Consciousness

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God’s plan depends on disclosure and disclosure on consciousness: “nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light” (Mark 4:22). Light refers to knowledge: “Nothing is covered [up] that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known” (Matthew 10:26; Luke 12:3). According to Christianity, then, knowledge is integral to the universe. Now consider a very different scenario in which consciousness is all but irrelevant. According to biology, life depends on chance: “The mechanisms of evolution — like natural selection and genetic drift — work with the random variation generated by mutation” (“Mutations are Random,” evolution.berkeley.edu; their emphasis on “random”). At the basis of life, then, according to biology, rests this random variation that evolution works with. But how can consciousness be inevitable if it depends on chance? Doesn’t life then become a freak accident?

Enter the zombie universe:

But surely a universe without consciousness is physically possible. If the constant of matter in our own universe — the strength of the weak nuclear force, the mass of the top quark, and so on — were even slightly different from their actual values, there would have been no evolution of life…just a lot of brute matter. But, by the logic of the observer argument, such a zombie universe would be impossible, since there would be no one to observe it (Jim Holt, Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story, p. 40).

Holt is in the process of criticizing the logic of an observer-dependent argument employed by philosopher Henri Bergson as the latter pondered the difficulty of trying to imagine “nothingness.” When he tried to ponder this “nothingness,” Bergson found that it was inconceivable since his own consciousness always got in the way, left over as something. On this basis, he concluded that “nothingness” was impossible. This logic, which hangs on the existence of personal consciousness, is what Holt names “the observer argument.” The argument clearly strikes Holt as ridiculous, but he introduces a logic that is equally absurd. Under this new logic, the observer becomes superfluous. According to Holt, if “the strength of the nuclear force” or “the mass of the top quark” had been “even slightly different,” there could have been a universe in which life never was. Now in physics quantum mechanical forces are the agent of random change rather than the variation of genetic mutation in biology, but the principle is the same since they are both conceived as non-directed processes. Chance, not God, always seems to be “at the bottom of things” in modern science.

According to Christianity, however, life, in the important sense, is not what is being looked at but what does the looking, what is looking through the microscope. In other words, life is not what is being observed but what does the observing. (Unconscious life is not yet life in its full flowering.) The most penetrating microscope could never tell us what, for instance, a hammer is. What makes a hammer a hammer is not the physical substance from which it is made, its “stuff,” but its purpose, its function. But to have an end in view, there must be someone who uses the hammer, for whom the hammer is a hammer, and who uses it for some reason and towards some goal (which in turn depends on anticipating a  future, which only life can do). In short, nature is there for consciousness. Trying to understand the existence of brute matter without considering consciousness is like trying to grasp the notion of a shoe without considering the foot that the shoe is for.

Totally ignoring Kant’s transcendental idealism, science simply assumes the object is there outside of consciousness. But without consciousness no meaning has even been constituted, hence no object has either. Meaning is part of the object and the object is part of meaning. If you take consciousness out of the mix, which you can never do as long as you are conscious, you wind up with as much reality, positive existence, as inanimate objects have for themselves and each other, which is none whatsoever. That is precisely what nothingness is as compared to “nothing”; not the lack of objects but the lack of consciousness. Mere matter without consciousness does not constitute a reality. To the extent they are constituted as they are revealed to consciousness, phenomenal objects are (1) there for the observer and (2) there as something, even if only something unfamiliar. There can be neither a “for” nor an “as” in a universe of the type Holt describes. Since the for…as… structure is a necessary part of any phenomenon, the observer is also a necessary part, being thoroughly implicated in the very structure of the phenomenon. But in a universe that never attains consciousness, nothing is ever revealed, never there for anyone as anything. This means that no phenomenon ever gets constituted. It means there is no existence; there is not even a there in which anything could exist. Again, to return to the tool example above, you know what a hammer is by using it for hammering, by using it as a hammer. You don’t first learn what it is by studying its molecular, atomic or subatomic structure. A thing is actually its phenomenon.

The existence of consciousness can be said to precede the existence of brute matter  (i.e., the existence of brute matter can be said to depend on the existence of consciousness) in two ways: (1) assuming the existence of God, the way the conscious Creator who designs the universe precedes the creation he designs; (2) however, even if, for argument’s sake, we discount the Creator, if disclosure is a necessary factor in the formation of reality, consciousness, being the means of disclosure, would still play a crucial role in that formation and consequently in that reality. (Of course, if we assume that God’s consciousness has been there from the outset, that he is omniscient, the universe has never not been perceived by him and never will be not perceived, so that it could not exist apart from consciousness in that sense as well.)

In other words, it seems to us that the existence of the world does not depend on perception or knowledge, that physical objects are self-sufficient, that they somehow self-subsist. It looks like the world was there before it was revealed, that the world will still be around even when all awareness of it is gone. But that is merely an illusion. There is no such thing as a world without perception and knowledge, particularly since meaning in particular is crucial to world formation. This does not mean that the observer cannot be wrong about what he perceives. Even less does it mean that our personal subjectivity somehow invents the universe outside of us, as if it were all a figment of our imagination. Holt states, “surely a universe without consciousness is physically possible.” Nobody is saying that without consciousness a universe is not physically possible. We are not maintaining that there is no physical substratum apart from consciousness, only that it has no phenomenal existence apart from consciousness. Without ever being disclosed, the substratum never counts for anything. The problem is that Holt does not distinguish between the physical and the phenomenal; nor does he (or science in general) have adequate conceptions of reality or existence. Rather, that the world is impossible without meaning implies that things must first appear before they can be true or false. Moreover, there is no reality where there is no access to anything, where everything is eternally barred from its own being. Such is the case in a zombie universe where brute matter never wakes up to its own existence.

Again no matter how we try to reconcile religion with science, there remains this basic contradiction: biology, up to this stage in its history, has determined that life depends on the random variation of genes, while to Judeo-Christian belief life is an inevitability, its existence having been co-determined with the universe. Whether or not this means that the mutations are being guided in some way from behind the scenes (which might mean from the beginning, or even from the end, by which I mean in a way that cannot be currently determined or even perceived by science) is something science could not know. And because you do not know what you do not know, science books should say, Random as far as we know.” The nature of faith is that it leaps far ahead of science and is more like an intuition or inkling.

Only if the truth gets disclosed is God’s plan fulfilled: “Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house” (Matthew 5:15). One does not light a lamp only “to put it under a basket,” that is, to hide it, but to give light to those who need it. This giving, this gift, of consciousness is impossible in a zombie universe; therefore, from the Judeo-Christian view, zombie universes, that is, universes in which consciousness never exists, are unreal. God does not create a universe full of radiance and beauty and keep it forever concealed: “A city set on a hill cannot be hidden” (5:14). A shining example is placed high up, where people can see it: “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father” (5:16). Perception is therefore critical to God’s plan. Things are ultimately there to be known.

Far from being inconsequential, the observer determines why there is a physical universe to begin with: it’s there for consciousness. Consciousness is primary. Consider a universe full of photons, of suns. Utter darkness (or not even darkness but a sort of nothingness) would reign there as long as the light remained unknown. We deduce that there was physical light before there was consciousness only because our own consciousness lights up the past retroactively. Reason is what sheds light on physical light so that physical light can truly shine. Consciousness brings nature’s light into the clearing of being, the clearing that consciousness essentially is. “You are the light of the world,” Jesus tells the blessed (5:14).  “The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light…a light has dawned” (4:16). All these references to light are to enlightenment. To put brute matter on top is to invert (or I should almost say pervert) the entire world, yet that is precisely what materialism does. Again, without life there is no light (or darkness). The Bible’s repeated injunctions for us to “behold” are not a mere rhetorical convention, but stress the importance of seeing, of revelation, to the divine enterprise: hearing the word, seeing the light, knowing the spirit.

If life is a mere accident, there is ultimately a kind of pointlessness to living. Yet perhaps the best answer to the zombie universe argument is simply the fact that consciousness did develop. “What is past is not capable of not having taken place” (Aristotle). Even if, as some cosmologists speculate, the cosmos is a multiverse, we still know, with Cartesian certainty, that this one universe, ours, developed consciousness. Hence it is not capable of not having been. Whether it was always not capable of not having been is something we can never know.

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