Q: In his book “Life 3.0″ Max Tegmark suggests that subjective consciousness is what computation of information feels like. He also holds the view that consciousness is an emergent property that is substrate independent. Accordingly, consciousness emerges where certain configurations of particles lead to this result. Raimon Panikkar held that our fundamental subjective consciousness was the dimension in which the human and the divine somehow cohered. This is a very different perspective on consciousness from the idea that it is an emergent property of certain configurations of particles. Do you see any possibility of common ground between these two perspectives? Do Tegmark’s positions, especially if they are ultimately verified, pose a challenge to a theistic perspective, in your view?
Ilia: Our question this week concerns a very interesting question on the relationship between mind and matter. Last November we sponsored a conference at Villanova University on consciousness, nature and transcendence so that we could engage the question of consciousness and matter more deeply. It turns out there is no easy answer or any one position that can give a definitive answer to the question, how is consciousness related to matter? So I will give you essentially Teilhard’s position and why his position is more reasonable than someone like Max Tegmark, the MIT physicist, who posits that all matter is a form of consciousness. Let’s begin with the problem at hand.
Recall that Newton’s idea of matter (like Descartes) was inert substance. The Newtonian world of individual particles could be likened to a world of billiard balls; each separate and individual ball could bounce against another ball or strike another ball in a way that the balls would be externally related. The bouncing or striking of the balls against one another did not alter their inner qualities. Rather, each ball retained its own mass, position and momentum. The energy of the balls would reside in the force of attraction between them as well as the force of resistance.
Einstein’s special theory of relativity changed our understanding of matter and energy: mass is a property of energy, and energy is a property of mass. Since mass and energy are two forms of the same thing, matter can be converted to energy and energy to matter, while conserving mass. Einstein’s theory provided the basis for the double-slit experiments of the early twentieth century, which opened up a whole new meaning of matter. We use to think that matter is composed of atoms. Now we know that atoms are composed of electrons and electrons are simultaneously waves and particles. As a consequence of the wave-like aspects of reality, atoms do not have any shape, that is, a solid outline in space, but the things they form do have shape; the constituents of matter, the elementary particles, are not in the same sense real as the real things that they constitute. Left to themselves they exist in a world of possibilities, “between the idea of a thing and a real thing”, as Heisenberg wrote.
Instead of imagining a set of billiard balls in a box (Newton’s world), imagine a group of electrons bouncing around in a box (Einstein’s world). All properties of the electrons are affected by the relationship; in fact, they cease to be separate things and become parts of a whole. The whole will, as a whole, possess definite properties of mass, charge and spin, but it is completely indeterminate as to which constituent electrons are contributing to this whole. Quantum mechanics means that quantum-level “matter” is not very “material.” In place of billiard balls we have patterns of active relationships, electrons and photons, mesons and nucleons, that tease us with their elusive double lives as their position, momentum, particle, wave, mass, energy, all change in response to each other and to the environment. The paradigm of quantum physics is wave-particle duality but this description of matter as “wave-particle” duality is metaphorical or, better, analogical for mathematical formulas in science. The formulas do not describe the behavior of a single particle-wave in isolation but the way the system operates as a whole; the parts cannot be separated from the whole. This kind of internal relationship exists only in quantum systems and has been called “relational holism.”
Danah Zohar claims that consciousness is the pattern of active relationship, the “wave side” of the wave-particle duality. Consciousness is relationality that includes communication and the flow of information. A system is “conscious” if it can communicate or process information, which in turn, serves as its organizational function. The flow of information is the creative relationship made possible by overlapping waves or perhaps, we can say, overlapping energy states. As more electron waves overlap, consciousness increases. 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. In this respect, anything capable of self-organizing possesses a level of consciousness, in so far as there is flow of information. Biophysicist Fritz Popp states that the difference between a living and non-living system is the radical increase in the occupation number of the electronic levels. That is, the difference of consciousness between living and non-living is one of degree not principle.
At the foundation of physical reality, the nature of material things reveals itself as nonmaterial, that is, quantum virtual states. The physical world is non-local. If reality is nonlocal, that is, if things can affect one another despite distance or space-time coordinates, then nature is not composed of material substances but deeply entangled fields of energy; the nature of the universe is undivided wholeness. Because our consciousness has emerged from this wholeness and continues to be part of it, then what accounts for the human mind is active in the universe.
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.” The physicist Wolfgang Pauli found this troublesome since scientific theories themselves were “products of the psyche.” 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.” Hence Darwinian evolution could explain material complexity but it treated consciousness as a later phenomenon that appears at higher levels in the process.
The problem of mind and matter came to the fore in the 20th century. The physicist Max Planck said that he considered consciousness fundamental to matter, that we cannot consider matter apart from consciousness. 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.” Physicist Erwin Schrödinger wrote that consciousness is always singular never plural. These insights have led to “the hard problem of matter,” namely, we cannot talk about matter apart from consciousness. 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.”
Since consciousness is absolutely fundamental to matter, everything seems to begin with consciousness which itself is immaterial. Two main positions are at stake here: 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. Max Tegmark holds to a radical panpsychism whereby all matter is a form of consciousness. So too philosopher Phillip Goff explains that panpsychism is the best explanation for our current understanding of physics. He writes:
“Physical science doesn’t tell us what matter is, only what it does. The job of physics is to provide us with mathematical models that allow us to predict with great accuracy how matter will behave. This is incredibly useful information; it allows us to manipulate the world in extraordinary ways, leading to the technological advancements that have transformed our society beyond recognition. But it is one thing to know the behaviour of an electron and quite another to know its intrinsic nature: how the electron is, in and of itself. Physical science gives us rich information about the behaviour of matter but leaves us completely in the dark about its intrinsic nature. In fact, the only thing we know about the intrinsic nature of matter is that some of it – the stuff in brains – involves experience. We now face a theoretical choice. We either suppose that the intrinsic nature of fundamental particles involves experience or we suppose that they have some entirely unknown intrinsic nature. On the former supposition, the nature of macroscopic things is continuous with the nature of microscopic things. The latter supposition leads us to complexity, discontinuity and mystery. The theoretical imperative to form as simple and unified a view as is consistent with the data leads us quite straightforwardly in the direction of panpsychism.”
Although panpsychism is alluring in light of the primacy of consciousness, panpsychism does not adequately explain biological evolution. If consciousness is 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.” 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.” 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. Harald Atmanspacher writes: “Conceiving the psychophysically neutral domain holistically rather than atomistically, reflects the spirit of a corresponding move in quantum theory, which started out as an attempt to finalize the atomistic worldview of the 19th century and turned it into a fundamentally holistic one.” According to Atmanspacher, the Jung-Pauli dual-aspect monist position corresponds to a philosophical insight implicit in quantum theory, namely, that mind and matter form a complementary whole which cannot be reduced to parts.
Teilhard de Chardin held to this dual-aspect monist position as well. Life, he wrote, is “a specific effect of matter turned complex; a property that is present in the entire cosmic stuff.” Teilhard considered matter and consciousness not as “two substances” or “two different modes of existence, but as two aspects of the same cosmic stuff.” From the Big Bang onward there is a “withinness” and “withoutness,” or what he called, radial energy and tangential energy. Consciousness is, in a sense, the withinness or “inside” of matter, and attraction is the “outside” of matter; hence, the energy of matter is both attractive (tangential) and transcendent (radial). In this respect, he identified the core energy of the universe as love, which both unifies and transcends by way of consciousness. The greater the exterior levels of physical complexity, the greater the interior levels of consciousness. In his essay on “The Position of Man in Nature and the Significance of Human Socialization,” he indicated that the universe orients itself toward intelligent, conscious, self-reflective life. Mind and matter are neither separate nor reducible to the other and, yet, neither can function without the other.
With this background in mind, it is easier to understand why Teilhard saw the human person as integrally part of evolution: we rise from the process, but in reflecting on the process we stand apart from it. He defines reflection as “the power acquired by a consciousness to turn in upon itself, to take possession of itself as an object. . .no longer merely to know, but to know that one knows.” Following Julian Huxley, he wrote that the human person “is nothing else than evolution become conscious of itself.” The human person is “the point of emergence in nature, at which this deep cosmic evolution culminates and declares itself.”
Now what is really interesting about this discussion on mind and matter being two forms of the same stuff of the universe is the way Teilhard saw this reality as the incarnation of God. He believed that without creation, something would be absolutely lacking to God, considered in the fullness not of his being but of his act of union. God and world are in a process of becoming a new reality together. If mind is already present in matter from the beginning, it is because God-Omega is present from the beginning. God is love and thus the absolute presence of consciousness and attraction. Alfred North Whitehead spoke of an organic, mutual relatedness between God and world. If God is creating the world, it is because the world is creating God and giving birth to God, that is, the movement from darkly-conscious matter to light-filled conscious matter, from unreflective matter to self-reflective matter and transcendent matter is the birthing of God in evolution. A mindful material universe giving birth to God is a radically new way to understand the relationship between God and world and the world’s future in God.
1 Lothar Schäfer, “Quantum Reality and the Importance of Consciousness in the Universe, 82 https://bdigital.ufp.pt/bitstream/10284/770/1/81-102Cons-Ciencias%2002-8.pdf.
2 Zohar, Quantum Self, 99.
3 David Chalmers, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); ibid., “Consciousness,” https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consciousness/#DynFlo.
4 Fritz-Albert Popp, “On the Coherence of Ultraweak Photoemission from Living Tissues,” in Disequilibrium and Self-Organization, ed. C.W. Kilmister (Dordrecht and Boston: D. Reidel Publ., 1961); Zohar, Quantum Self, 223.
5 Danah Zohar, The Quantum Self: Human Nature and Consciousness Defined by the New Physics (New York: Quill/William Morrow, 1990), 223.
6 Peter B. Todd, The Individuation of God: Integrating Science and Religion (Wilmette, IL: Chiron Publ., 2012), 61.
7 Todd, The Individuation of God, 61.
8 Thomas Nagel, “The Core of ‘Mind and Cosmos,’” https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/18/the-core-of-mind-and-cosmos/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=1
9 James Jeans, The Mysterious Universe (New York: Macmillan, 1931), 158.
10 Erwin Schrodinger, What is Life? Trans. Verena Schrodinger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, reprint edition), 93- 5.
11 Philip Goff, “Panpsychism is Crazy, but it is also most probably true.” Aeon https://aeon.co/ideas/panpsychism-is-crazy-but-its-also-most-probably-true.
12 H. Atmanspacher, “20th Century Variants of Dual-Aspect Thinking,” Mind and Matter 12.2 (2014): 245-88.
13 Atmanspacher, “20th Century Variants,” 252.
14 Atmanspacher, “20th Century Variants,” 285.
15 Atmanspacher, “20th Century Variants,” 285.
16 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Man’s Place in Nature, trans. Noel Lindsay (New York: Collins, 1966), 34
17 Teilhard de Chardin, Phenomenon of Man, 56 – 64.
18 Teilhard de Chardin, Phenomenon of Man, 56 – 64.
19 Teilhard de Chardin, Phenomenon of Man, 165.
20 Teilhard de Chardin, Phenomenon of Man, 221.
21 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Human Energy, trans. J. M. Cohen (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969), 23.