Consciousness and the unbearable lightness of being

Which came first, the egg or the hen? Does consciousness arise from matter or is it the other way around?

What is the root of all that exists? What is the ultimate principle underpinning the existence of the universe, life and consciousness? For a religious person the answer is very clear: God. But if the universe is self-contained and was not created by an omnipotent or omniscient being, where is the root of existence? In matter or in consciousness?

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For the ancient Greeks, the debate was intense. The followers of Elea’s Parmenides maintained, following their teacher, that the ultimate substance was the “being”.

Being and existing are two closely related concepts and are often taken as synonyms. Even so, strictly speaking, being encompasses a greater whole or different levels of existence. For example, we all agree that the human being exists, but not all of us would be willing to declare the same of Don Quixote. Being a fictitious character, its “degree of existence” is inferior. Even so, what Don Quixote has in common with everything that exists in the universe is that it “is”, that is: it has being.

In this way, Parmenides seems to have given a blow to the immovable chair: The being turns out to be precisely the root of existence.

The problem with this posture is that it turns out to be quite circular. Being is nothing more than a generic category of existence, so it does not explain existence itself. In other words: Why does being exist?

At the time of Parmenides an alternative answer was offered by the school of Heraclitus. For the philosopher of Ephesus (now Turkey) and his disciples, the true ultimate principle was not being but “logos”. The word logos meant many things: from reason to language. In Heraclitus’s philosophy, it also acquires this profound meaning as “reason for being”.

This is the meaning that St. John later rescues in his Gospel when he says “At the beginning was the verb” (verbum was the Latin word that the translators chose to translate logos, present in the original Greek version), thus identifying God the Father with this ultimate principle.

The main difference between being and logos is that the latter implies a consciousness. To understand this let’s do the following mental experiment: imagine a universe where only inanimate matter exists. Rocks move through space, colliding with each other, but there is no one there to observe them, not a single consciousness inhabits that universe. There is not even an omniscient logos for which that universe is the object of contemplation. If so, does it make sense to say that this universe exists? The being of such universe consists of a very weakened degree of existence, not to say null, and inferior even to that of Don Quixote, which at least exists in the mind of its readers.

The concept of logos, on the other hand, demands the existence of at least one consciousness that “speaks” or “reasons” for things to come into existence. Once again, the example of Don Quixote illustrates this to us. Don Quixote exists thanks to the fact that there is a consciousness in which it comes into existence. It exists thanks to logos.

Saint Augustine, the most important thinker of Christianity, deepened this matter saying that he was convinced of being.

“I am not at all afraid of the arguments of the Academicians, who say, ‘What if you are deceived?’ For if I am deceived, I am.” (De Civitate Dei, Book XI, 26).

In other words, Augustine reasoned that someone who asserts something (someone who has logos) immediately shows that he (or she) is. Even if what he claims is wrong or false, he comes into existence by the mere fact of having logos. His argument is of the “reduction to the absurd” type; if what is claimed is “to be” and it turns out to be wrong, the mere fact of having affirmed something proves that he is and, consequently, he is not wrong.

This same approach was taken up centuries later by Descartes in his famous dictum: “I think, therefore I am” (Cogito, ergo sum). For Descartes it was evident that being is posterior to consciousness, or — better said — “cogitans”, a concept that in my opinion translates the Greek “logos” into Latin in a much better way than the word “verbum”. Nevertheless, by a whim of fate, the reductionism imposed in the West from the Cartesian legacy will lead us inmediatly towards mechanicism, and then to the rationalism that will deny this fundamental and foundational root.

Consequently, it is usual to hear physicists and other scientists of today say that consciousness arises from life, and life from matter; completely forgetting that the scientific method was installed from the opposite sidewalk, in which matter without consciousness cannot be.

It is only after the advent of quantum mechanics that the rationalist and materialist perspective begins to show its Achilles heel. The role played by the observer in making a wave function collapse cannot be dismissed. Quantum mechanics seems to hide from us the latest information about how the world really works. That’s what Einstein couldn’t admit and what led him to express his famous saying “God doesn’t play dice”. Nevertheless, as Stephen Hawkings once said, “he does, and even hides them”. The world works in a way that we can never identify a reality a priori, before being intervened by the beholder. As the Nobel Prize in physics Eugene Wigner pointed out, although “solipsism can be logically consistent with current quantum mechanics, monism in the sense of materialism is not.

From a certain point of view, quantum mechanics no longer seems so much a physical theory as a theory about consciousness. A theory that allows us to understand what consciousness is and how it can access its environment, making it clear that access always leaves a mark. The world is sensitive to consciousness as much as consciousness is sensitive to the world. Quantum physics is telling us that St. John was somehow right: in the beginning it was the logos. But logos is not an infinite and all-powerful spirit. The logos is the cogito, it is the consciousness without which the being has no meaning.

21st century schizoid man. Engineer and university educator.

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