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Science & Technology

Philosophy meets physics in the quest to understand consciousness

By T.K. Randall
September 27, 2023 · Comment icon 31 comments
Silhouette of a person meditating with stars in the background.
What exactly is consciousness ? Image Credit: Pixabay / geralt
The nature of consciousness and whether or not it pervades the entire universe has long remained a topic of debate.
We - as in the human race - are conscious, meaning that on a day-to-day basis we perceive a great deal about the world around us. We feel - both physically and emotionally - and can not only ask big questions about our own existence, but also about the nature of existence itself.

But what exactly is consciousness ? Is it something that our brains produce or can it exist outside of complex, highly-evolved forms of life ? Could consciousness be inherent to all matter ?

This is the question that was at the center of a recent two-day workshop at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York which was attended by both philosophers and physicists alike.

Their focus was on panpsychism - the idea that consciousness is not exclusive to the human mind but is in fact a fundamental feature of the universe that pervades throughout the cosmos.

It argues that consciousness is an inherent aspect of reality like mass or electrical charge - something that has always existed and is woven into the very fabric of the universe.
"This doesn't mean that literally everything is conscious," philosopher Philip Goff previously told Scientific American. "The basic commitment is that the fundamental constituents of reality - perhaps electrons and quarks - have incredibly simple forms of experience."

"And the very complex experience of the human or animal brain is somehow derived from the experience of the brain's most basic parts."

In this context, 'experience' is a reference to perceiving the world, either through pleasure or pain, or through seeing, hearing, smelling, touching etc.

"Perhaps, at some point, the light switches off, and consciousness disappears," Goff added.

"But it's at least coherent to suppose that this continuum of consciousness fading while never quite turning off carries on into inorganic matter, with fundamental particles having almost unimaginably simple forms of experience to reflect their incredibly simple nature."

Source: Scientific American | Comments (31)

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Recent comments on this story
Comment icon #22 Posted by Grim Reaper 6 10 months ago
We are all responsible for our actions good or bad. I also believe that there is a universal cosmic flow that surrounds everything and that's why as far as spiritually is concerned Buddhism is a philosophy I can follow. Also, I believe that Karma is what is responsible for the flow of the Universal currents you speak of about! 
Comment icon #23 Posted by Tom1200 10 months ago
What efforts have you made to really understand its feelings?  It's a well-known fact* that rocks use silence to indicate a state of extreme resentment because you show more attention to girls.  Talk to it more - you might be surprised! Hi Grim.  You know where I'm positioned here: I'm a Skeptic of anything I haven't experienced or can't explain.  That said, your posts are interesting and I'd like to know more. Why should Karma follow you to a new existence?  That seems really unfair: you start life owing a huge debt of goodness - what chance do you really have of ever breaking such a cy... [More]
Comment icon #24 Posted by joc 10 months ago
Well, the universal currents I'm taking about are physical flows...because there isn't anything except the flow of matter in the universe.  Nothing.  Dark matter, whatever, it's all physical.  Quantumly or otherwise...there is no 'mental' aspect to the universe.  It is all physical.  How we direct our thoughts has physical consequences.  And the direction of our thoughts, as well as the thought process itself is physical.  Consciousness is a physical manifestation.  It's an illusion.  It must be physical, because all is physical.  Karma is a consequence of how one's physical flows ad... [More]
Comment icon #25 Posted by XenoFish 10 months ago
I like to think of it as a spiritual guilty trip. Like Christianity does with hell. Be good or else. A little fear to keep people in line.
Comment icon #26 Posted by Sherapy 10 months ago
Good questions and interesting post. It was fun to read. Thank you. 
Comment icon #27 Posted by Grim Reaper 6 10 months ago
We may not fully agree on this subject my friend, but I think that we are not very far apart on the effects of Karma. Your logic is strong Grasshopper, and I totally respect your opinion on this subject and the time it took to write this kind response!!!!! Peace my cosmic soul brother!!!!!
Comment icon #28 Posted by ReadTheGreatControversyEGW 10 months ago
Indeed. We are intelligent enough to comprehend God. No need for these things from an evolutionary standpoint. 
Comment icon #29 Posted by jmccr8 10 months ago
Hi Read If you are intelligent enought to comprehend god why is there so much conflict about who god is between and within religions? I also find it disingenious that people claim to know what god thinks or feels based on the limitations of what is written.
Comment icon #30 Posted by Hammerclaw 10 months ago
Confirmational bias is rarely based on any real-life experience of a factual basis. It's usually a matter of taking for granted that what one chooses to accept as true will one day be proven factual, whether it is religious dogma or scientific theory.  
Comment icon #31 Posted by Grim Reaper 6 10 months ago
It's fine to be skeptical especially with religion or any form of spirituality especially since it can not be scientifically proven. First let me say that I am a novice Buddhist, I have only begun seriously practicing Buddhism since I moved to South Korea in 2014. So, please understand I am attempting to explain this to the best of ability. I certainly do not have all the answers, but I attempt to answer your questions to the best of my ability! The goal of all Buddhists is to reach enlightenment and then Nirvana and to do so you must purify your Karma. You don't actually start life owing a de... [More]

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