What is Consciousness?

If we are unsure where it is, can we even say what it is?

Part 2 in a developing series on Consciousness. Part 1 is Where is Consciousness?.


Is consciousness in our head? Does it permeate our bodies? Does it possibly permeate everything? What comes first — the brain or thought?

Such questions have rocked the minds of philosophers and scientists for centuries. While mystics through the ages have reported highly consistent findings within deeper states of awareness, it’s only recently that physicists have started tackling the question of what it actually is.

Consciousness as a state of matter

Max Tegmark has put forth the idea that consciousness is a state of matter:

“I conjecture that consciousness can be understood as yet another state of matter. Just as there are many types of liquids, there are many types of consciousness.”

Max Tegmark

Tegmark has also formulated the “Ultimate Ensemble theory of everything”, whose only postulate is that “all structures that exist mathematically exist also physically”. This simple theory, with no free parameters at all, suggests that in those structures complex enough to contain self-aware substructures (SASs), these SASs will subjectively perceive themselves as existing in a physically “real” world. This idea is formalized as the mathematical universe hypothesis, described in his book Our Mathematical Universe. [Wikipedia]

Giulio Tononi (University of Wisconsin in Madison) is a neuroscientist focusing on sleep and consciousness. His collegue Christof Koch has stated that Tononi’s work is developing “the only really promising fundamental theory of consciousness.”

In 2008, Tononi proposed that a system demonstrating consciousness must have two specific traits. First, the system must be able to store and process large amounts of information. In other words consciousness is essentially a phenomenon of information.

And second, this information must be integrated in a unified whole so that it is impossible to divide into independent parts. That reflects the experience that each instance of consciousness is a unified whole that cannot be decomposed into separate components.

Both of these traits can be specified mathematically allowing physicists like Tegmark to reason about them for the first time. He begins by outlining the basic properties that a conscious system must have. [Source]

Giulio Tononi

When approached as a form of matter, the work of people like Tononi and Tegmark catalyze speculative thought about very small elements of consciousness itself, the ‘stuff’ that makes it up. And how when these tiny elements of consciousness somehow attract and band together in sufficient mass they form something called “perceptronium, defined as the most general substance that feels subjectively self-aware.”

Consciousness as anti-matter

There are any number of proponents of the theory that consciousness is antimatter. Some proponents of this theory have oversimplified it by stating antimatter is invisible and so is consciousness, so the theory infers that antimatter is consciousness. The implication, as I understand it, is that consciousness is somehow an opposing force to the material or physical.

From another perspective, that of dualism, everything has an opposite. Therefore, if we can visibly see all that matters, then it makes sense that consciousness — which is invisible — can find an opposition vehicle in that which does not matter, or antimatter. So hence, that which cannot be seen affects that which is seen.

While admittedly I do not understand the physics of antimatter (I’m rather poor in math), my knee jerk reaction is to say I disagree, largely because I don’t view consciousness as the opposite of anything.

From the mystic’s point of view, consciousness is a ubiquitous force. The mystic further maintains that consciousness, while it inhabits the brain, also lies outside the body in something called the greater Mind.

Antimatter arguably has consciousness existing as a separate, perhaps even as a divisive force, or minimally simply as one of many features of creation. The mystic’s view places consciousness at the very center of all creation, as the essential catalyst for virtually everything that exists.

Consciousness as something familiar

Galen Strawson is a professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. His essay, “Consciousness Isn’t a Mystery. It’s Matter,” was published in the New York Times and by the Richard Dawkins Foundation.

Galen Strawson

Every day, it seems, some verifiably intelligent person tells us that we don’t know what consciousness is. The nature of consciousness, they say, is an awesome mystery. It’s the ultimate hard problem. The current Wikipedia entry is typical: Consciousness “is the most mysterious aspect of our lives”; philosophers “have struggled to comprehend the nature of consciousness.”

I find this odd because we know exactly what consciousness is — where by “consciousness” I mean what most people mean in this debate: experience of any kind whatever. It’s the most familiar thing there is, whether it’s experience of emotion, pain, understanding what someone is saying, seeing, hearing, touching, tasting or feeling. It is in fact the only thing in the universe whose ultimate intrinsic nature we can claim to know. It is utterly unmysterious.

Bertrand Russell in the 1950s in his essay “Mind and Matter”: “We know nothing about the intrinsic quality of physical events,” he wrote, “except when these are mental events that we directly experience.” In having conscious experience, he claims, we learn something about the intrinsic nature of physical stuff, for conscious experience is itself a form of physical stuff… I think Russell is right: Human conscious experience is wholly a matter of physical goings-on in the body and in particular the brain… Having conscious experience is knowing what it is.

Some of what Strawson says is easy to agree with. In a sense, we do indeed know what consciousness is, because it inhabits our minds and our senses. And I agree that consciousness can be categorized as experience, although I think we have to be careful here. A flower experiences the sun, so does that constitute consciousness? I would tend to say yes, although I’m not sure that’s what Dr. Strawson means.

To build on what he is saying, however, we need to differentiate between consciousness and awareness. And we also need to ask, is consciousness restricted to the brain?

Consciousness and the eternal soul

How can we more inclusively define the ‘eternal soul’? It’s a phrase that can ostracize some, and take on naive to complex meanings for others. We can find abundant references in literature and religion that discuss the eternal, ranging from the soaring poetic verses of intertwined lovers to the eternal nature of the universe or even of consciousness.

In both science and in everyday life we often struggle with the concept of the eternal. For some it evokes skepticism, while for others it implies hope. But any perspective, whether deep or shallow, can confuse us with the notion that there is no beginning and no end, with the implication of neither Alpha nor Omega. How can that be?

One of the monastery’s writers, Gerben T., touches on the eternal in his essays on Proust and Nietzsche. In Proust and the Eternal Soul, Gerben uses Proust’s concept of the eternal soul to suggest that to even begin to grasp the eternal, we’d be well advised to endeavor first to get a better understanding of the principle of Harmony. Gerben’s point is that if we are experiencing disharmony, then we need to look for the thing that offsets it, its polar opposite: harmony. This can become a practical and meaningful daily practice, as we constantly stretch ourselves to find harmony in any situation, circumstance or relationship.

As Gerben points out, Harmony is an offsetting force in the Nature of things. So this can cause us to wonder, “What lies in the middle of disharmony and harmony?” Because somewhere there there exists a transition point, a point of demarcation, however subtle, when we shift from one state to the other. It’s that delicate point of balance we discover on a playground see-saw (teeter-totter) as we hover midway.

What is consciousness?

We can extend this question into virtually anything by asking, what lies between anything? Perhaps a more accurate question for this essay is to ask, “What is this vague thing we call ‘the center’?”

Clearly, any discussion of the eternal must assume no beginning and no end. If we therefore apply our central question to the eternal, we are forced to ask, “What is it that lies in the middle of the eternal? What lies between that which has no beginning and no end?” I propose that the thing which lies between is consciousness.

Consciousness, it seems to me, is the binding agent between the Nothingness and the Everything. Consciousness is the center. Consciousness is the center. And it’s everywhere, because in our theory it would have to be. Why? Because it lies in the center of something that is boundless, an eternal which has no beginning and no end. In a large and magnificent sense, it is an endlessly expansive Mind. Which, quite naturally, implies that the center must be anywhere and everywhere.

Of course, consciousness has a center as well. And it’s easy enough to suggest that one way to define the center of consciousness is by using the word ‘awareness’. For what is consciousness without awareness?

Without awareness, consciousness is a muddled mess, a bit haphazard, random and chaotic. Perhaps a bit like a person being in a catatonic or unresponsive state. But once awareness begins to form, consciousness takes on new and deeper meanings. Order begins to be established out of seeming chaos.

Consciousness is the necessary agent to bring formlessness into form. It’s the bridge across the river.



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