Consciousness and Personal Identity

Q: Do you distinguish between consciousness and personal identity in your perspective on human immortality? In other words, could a reasonable conception of continuation beyond our present life involve consciousness without an experience of the identity that we experience in this life? This seems to be the perspective held by some of the buddhist traditions. Does such a view conflict with the perspective on immortality that Christian theology and mysticism embraces?

Ilia DelioIlia: Our question for this week is on consciousness, personal identity and immortality. Let me state from the beginning, if I could fully answer this question, I could win the Nobel Prize because the best of philosophers and scientists are still scratching their heads over the relationship between consciousness and personal identity. David Chalmers, the brilliant Australian philosopher who now teaches at NYU, coined the phrase “the hard problem of consciousness” back in the 1990s to indicate that we cannot adequately understand the relationship between consciousness and subjective experience, that is, how consciousness gives rise to experience and personal identity. What we do know is that without consciousness there is no subjective experience. So what is consciousness?

Einstein’s theory of special relativity opened a new window to matter and consciousness in the early 20th century. The physicist Max Planck spoke of consciousness as fundamental to matter, that is, we cannot consider matter apart from consciousness.  He wrote:

All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind.This mind is the matrix of all matter.[1]

Physicist Erwin Schrödinger thought that consciousness is absolutely fundamental to matter and always experienced in the singular; everything begins with consciousness which itself is immaterial.[2]  The philosopher Bertrand Russell said, “we know nothing about the intrinsic quality of physical events except when these are mental events that we directly experience.”[3]  These insights have led to what philosopher Galen Strawson calls “the hard problem of matter,” namely, we cannot talk about matter apart from consciousness.[4] In the 1950s astrophysicist James Jean wrote:“The universe looks more like a great thought than a great machine. Mind no longer appears as an accident intruder into the realm of matter. . . . The quantum phenomena make it possible to propose that the background of the universe is mindlike.[5] Since consciousness is absolutely fundamental to matter, everything begins with consciousness which itself is immaterial.[6]

Danah Zohar describes consciousness as relationality that includes communication and the flow of information. Using the model of wave-particle duality, Zohar states that the flow of information is the creative relationship made possible by overlapping waves.  As more electron waves overlap, consciousness increases. This concept views consciousness like a diffraction pattern. Two electrons, whose wave functions are overlapping, cannot be reduced to the individual characteristics of the two electrons; the two have become one new whole so that the relationship between the waves cannot be reduced to the activity of the vibrating molecules. The relationality of these energy states account for a flow of information or information processing.[7]

The inextricable relationship between mind and matter on the level of quantum physics raises the question:  how are mind and matter related? Two main positions are at stake:  the first known as monism or panpsychism claims that both physical and mental are ontologically equal parts of reality and that one cannot be reduced to the other. They are both properties of one neutral substance x, that is neither physical nor mental. The second position known as “dual-aspect monism,” states that the mental and the material are different aspects or attributes of a unitary reality, which itself is neither mental nor material.  Physicist Max Tegmark holds to a radical panpsychism whereby there is a fundamental realm of matter, which is consciousness.[8] Although panpsychism is alluring in light of the primacy of consciousness, panpsychism does not adequately explain biological evolution. If consciousness is either an aspect of materiality or the foundation of materiality, how does it account for material attraction and emergence? How does matter complexify and give rise to higher forms of consciousness? If consciousness emerges from billions of subatomic consciousnesses [proto-mental properties], then how do these properties combine to form neural connections undergirding experience?

Wolfgang Pauli, who was one of early pioneers of quantum physics, said “It would be most satisfactory if physis (matter) and psyche (mind) could be conceived as complementary aspects of the same reality.”[9]  This view is known as “dual-aspect monism.”  By way of definition, “Two or more descriptions are complementary if they mutually exclude one another and yet are together necessary to describe the phenomenon exhaustively.”[10] Dual-aspect monism excludes reductionism of either an idealist (the primacy of consciousness or panpsychism) or materialist nature (inert matter and mind) while being necessarily incompatible with dogmatic physicalism and scientific materialism. Similarly, Carl Jung proposed a view of basic reality which does not consist of parts but is one unfragmented whole, the unus mundus, based on the complementarity of mind and matter. David Bohm spoke of mind and matter as different aspects of one whole and unbroken movement (emphasis added).

The advantage of dual-aspect monism is that it helps explain the evolution of mind and matter. Although Darwin showed how natural selection could account for species variation, he could not explain the appearance of mind or consciousness. As a result, “mental qualities were either squeezed out of existence or dismissed as mere causally inefficacious and epiphenomenal by-products of brain processes.”[11] Wolfgang Pauli found this troublesome since scientific theories themselves were “products of the psyche.”[12]  More recently philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote that the mind has eluded physical explanation because “the great advances in the physical and biological sciences excluded the mind from the physical world.[13] Hence Darwinian evolution can explain material complexity but it treats consciousness as a later phenomenon that appears at higher levels in the process.

Teilhard de Chardin was aware of this problem and held to a dual-aspect monist position to explain evolution. Life, he wrote, is “a specific effect of matter turned complex; a property that is present in the entire cosmic stuff.”[14] He considered matter and consciousness not as “two substances” or “two different modes of existence, but as two aspects of the same cosmic stuff.[15]  From the Big Bang on there is a “withinness” and “withoutness,” or what he called, radial energy and tangential energy.[16] Consciousness is, in a sense, the withinness or “inside” of matter, and attraction is the “outside” of matter; hence, matter is both attractive (tangential) and transcendent (radial). The complementarity of mind and matter explains both the rise of biological complexity and the corresponding rise of consciousness.  In his essay on “The Position of Man in Nature and the Significance of Human Socialization,” Teilhard indicated that intelligent life cannot be considered in the universe any longer as a superficial accident but, rather, must be considered to be under pressure everywhere—ready to burst from the smallest crack no matter where in the universe—and, once actualized, it is incapable of not using every opportunity and means to arrive at the extreme of its potentiality, externally of complexity, and internally of consciousness.[17] The universe orients itself toward intelligent, conscious, self-reflective life.

What scientists are realizing today (although still a hot topic of debate) is that the whole of life, from the Big Bang onwards, is the emergence of mind or consciousness. As the exterior levels of physical complexity increase, so too do the interior levels of consciousness.  Mind and matter are neither separate nor reducible to the other and, yet, neither can function without the other.

Here is where the formation of personhood becomes interesting. A person is a center of consciousness expressed in a particular matrix of matter, as if the entire universe (if indeed consciousness is the stuff of the universe) is compacted into this particular material form.  In this respect, every person is the universe aware of itself (as Teilhard noted). To put this another way, there is no universe apart from the active centers of personal consciousness; each person is the universe come to self-consciousness.

Now I can get to answer the question at hand. First, there is no consciousness apart from materiality and since matter forms and complexifies in discrete units we call persons [or entities or creatures], there can be no separation of matter and mind pace a Buddhist notion of pure consciousness. Pure consciousness is a highly integrated level of consciousness whereby one’s emotional, psychological, spiritual, and intelligible levels of consciousness are so unified that a cosmic oneness is experienced in a particular existence. The “out of body” experience is, in my view, the entire universe experienced within the body so that body and cosmos are a single flow of light-filled unity.

On the other hand, the Catholic doctrine of immortality of the whole person makes perfect sense in light of modern physics. It also makes sense in light of the Hebrew notion of “person,” which is understood as spirit-filled life (nephesh)—not body and soul.  This is the heart of the creation account in Genesis 2:7: God formed Adam from the dust of the ground (Adamah) and God breathed life into his nostrils and Adam became a living being. Translating this into the key of modern science, there is a divine depth at the center of every conscious life (what Teilhard called Omega). This divine depth (the ultimacy of consciousness, light, truth, love, unity, future) undergirds the particularity of “this” conscious life and not “that” conscious life.  Physical cosmic life consists of myriad centers of consciousness expressed in particular material forms. As consciousness evolves on the human level, it emerges as complexified matter giving birth to persons and personalities which encompass spiritual, emotional, psychological and intelligent levels of life.

Consciousness is not something lodged in the brain; it is the whole field of personal existence. The body is part of consciousness; the senses and emotional life are part of consciousness; the spiritual life and intelligent are part of consciousness. Consciousness is the entirety of personal existence expressed in material relational form. Using the wave-particle analogy, consciousness is the wave dimension of the particularity of personhood so that it is always in flux and in relationship with the environment. Since consciousness is the universe on the level of the particular, the singular expression of consciousness is what we can call “soul” which is the unique constitutive relational matrix of personal identity.

What happens when a person dies? First keep in mind that what we are consciously is what we are materially so that death and immortality is the transformation of our unique conscious-material life. Death is the full-flowering of this life into a new cosmotheandric life in which our core personality now becomes part of a divine-centered wholeness of life. Just as God acquires new life through incarnation and theogenesis, so too, in death we acquire new life in relation to God.  Consciousness breaks through materiality into the fullness of love. What God has become in us in this earthly life is now transformed into the enhancement of God’s eternal life. According to Saint Paul, we acquire a new spiritual body (1 Cor 15:44), a new level of existence whereby our particular conscious personality now participates in the flow of eternal love so that we become the fullness of co-creative being, collaborating with God (who is always uncreated and transcendent) in the ongoing creativity of life.  In this respect, we never become only consciousness or acosmic being or disembodied consciousness. Rather, immortality is the release into the fullness of what we are as persons for all eternity.   The fullness of personhood indwells the fullness of God.

Your Omega Challenge:

  • How does consciousness of death shape your present life?
  • What are your deepest fears about death?
  • How can a renewed sense of immortality shape our present life and world?
  • If we knew that one’s death makes a difference to the eternal life of God (we either enhance God’s life or diminish it), would we live our earth lives differently?
  • How do we understand this statement:  How we die is how we live?


[1]   Susan Borowski, “Quantum Mechanics and the Consciousness Connection,” AAAS (July 16, 2010)

[2]   Erwin Schrodinger, What is Life? Trans. Verena Schrodinger (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2012, reprint edition), 93- 5.

[3]   Bertrand Russell, “Mind and Matter,” 1950

[4]  Gaylen Strawson,  “Consciousness Isn’t a Mystery.  Its Matter,” New York Times (May 16, 2016)

[5]  James Jeans, The Mysterious Universe (New York:  Macmillan, 1931), 158.

[6]   Erwin Schrödinger, What is Life? Trans. Verena Schrödinger (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2012, reprint edition), 93- 5.

[7]  David Chalmers, The Conscious Mind:  In Search of a Fundamental Theory (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1996); ibid., “Consciousness,”

[8]  Max Tegmark, “Consciousness As A State of Matter,” Chaos, Solitons & Fractals 76 (July 2015): 238–270.  Tegmark gives the name “perceptronium” to this fundamental state of matter which is consciousness.

[9]   Harald Atmanspacher, “20th Century Variants of Dual-Aspect Thinking,” Mind and Matter 12.2 (2014):  245-88.

[10]    Atmanspacher, “20th Century Variants,” 252.

[11]  Peter B. Todd, The Individuation of God:  Integrating Science and Religion (Wilmette, IL:  Chiron Publ., 2012), 61.

[12]  Todd, The Individuation of God, 61.

[13]  Thomas Nagel, “The Core of ‘Mind and Cosmos,’”

[14]  Pierre Teilhard de Chardin,  Man’s Place in Nature, trans. Noel Lindsay (New York: Collins, 1966), 34

[15]  Teilhard de Chardin, Phenomenon of Man, 56 – 64.

[16]  Teilhard de Chardin, Phenomenon of Man, 56 – 64.

[17] Teilhard de Chardin,”The Position of Man in Mature and the Significance of Human Socialization,” in The Future of Man, 211 – 17.


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