When most people hear the word “consciousness”, they tend to think of what I refer to as “mental consciousness”, that is, the mental process of awareness, self-awareness, or experience in general. However, I prefer to think of consciousness as a fundamental type of awareness (i.e. an ability to respond to stimuli). On top of this, I believe this property of awareness applies to “non-living” systems as well. One idea I’d like to discuss in this post is the idea that “consciousness”, or a “universal consciousness” exists as some driving force in the universe such that experience, awareness, response to stimuli (e.g. physical motion), etc., precipitate from it. In a nutshell, I equate this universal consciousness with the laws of physics.
If we look at the traditional view of consciousness, it seems to be the “I” (a combination of an unconscious and conscious driver) or more appropriately the “me”, that is, it is some concept of “self” that subsequently experiences and/or drives all of the constituent processes that constitute our experience. If we look at consciousness from a physicalist perspective, we are led to the idea that consciousness is nothing more than particular physical processes produced and mediated by the brain. What is important here is that the fundamental physical processes that produce and mediate consciousness, are processes which are ultimately driven by the laws of physics. That is, the motion of all molecules, atoms, electrons, ions, etc., which are intricately interacting to produce this mental consciousness, are all governed by the laws of physics.
Looking at mentally conscious beings such as ourselves, we have incoming sensory data/stimuli leading to perceptions which eventually coalesce with our pattern recognition systems such that cognitive processes (e.g. concepts/thought, language, problem solving, learning, memory, etc.) begin to drive our behavior based on our brain’s response to not only this incoming information, but also to its relationship with any information that has been previously acquired. We could summarize this by saying that we have conscious thoughts or motivations (as well as unconscious motivations) serving as complex stimuli which we physically respond to by behaving in various ways. In other words, we started with elementary stimuli which led to more complex stimuli finally driving our behavior as mentally conscious beings.
Consciousness of Fundamental Living Systems
If we then look at brainless organisms (e.g. bacteria, etc.), we see some similar properties of responding to stimuli thus driving micro-scale motion and any other aspects of behavior at that scale. We seem to have lost the possibilities of perception and self-awareness with this type of organism, but the property of sensation and awareness, that is, the ability to respond to its environment (through electro-photo-chemical signals), is conserved.
Consciousness of Non-Living Systems
Finally, if we look at energy quanta (e.g. photons, gravitons, etc.) as well as the smaller-scale constituents of matter (e.g. atoms, electrons, subatomic particles, etc.), we see that they respond to the fundamental forces governed by the laws of physics. If the magnitude and direction of those forces change, the response changes. Once again, the property of awareness (i.e. an ability to respond to stimuli) is conserved.
An Evolving Consciousness
Looking at this in terms of consciousness evolution, we started with particles and energy quanta that were fundamentally “aware” of the fundamental forces. When organized a particular way (given a particular environment), this led to a higher level of awareness (e.g. electro-photo-chemical sensation) as seen in cellular organisms. Then upon further organization, an even higher level of awareness was reached (e.g. perception and thought) as is seen in the multi-cellular organisms that possess brains. Eventually, this led to particular brain configurations which yielded the highest level of awareness we’ve observed thus far (e.g. self-awareness). It is at this point (self awareness) that a being’s mental consciousness includes the experience of realizing that it is a mentally conscious being. One could perhaps describe this type of awareness as a profound way that the universe has become aware of itself.
Final Thoughts and Questions
We could say that every “level” of consciousness or awareness that seems to exist is but one step in a series driven by the fundamental universal consciousness which increasingly approximates complete awareness of the universe (or at least some maximal level). This leads me to several questions:
– Are there any other levels of awareness that we are not aware of?
– If there are other types of awareness in which we are constituents of some “higher” level, can we come to know those higher levels, or are certain epistemological limitations in place to prevent this kind of knowledge (analogous to brain cells being unaware of the self-producing brain that they constitute)?
– If the universe has a finite amount of time before all “higher” levels of awareness are reduced to the fundamental form from which they came (due to the second law of thermodynamics leading to an inevitable heat death), what will the climax of awareness consist of, or at the very least, what are some plausible climaxes of awareness?
– If the universe is cyclical (e.g. Big Bang and Big Crunch ad infinitum), will every iteration consist of the same climax of awareness, even if the laws of physics change (e.g. physical constants), and despite the possibility of there being some level of ontological randomness?