Reality, Consciousness, and the Case for Free Will

In Plato’s famous Allegory of the Cave, a group of prisoners have been chained to the floor of a cave all their lives such that their heads cannot move. All they can see is the wall opposite them, upon which they observe shadows in constant motion. The shadows are of people and objects moving behind the prisoners, which are projected onto the wall by the light of a fire that is constantly burning. But the prisoners cannot see any of this. For the prisoners, the shadows are their reality. It is the only reality they have ever known. If they could turn around, they would see the world as it really is. But they are incapable of doing so.

In essence, our reality is much like that of the prisoners. There is a deeper level of reality which we cannot see. In our case, it is not because we cannot turn around physically, but rather because our mind does not have the necessary perceptual and conceptual apparatus to experience it. The human brain is the most advanced of any species, and therefore we like to think that we have a true grasp of reality – reality, as it really is. After all, as a species, we are unique in that we have the ability to use reason, to employ logic, and to understand cause and effect. And because we possess these powers, we assume it is theoretically possible for us understand everything there is to know about the universe. Given enough time and the accumulation of the right kind of knowledge, we will eventually discover a theory of everything.

But while the human mind is the most advanced of any species, it is a mistake to assume we possess a mind good enough to uncover all of nature and lay bare its fundamental essence. There is no reason to think that a more advanced mind is not possible, a mind capable of experiencing the world with much better perception, or a mind that could understand reality with far superior concepts. Think of the difference between the consciousness of a frog and that of a person. Now, for the sake of argument, imagine a being whose mind is so superior to our own that its distance from us – in terms of its conscious experience – is greater than the distance between our mind and that of the frog. Its perceptions would be impossible for us to imagine, and the concepts it holds would be unfathomable to our thought processes.

I maintain that we are locked into our particular version of reality. What we witness and comprehend is a mere shadow, not an actual shadow of course, nor an image. Rather, a shadow consisting of all our conscious experience. It includes not merely our visual, auditory, and tactile sensations, but also our comprehension of the way in which the world works. It is a feint and poor-resolution semblance of the real thing, constrained by the human mind’s limited means of perception and circumscribed by its mechanism of understanding.  And thus, it is impossible for us to witness or understand nature as it really is in itself. We can go so far, but no further. We cannot turn around toward the fire. Only an infinite God-like mind can comprehend the true nature of all reality.

Nevertheless, physicists have long sought to find a grand unifying theory of everything; a theory that unites concepts contained in general relativity – which describes nature at very large scales – with those of quantum mechanics, which applies to nature at the subatomic level. The search is for a single, coherent theoretical framework that can describe the fundamental forces and particles that make up the universe. Now, the external world that we experience appears to consist entirely of matter and energy in one form or another. But describing the basic building block of this world in terms of a particle or object, which itself is matter or energy, is problematical. For it is a question-begging exercise to describe the fundamental essence of a thing in terms of itself. As long as physicists persist in this endeavor, the question can always be asked, what is the composition of the latest “fundamental” object discovered thus far? John Dalton proposed the atomic theory in the early 19th century. Then in the 20th century, scientists discovered protons, neutrons, and electrons. Today, the Standard Model of particle physics describes quarks, leptons, and bosons. But what are these made of? The search is endless.

It would seem that the fundamental essence of nature and the most basic substance in the universe must be something other than matter or energy. Certainly, it makes sense that it must be a different substance if our everyday experience is a mere shadow. The essence of a shadow is not another shadow, but rather a projection of a more basic thing. Which implies that everything we experience as matter and energy is, in truth, merely a representation of another substance; one that exists in a deeper level of reality which we cannot experience or comprehend directly. And this is because our representations and appearances are constrained by the particular perceptual and conceptual apparatus we possess.

Before attempting to answer the question of what this other substance might be, it is helpful to examine the nature of the mind’s apparatus itself. How, for example, does the human mind create its perceptions from all the sensory inputs flooding into the brain? Moreover, how does it make sense of it all? It seems that it does so with the intuitions of space and time and the concept of causality. Space and time are the framework upon which we construct all perception; they are the walls of the cave, if you like, without which no shadows could exist. Without space and time, the inputs would have no form; they would not appear to us in the way they do – as matter and energy. Causality, which occurs in time, makes sense of it all by ascribing a cause to every event. Without this concept, we would still have perceptions, but all events would seem to occur haphazardly. There would be no rhyme or reason to anything. Nothing would be predictable or explicable.

But here is the claim I wish to make. Space, time, and causality do not exist “out there” in the world as it really is. They exist only in the mind.[1]  Space and time are merely the canvas onto which the shadows are projected. They are tools which make the inputs seem real, but they are not inputs themselves. Causality provides the narrative by joining together perceptions in a predictable manner to give us an understanding of phenomena in terms of events. But the concept of cause and effect is merely another tool of the mind.

I realize this might seem strange. We are so used to all phenomena appearing within space and time, and all events as having a cause, that it seems improbable that space, time, and causality are mere intuitions and concepts – mental devices – that exist only in the mind. Let me be clear. I am not saying that the deeper level of reality is a mental construct or that the fundamental essence of the universe is an illusion. Far from it. The world as it really is – i.e., the world we do not experience directly – is very real. It is just that our mind interprets that world through the lens of space, time, and causality. An alien being, with another kind of intelligent mind, might interpret it in a completely different way, using entirely different intuitions and concepts.

Ask yourself why it is that when we think of space, it seems to extend forever? What is forever? Or why it is that we can imagine the absence of a particular object, but not the absence of space? What is spaceless space? Or why time never began and will never end? Or how the first event came into being when all events must have a cause? God, perhaps? But what caused God?

These paradoxes seem puzzling only because in thinking about them we attempt to apply our intuitions and concepts of space, time, and causality to those very same intuitions and concepts. And when we do so, we involve ourselves in an infinite regress. It is like looking at the reflection of a mirror within a mirror. And this is because space, time, and causality are only mechanisms of the mind. They do not exist in the deeper level of reality. Rather, they are devices of the mind that help to make manifest the reality in a way that is unique to us, and make it seem real in the form our perceptions and understanding.

Consider also why something like geometry works. We do not have to go out into the world measuring right-angle triangles in order to discover that the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the square on the other two sides. We can deduce it using simple logic. In fact, we need have no experience of actual triangles at all. Empirical research is not required! All we have to do is think about it carefully. And yet Pythagoras’ theorem has application and relevance to triangles out there in the world of objects. How can something deduced solely within the mind apply to objects external to the mind?

The answer is that Euclidean geometry is simply the process of deducing the logical implications of our intuition of space – which, due to the way our minds are constructed, happens to be three-dimensional Euclidean space. And since space of this kind is the framework upon which all physical objects appear extended, it follows that by building out this framework in our minds, we come to a better understanding of the spatial features of the objects themselves. We can do this only because space is an intuition that exists in the mind. The same is true of arithmetic which is grounded in our intuition of time. And of applied mathematics, which consists of logical deductions deduced axiomatically from the intuitions of space and time. This explains why the world of motion can be described mathematically.

Let me digress a little. Consider the following analogy: We, as humans, can perceive only a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum; namely, visible light. We cannot observe the rest of the spectrum directly, such as radio waves or gamma radiation, but we know these types of electromagnetic radiation exist because we can translate them into a form we can perceive. We do this with the help of various instruments, such as an oscilloscope or Geiger counter. Continuing this analogy, think of a different kind of spectrum, namely, the nature of reality from the scale of the very small to the very large. And in addition to our sensory and perceptual mechanism – i.e., our five senses and our intuitions of space and time – consider our conceptual apparatus, which consists of our understanding of cause and effect, our imagination, and our reasoning. At the scale of everyday experience, these conceptual mechanisms work very well. They allow us to navigate the world in a way that lets us survive. We possess a mind that can conceptualize this part of the spectrum of reality, just as we can perceive the visible light part of the electromagnetic spectrum.

But once we go outside the everyday level and try to experience and understand the world at the scale of relativity or quantum mechanics, our intuitions and concepts start to break down. They no longer seem reasonable. We cannot directly conceive of, say, four-dimensional spacetime. Our minds do not permit it. And quantum non-locality, which Einstein called “spooky action at a distance,” violates our concept of causality. Yet we know these areas of reality exist, even if we cannot conceptualize them in the same manner that we experience the everyday world, because we can translate them into a form we can understand. And in this case, we do so not only with physical instruments, but also with mental instruments. Much of theoretical physics relies on this.

Here again is another indication that space, time, and causality are only in the mind. We have been equipped with a particular kind of mind, one that enables us to navigate the world easily at the level of everyday experience, but not at the scale of relativity or quantum mechanics, where our basic intuitions and concepts do not seem to work properly.

Which brings me back to the original question. What is the fundamental substance of the universe? What is this deeper level of reality? I believe it to be consciousness. I am not alone in this thinking. Nobel physicists Max Planck, Erwin Schrodinger, and Roger Penrose maintained some version of this idea. And a number of prominent philosophers, including David Chalmers, Galen Strawson, and Philip Goff, have at least suggested it.

I maintain that what we witness as matter and energy is a representation of a universal substance that is consciousness. To be clear, I am not claiming that matter and energy are mere figments of our own consciousness, invented out of whole cloth or placed into our mind by a supernatural force, as in a simulation. Nor do I claim that everything we observe in the universe is aware. Rather, I maintain that what we call matter and energy are varying arrangements of conscious substance, a substance that is present throughout the universe, but which appears to us as matter and energy in the world of our experience. And it is only when this substance is arranged in a particular pattern and with sufficient complexity that it becomes aware. A rock is obviously not aware, and neither are plants. But when we consider animals, we find increasingly complex arrangements that do result in awareness.

The simple neural nets of, say, worms and jelly fish most likely do not result in awareness, but organisms with very basic brain structures, such as insects, probably have rudimentary forms of perception. Higher up the ladder, animals like fish have more advanced perception, and most mammals seem to possess a basic understanding of cause and effect. But humans are unique in that we possess reason, which enables us to be self-aware and have ideas. In other words, the human brain is composed of enough conscious substance in a sufficiently complex arrangement (which we observe empirically to be matter) to create a mind that is aware of itself. This, I think, is the key to why we have free will.

When the living brain is analyzed scientifically as an empirical object, it is observed to exist in space and time and to consist of matter arranged in the form of a very complex neural net suffused with electrochemical energy. Thus, the neuroscientist who is skeptical of free will maintains that the brain’s operation can, in theory, be reduced entirely to a physical process, subject to cause and effect, just like other material objects. He notes that various external stimuli affect the electrochemical signals within different parts of the brain, and that these correspond to particular thoughts and experiences. He reasons that all thoughts and ideas must therefore have a physical origin. Perhaps, he thinks such thoughts supervene on physical processes and emerge from them, but, he claims, they are nevertheless governed by algorithms in accordance with physical laws. The conclusion he draws is that all our ideas are determined, and therefore, there can be no such thing as free will. Many scientists think along these lines. They may differ on the manner in which the deterministic process occurs, but most maintain that free will is merely an illusion.

However, when we think about our own mind, our ideas do not exist in space. They have no spatial dimension at all. Nor do they exist in time. Certainly, we can have a series of thoughts in time when we reflect upon our experience, but a single thought itself has no time dimension. It is fleeting and illusory. It is there for less than an instant, only to be replaced with another. Most importantly, a single thought or idea does not appear to have a direct cause. It is just there. It pops into our head. It seems to be self-caused.

Is this an illusion as the determinists claim? No, it is not. And this is because our own mind – the human self-aware mind – is the one object in the universe that we can access as a thing-in-itself, as an object in the deeper level of reality. Everything else we experience, including our own body, is filtered through the lens of space, time, and causality. But because we have a mind with the ability to be aware of itself, we are able to apprehend the world of conscious substance as it really is, in the form of our ideas, a world that is not framed by space or time, and not explained by cause and effect. It is the real world – the universe as it really is – where there is no space, no time, and no causality.

Of course, we can only experience directly one small part of the universe; the part that consists of our own ideas. We do not have the ability to experience other areas of this realm directly; we have no access to other consciousnesses. We cannot experience someone else’s thoughts, for example. We can only experience the rest of the universe as a shadow, in terms of matter and energy. But in accessing our own mind, we realize that our ideas are not caused in a physically deterministic way. Rather, because they are a part of the true reality and a tiny enclave of the universe as it really is – a universe where causality does not operate – we find they have no cause. We escape the shadow. We therefore have free will. And this is is not an illusion. If anything is an illusion, it is the shadow on the wall that the scientist sees when he examines the brain as a physical object.

The determinists are wrong. Our ideas are very real, and our decisions are not made for us. They are not illusions. Our will is free. And nothing can take that away from us.

[1] This philosophical position was first proposed by Immanuel Kant in Critique of Pure Reason (1781).

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