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Weblog From Nowhere-Land

A Quantum of Consciousness

I've been reading David Peat's biography of the great maverick physicist (and hand-picked Einstein heir) David Bohm, who probably did more than any single person to put words like holistic and connectedness into the vocabulary we now use to describe the fabric of reality. At the same time, I've started to explore some of the papers posted on Rupert Sheldrake's Open Sciences website.

All the while, two well-known quotes hover in the background of my thoughts: Physicist (and another Einstein colleague) Sir Arthur Eddington's "the stuff of the world is mind-stuff," and the German mystic Meister Eckhart's "the eye by which I see God is the same eye by which God sees me." Both men are proving to have been prescient with respect to the strangest discoveries of quantum mechanics and cosmology, and one of them died in the 14th century!

Weave these threads together and what comes out of the loom is the relatively new and still shocking idea that the universe is, in some sense, aware of itself. Not just the universe-at-large, which one could, I suppose, theomorphize to an all-knowing God, but right down to the fine grain of the cosmos, and perhaps even deeper into what is now called "pre-space." Every last quark--each lepton, fermion, and boson--possesses some inkling of its existence. A "self-referential capacity" is one way I've heard scientists describe it. The growing conviction--even among the most orthodox scientists--that some version of this is true derives, like the ancient religions of the Book, from revelation. In this case, however, it wasn't a burning bush, but Bell's Theorem, that provided the epiphany (and Bell credited Bohm as his inspiration). Bell's Theorem was the mathematical bridge that allowed us to start talking seriously about things like non-locality, quantum entanglement, and the mind-thumping notion that every element of the universe is contained in every point of the universe, the way that the totality of a hologram is contained at every point on a photographic plate. And this new model of the cosmos arrived at about the same time neuroscience moved toward affirming that memory is a whole-brain rather than a localized-brain phenomenon. (We used to think, and some still do, that memory was stored in "traces" in specific areas of the brain, but neuroscientists haven't been able to find the traces, or wherever it is they're supposed to be stored)

The implication of all this--hard to avoid if you carry things to their logical conclusion--is that the raw material of consciousness is embedded in the fabric of reality, right alongside all the other "ultimates." That's consciousness as in, "I know that I know that I am," or if you lean toward a more cosmic perspective, "I know that I am and that my true nature is of something greater than me." If this turns out to be the correct way of seeing things, then any Grand Unification or Theory of Everything would have to account for consciousness, along with things like electromagnetism, gravity, and the nuclear forces. And since physics likes to assign a particle to each force, structural element, or exchange that occurs in the universe, why not a quantum for consciousness? We can call it a cogniton.

(Of course, the hardcore reductionists will still insist that the conscious mind can somehow emerge from purely physical brain processes, but showing how that happens may prove as difficult as locating those "memory traces." Experience is a hard thing to reduce to the firing of neurons.)

Let's postulate for the sake of this blog that the new model is correct, and that the universe possesses a certain self-regard. It wouldn't be quite as complicated for a quark as it is for you and me. Quarks don't have feelings, despite being named things like "Up," "Down," and "Charmed." But they may, if thinkers like David Bohm had it right, have some rudimentary sense of "quarkness," and maybe even of belongingness to a greater whole. We don't need for them self-conscious in the way a chimpanzee with a hand mirror is. All that's required is for the quark to exchange a 'cogniton' with another elementary particle. All we need for a full-blown paradigm shift is for the raw DNA of consciousness to be somehow part and parcel of physical reality, not so much in the brain as through the brain. All we need to be able to say is that if X is the material universe and Y is consciousness, then there are properties intrinsic to X that give rise to Y, et voila: No more Cartesian dualism. No more "I" and "That." No Mind vs. Matter, because mind is matter and matter is mind. Tat Tvam Asi. Thou Art That.

Not everybody is going to be able to grok this right away, least of all those scientists who are far too close to the trees to see the forest. Only a blink ago in cosmic time, thinking this way could get you burned at the stake. It's a mystic's frame of reference, not far removed from ideas like immanence and panpsychism. It suggests that all things may emanate from a unified source, and that this source may be a form of information. But watch what happens over the next ten years. This is not fairy dust. It's science. If you're curious enough to do some hard sledding, Google names like Alfred North Whitehead, John Wheeler, Karl Pribram, Roger Penrose, David Chalmers. If you want to see the vector of history aiming toward this end, look up Leibniz and his windowless monads. And of course, David Bohm, whose implicate order set the scientific stage for this new way of seeing.

We are a stubborn species. And there are certain "filters" we've had to evolve so as to see the world as a solid, hard-edged place and thus avoid being eaten by predators. The philosophies than complement these filters--things like Materialism, Determinism, Logical Positivism, etc.--will not be given up easily. But it's coming. If you've got two hours, a steaming cup of coffee, and a quiet room in your mind, check this out: Realistic Monism.
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