Information — Consciousness — Reality: How a New Understanding of the Universe Can Help Answer Age-Old Questions of Existence
In the following, some adapted excerpts from the book of the same title are shared, available as an open-access publication in Springer’s Frontiers Collection.
Chapter 1: Introduction
This is a story about you. In this very moment, you are consciously reading this sentence in your mind. You are aware of your body and the world surrounding you. Your breath is flowing through your body.
Every day you wake up. Instantly, the memories of who you are enter your mind. You start to sense yourself and the external world you woke up to. Then you open your eyes. Everything appears familiar and unspectacular.
But how can you trust this emergence of a world? Can you be certain of the accuracy of the perceptions you are experiencing and the faithfulness of the memories in your mind? Are you perhaps just a brain kept alive in a vat in a dark room, receiving fabricated electrical impulses, stimulating it into perceiving a fictitious world? Or did you never actually wake up? Are you experiencing an episode of false awakening, the phenomenon of dreaming that you woke up, where the vividness and crispness of the conscious experience trick you into believing its authenticity? Or could you be inhabiting a simulated reality, designed to emulate “true” reality? Or are you currently incarcerated in a psychiatric institution and your mind is hallucinating an entire world of fiction in order to not have to face its own pathology? The array of conceivable alternative explanations for your experience of a reality can be frightening.
Imagine, for a moment, that you are a member of an isolated society. You were never exposed to the collection of human ideas shaping the world today. As a child, your inquisitive mind, exploring your inner and outer reality, was never influenced by human thought traditions, spanning several millennia. You were never told any tale sourced from the competing brands of theology we today find distributed around the globe. You never felt the existential angst that can be triggered by contemplating philosophical problems related to existence, knowledge, reality, and the human mind. You never felt exalted and overwhelmed by the vastness of understanding contained within the edifice of science.
How would you then explain your existence? How would you go about answering the questions “What is reality?”, “What can I know?”, and “Who am I?” Assuming a robust skeptical demeanor, you would probably arrive at a fundamental philosophical insight. Quoting René Descartes:
I think, therefore I am.
The only thing you can truly be sure of is the reality of your own subjective experiences at this very moment. Everything else is questionable. Moreover, musings about the meaning of life would perhaps, in the final analysis, gravitate towards another fundamental philosophical observation, encapsulating the mystery of existence. Quoting Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz:
Why is there something rather than nothing? For nothing is simpler and easier than something. Furthermore, assuming that things must exist, we must be able to give a reason for why they must exist in this way, and not otherwise.
How can you ever be certain about anything? Gazing at the night sky, you would be filled with a deep longing for knowledge.
For centuries, people hoped that science, the abstract mathematical understanding of the physical world, would shed light on the true nature of reality. Indeed, the explanatory power of science has exploded and with it humanity’s capacity to manipulate reality. The emergence of science is a story of how the human mind gained intimate knowledge of the workings of the universe and how this expertise gave us one of the greatest gifts: the fruits of technology. However, in an act of cosmic irony, this expanding continent of knowledge found itself surrounded by ever longer shores of ignorance. In the final analysis, it seems as though the edifice of human knowledge is a shifting, ad hoc, and fragmented structure, lacking any clear foundation and overarching and unifying context. Mathematics and science appear to be true by accident.
Chapter 11: Subjective Consciousness: What am I?
Consciousness is not only a vexing problem for scientists and philosophers alike, it is also a deep mystery for every conscious being. On the one hand it is so familiar. Indeed, my conscious experiences of the world and of dreams — flowing in the river of time, eternally locked into this moment of “now” — is all that I know. I am intimately and fundamentally a manifestation of my consciousness. On the other hand, consciousness creates an insurmountable schism: reality divides into the inner and outer world. My first-person subjective experience is pitted against an outer, objective reality. The two realities collide. One is characterized by “what does it feel like?” and the other by “out there.” The observer and the observed emerge. The central conundrum is the following. How do our brains conjure up subjective, conscious experiences? In other words, where is the greenness of green to be found in our brains?
During a talk in 1994, the philosopher David Chalmers rocked the boat of the philosophy of the mind by introducing the “hard problem of consciousness.” The “easy problem” of consciousness relates to explaining the brain’s dynamics in terms of the functional or computational organization of the brain. In essence, the hard problem of consciousness is the challenge of explaining how and why we have phenomenal experiences — known as qualia. How do 1,400 grams of organic matter, organized as a neural network and constrained by the laws of nature, give rise to first-person conscious experiences? How do sensations acquire their specific characteristics such as colors and tastes? More specifically, how do neurophysiological and biochemical processes translate into phenomenal and subjective perception?
Despite all the philosophical challenges, we are currently witnessing an explosion in the field of neuroscience. The most astonishing story neuroscientists are telling us is about perception — the very way we known about an external world. Yet again, a very basic intuition we hold is deeply flawed: the notion that our eyes translate electromagnetic radiation into electrical impulses from which the brain reconstructs a faithful image of the world. What we call our sober state of consciousness is, in fact, an elaborate hallucination — an internal simulation — guided by some external stimuli. What we perceive is a creation of our minds. Our brains construct a virtual reality simulation of the outer world based on continuous best guesses. We can never know what the true nature of reality is and we are blind to much of the activity going on in the world. But how does the hallucination of sober waking consciousness differ from other hallucinations?
Chapter 15 — The Final Chapter
We are currently witnessing a fundamental paradigm shift, replacing the prevailing scientific dogma. By breaking the taboos of the current materialistic worldview and exposing its blind spots, the human mind is progressing once again. A new domain of reality is discovered — this time at its very core. By rethinking the most basic assumptions and reassessing the most cherished beliefs about existence, a novel scientific paradigm is emerging.
Insights from theoretical physics and theoretical computer science uncover information at the most fundamental level of the cosmos. The fabric of objective reality is woven out of threads of information — not space, time, or matter. At the heart of reality, we find a computational engine which needs to be fed with information. The entire universe is computational in nature. The consequences are far-reaching. For one, the whole cosmos is necessarily finite. The abstract notion of infinity only resides within the human mind. Then, the most groundbreaking and earth-shattering implication is the very real possibility that the universe itself is a vast hologram and reality perhaps a simulation.
How does consciousness enter this new information-theoretic paradigm? For centuries, the materialistic scientific worldview confidently declared with great certainty what was possible and not. Now, in a final act of heresy, this orthodoxy is being denounced. Deep within the structure of reality, consciousness is found. John Wheeler is one of the pioneers initiating this paradigm shift and is considered to be one of the most influential physicists of the twentieth century. He once observed:
When we peer down into the deepest recesses of matter or at the farthest edge of the universe, we see, finally, our own puzzled faces looking back at us.
In a similar vein the physicist Carl Sagan, revered in the science community, remarked:
We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.
Finally, in the words of Alan Watts, a philosopher, interpreter of Eastern philosophy, and psychonaut:
Through our eyes, the universe is perceiving itself. Through our ears, the universe is listening to its harmonies. We are the witnesses through which the universe becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence.
Within the nascent new paradigm, consciousness is rediscovered as the inner aspect of information. While its outer manifestation gives rise to objective reality, its inner quality allows subjective experiences to emerge. Now, the implications are truly outlandish. The possibility that consciousness is a fundamental and universal property of reality arises. We thus are inhabiting a participatory universe, where objective reality and subjective consciousness share an inherent kinship.
Consequentially, whole new realms of existence are unearthed. The sober waking state of consciousness represents but one mode of perception out of a vast array of other states. We peer through this lens of awareness and glimpse the consensus reality. This default state of consciousness, however, can only render a tiny subspace within a much richer and broader reality landscape. In effect, vast new reality terrains are accessible to the human mind. By silencing the sober waking state of perception and inducing altered states of consciousness — through meditation, trance, chemical substances, pain, brain trauma, sleep, or spontaneously — new planes of existence appear, transcending space and time.
According to the basic myth found within the traditions of ancient India, existence is seen as a play. Alan Watts:
In the beginning — which was not long ago but now-ever — is the Self. Everyone knows the Self, but no one can describe it, just as the eye sees but does not see itself. Moreover, the Self is what there is and all that there is, so that no name can be given to it. It is neither old nor new, great nor small, shaped nor shapeless. Having no opposite, it is what all opposites have in common: it is the reason why there is no white without black and no form apart from emptiness. However, the Self has two sides, the inside and the outside.
Because of delight the Self is always at play, and its play, called lila, is like singing or dancing, which are made of sound and silence, motion and rest. Thus the play of the Self is to lose itself and to find itself in a game of hide-and-seek without beginning or end. In losing itself it is dismembered: it forgets that it is the one and only reality, and plays that it is the vast multitude of beings and things which make up this world. In finding itself it is remembered: it discovers again that it is forever the one behind the many, the trunk within the branches, that its seeming to be many is always maya, which is to say illusion, art, and magical power.
The playing of the Self is therefore like a drama in which the Self is both the actor and the audience. On entering the theater the audience knows that what it is about to see is only a play, but the skillful actor creates a maya, an illusion of reality which gives the audience delight or terror, laughter or tears. It is thus that in the joy and the sorrow of all beings the Self as audience is carried away by itself as actor.