The science and spirit of awareness
Consciousness can be regarded as a miracle from many different points of view. Introspection alone suggests that it belongs to a different realm of reality from ordinary material things. But materiality can be finer or coarser, resulting in differing relationships of materials to space and time and the forces of nature. A gas is not constrained in space as is a solid, and it has a different relationship to gravity. Is consciousness then made of a very fine material? Does it have any materiality at all? Is it subject to mechanical laws, that do seem to operate in our brains? Or can it be dismissed as an epiphenomenon—something with no objective reality at all, merely the subjective accompaniment of neural impulses and synaptic interactions—the subjective inner world also being devoid of any objective reality? For many proponents of artificial intelligence, this latter view is correct. They believe that eventually a sufficiently complex computer will be conscious, the only valid criterion being that it behaves in every way as if it were, subjective experience being inferable in another entity only by observation of its behavioral manifestations.
Elementary particles—electrons, quarks, and such—and the photons of light seem to have such a fine materiality that it can hardly be called that. The laws of relativistic quantum mechanics that govern them are inherently paradoxical, and paradox, as will be elaborated below, points to another level of reality. So perhaps consciousness belongs to the quantum world. This is a subject of much current speculation. But here I would like to simply argue for the miraculous—in the true sense of the word—nature of consciousness.
What is a miracle? While one conventional view is that it represents a direct intervention by God into human affairs, superseding the physical laws of cause and effect, a subtler definition was put forth by G.I. Gurdjieff, who argued that if God intervened in the laws of His creation, He would invalidate their status as laws. Rather, Gurdjieff regarded a miracle as the “manifestation of the laws of one cosmos in another cosmos.”1 He regarded the universe as a living conscious being, made up of a hierarchy of cosmoses, nested within each other, each also a living being with a certain level of awareness. These cosmoses are somewhat variably described in his lectures and writings, but an acceptable list might be as follows:
The solar system
The multicellular organism—plants
Human beings and similar beings
beings, which he regarded as
fundamentally distinct from other
The cell or microbe
This is a radically different view from that of conventional modern science, according to which the above entities, aside from the first, are simply organizations of different sizes, but all on the same level, ruled by the same laws of physics. Gurdjieff also regarded the cosmoses as related to each other as zero to infinity, in other words, as representing different dimensions. A miracle then would be due to the intrusion of the laws of a higher cosmos into a lower one. This again relates to different levels of materiality and of the relationships of things to space, time, and forces: a normal man cannot walk on water, but the wind can; loaves and fishes do not multiply instantaneously, but shadows and echoes can. Human consciousness, which can join together all separate things, travel effortlessly into the past and future, and contemplate all the possibilities therein, thus belongs to a different cosmos and has a different dimensionality than ordinary material things.
Roger Penrose, in his book The Emperor’s New Mind2, made a compelling argument that human consciousness and understanding are, at least in part, non-algorithmic, and therefore not reproducible in a computer, no matter how complex. His argument is based on various versions of Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, one statement of which is that “no formal system of mathematical rules of proof can ever suffice, even in principle, to establish all the true propositions of ordinary arithmetic.” In other words, there are mathematical truths that are obvious to a mathematically savvy human being, and also incontrovertible, that cannot be derived algorithmically, using a set of axioms and logical rules, by a machine such as a computer.
Gödel’s proof is complex, but it is based on a paradox that is essentially the same as the more easily understood logical paradoxes that arise in relation to self-referential statements. For instance, the statement “this sentence is false,” if true, is false, and if false, is true. In a mathematically rigorous way, Gödel showed that a self-contained system of rules of sufficient power to encompass ordinary arithmetic must be similarly self-referential, leading to a similar paradox, and as a result such a system will be unable to prove all the undeniable truths of arithmetic, “whose truth is accessible…to human intuition and insight.”3
The resolution of a paradox always involves a change in perspective. The statement “less is more” is paradoxical if “less” and “more” refer to the same thing. But it is so no longer if they refer to different things: “less formality can lead to more enjoyment,” or “less spice can result in a tastier dish.” On the other hand, in Zeno’s famous paradoxes, two parameters are measured differently when they should not be. One of Zeno’s paradoxes is that motion is impossible, because to get from here to there one must first go halfway, but to get to halfway one must first get to half of halfway, and so on ad infinitum, so one can never get started. Here, space is regarded as infinitely divisible, while time is not. In either of these instances, a change in perspective is involved. A change in perspective is also a change in dimensionality, in a sometimes very abstract sense. This is obvious in a more concrete way in some visual paradoxes, in which a two-dimensional rendering of a three-dimensional scene or object can result in striking paradoxical behavior.
So, it is logically permissible for a sentence to say “that sentence is false,” referring to another sentence, but not for it to say “this sentence is false,” referring to itself. Similarly, a non-Cretan could say “all Cretans are liars,” but if a Cretan were to say it, it would be paradoxical. There are any number of such self-referential paradoxes.
Many who discuss these issues do not make it clear that human consciousness, experience, and understanding are inherently self-referential, and therefore paradoxical. Penrose, in his talks (available on the internet), says that to understand something, one must be aware of it, and this must include self-awareness, or “awareness of awareness.” A thermostat can be said in some sense to be aware of the temperature, in that it responds to it, but it is not self-aware, and one cannot conceive that it has either consciousness or understanding. This is a very important distinction, which often gets glossed over in discussions of consciousness. We ourselves commonly function without much self-awareness, like a complex machine, with complicated reflex reactions provoked by sensory stimuli, as when we drive for miles while daydreaming and have little recollection of the trip. It is very different when I am aware of myself in my environment, vividly conscious of both, and of the qualities of all my perceptions. What has been called the “hard problem of consciousness” is the question of how we can experience “qualia,” the internal and subjective components of sensory inputs that cannot be reduced to formulas or measurements. It is not possible to explain what it is like to see red to a person blind from birth, even though one can describe the electromagnetic frequency spectrum and the color red’s place in it. It is not entirely obvious at first glance, but experiencing sensory stimuli requires awareness of oneself experiencing, and the same is true of any real understanding of anything at all. A machine can react to inputs, and can list a series of numbers or facts, but it cannot be said to have either experience, understanding, or consciousness. These are on another level, or in another dimension, which is why attempts to put them on the same level, as algorithmic computations, lead to self-referential paradoxes.
The opposing argument, made by those who believe in the possibility of consciousness in computers, is simply to dismiss the “hard problem,” saying that, from a strictly scientific point of view, if a computer could completely mimic human behavior there would be no objective reason to deny that it can have subjective experiences. In a way, only the feeling of actual subjective experience can go against this argument; the non-algorithmic nature of consciousness, is itself a truth that is obvious only to “human intuition and insight.” Nevertheless, Gödel’s proof supports the idea that experience, consciousness, and understanding, being inherently self-referential, require another dimensionality compared to strictly mechanical or algorithmic processes.
Where, then, does our consciousness come from? One of Gurdjieff’s main ideas is that we humans are three-brained, having a moving-instinctive brain, an emotional brain, and an intellectual brain. Other mammals he regarded as having only the first two, and lower animals such as worms only the first. Each brain is tuned to a different aspect of reality:
…we must understand that every normal psychic function is a means or an instrument of knowledge. With the help of the mind we see one aspect of things and events, with the help of emotions another aspect, with the help of sensations a third aspect. The most complete knowledge of a given subject possible for us can only be obtained if we examine it simultaneously with our mind, feelings, and sensations.… In ordinary conditions man sees the world through a crooked, uneven window.4
Furthermore, he regarded some degree of communication between these brains (also called “centers”) to be essential for any degree of consciousness, deep dreamless sleep being the result of a total disconnection of the three brains from each other:
What then is our consciousness, our memory, our critical faculty? It’s very simple. It is when one center specially watches another, when it sees and feels what is going on there and, seeing it, records it all within itself.5
Would it be sufficient then for one machine to monitor another for consciousness to arise? Transfers of information from one memory store to another also occur in computers. Perhaps the word “specially” in the above quote needs elaboration. For one thing, the three brains are not the same; as described in the first quote, each has a different view on reality. Gurdjieff indicates that ideally the three brains work with different patterns and frequencies of vibrations, that they are related to different cosmoses. Correspondingly, each has a different “food”: the food of the moving-instinctive brain is ordinary food, the food of the emotional brain is air, and the food of the intellectual brain is sense impressions.6 Each of these foods comes from a different level of the universe. Ordinary food comes from the earth. The food of the emotional brain “is obtained from the transformation of elements of other planets and of the sun itself of that system, where this three-brained being has the place of his arising and existence.”7 Here, Gurdjieff is likely referring not to oxygen or nitrogen but to rarefied charged particles in the air that derive from the earth’s ionosphere and magnetosphere, which in turn are shaped and fed by the solar wind. How this relates to the emotional life—including the higher emotions of wonder and awe, the direct emotional perception of life and awareness in others, as well as a sense of the divine nature of the world—is beyond known physiology. All that is known scientifically in this respect is that the ionic composition of the air does have an effect on mood. Gurdjieff also believed that a soul that could outlive the body was an entity that needed to be formed within the body during life, and that it was the product of the development of the emotional life. It can be argued that this soul’s materiality is likely to be that of a plasma—a structurally diverse and coherent gas-like entity composed of charged particles—of the same materiality as that of the ionosphere.8
In the case of “impressions,” we are not simply referring only to the sensory impressions that permit us to navigate the world without falling or bumping into things, but to the perception of abstract “form,” the shape of things and their relationships. This perceptive capacity seems to be uniquely developed in humans as compared to other animals, as evidenced by language, mathematics, and other vehicles of abstract thought. This “food” Gurdjieff regards as derived from the highest, from the “direct emanations of our Most Holy Sun Absolute.”9 This is reminiscent of Plato’s realm of ideal forms.
Does our capacity for consciousness then depend on three brains, tuned to three different levels or cosmoses of the universe, coming together in a special relationship? This would seem to be what Gurdjieff suggests. In fact, the simplest description he gives of the effort toward consciousness—consciousness of oneself experiencing, not simply automatic functioning—is to bring the attention of the mind together with the sensation of the body, which joining can then attract an emotional element, a feeling of presence.10
Erwin Schrödinger, the Austrian physicist who discovered the well-known eponymous equation that is at the heart of quantum mechanics, devoted a lot of thought to the question of consciousness and to the paradoxes involved. One of these paradoxes is that in a very real sense the outer world is a part of the inner world of each individual, being a component in each separate mind, while at the same time, from a different point of view, the inner world, regarded as the brain of each individual, is only a part of the outer world. How can two things each be only a part of the other? Again, we are dealing with a difference in perspective, and in level of materiality. For the inner world, although it appears in each person to depend on the functioning of his or her brain, is not to be found there: no amount of dissection, electrical recording, or other outer investigation will find the inner world in the tissues and cells of the brain. And the converse is true: the real, wet, substantial brain is not present in the inner world.
Schrödinger came to the conclusion, although he freely admitted that he could not defend it on logical grounds, that consciousness, or “mind,” was unitary, universal, and supreme:
There is obviously only one alternative, namely the unification of minds or consciousnesses. Their multiplicity is only apparent, in truth, there is only one mind. This is the doctrine of the Upanishads. And not only of the Upanishads. The mystically experienced union with God regularly entails this attitude unless it is opposed by strong existing prejudices.11
In the Upanishads, consciousness, called “Self” in the following quote, is likened to a universal light that shines through each being as through a window:
Knowing that the individual Self, eater of the fruit of action, is the universal Self, maker of past and future, [the wise man] knows he has nothing to fear.
Born in the beginning from meditation, born from the waters, having entered the secret place of the heart, He looks forth through beings. That is Self. 12
“Self,” consciousness, and God are therefore synonymous, and intimately self-referential, as told by God to Moses: “I AM THAT I AM.” (Exodus 3: 14)
How this relates to the tripartite nature of consciousness postulated above remains somewhat mysterious, but it is perhaps not irrelevant that in many religions the Supreme Being is a trinity: Father, Son and Holy Ghost; Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.
It is said in a number of religious teachings that God created man so that He could know Himself. Is it then necessary for consciousness to be embodied—incarnated—in three-brained beings for its full potentiality to become manifest? And there is a third element in this relationship: other conscious beings, as reflected in the first two New Testament commandments.
Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment.
And the second is like unto it. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22: 37–40)
Mysteriously, the recognition of consciousness in others seems to be a necessary component of full consciousness. If there were only a single conscious being in the world, how would it know what was inside itself and what outside? The recognition of the presence of consciousness in another being, which we do not sense or feel as part of our automatic manifestations, but becomes perceptible to us only when we are conscious of ourselves, seems to be a necessary part of the equation. God made man so that He might know Himself, but He had to make more than one, so that man could know himself. In consciousness, three become one. The greatest paradox and miracle of all is that of unity in multiplicity. ♦
1 P.D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), 84, 94-95, 207-08.
2 Roger Penrose, The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and The Laws of Physics. (Oxford University Press, 1989).
3 Roger Penrose, Shadows of the Mind (Oxford University Press, 1994), 64-65.
4 Ouspensky, op. cit., 107-108.
5 G.I. Gurdjieff, Views from the Real World (E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1973), 271.
6 P.D. Ouspensky, op. cit., 181.
7 G.I. Gurdjieff, All and Everything. First Series. Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson. (New York: Jeremy Tarcher/Penguin, 1992), 520.
8 Christian Wertenbaker, “The Materiality of the Soul,” Parabola, vol. 37, No. 4, 2012.
9 Gurdjieff op. cit., 520.
10 Ouspensky, op. cit., 188.
11 Erwin Schrödinger, The Oneness of Mind. In: Wilber K, ed., Quantum Questions: Mystical Writings of the World’s Great Physicists. (Boston and London: Shambala New Science Library, 1985).
12 Katha Upanishad, edited by the author based on multiple translations.