The Mystery of Consciousness

This is the text for my August 10, 2014 Unitarian-Universalist sermon to the Community Unitarian-Universalists in Brighton, Michigan. This is the seventh Unitarian-Universalist sermon I have posted. The others are

This is the second sermon I have given that I have known in advance I would post. I wrote it with my online readers in mind as well as the Unitarian Universalists in Brighton.

For the Unitarian-Universalist “Celebration of Life” service, the text for the “reading” was “Moment” by Wisława Szymborska, while the text for the meditation was my "Daily Devotional for the Not-Yet.“

Here is the abstract I wrote a few weeks in advance for the sermon, followed by the sermon itself:

Abstract: The mystery of consciousness is central to religion. Many religions even claim that consciousness is supernatural.

A major job-to-be-done for religion is improving our conscious experience. In particular, much of what seems transcendent to us is in conscious experience, and encouraging certain types of subjective spiritual experiences is a central part of many religions. 

Although we care deeply about our own conscious experience, it is not the only thing we care about. Most of us also care about the conscious experience of others, and some of us care about the state of external reality even apart from any difference in conscious experience.

I once read a book by the philosopher Colin McGinn called The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World. True to the title’s claim that consciousness is a mystery, I felt no wiser about the nature of consciousness when I got to the end of the book than when I started. But I like the image of consciousness as a flame. The symbol of Unitarian Universalism is a flaming chalice; it is easy to see that flaming chalice as in part a symbol of the flame of consciousness.

Conciousness makes possible our perception of beauty, goodness and truth. Beauty, goodness and truth make up the trio of ideas Renaissance Humanists identified as central to the Plato’s philosophy.  In his distillation “I think, therefore I am,” René Descartes emphasized the quest for truth as a demonstration of consciousness, but the appreciation of beauty and the judgment of goodness are equally hallmarks of consciousness.  

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins begins his book Unweaving the Rainbow with these beautiful words about death and life and the consciousness we are granted by life: 

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?

But it is a broader theme of his book Unweaving the Rainbow that I want to talk about: beautiful and wonderful things are just as beautiful and wonderful even when we understand them. We do get a thrill from secrets and suspense, since it gives us the hope that something might be even more awe-inspiringly beautiful, wonderful or interesting than it really is, but apart from that illusion, there is no reason for understanding to destroy beauty. A rose is still a rose, even if you know that the softness of a rose petal comes from its papilla cells. And a rose with any degree of understanding of its biochemistry would smell as sweet. I want to see if I can’t demystify consciousness a bit, but then point to the preeminent value of improving both our own conscious experience and the conscious experience of others.

Is Consciousness Supernatural? 

Some people are horrified by the idea that according to a standard nonsupernaturalist worldview, you and I are very sophisticated robots. But on the principle that a rose is still a rose, even if you understand the science of roses, if we are robots, then robots are not necessarily robotic. Our notion of "robotic” comes from our experience with relatively simple robots, not our experience with very sophisticated robots such as you and me.

Among the things that make human beings amazing is our consciousness. That consciousness is often pointed to as evidence of the supernatural. The argument is the challenge “How could such a wondrous thing arise from nonsupernatural, mechanical causes?” In the one computer programming class I took in college, back in 1981, one of the assignments was to write code for Conway’s Game of Life. Conway’s Game of Life is a cellular automaton based on extremely simple, mechanical rules, but it can do many things lifelike enough to justify the name of the game.

Here is how simple the rules are: on a chessboard with many, many squares, “live” squares are in black and dead squares are in white. At each tick of the game’s clock (the Game of Life’s third dimension), the following transitions happen (see the Wikipedia article on Conway’s Game of Life):

  1. Any live cell with fewer than two live neighbours dies, as if caused by under-population.
  2. Any live cell with two or three live neighbours lives on to the next generation.
  3. Any live cell with more than three live neighbours dies, as if by overcrowding.
  4. Any dead cell with exactly three live neighbours becomes a live cell, as if by reproduction.

Here are a few examples from the Wikipedia article on Conway’s Game of Life of what can come from these extremely simple rules:





Light-Weight Space Ship:


Gliders can be Created by Gosper’s Glider Gun:

I first got an inkling of the philosophical importance of Conway’s Game of Life when I read Daniel Dennett’s book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, which, more than any other book, tugged me toward being a nonsupernaturalist.  In his earlier book Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will WorthWanting, Daniel Dennett talks about something being inevitable or unavoidable as the opposite of free will. He argues that any creature that can avoid something therefore has at least the most rudimentary imaginable form of free will. Animals avoid many things, and so have a bit of capability for voluntary action. But there are also creatures in Conway’s Game of Life that can avoid some of the moving objects coming at them. So by that standard those patterns of black and white squares also have a bit–though a much smaller bit–of capability for voluntary action.

To my human eye, so eager to interpret things in terms of intentions, even a simple blinker seems full of intention. And if Game of Life blinkers, toads, beacons, pulsars, spaceships, gliders and glider guns enchant, intrigue and amaze me, how much more enchanting, intriguing and amazing are human beings. 

Not everyone is a fan of Daniel Dennett’s argument that the existence of avoiders in Conway’s Game of Life means that determinism does not imply inevitability. Aaron Swartz says it all rests on a pun between unavoidable and inevitable, which really have two very different meanings. But that depends on what kind of inevitability you care about. The idea that things are in some sense inevitable at the fundamental particle level (which is consistent with at least some interpretations of quantum mechanics) is interesting, but otherwise makes no difference in my life. To me the key fact is that at the human scale bad things can be avoided and good things can be pursued. And if even an avoider in Conway’s Game of Life can avoid things, then maybe we as individuals and as a species can avoid possible catastrophes that might overtake us if we didn’t take care. Acting as if the hand of fate makes it impossible for us to steer our path toward better things is just a way of substituting a stupid deterministic process for a smart deterministic process of trying to predict the consequences of our actions and modifying them accordingly. We are fortunate that for the most part, deterministic processes have favored our being smart in seeing that we have what Daniel Dennett calls a “variety of free will worth wanting,” that we need to exercise carefully.   

Let’s now turn to consciousness proper. Consciousness does seem magical. So I have felt some temptation to think that while a sophisticated robot can act as if it is conscious, it can’t really be conscious. “I feel, therefore I am really conscious.” So suppose there was a robot that was an exact copy of me in terms of its quarks, electrons, Higgs bosons, etc. that could only pretend to be conscious, while only I would actually  be  conscious, since only I would have a supernatural spirit attached to me. Either the supernatural spirit has an effect on the quarks, electrons, Higgs bosons etc. in my body or not. If it does have an effect on those quarks, electrons, Higgs bosons etc., then that effect of that supernatural spirit on fundamental particles should be detectable by the extremely sensitive instruments used by physicists. (Of course, if there is a supernatural realm that is intentionally trying to hide itself, then all bets are off.)

What about the possibility that the supernatural spirit attached to me has no effect on the quarks, electrons, Higgs bosons, etc. of my body, but is what really feels the experiences that my body is going through? The trouble is that, however hard it is for us, and however much we might claim that things are inexpressible, we actually talk about our conscious experiences, and seem to understand to at least some extent what we are saying to each other in that regard. What that means is that if there are  supernatural spirits that feel, but have no effect on our bodies, that extra bit of consciousness is not the consciousness we are talking about. We speak and write and talk in sign language with our bodies. So a supernatural consciousness would have to be able to affect the quarks, electrons, Higgs bosons etc. of our bodies in order for us to be talking about it.

The implication that a supernatural spirit would have to have some effect on the quarks, electrons, Higgs bosons, etc. of our bodies is even stronger if the supernatural spirit was supposed to be the source of free will. The Mormonism I was raised in was and is quite anti-alcohol. For a supernatural free decision of my spirit to make the difference between me walking into a bar or resisting the temptation and walking past it, that supernatural spirit has to be able to either directly or indirectly affect some of the particles known to physicists enough to cause a neurochemical/neuroelectrical cascade to go one way as opposed to another. Even if that were by a subtle change in quantum-mechanical probabilities, the kind of diligent efforts that convinced the world of the existence of the Higgs boson could detect an effect big enough to do that.

Does that mean there is no such thing as spirit? Not at all. Daniel Dennett points out that there are two very different categories of things: matter/energy and information. Information can be embedded in matter/energy in many, many different ways. For example, the genetic code can be embedded in DNA, RNA, or in the bits and bytes of computer code that store the results of the Human Genome project and its sister projects to sequence the genomes of Neanderthals, Chimpanzees, Horses, Cows, Honeybees,  and Grapes. So, body and spirit can be interpreted as matter/energy and information. And surely, the information embedded in human beings is what makes us precious. The unorganized elements alone of which we are composed is little more than a handful of dust. In that sense, by value, human beings are spirit, even with a totally non supernatural view of things. 

It is clear that consciousness operates on the spiritual, information side of the ledger. It may be embedded and written in matter, but it is its own thing.The same can be said for free will. It may be embedded in matter and energy and operate according to the laws of physics, but 99.99% of what makes free will of special value is all on the spiritual, information side of things.   

Humans as Spiritual Beings

The fact that we humans are spiritual beings who care deeply about the informational side of things is one of the most important things about us.

Think of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. I am drawing my account from the Wikipedia article on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow’s idea was that there are some very basic needs that usually need to be satisfied before we start focusing on other needs, that Maslow represented as being at a higher level. At the bottom of the pyramid are physiological needs, such as breathing, food, water, sex, sleep, homeostasis and excretion. At the next level up are safety needs, such as security of body, security of employment, security of resources, security of the family, security of health and security of property. At the third level up the pyramid are love and belonging needs, such as friendship, family, and sexual intimacy. Above that are esteem needs, such as self-esteem, confidence, achievement, and respect of and by others. Finally, at the top of the pyramid are self-actualization needs such as morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, and facing the truth, even when the truth is hard to bear or goes against one of our prejudices. 

Notice that, in general, as you go up Maslow’s hierarchy, things move markedly toward the spiritual, informational side of things. Love and belonging needs, esteem needs and self-actualization needs all seem equally spiritual to me in this sense, but those all seem more spiritual than safety needs, which in turn are obviously more spiritual than immediate physiological needs, since judgments of safety require trickier thinking about the future than immediate physiological needs do.  

Touched by commerce, but in very much the same vein, there has been a trend toward more and more of an informational content to Gross Domestic Product–GDP–in the process of rich countries getting richer. We can define what is informational by whether something can be sent as an electronic file, or in the olden days, as the contents of a document. By that standard, I am not counting agriculture as an informational component of GDP–at least not in those days when agricultural products used to make up the bulk of GDP. After the period when agriculture dominated GDP, came the rise of manufacturing. Then came the rise of services. And now we see the rise of information goods proper: software, digital music, digitized videos, computer games, Kindle books, mobile apps and communications, the cloud, including the blogosphere and online social networks, and things we are barely beginning to get an inkling of. But so far, the way we compute GDP does a bad job at counting up the true value of information goods. For example, so far, the value to you of anything you can read or see free online when surfing the web isn’t counted in GDP at all, though the value to advertisers of influencing you with online ads is counted according to their willingness to pay for advertising. And the way economists now calculate GDP is even worse at measuring the transformations of human existence that I think are coming next.

Looking forward to the future of cultures fortunate enough to collectively provide more and more opportunities and choices for people–which in economics is the deeper meaning of “getting richer”–I see people wanting in turn food, clothing, shelter and physical security, and of course basic family relationships, then refrigerators, cars, washing machines, indoor plumbing and then the books, movies, radio shows, TV shows etc., that become progressively digitized. Now, I think the big thing people want next, if they have all of those things with some level of security, is an interesting, challenging, rewarding job, with good coworkers. But after that, I think people will turn in earnest toward improving the quality of their own consciousness and the consciousness of others they care about more directly.

It is easier to be happy if you understand how happiness works. And social scientists are beginning to understand better the things that go into happiness: things like good news, sleep, exercise, time with friends, meditation and antidepressants.

Antidepressants are an easy way to get happier, and many people quite appropriately take advantage of them. In the surprisingly distinct spiritual realm of pain and pain reduction, I have been very glad for ibuprofen in the 13 days since my dentist replaced a crown, with all of the disturbance of the roots of my tooth that entailed.

Meditation is a path to raising happiness and otherwise improving the quality of one’s consciousness that I think people will turn to more and more in the future as the other things on their wish list besides quality of consciousness get checked off as attained. In my own household, we do a little bit of Transcendental Meditation and a fair bit of Mindfulness Meditation, as well as meditations based on words.

But meditation is part of a larger class of spiritual exercises that have powerful effects on consciousness. With the Dalai Lama’s encouragement, Tibetan monks have been scanned by functional magnetic resonance imaging machines while meditating. Just google “Tibetan monks MRI” to learn about the fascinating results. I would love to see the result from Mormons praying sincerely in MRI machines as well. And I think most religions have some spiritual practice that powerfully affects consciousness. My bet is that, by and large, each changes consciousness in a different way, that would show up differently on the brain scans. I don’t think all religious experience is one experience. It is many, many different experiences.

Internal spiritual experience is a more important strength to religions than many sociologists of religion give it credit for. People value religious community a lot. But it is not uncommon for people to demonstrate by their actions that they value internal spiritual experience–both for themselves and others–even more.

A key moment in my transition away from Supernaturalism was when a friend who was also a Mormon pointed out that subjective spiritual experiences–even subjective spiritual experiences that fulfilled in a striking way a prediction by Mormon scripture–didn’t necessarily mean that there was a supernatural God out there in the universe. What it did mean was that there were remarkable and powerful spiritual experiences here on earth. I am glad I had those spiritual experiences as a Mormon, even though I no longer believe they were supernatural. Not only for the sake of curiosity, but also because the feelings themselves seem valuable, I have an ongoing, though slow-going, project of trying to investigate how close I can get to those spiritual states without having to believe things that I now don’t believe.

My friend Andrew Oswald, who like me does a lot of research on the Economics of Happiness, believes that essentially everything we value can be thought of as some kind of internal mental state. I wouldn’t go quite that far. Most of us at least care quite a bit about the internal mental states of those we love, as well. Many of us care about the internal mental states of animals. And some of us care about things being a certain way in the external world even if no human being could ever know for sure that it was so–and don’t want to be deceived about whether it is so. Nevertheless, internal mental states are a very big part of what we value. And that is as it should be for spiritual beings like us.  

People often say “Don’t be so materialistic.” But as I see it, that isn’t the big issue. It isn’t “You shouldn’t be so materialistic,” it’s “Don’t make the mistake of thinking you are more materialistic than you really are.” One of the great values of a religious community is having someone to remind us that we are spiritual beings, whether we like it or not, and even if our spirits could not exist without being etched into patterns of quarks, electrons, Higgs bosons and the other particles and forces we are in the process of discovering, governed by equations that will someday be in every truly advanced physics textbook.