Philosophers and scientists have pondered the nature of consciousness for centuries. Now more than ever, scientists are adding some pretty interesting theories to the discussion. But is understanding consciousness simply a question of brain physiology and chemistry, or is there something larger at play?
Explaining consciousness from a scientific point of view is going to be hard, according to Australian philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers.
Chalmers was one of the first people to try to categorize the question of consciousness. In 1994, he published a paper describing consciousness as a "hard problem," meaning it may never be solved.
"Consciousness poses the most baffling problems in the science of the mind," Chalmers wrote. "There is nothing that we know more intimately than conscious experience, but there is nothing that is harder to explain. All sorts of mental phenomena have yielded to scientific investigation in recent years, but consciousness has stubbornly resisted. Many have tried to explain it, but the explanations always seem to fall short of the target."
The Role of the Soul
Science has traditionally dismissed the soul as either a belief or a psychological phenomenon, but some scientists now argue that the soul is possibly the way we can come to understand what consciousness is.
In a 2013 Harris Poll, 64% of Americans said they believe in the survival of the soul after death, and another 20 percent say they are unsure.
"The soul is that part of us that is eternal and immortal," says leading past-life regression therapist Brian Weiss, MD, in an interview. "It existed before the physical body. It’s hard to put into words, but it existed before time and will exist after."
Scientist Robert Lanza, creator of the biocentrism theory and named one of Time magazine's “100 Most Influential People” in 2014 for his work in stem-cell research, says that consciousness is what creates the material universe. He says we all carry space and time with us just as turtles carry their shells. When the shell (space and time) comes off, we still exist.
“We wake up in the morning and voila the world is just magically there, but again new experiments are showing very consistently that not a single particle exists with real properties if no one is observing it,” said Lanza in an interview with Deepak Chopra. “Reality is a process that involves our consciousness but it requires that you think about what is going in.”
Neurosurgeon Eben Alexander used to think near-death experiences, or NDEs, were a product of brain chemistry. Then he experienced one himself while in a coma from acute bacterial meningitis.
His experience, detailed in his book, Proof of Heaven, convinced him there is something that exists independent of our brain and physical body.
“If one had asked me before my coma how much a patient would remember after such severe meningitis, I would have answered 'nothing' and been thinking in the back of my mind that no one would recover from such an illness to the point of discussing their memories, anyway,” he wrote. “So you can imagine my surprise at remembering an elaborate and rich odyssey from deep within coma that comprised more than 20,000 words by the time I had written it all out during the six weeks following my return from the hospital."
Anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff, and mathematical physicist Sir Roger Penrose developed a quantum theory of counsciousness that suggests our consciousness is a result of the effects of quantum gravity and resides in structures called microtubules in the brain.
During an NDE, the tubules go dormant. When they reactivate, information about what happened when there was not activity in this part of the brain is retained. This implies there is a consciousness, or soul, that does not die but moves out of and back into the body.
They explore this theory in the episode "Life After Death" in the Science Channel's documenatry series Through the Wormhole.
Larry Dossey, an advocate for the role of the mind in healing, agrees that the mounting evidence of NDEs, which an estimated 15 million Americans have experienced, can no longer be scientifically ignored or written off as imagination. In fact, he says, NDEs may hold more clues to understanding our consciousness.
"Any evidence for the temporal nonlocality of consciousness (the idea that consciousness exists beyond the mind and body) implies immortality or eternality in time," Dossey said in an interview. "Nonlocality does not imply 'a rather long time' or 'pretty far off.' Nonlocality implies infinitude in space and time. You can’t be 'a little nonlocal.' It’s like pregnancy: You can’t be 'somewhat pregnant.' Therefore, if mind is genuinely nonlocal, immortality is mandated, it is not optional. I regard the evidence for a nonlocal aspect of consciousness as overwhelmingly positive."
As science continues to probe the questions of consciousness and the soul, and as more theories unfold and technology allows for ever more sophisticated analysis, perhaps someday we'll have a scientific answer to the questions of who we are and why we're here.
© 2014 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies