1. Science and Consciousness


For those who believe, no proof is necessary,
For those who do not believe, no proof is possible.

For centuries it has been assumed that the material world is the 'real world', and that world of the mind somehow -- in ways we know not how -- arises from the world of matter. I believe this worldview is slowly, and inevitably, being turned inside out. We are being forced to the conclusion that mind is as fundamental as matter -- in some ways, more fundamental.

To most of us immersed in the contemporary worldview this may seem a very bold assertion; unbelievable, possibly crazy even. It appears to contradict everything we know, and run totally counter even to common-sense. But remember that Copernicus's notions initially seemed unbelievable and totally contrary to the established worldview. What to us, today, seems, so obvious -- namely, that the Earth is orbiting the sun -- was unthinkable only half a millennium ago. [The Copernican Revolution]

The metaparadigm

The Copernican Revolution is the classic example of what Thomas Khun called a “paradigm shift”. Current paradigms such as Darwin's theory of evolution, quantum theory, Big Bang cosmology, and the genetic code, are each dominating beliefs within a particular branch of science. But beneath these various worldviews lies an even deeper belief. It is the belief that the material world is the real world, and that space, time, matter and energy constitute the fundamental framework of reality. When we fully understand the functioning of this material world, we will, it is claimed, be able to explain everything in the cosmos.

This is the belief upon which all our other scientific paradigms are based. It is, therefore, more than just another paradigm; it is, in effect, a "metaparadigm".

So successful has this metaparadigm been at explaining just about everything we see in the world around us, it is seldom, if ever questioned. When it comes to the non-material world of the mind, however, the model begins to encounter difficulties. It has very little to say about subjective experience, the thoughts that pass through our minds, our feelings and intuitions, or human self-awareness. It is simply assumed that once we know everything there is to know about the functioning of the nervous system, all these questions will be answered.

Many see the paranormal, such as telepathy, clairvoyance, distant healing, and precognition as the anomaliesthat will send the old paradigm crashing. But they are not truly anomalies -- not yet, at least. Although there is mounting scientific evidence their favor, they are still far from being universally accepted. As things stand, the paranormal is only a potential anomaly.

There is, however, one very serious anomaly that everyone accepts, and that the current metaparadigm is at a complete loss to explain -- namely, our own consciousness. Even if we were able to account for paranormal phenomena within the current worldview, and even if we were able to trace the neurophysiological correlates of every conscious experience, there would still remain the thorny question of consciousness itself.

There is nothing in the physical sciences that predicts living systems should have any form of inner experience. Furthermore, there is no easy way to explain how consciousness can arise from inanimate matter. Yet the evidence for the existence of consciousness is irrefutable.

If there is nothing we are more certain of than consciousness; there is also nothing that is harder to explain. Consciousness seems to have no place at all in the space-time-matter-energy framework of the contemporary science. This is the paradox of consciousness. Science exists only because of consciousness, yet consciousness is not to be found anywhere in science. Scientists find themselves in the strange position of being confronted daily by the indisputable fact of their own consciousness, yet with no means to account for it.

This has been dubbed the "hard question". How does something as unconscious as matter give rise to something as immaterial as consciousness? The two could not be more fundamentally different.

As far as the materialist metaparadigm is concerned, consciousness is the great anomaly.

Defending the metaparadigm

The ways in which western science has dealt with the problem of consciousness are reminiscent of the ways the medieval astronomers dealt with the problem of planetary motion. For the most part it has ignored consciousness completely -- and with apparently good reasons.

First, consciousness cannot be observed in the way that material entities can It cannot be weighed, measured, or otherwise pinned down. Second, science has sought to arrive at universal "objective" truths, independent of any particular observer's viewpoint or state of mind. So it has deliberately avoided subjective considerations. And third, matter seems to get on quite well without consciousness. We can, it is believed, come to a full understanding of the material universe without having to explore this troublesome subject.

In recent years, as developments in physics, psychology, neurophysiology and other sciences have shown that consciousness cannot be quite so easily ignored or sidelined, the subject is beginning to creep on to the scientific agenda, and various lines of approach are being explored to try to account for this perplexing phenomenon. Some look to quantum physics. This is one area where there appears to be a possible interplay of consciousness with material reality. Perhaps the minute microtubules recently discovered inside nerve cells could act as waveguides, creating quantum coherence in water molecules, which might somehow contribute to consciousness (though exactly how is unclear). Some look to computing theory and suggest that consciousness emerges from the complexity of the brain's information processing. Others find sources of hope in chaos theory. While many believe that a deeper understanding of neurophysiology will yield up the secrets of the mind. But whatever model is put forward, the thorny question still remains as to why any physical process, quantum or otherwise, should give rise to subjective experience. The really hard problem remains unsolved.

The continued failure of these various approaches to made any appreciable headway into the problem of consciousness suggests that they may all be on the wrong track. They all assume that consciousness somehow arises from, or is dependent upon, the world of space-matter-time-energy. In one way or another they are trying to accommodate the anomaly of consciousness within an intrinsically materialist worldview. Like the mediaeval astronomers who kept on adding more and more epicycles, the underlying metaparadigm is seldom, if ever, questioned.

A Shifting metaparadigm

Today we may be on the threshold of a major shift in metaparadigm; a fundamental revolution in worldview that could well be even more far-reaching than the Copernican Revolution, and one that promises to shatter all our beliefs about the nature of reality. Half a millennium ago, the old model of the cosmos was turned inside-out, placing the sun, not the earth, at the center of things. Today it is our whole model of reality that is threatened with a complete inversion. In the new model consciousness becomes as fundamental to the cosmos as space, time, energy and matter -- in some respects even more fundamental.

Strange as this may sound to those of immersed in the current materialist worldview, we should remember that it was not so very long ago that the notion that the earth was another planet spinning through space was regarded with similar misgivings.

All the key ingredients for the new model are already in place. We are not waiting on new discoveries All that we need is to put the various pieces together and look at the new picture of reality that emerges.

The foundation stone of the this new model is an understanding of how we perceive and interpret reality. Advances in physics, psychology, and philosophy have shown that we deceive ourselves in many ways. Reality, we shall discover, is not what it seems.