3 min read

Unraveling the hard problem of consciousness.

Consider the possibility that consciousness is not an emergent property of a physical reality, but an integral part of the nature of reality itself.
Unraveling the hard problem of consciousness.

David Chalmers famously formulated the "hard problem of consciousness" in the 1990's. The hard problem arises from the problem scientists have in accounting for the subjective feeling of being a conscious being experiencing various experiences. They are familiar with the neurological and biochemical aspects of the brain that explain the physical state of the mind, but that does not explain what it is like to be subjectively aware of that experience.

The hard problem is born from a larger movement in science and western philosophy to understand the mind and its nature. The roots of the 'hard problem' started 400 years ago with Rene Descartes and his philosophical position that mind and body were distinct entities. Mind was immaterial and accounted for consciousness, and the body was material and followed the mechanical laws of the physical world.

Descartes view has been largely rejected in modern day science and philosophy, but the seeds of his view shaped much of the development of science over the past few centuries and continue to influence the western understanding of mind to this day.

It really wasn't until science had developed quantum theory and the advancement of neuroscience in the last century that science seriously started reconsidering the whole mind-body duality, but by then our understanding of physical reality had progressed so far while our understanding of the mind was still in its infancy, so scientists stuck with what they knew–atoms, cells, molecular biology, neurophysiology, and the whole host of scientific pursuits based on physical reality.

The dominant pursuit for mind and its nature has been grounded in the attempt to explain consciousness through physical interactions in the brain and central nervous system. In the last few decades, scientists have been increasing exploring the nature of complex systems–in the environment, economy, and even in the brain. The study of complexity theory finds that in certain systems, like biology and neurophysiology, unique properties emerge. For example, ant colonies have been studied and found that while individual ants follow simple rules and actions, at the colony level their emerges efficient resource allocation and adaptive responses to environmental changes.

This understanding of complex systems has been applied to consciousness itself. It has been theorized that consciousness is an emergent property of non-living matter. Individual neurons function autonomously and don't have consciousness, but maybe the near infinite connections and neural networks of the brain serve to support the emergence of consciousness.

So you can see why the hard problem is the "hard problem" for modern day scientists. The problem could be applied to the moment of conception: why does a non-conscious sperm and a non-conscious ovum give rise to a living, breathing, conscious being? Does consciousness arise at conception? Is it only after significant brain development? How do we go from cellular processes to living conscious beings?

Those are hard questions.

But implicit in those questions is the view that mind and body and two separate things (hey Rene!). Mind is an immaterial thing that somehow emerges from a complex network of material things. We are still caught up in a dualistic view of the nature of reality and consciousness.

Maybe it's time to reconsider the very nature of reality in a way that bridges insights from physics, philosophy, and other views on consciousness.

Modern physics has already challenged the traditional notions of a deterministic material reality. Quantum mechanics has demonstrated that there is no substantial material reality and that particles exist in states of probability until observed. This indeterminancy suggests that the fundamental nature of reality is not fixed and solid like we perceive it, but rather in a state of dynamic flux that is dependent on the observer.

As we reevaluate the very nature of reality, it becomes crucial to consider the possibility that consciousness is not an emergent property of a physical reality, but an integral part of the nature of reality itself. This view, inspired by non-dual philosophies, suggests that the nature of mind and the nature of reality are not distinct entities, but are intimately intertwined.

Over the next few weeks, I will continue to explore how this understanding might change our approach to understanding consciousness and the world around us. I'll be sharing the Mahamudra and Dzogchen views that consider consciousness as the fundamental nature of reality, as well as attempting to build a bridge to modern scientific perspectives from that ground.

If these discussions resonate with you, I hope you'll join in the conversation and share your ideas with myself and others. Reevaluating the nature of reality itself could lead to fortuitous path to a better understanding of the nature of reality and our place in it as living, conscious beings.