Self-awareness and consciousness still elude our understanding
By Dr Rajagopal Soondron
If asked whether our far-away ancestors believed in an Almighty God, we would surely reply: coming out of the jungle and cave they could not have had the mental refinement to conceive of an abstract being.
For us modern man, who says God also implies a concomitant emergence of self-awareness.
Gradually there came religion and the Almighty; many would preach that God existed prior to everything else, prior to the universe and life itself – a Super Consciousness, a Super Ego out of which we all emerged. Still others would believe that the brain is just an instrument which evolved much later and was fine-tuned by evolution to tap into that Super Consciousness.
However, some of us, becoming more rational and materialistic but less holistic, started to see that there is a definite dichotomy between the body and the soul; matter and spirit, mass and energy.
And then came the Buddha, who did not agree with these views, and maintained that there is no God and that a lot of our beliefs have to do with our mind and experiences. Suppress the brain and nothing would exist. It is a bit of solipsism: the universe exists because we exist; the self is the only truth.
All leading to those rationalists who sincerely insist that the brain is the magic box that produces consciousness, full stop.
We are baffled
Gradually we all realize, to our dismay, that self-awareness and consciousness are so elusive to grasp and define that many an atheist concedes that there are zones of darkness that baffle them. Being themselves subjected to these mysterious phenomena defied their scientific analysis to their utter embarrassment.
Consciousness, we must concede, is a tough baby to deal with, considered as the ‘hard problem’ of science. How do we explain to a blind person what the colour red or yellow is, how do we distinguish between sky blue and marine blue? Quale comes in — that capacity to define our subjective experiences by our senses, that power of being self-aware of our experiences. Where does this capacity arise within the brain cells? Which ones? How do the latter cooperate to produce it to give us that sensation of oneness, of consistency and of the self? After all, when we wake up every morning, we always feel we are our old selves; we do not change personality. What part of the brain produces that miracle? How does it do so – and where is the integrity of all these experiences being generated and stored?
While philosophers, down the ages, had been trying to unravel these questions, scientists thought that such metaphysical speculations did not deserve their attention. But nowadays the latter have grudgingly had to concede gradually that perhaps, after all, consciousness is the very hub to their scientific queries.
So here we are – a mass of well-organised living cells, gifted with some intelligent energy capable of self-awareness: where did all that come from?
In that miasma of contradictions and beliefs, scientists are convinced that we must perhaps look into the very formation of the universe if we want to know and understand ourselves and our self-awareness. After all, this follows from the logic that the universe existed first – then life and humans came later. Some of these scientists, swearing by eternal energy, are racking their brain to explain how energy got transformed into matter, matter into cells and life, simple organisms into complex ones like the mammals, how life produced intelligence, thinking power, beliefs – and finally how did consciousness and self-awareness pop out of all these complexities.
Being mathematicians and physicists, they conceive our beginning from a void, but a void full of energy, giving rise to matter. And then after billions of years the first unicellular creature would come on the scene, triggering a long march towards complexity, a string of causes and effects being the inescapable part of these chain events, culminating in us humans fancying ourselves being at the apex of the pyramid.
And that’s where great physicists/mathematicians like Roger Penrose came in; he, along with many of his colleagues, such as the anaesthetist Dr Stuart Hameroff, is of the view that primitive consciousness (pre or proto consciousness) forms part of matter. They were intimately linked from the very beginning of time. To him, the void, teeming with Casimir energy, had to transit through the infinitely small – the quantum world – into the more palpable, classical macro-world of humans.
So, on one side is the microscopic and on the other is the macroscopic world. Where do these two universes meet; how do they morph from one into the other? In short, on one side is quantum physics and theory, and on the other is the classical physics we are used to.
And we must not assume that Roger Penrose is just dabbling into surmises and superficial hypotheses as some philosophers have done before; far from that.
The quantum world exists first. This is a strange, bizarre and weird world to say the least. There is the property of subatomic particles which can exist as particles at one time and at other times they act as a wave. They are capable of existing at different places at the same time, ‘superimposed’; they can also be entangled – that is, a particle has a twin partner to which it is linked over long distances; changing the property of one of them influences the other correspondingly, however far they may be from each other. The void is not really a void; it is teeming with virtual particles popping in and out of existence, giving rise to a quantum foam. And into all that Penrose will draw us into his mathematics, and talk of Planck’s magnitude – which seems to be a scale of 10 to the power of minus 33 centimeters, occurring in a time interval of 10 to the power of minus 43 second!! Our mind becomes foggy when we think of the vastness of the universe – now it becomes foggier when we are told about the characteristics of the quantum microscopic world.
And it seems that as those minute particles wallow into their world they can only obey a certain formula known as the wave function – which describes all the possibilities and properties that they can have or assume. But the moment we peep in and try to see what is happening – they stop their buzzing around and assume a definite property. This is known as wave collapsing.
Penrose tells us that this collapsing happens when quantum gravity acts on those virtual, enigmatic subatomic particles. It is as if this quantum gravity is the magician which pulls our classical world out of the blue, out of the quantum invisible world. And mathematically he proves how his concept evolves. All along he corroborates with Einstein’s concept of universal space time, where space time curvature is energy equivalent to matter.
Particles of proteins in our cells, known as tubulin, interest Roger Penrose. His mathematics lead him to hypothesize that these minute particles in our body form part of the quantum world, and out of their bizarre behaviour comes something in the form of a very primitive pre-consciousness. He is telling us that out of nothingness – the void – came particles which gave rise to our protein, which themselves are embedded with some form of… proto intelligence. This he has called Orchestrated Objective reduction.
And after billions of years we came on the scene; was it an hazard or an inescapable destiny?
Suddenly we find ourselves hobnobbing too closely, for our rational mind, with the religious pundits who believe that God existed before everything, that there was always a super consciousness before everything, that we are part and parcel of this universal intelligent energy.
Penrose may be conveying to us that our body, built out of proteins and other elements, is just a pack of well-organized subatomic particles, all well-tuned to interpret and convert the primitive proto conscious property of the void into a more sophisticated, polished and final finish – which we call consciousness or super consciousness.
There was a time when we believed that our consciousness was the product of our evolving brain as our ancestors came out of the jungle. But here Penrose is suggesting a different story – backed by sophisticated mathematics, linked to modern quantum physics. Could this be a more acceptable, pleasing, logical scientific theory? It validates the old belief that all and everything in the universe is interrelated and interdependent, a concept so dear to many sages.
Self-awareness and consciousness still elude our understanding.
* Published in print edition on 27 October 2020