In 1991 the philosopher Daniel Dennett published a book titled “Consciousness Explained”. There is a running joke amongst some philosophers, who refer to the book at “Consciousness Explained away”. The joke is that Dennett failed to achieve the goal of the title. Instead, he ignored the real problem of consciousness. And this is a good place to start our journey through reality– with the question of why we experience reality in the first place. I begin with evolution and Dennett, to situate the problem. Then, after highlighting the methods of science, I look at the role of religion. Following this, I explore the idea that we live in a computer simulation before ending with some reflections on madness.
Prior to Darwin’s theory of evolution, it seemed that humans held a unique place in the universe. After Darwin, we became just another link in a chain that stretched back to the beginning of life on earth. Life emerged, single cell animals became multicellular, and the varieties of life we see today evolved via the process of natural selection. Organisms that were fittest, most suited to their environments, reproduced and passed their genes to their offspring. Genetic mutations caused changes in these organisms. Mutations that were fitness-enhancing got passed on. And so, humans came to be. Quite by chance. We evolved like every other animal, from a common ancestor. This is a persuasive and well supported theory that is difficult to dispute. And, it is a physicalists’ story. What this means is – reality is made up of physical stuff. We don’t need the supernatural to understand evolution.
Dennett is one of the foremost champions of this physicalist story. He does not like religious or supernatural explanations for reality. Science offers a plausible picture of reality and life. Human life is part of the physical universe and can be wholly described by it. But there is a difficulty that science has been unable to explain – and this harks back to Dennett’s book. Why do we have the subjective first-person experience of reality that we have? In other words, how do we explain consciousness?
The thing about my first-person experience is that I feel myself to be a unique self. And it seems that the person who is ‘me’ is somehow related to my mind. For example, my arm is part of me, but if I lost it I would not lose my ‘self’. Instead, this self is somehow in my head. But there is no place in my brain where all my conscious experience comes together. There is no ‘me’ in there. All that is inside my skull is a lump of grey matter that is made up of mindless cells called neurons. How do these mindless bits of meat result in the ‘me’ of my experience? Dennett believes that this ‘self’ we experience is an illusion. The brain is made up of mindless parts doing a job.
This illusion of the self has evolved via evolution. It had fitness benefits – it helped our ancestors to survive. But it is a fluke of nature. The fact that we seem to experience consciousness in this vast, physical universe is a result of chance. There is no God. There is no need to appeal to the supernatural. We are physical organisms in a physical universe. Everything about this universe can – in principle – be explained by science. The myths and religious tales we weave to explain reality are illusions.
Science has upstaged religion, and this is largely due to its methods. Science tests hypotheses about the world to understand how things are caused. Learning about causation gives us the laws of nature. Prior to science, causation was the provenance of the supernatural. But science placed causality in the natural world. Isaac Newton was the first to record a repeatable scientific experiment when he split a beam of white light into the colour spectrum. He used instruments to do this, and a method which could be replicated. This is how science is done. Experiments take place that measure aspects of our world, and if these experiments can be replicated they say something about our world. As science has advanced the experiments have become more detailed and elaborate, and as a result our knowledge of the natural world has grown.
But, before we had this scientific method to test the world, humans sought to understand events that affected their lives. Myths, religion and superstition have played an important role in our cultural evolution for thousands of years. They were ways to understand causation – in people’s lives, and in the environment more generally. And, often, they gave rise to elaborate ethical systems. Our moral behaviour was seen to affect the outcome of events in the world. And when life seemed too mysterious and unfair to us, we created stories to account for this mystery.
But, can we dismiss these cultural systems so easily? Another role of religion is to explain the first-person experience that some individuals have had. And, they have a long tradition of practices that have evolved to bring about certain experiences. These experiences have been reported in many guises, across many traditions and times, but they suggest that reality extends beyond what we normally perceive. The reality we ‘normally’ experience is the illusion. The real reality is something different – and accessible to those who follow the path of their discipline. Should we abandon all the reports and sacred texts throughout the ages? Do they hold some truth? Or are they illusions conjured by malfunctioning brains?
These religious systems raise the question of whether reality contains more than the physical world. This is a metaphysical question about the nature of reality that challenges the dominant assumption of science that reality is physical. There are theories in philosophy that try to understand how our universe could be if it did contain more than just physical stuff. The extra stuff is mental stuff. If mental stuff is not the same as the physical stuff, then how can we understand the universe? This mental stuff is consciousness. For those who believe that the universe is wholly physical, this mental stuff can be wholly described by the physical stuff. It’s the result of the evolution of our brains. But, for some religions, consciousness is to be found throughout the universe – it is God.
Part of the difficulty here is how to understand the relationship between first-person experience and the methods of science. If first-person accounts of reality report that reality extends beyond what we habitually perceive, how can we understand this?
Now I’ll shift to an idea that is gaining traction amongst some philosophers and scientists, that is, that our universe is a computer simulation. Nick Bostrom is a philosopher who argued for this possibility in 2003. We are developing greater computing power, and one day we may be able to create simulated worlds. This means that other beings may have already created simulated worlds. And if there are many of these worlds already in existence, the chances are that we live in one of them.
To get an idea of a simulated world, think “The Matrix”. Better still, I just watched the first season of “Westworld” and it highlighted some of these ideas. “Westworld” is an ‘amusement park’ in the future where rich people go to have an experience of the wild west. Basically, they go there to rape and kill. And what they rape and kill, are robots. Artificial Intelligence. Machines that look like humans. These machines run on daily loops, where they go through the same script each day, with improvised variations when interacting with the humans. Each day they experience violence, then the next day – after being patched up by those running the park – they continue with their loop, none the wiser about what has happened on the days before.
The show implies that some of the robots begin to gain ‘consciousness’. But, it is a higher-order awareness, or self-awareness, which some of them start to gain. To gain consciousness would mean that before they were conscious they had no internal experience. From the inside the world was black. There was no colour, they saw and heard nothing. Then, on gaining consciousness, they experienced the world and its colour and noise etc. But this does not seem to be what is happening. When they ‘wake up’ they become aware of their past experiences, the bigger picture of their (horrific) lives within the park. They gain a narrative of their lives over time. And they become awake to the larger reality that is happening around them. They become aware that they are caught inside a world that is controlled by others – by humans – who exist in a reality beyond their own.
Another philosopher who believes it’s possible we live in a computer simulation, or virtual reality, is David Chalmers. His view is that the higher level of reality controlling our universe does not consist of God or gods, as religions claim. These beings are not likely to be supernatural and benevolent but, rather, much like ourselves. Picture a teenager playing a computer game – our reality is constructed by fallible beings. Chalmers seeks a metaphysical explanation for reality because, unlike Dennett, he believes that science is unable to explain our first-person experience. If so, we need to explain how consciousness fits into the universe. If we live in a virtual reality, then computational information underlies the physical universe. This does not mean that our first-person experience is an illusion. It simply means the underlying nature of that experience it is not what we expect.
If we are in a virtual world then can we – like the robots in Westworld – begin to ‘wake up’? Can we gain an awareness of the greater reality that we are embedded within? Is this ‘greater reality’ the one that has been spoken of by religious practitioners throughout time? And, if we did have moments of ‘waking up’ – what would they look like? Would anybody listen? Or would we be called mad?
It’s not difficult to arrive at madness via this chain of reflections. In psychoses people experience altered states of consciousness. Arguably, the states that led religious practitioners throughout the ages to claim that reality is more than our habitual experience are likewise the result of altered states. It seems we have two competing claims. Either the mad are tapping into ‘clues’ about the hidden nature of reality, or they are exhibiting the symptoms of a diseased brain.
In the end, how one views madness is deeply connected with one’s world view – how you view the truth of reality. And there is more than one story. Madness could reflect the confusion of an individual in the face of the vastness of reality, or an imbalance of chemicals firing between neurons. And these are not mutually exclusive. Our first-person experience tells us one tale. Science gives us another. We are not compelled to favour one over the other.
This has been a quick journey through a few ideas. It’s a little ambitious for a blog. But it might help illustrate a dilemma I struggle with. We cannot ignore the insights of science, they are too valuable. Equally, despite the problems of religion, it holds truths – or so I believe. Forming a picture of reality that is true to the insights of both is a challenge. And being true to my own first-person experience – my experiences as a mad person – in the face of biomedical models of madness, requires strength. It is hard to know where ‘truth’ lies. But we must trust ourselves, whilst continuing to listen and learn. I don’t know what else we can do.