Consciousness: Ten Questions, One Answer


After decades spent ignoring the whole issue of consciousness, recent years have seen a boom, or at least a boomlet, of scientific interest. So it wasn’t entirely a breakthrough when the July 10 issue of the popular weekly New Scientist devoted its cover article to consciousness, posing “the ten biggest questions about the greatest mystery in the universe.”

The headline is meant to be provocative, but the vast majority of scientists won’t be interested in consciousness, and their indifference can be simply explained. When conducting an experiment in the laboratory, the air in the room is irrelevant (unless you are experimenting on air). Likewise, consciousness is just as irrelevant. Like air, it is necessary, but it is beside the point. Air and consciousness are just a given.

Ironically, this dismissal actually holds the answer to all ten questions posed by the New Scientist article.  First let me relate the ten question, which don’t have to be considered in detail, since one answer applies to all ten.

  1. What is consciousness?
  2. Does consciousness create reality?
  3. Is the universe conscious?
  4. When did consciousness evolve?
  5. What is consciousness for?
  6. Can we see consciousness in the brain?
  7. Can we know if a machine is conscious?
  8. How many states of consciousness do humans have?
  9. Can physics explain consciousness?
  10. What is consciousness like in other animals?

Merely by skimming these questions, you can glean a lot. First, it has been very convenient to ignore consciousness, because once you look at it, tons of questions emerge. Second, consciousness is like the mythical Hydra—answer one question and two more spring up. What if the questions are actually endless? That’s a real possibility, and it is already creating a sinking feeling among physicists trying to explain the universe. Multi-dimensions have turned into infinite dimensions, and one universe has turned into a multiverse so vast (in theory) that for all practical purposes it is infinite.

But all of these issues are red herrings. The ten questions about consciousness can be broken down into one question, which isn’t even on the list. Can we explain consciousness at all? A fish cannot know that water is wet, because its environment is all water. Flying fish would have a chance to be gurus, because they jump out of the water and can experience dryness. They have something to contrast with wetness. But humans cannot jump out of consciousness to experience a contrast.

As long as we are awake, consciousness is the ocean we swim in (sleep, by the way, isn’t the opposite of being conscious, since adept yogis can remain conscious during deep sleep). We have no escape route out of consciousness. To step outside consciousness would be the same as stepping outside existence. All ten questions posed by New Scientist treat consciousness as a thing, like a quark. A thing is outside yourself. You can look at it from every angle. To science, it would be great if consciousness could be treated like a quark, but it can’t. Consciousness is not outside you, and you are not outside consciousness.

This is what the ancient Egyptian symbol of the snake biting its tail was meant to show—consciousness is continuous and whole. If you relate to anything in the universe, you are using consciousness to look at itself.   In that light, let’s answer the ten questions. Every answer, it turns out, will be a variation on one answer: Consciousness is the same as existence.

  1. Does consciousness create reality?


  1. Is the universe conscious?

No, the universe is an experience in consciousness.

  1. When did consciousness evolve?

It didn’t evolve. Consciousness has no cause, so it is timeless.

  1. What is consciousness for?

In humans it is for the unending journeys we undertake in consciousness—what else could it be for?

  1. Can we see consciousness in the brain?

No, you can only see brain activity, which is an experience in consciousness. The brain itself is an experience in consciousness.

  1. Can we know if a machine is conscious?

Yes. When a machine feels hungry, has sexual experiences, suffers from insomnia, and worries over existential dilemmas, then it will be conscious. Anything less is an imitation.

  1. How many states of consciousness do humans have?

One. All other numbers are mental constructs.

  1. Can physics explain consciousness?

No. Consciousness explains physics.

  1. What is consciousness like in other animals?

It is their fundamental experience, as it is ours.

These questions are a slam dunk once you accept that consciousness creates, governs, and controls reality. It isn’t a thing like a drop of water. It isn’t a quality, like the wetness of water. It creates new appearances without altering in any way, just as ice, stream, and water vapor are appearances that do not change the H2O molecule.

Taking a holistic view of consciousness solves all the existing questions that science has posed, or will ever pose, but there’s a catch. Humans experience applied consciousness, not pure consciousness. We are absolute masters at creating words, ideas, models, societies, technology—the creative uses of consciousness are endless. But no matter what the mind conceives and creates, it cannot conceive or create consciousness itself. Such a task would be like asking fish to create the ocean. Fish can’t create the thing that created them. A whirlpool can’t create water. The same applies to the human brain. Being the creation of consciousness, it cannot create consciousness.

The snake biting its tail solves the problem of consciousness, but you have to look at it closely and let its meaning sink in. The snake biting its tail symbolism points to something that has no beginning or end, is immune to death, extends infinitely in all directions, and gives humans access to a field of infinite possibilities. As you let this sink in, don’t be surprised if you are suddenly filled with awe and wonder.

Reprinted from San Francisco Chronicle with permission

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