Is Consciousness Fundamental?

From V.V. Raman, emeritus professor of physics and humanities at the Rochester Institute of Technology:

The question by itself is incomplete, for it is important to specify: fundamental to what, and in what sense.
The word “fundamental” pertains to that which is at the basis of something and is essential for its existence. Thus, carbon is fundamental to life, love and relationships are fundamental to sanity, and nuclear fusion is fundamental to stars. So it is important to state for what something is fundamental.
From all that we know about our universe in the framework of current physics, consciousness is not fundamental to the existence of the physical universe. That is to say, the physical universe was there, is there, and will be there whether or not it incorporates consciousness in it. There can be rocks and pure water, sand and nitrogen, and cosmic dust: The universe at large will exist without any consciousness.
On the other hand, in the framework of religion, consciousness (humankind) is what the universe was created for. God made man in his image in the Judeo-Christian framework, and Purusha (consciousness) was primary in Hindu cosmogony. Many venerate and worship a Cosmic Consciousness, variously named and described.
This is an important difference between science and religion: For science, consciousness is an epiphenomenon associated with some brains that happen to have evolved in an insignificant niche in the universe during the past couple of million years—in an indifferent universe whose history stretches back to well over 10 billion years. For most religions, consciousness is supremely central to the universe, the heart of the universe, as it were.
It is important in this context to recognize that, as conscious beings, our experiences are rich and unique: We taste and smell, feel softness, enjoy music, and perceive color. These, as far as we know, are not explicit in the physical universe, but emerge from the interaction of physical processes and entities with the extraordinarily complex human brain (itself, as far as we can tell, a purely physical entity). Furthermore, we also love and hate, engage in ideas and values, speak of truth and commitment, are involved with mathematics and science, and enthralled by beauty. None of this would be possible without consciousness. It is therefore fair to say that consciousness is fundamental to the experience of a good many intangible aspects of the universe.
One may ask: Can there be an inverse square law in mathematical terms without consciousness? Are the numbers e and pi in the universe, or are they merely in the human mind? Can the elliptic orbits of planets ever be recognized as such without consciousness? Whether these are mere creations of the human mind or are aspects of the universe that become manifest only through consciousness is a valid question.
If the latter is the case, then it is fair to say that consciousness is fundamental to the full expression of the physical universe, just as an audience is fundamental to an enacted play. If the world is a sonnet that happened by chance, consciousness is the reader without whom that sonnet would forever remain in a dark abysmal depth. In this sense, the emergence of consciousness was as important an event in cosmic history as its natal big bang.

V.V. Raman appears with David Chalmers, John Searle, Marilyn Schlitz, Paul Davies, and Andrei Linde in “Is Consciousness Fundamental?” the 37th episode in the Closer to Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series. The series airs on PBS World (often Thursdays, twice) and many other PBS and noncommercial stations. Every Friday, participants discuss a recent episode.

Category: Closer to Truth


3 Responses

  1. Ted Krasnicki says:

    “…in the framework of religion, consciousness (humankind) is what the universe was created for.”
    That is very strange and, as far as Christianity is concerned, inaccurate statement. But until the term “consciousness” is defined, there is no point in further comment. Is there such a thing as “consciousness” and if so what is? Or are we really talking about what traditionally has been called the “soul”, eg. the form of the body? In the latter case that would place knowledge in the spiritual realm. Is only the brain conscious, or, as Aquinas thought, the operations of the external senses? There are too many assumptions and there needs be more clarity on what the author is talking about here.

  2. rachel lane says:

    Whether or not humans exist to experience the world, most would agree that the ‘world’ as we understand it would continue to manifest itself more or less as we normally perceive it. Trees continue to be trees, rocks, animals, sky, etc., would no doubt continue just as they do now.

    Seems to me that whatever conservation of matter and form that is at work here might well be describable as some form of a ‘self’ consciousness that by virtue of a kind of self-recognition conserves its essential form and nature.

    The only way any being at all may exist, it seems to me, is by virtue of a kind of recognitive belonging to a system as both part and whole. The only way a squirrel can exist is to do so in a system where anything like “squirrel” can manifest and conserve its being. It is not enough to simply exist as a squirrel. The squirrel must find itself an existent in a system that recognizes ‘squirrel-ness’ and allows this to conserve its being through effective inter-relations within the system as a whole. In other words, all aspects of being a squirrel must occur co-incidentally with the other elements of the system, like having hair of a specific variety, (or at all), or sustaining itself because there are foodstuffs available.

    Seems to me that some kind of fundamental self-awareness must transpire for a system to ‘be’ at all. Parts and whole must relate in some effective way to account for any possible existence as such.

  3. Travis says:

    In response to Rachel Lane. That is entirely not true. New experiments conducted in Vienna on non-local realism has shown (more tests are being done to conclude the results) that what is real in our world is not independent of the observer. “Does a tree make a sound when it falls if nobody is there to hear it?” That age-old question now has a ring of truth – No, it does not. Check out Anton Zeilinger’s paper on non-local realism, you can google it.

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