocentric model of Copernicus to gain acceptance. With Copernicus, humanity lost its place of significance at the center of the universe. This was the beginning of many successive diminutions. —The earth is only one of many planets. The sun is only one star among billions in our galaxy. Our galaxy is only one among billions of galaxies. And now the unseen dark matter and dark energy diminishes even our visible universe. And there is no center, not even an absolute point in space.
“…when you are put into the Infinite Perspective Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little marker, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says ‘You are here.’” Zaphod Beeblebrox
What is Man the Center of Now?
We swear by Darwin and Copernicus that we are but insignificant animals in an insignificant suburb of an insignificant galaxy. But that is just a public posture that we act out before the almighty cosmos. We may think we are different than our flat-earth parents, but have we really changed? In our living heart and gut we still feel king and see ourselves the center of an immensely important drama. We continue to live our life with meaning and purpose.
Not only are we center stage in our own personal drama, but we believe we manufacture consciousness moment to moment in our 1450 cc skull. And we believe that consciousness was not even here in the universe until we arrived with our jumbo brain. We could hardly imagine ourselves to be more important.
But did we really bring consciousness out of the mud? Is our physical universe all there is? Is our physical universe the only kind of being? We consider the physical universe to be final bedrock reality, but what metaphysical assumptions might have led us to that conclusion?
In the Ptolemaic era the earth was presumed to be cosmos central and the heavens above were peripheral and played a supportive role to the main show on earth. It was a spatial centrism that denoted a privileged station in the cosmos.
In our era we presume the physical universe to be fundamental. This is an a priori metaphysical commitment in which the physical is assumed to be primary and everything else derivative. This could be considered a figurative kind of centrism. It could be called an ontologo-centric view because it places a certain bandwidth of reality at the center of every thing and every not-thing. Agreed that it stretches the term, but it has a favorable ring and a rhythm to it and rolls off the tongue with sophic aplomb. But for the semantically cautious there are other less recondite choices: Physico-centricism? Or particle fundamentalism? Or, ontological chauvinism? Or paradigm patriotism? Or stone-age solipsism? In any case it is physicalist confirmation bias in the spirit of the Ptolemaic geocentric confirmation bias. It makes our reality again at center stage in the spectrum of being.
“You don’t see the world as it is, you see it as you are.” –Talmud.
Man, as in every age, trusts his reason and his physical senses and his instruments to reveal all there is. Though scientific man avers that those faculties were created by random processes he nonetheless believes that they are self-corrected through the scientific method. He believes that his “reason and senses, though formed by random processes via natural selection, reveal the truth about reality because they were forged in interaction with that reality.” (L.Yogman, rationalist).
"How far is truth susceptible of embodiment?
That is the question, that is the experiment.” F. Nietszche, humorist
Physicists presume we stand outside the universe and make objective observations from off-stage somewhere.But this is based on the presumption that matter precedes and generates a consciousness which is no longer within the universe and the universe not within it. In this is the foundational error of our prevailing neuroscience.
If all the world is a stage, where does the observer sit?
To see outside the physical box of materialist metaphysics we need only consider the point where nature becomes very small and matter under scrutiny breaks down and finally vanishes. Here the actual becomes the probable and the mathematical and the observer is somehow woven into what is observed. It is a shadow realm between “real” and “unreal.”
"What we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning." W. Heisenberg, physicist
But it is impossible to see out of the consciousness box. It is not only the ghost in the machine but it is the viewing portal through which all things are known. And it is the conditioned brain (recall Piaget) that makes physical being the central axis of reality. The brain is a structured instrument in which the settings define the data. Do we limit the realities of an infinite eternal universe to the readings on this randomly evolved instrument?
“Mirror, mirror, on the wall, whose reality is real-est of all?”
“Why yours is, you big brained, most complex hunk of matter in all the universe!”
The wicked queen did not see Snow White coming in her magic mirror. If, as in the materialist view, consciousness is a surprise new development in the cosmos, what further surprises might there be out there in the colossal mystery?
Like a ghost, consciousness does not appear in the mirror on the wall of science. It cannot appear there because our modern day paradigm allows that only physical things can be real. And consciousness itself has not a single physical parameter, no mass, no dimension, no location, no wavelength. Yet, it is undeniably real in some sense. Consciousness thus becomes the “Ptolemaic anomaly” for the materialist paradigm. Thus neuroscience has devised the term “epiphenomenal” in order to keep matter as the central axis of reality and through terminological legerdemain and metaphysical mindfuck to both include and exclude consciousness as “phenomenal.”
Given these considerations, consciousness as epiphenomenon corresponds to the epicycle of Ptolemy. It corresponds not just in the ad hoc supervenience of some hypothetical occult state, but in the characteristic human pattern of resistance to epistemological dethronement. The roots of identity are at stake just as during the Copernican revolution. (As resistance to the Copernican revolution was fueled by religious sentiment, so resistance to an elemental consciousness is fueled by anti-religious sentiment)
* “Epiphenomena” is used here not as the academic jargon, but to include any sense of consciousness as physically derived whether emergent, computational, or physico-chemical.
Where Is the Evidence?
Given the incredible success of materialism at explaining things, why should we consider that consciousness is anything other than a physical phenomenon? Says the courageous reductive materialist, “We have no evidence for anything non-physical, and no need for it. Why make up some magical other stuff? No need for the pixie dust here! No need for the space Santa! That is all wish-fulfillment! There can be no non-physical kind of being. It is evidence we believe! Hooray for science! Hooray for particles!”
Hark! Hark! Genteel reader and worthie opposition! Consciousness is the evidence! Consider the case:
1.) Science has no direct evidence (none whatsoever) that consciousness is physical. It has not been measured, quantified, or detected instrumentally. Partial congruence with particular neural patterns and correlations with brain physiology such as in brain imaging are neither direct detection nor a demonstration of a physically causal connection. (For example, increased oxygen consumption correlated with a mental event does not prove that is the origin of the experience anymore than an increased heart rate correlated with fear proves that the increased heart rate manufactures the feeling and awareness aspect of fear.)
2.) Science has not presented any plausible case for why particles in any arrangement or how algorithms, no matter how recursive or complex, should ever result in awareness. Conscious awareness originates in a manner fundamentally different from any other kind of physical process. To say consciousness is “emergent” in the brain is descriptive only and no more explanatory than saying a TV show “emerges” from the TV device. One may as well say God created it.
3) The promise of materialism to account for consciousness one future day is a major ontological assumption posing as a mere physical extrapolation. To say that future research will justify the a priori metaphysical assumptions of materialism is not good science and premature extrapolation. (Popper) Physical and ontological emergence cannot be equated. Physical emergence occurs entirely within the realm of matter, space, and time. An ontological emergence gives rise to an entirely different and non-physical, non-spatial kind of being. Searle, unable to find a comparable emergence in the physical realm, called it “special emergence.” This term falls short however. “Immaculate emergence” would be a better term for such an ontological birth. The brain is a necessary, but not sufficient condition.
"Consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms. For consciousness is absolutely fundamental. It cannot be accounted for in terms of something else." E. Schrodinger, physicist.
The case of materialist science is based on faith in the metaphysical premise that everything must be physical. Though consciousness haunts the entire planet like a ghost we are so focused on counting the particles that we miss the gorilla in the midst of the game. Nothing wrong with playing the game, but the universe is playing a bigger game than science.
The existence of consciousness itself is thus excluded as evidence, and likewise, the notoriously naughty subjective awareness of first person consciousness is not allowed in evidence because evidence, according to present rules, must be third person, quantifiable and physical.
There are many published lines of evidence that are ignored arbitrarily if they are indicative of an elemental consciousness. Materialism cannot allow even a .0000000001% trace of exogenous consciousness without forfeiting its entire power grid. To keep the universe entirely physical and random requires the development of ever more torturous ad hoc schemes in order to explain away the presence of non-physical consciousness in a physical world.
Science and the Quest for Reality
The idea that physical reality is an expression of a greater reality has a rich history. The concept of an underlying unified reality has been represented in many ways. The term unus mundus for “One world,” was popularized by Jung and Pauli. Spinoza spoke of the causa sui. Hegel, the Absolute Idea. Bohm, the implicate order. Heidegger spoke of an underlying realm of being. Buddhism speaks of dharmadhatu or primordial consciousness. Hinduism speaks of Brahman, the absolute. The Kabbalah speaks of ein-sof. And so on.
Such accounts cannot be casually dismissed now that quantum physics has discovered an invisible and unknown domain that underlies and supports physical phenomena.
Science by definition is the investigation of the measurable and quantifiable. To claim that everything is measurable and quantifiable is a metaphysical claim. Science is concerned with a single ontological bandwidth. To presume that final, ultimate, and complete reality must be measurable and quantifiable is a self-imposed windowless monad. There is more to heaven and earth than the measurable and quantifiable.
"I do not believe we have yet found the true ‘road to reality’ despite the extraordinary progress that has been made over two and half millennia, particularly in the last few centuries. Some fundamentally new insights are certainly needed." R. Penrose, mathematician
Science is a way of interacting with nature for physical control within a physical medium, but it does not and cannot reveal the entirety of reality. Technology is but a single control panel on the consciously observed reality. The scientific method reveals numerical relations between conscious observations, nothing more. All the rest is inference.
"If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite.
For man has closed himself up, til he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” W. Blake, poet
Despite the boundless faith inspired by technological success, consciousness is a datum that resists all material explanation. Therefore, I may say, without boasting, that my reasoning would not be entirely idiotic in making a consideration of some prominent alternative explanations.
THE COPENHAGEN AND “COPERNICAN” INTERPRETATION OF QUANTUM PHYSICS
Beneath our firm reality lies the yawning maw of the quantum realm where giant chthonian equations wait in stillness to crawl forth from the Plutonic underworld into the broad daylight of physical form. How do we interpret this formless realm where our earthly laws of time and space seem irrelevant? We have two broad choices, one the Copenhagen interpretation and the other, which could be called the Copernican, because it is equally revolutionary and rhymes with Copenhagen. It could also be called a “many minds” interpretation.
The Copenhagen interpretation of Neils Bohr is the “no metaphysical questions asked” interpretation. This view declares allegiance to our physical world. It utilizes quantum equations for practical purposes but regards the implications for physical reality as irrelevant. More than a third of our present day digital economy is based on the Copenhagen utilitarian approach. And 42% of physicists subscribe to it. (L. Krauss)
The Copenhagen interpretation takes classical physics as the frame of reference for the quantum world. It assumes the objectivity of our physical world. Our common sense physical world is the world that is real and the world that matters. The quantum world is regarded as a set of probabilities with which to predict classical reality. The mathematical abstractions of quantum physics are realized in our physical world as concrete realities and are therefore objective.
In opposition to the Copenhagen view is what might be called a Copernican interpretation. In this view, John Wheeler and others take the quantum world as the background theory or the frame of reference. In this interpretation, the classical world is just one possible realization of the quantum world. The classical world thus realized comes into existence with observer selection and exists only relative to the mind of the observers. Consciousness is therefore integral to the cosmic process.
"No question, no answer." The world is not classical as our intuitions would have us believe; the world is not in such and such state already waiting for us to discover it; only in measurement (not just by humans or machines, mind you) does the world, literally, find itself in a state." J. Wheeler, physicist
The underlying field or ground is pure potential and our visible universe is only a tiny manifestation of what could exist. The field contains everything that could possibly be.
"Every man’s world picture is and always remains a construct of his mind, and cannot be proved to have any other existence." E. Schrodinger, physicist
"The physical world takes shape only as the result of the observational acts of numerous centers of consciousness. Consciousness lies outside the laws that govern the material world. This immunity allows mind to turn possibilities into actualities." J Von Neumann, mathematician
The Copenhagen view takes the classical Newtonian world and thus material reality as the reality platform, the center of being and the axis of reality. In that sense it is comparable to a geocentric paradigm. It is a naïve realism. This interpretation is ontologo-centric with all its consequent hidden moral and psychological aspects.
With the quantum world as the conceptual frame of reference there is a paradigm shift greater than the Copernican. Not only is humankind dethroned again but our earthly absolute reality becomes just another relative reality (even though stone-kickingly real). The safe platform leading to the Holy Grail Theory of Everything is again snatched out of man’s yearning hands and the bottomless abyss of mystery yawns again before him. What else would we expect from an infinity going through an eternity.
In Buddhist philosophy the physical and the mental co-emerge from a fundamental unitary domain called primordial consciousness (dharmadhatu). The familiar world of the mental and the physical exists only in relation to this underlying domain. It is the being that lies behind and supports all phenomena. It lacks all internal structure and is immanent within space, time, mind and matter. Out of this space emerges all the phenomena that appear in the worlds of experience. The resemblance to modern day quantum physics is apparent.
No absolute dualism separates mind and matter. Our objective world is a conceptual reification of phenomena by individual consciousness. Such phenomena are empty of intrinsic identity. They only exist relative to some cognitive frame of reference. They have no existence apart from the ultimate ground of primordial consciousness.
And how is it possible to know such things in the absence of Western scientific method? Accordingly, the timeless, spaceless, eventless state of primordial consciousness can be realized through meditative training. When all discursive and dualistic thought subsides primordial consciousness may be experienced directly. Our inner viewing portal can discover and plumb the subjective depths by following a first person protocol, just as science follows a third person protocol. This would be an inclusive empiricism. (James)
"This unseen reality is knowable through our own awareness.” G. Buddha, scientist
For science to dismiss this innate viewing portal invites a revealing comparison to the Cardinal Bellarmine’s refusal at the trial of Galileo to look through Galileo’s telescope at Saturn because “he knew it couldn’t be true.”
Heidegger used the term “transcendental horizon” to describe our limited view of reality. Accordingly, each historical period offers a worldview (and each culture offers a worldview). In this view human cognition is inherently finite and limited. Each perspective reveals something of truth, but in the course of disclosure, it also conceals. The particular worldview of a culture does not see beyond its transcendental horizon. “The reality that transcends materialist and technological reality is the ontological reality that gives rise to them.” (K. Groves, psychologist)
The “Holy Enigma” of Heidegger is the mystery of being in itself and how anything at all can exist. How consciousness can exist at all must be as astonishing as how matter can exist at all and must be an equally fundamental part of the mystery. Yet it is widely accepted today that science is on the verge of creating consciousness in the laboratory. In this Promethean rapture, man, intoxicated by technology, thinks he will soon seize control of the fundamental creative power at the very heart of the universe. After a mere 400 years of science man is ready to fill the vacancy left by God and create fundamental consciousness itself with its inherent universe of qualia. This would be equivalent to creating space, gravity, or energy. Such an aspiration attains a risible degree of hubris and illicit abstraction. Making consciousness to appear in a computer network is as likely as creating gold ex nihilo in a crucible.
"But man, proud man, Dressed in a little brief technology,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured…
like an angry ape, Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As makes the angels weep.” W. Shakespeare, playwright