“Right now, billions of neurons in your brain are working together to generate a conscious experience — and not just any conscious experience, your experience of the world around you and of yourself within it. How does this happen? According to neuroscientist Anil Seth, we’re all hallucinating all the time; when we agree about our hallucinations, we call it ‘reality.’ ”
Neuroscientist and Professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex Anil Seth recently gave a TedTalk discussing the origins of consciousness. He begins his lecture by asking the audience, how does consciousness happen? He refers to it as “the greatest remaining mysteries in science and philosophy,” and he’s not the only one to view it this way. Theoretical physicist Max Planck, who originated quantum theory, regarded “consciousness as fundamental,” stating that “we cannot get behind consciousness,” and that “everything we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.”
After posing his opening question, Seth goes on to explain its importance:
“Somehow, within each of our brains, the combined activity of many billions of neurons, each one a tiny biological machine, is generating a conscious experience. And not just any conscious experience — your conscious experience right here and right now. How does this happen? Answering this question is so important because consciousness for each of us is all there is. Without it there’s no world, there’s no self, there’s nothing at all.”
As Planck himself said, “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness.”
In other words, consciousness is a required aspect for the formulation of matter; somehow, these two seemingly distinct phenomena are intertwined in a way we have yet to fully understand. A paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Physics Essays explains how the double slit experiment has been used multiple times to explore the role of consciousness in shaping the nature of physical reality. You can read more about that here.
Seth goes on to suggest that consciousness and life are also inextricably linked. While some argue that intelligence and self-awareness are the true markers, he makes a case for consciousness being “shaped by the biological mechanisms that keep us alive.” He says:
“I actually think the prospects for a conscious AI are pretty remote. And I think this because my research is telling me that consciousness has less to do with pure intelligence and more to do with our nature as living and breathing organisms. Consciousness and intelligence are very different things. You don’t have to be smart to suffer, but you probably do have to be alive.”
Seth then asks the audience to imagine being a brain: With no lights or sound inside the skull, all it has to rely on are streams of electrical impulses derived from our senses. He goes on to show a couple of illusions in which our senses are clearly deceiving us from truth.
The brain is always changing what we consciously experience based on the input it receives. The examples he uses are fascinating and worth the watch, so I won’t rob you of some great “wow” moments by describing them. They ultimately show, however, that in many instances, the sensory information coming into the brain doesn’t change; all that changes is our perception of what we are experiencing.
Plato was right: Our senses really do deceive us. Seth says:
“So perception — figuring out what’s there — has to be a process of informed guesswork in which the brain combines these sensory signals with its prior expectations or beliefs about the way the world is to form its best guess of what caused those signals. The brain doesn’t hear sound or see light. What we perceive is its best guess of what’s out there in the world.”
Through these examples, Seth shows that we “don’t just passively perceive the world, we actively generate it. The world we experience comes as much, if not more, from the inside out as from the outside in.”
He continues by saying that “we’re all hallucinating all the time, including right now. It’s just that when we agree about our hallucinations, we call that reality. . . . [so] your experience of being a self, the specific experience of being you, is also a controlled hallucination generated by the brain.”
Many within this field are being forced to admit that, in some way we don’t completely understand yet, the universe and our experience of the physical material world could in fact be mental constructions, or at the very least, that consciousness plays a fundamental role in their creation.
R.C. Henry, a professor of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University, wrote in a 2005 publication for the journal Nature:
“According to [pioneering physicist] Sir James Jeans: “the stream of knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality; the Universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine. Mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder into the realm of matter… we ought rather hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter.” . . . The Universe is immaterial — mental and spiritual. Live, and enjoy.”
Do the Brain and Body Give Rise to Consciousness?
The hypothesis that the brain creates consciousness dominates the mainstream materialistic world of science, despite the wealth of evidence showing that the brain (and our entire physical reality, for that matter) could be a product of consciousness.
Below is a great quote to illustrate what is meant by “material” science, taken from the Manifesto for a Post-Materialist Science:
“The modern scientific worldview is predominantly predicated on assumptions that are closely associated with classical physics. Materialism—the idea that matter is the only reality—is one of these assumptions. A related assumption is reductionism, the notion that complex things can be understood by reducing them to the interactions of their parts, or to simpler or more fundamental things such as tiny material particles.”
Below is a video from University of Arizona professor Dr. Gary Schwartz discussing whether consciousness is the product of the brain or a receiver of it. It’s a brief overview of a subject that is full of peer-reviewed scientific research few people have the time to go through. It would actually be almost impossible to go through all of it.
“Some materialistically inclined scientists and philosophers refuse to acknowledge these phenomena because they are not consistent with their exclusive conception of the world. Rejection of post-materialist investigation of nature or refusal to publish strong science findings supporting a post-materialist framework are antithetical to the true spirit of scientific inquiry, which is that empirical data must always be adequately dealt with. Data which do not fit favoured theories and beliefs cannot be dismissed a priori. Such dismissal is the realm of ideology, not science.”
– Dr. Gary Schwartz, Professor of Psychology, Medicine, Neurology, Psychiatry, and Surgery at the University of Arizona (1)
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