Sunday, July 12, 2015

The big problem: Consciousness

"How small is small?"

"How big is big?"

"How real is real?"

All silly questions, one could argue. Questions kids might ask.

But strangely, questions without answers. Ask our best physicists, mathematicians, philosophers and scientists. They don't know. Nobody really knows.

There are a lot of theories. A lot of speculation. Some wild guesses. But nothing we can prove.

It kind of boils down to how far down the rabbit hole you want to go.

That was the premise of the 2004 film, "What the Bleep Do We Know?" Critics skewered it as "pseudoscience." But was it wrong? Who knows?

What we do know is one of the hottest debates raging in scientific circles these days is over the nature of consciousness. What is it; where does it come from; how are consciousness and reality connected and what role does quantum physics play?

I am reminded of this quote, more or less, from the 1956 movie, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers:"

"In time the human mind will figure out everything from the atom to the universe. Everything except itself."

Pretty deep, huh? And we haven't even started down that rabbit hole yet.

While my better half hates nothing more than an unsolved mystery, I have to admit I find the whole discussion fascinating, even if I have only the barest understanding of physics, mathematics or quantum states. I was an English major, okay?

But there are plenty of very smart people trying to solve what they call "the big problem."

One of them is Dr. Robert Lanza, who has written a book called "Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe." In a nutshell, Dr. Lanza postulates creation flows from consciousness; not the other ways around. Without a conscious entity to define reality, the universe exists only as a set of probabilities.

Whoa. That raised a few eyebrows in the scientific community for sure.

With co-author Bob Berman, he melds biology and quantum physics, citing the famous double-slit experiment that light and matter can be either particles or waves until observed or measured. It's one of several "spooky" findings that govern the universe at its smallest levels.

Lanza's premise is something like the old axiom, "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" You can argue the answer form many points of view, but trying to find a definitive proof is a slippery slope.

So where does consciousness come from?

Logic might say our brains. "Cognito ergo sum." "I think, therefore I am." The famous words of French philosopher Rene Descartes, which became a fundamental tenet of Western thinking. Where else would the seat of consciousness be?

How about outside our body? At least that's the view of physicist Dr. Alan R. Hugenot, who is quoted in "Epoch Times" that, "The nexus of my consciousness is in my head, but the locus of my consciousness -- where is it really? It's outside my body. Because inside and outside are just an illusion."

He also thinks of consciousness as functioning like "the data we store in the cloud." That data can be accessed on multiple devices. Maybe our bodies are just one of many devices that can host consciousness, which also speaks to an afterlife, or certainly an existence beyond this one.

Now I think we can safety say we are down the rabbit hole.

Any way you slice it, consciousness does qualify as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, as the saying goes.

In some ways, it's also connected to another great mystery: How did life begin? (For our purposes, we are addressing it from the scientific and not the religious point of view.)

We all know you and I, this computer, this desk, everything we can see see, touch, feel or smell is made of atoms. And atoms consist of sub-atomic particles: Protons, electrons, neutrons. Those particles are formed from even smaller particles. As we continue to smash them together in the Large Hadron Collider, we discover new particles that are even smaller -- teensy, tiny bits that are the basis for all matter, and in turn, life.

So now we're back to "how small is small?"

One theory that has gained a lot of converts is called "string theory," which basically says everything at its base level consists of "vibrating strings," and these strings exist in 10 dimensions. And that's about as far as I go with that one. Sorry -- math was not my strong suite. But it does beg the question, "So what are strings made of, and how did they get here in the first place?"

All that aside, how do a bunch of atoms (which are, BTW, 99 percent vacant space. Weird, right?) get together to create living, breathing entities, that by the way can think and ask questions like this one. I think even our smartest thinkers would concede, "You're making my head hurt."

Of course, we don't really have to know the answer -- if it is, in fact, even knowable. Surviving day-to-day is a little bigger priority for most of us. But at one point or another, the rabbit hole beckons all of us.

If all of this does make your head hurt, I recommend finding a quiet place and re-reading Hermann Hesse's journey of self-discovery, "Siddhartha." It may not have all the answers, either, but it will leave you with a sense of peace and the belief we are all connected -- one to another -- with the cosmos.

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