A proof that consciousness is non-physical
Well, not a proof in a strict mathematical sense, but more of a thought experiment which under certain assumptions leads to the conclusion that consciousness cannot be based on physical matter.
According to the currently accepted scientific viewpoint, all that exists (including consciousness) is part of the physical world. We don’t know how or why consciousness emerges from our brains, but we know that it must, because science cannot even consider existence of anything that cannot be observed or measured. For the sake of this experiment, let’s assume that this is correct and that consciousness really is based on some basic physical unit. For simplicity, let’s also assume that neuron is this basic unit (although the same logic could be applied if we took molecules, atoms and possibly even sub-atomic particles as the basic units).
Now, imagine there is a human being called A which has a neuron-based brain and is therefore self-aware (if you are super-sceptical and claim that we can’t really know whether A is self-aware, feel free replace A with yourself). Since every neuron in A’s brain is physical and deterministic, there is nothing preventing us (theoretically speaking) from making a perfect copy of it. This also means that we could make an exact copy of the entire brain of A’s and attach it to a body that is also a perfect copy of A’s body – let’s call this new entity B. Now, B itself must be conscious, since lack of consciousness would imply that there must be some other, non-physical quality of A’s which wasn’t “copied” to B, which would contradict the original assumption. Now, let’s say that we put A and B in two separate, controlled environments, so that all of their perceptions get identical inputs (the simplest example would be two dark, isolated rooms with same temperatures and air pressure). The main question arising from this is: what would be the relation of B’s awareness when compared to the original awareness of A? I can see two possible answers:
1) There is no new consciousness created in the process – A’s awareness is that of B’s and vice-versa.
2) B has a separate awareness which is independent of A (although they would obviously have same thoughts and behaviours)
Of course, no one could know which of these two would be true (not even A/B), but it is intuitively clear that only one can hold.
If we assume that 1) is true, that would imply that consciousness must have some non-physical aspect, since same awareness would be present in two physically separated beings. This contradicts the original assumption of the neuron-based consciousness.
On the other hand, 2) would also lead to contradiction, because two identical physical entities produce two different awarenesses. If you can’t immediately get your head around this, imagine that A’s brain was instantly replaced with the newly created brain of B’s. From the physical point of view, nothing in A’s physical composition has been changed, but his awareness has been replaced with that of B’s. This implies that consciousness must be based on something that is outside physical.
Unless there is another possible case which I’ve missed, all this would imply that consciousness cannot be based on any physical entity.
Assuming I’ve managed to get the main point across, I would be interested to hear people’s thoughts on this and see if anyone could spot any major flaws in this kind thinking.
Wait, what? This is not a logical statement; why can’t two separate beings have the same (but separate) physical consciousness? There is nothing saying this couldn’t be true. Just as two computers that came out of the factory and used in the same way, they would be equal.
I’ve wrote about this here:
@eliot, I would say that when you do the whole transplant thing you are creating another outlet for consciousness to come through
It’s like two different radio stations playing the same song at the same time, but it’s all the same radio
@eliot, also, what do you mean by physical? Have you ever seen something being non-physical? Something being non-existent?
I think that anything that exists is physical.
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@eliot, I AM is all the proof in the pudding. And I love this kind of pudding . . .
@ijesuschrist, Sorry, but I cannot see what is illogical here. Assuming that electronic impulses in the brain produce consciousness, how could it be that one consciousness is produced by two independent brains? Just as two separate flashlights or radio stations would produce two independent sets of waves, so you would expect 2 brains to produce two different sets of consciousness. I think I’ve probably used the word “same” in a wrong way – not same as in equal or identical, but same as in one.
Your blog article is not too much related, but certainly interesting.
@eliot, I think you’re confusing yourself here. You’re automatically thinking that these two consciousnesses are going to be of the same consciousness.
You create a man and his clone.
1) If they experience different upbringings and different experiences, the consciousness is separate, right?
Somehow, you make the jump that in case #2, their consciousness must be non-physical, then. Thats like saying if a printer makes two duplicate works of art, they must be the exact same work of art!
“If we assume that 1) is true, that would imply that consciousness must have some non-physical aspect, since same awareness would be present in two physically separated beings. This contradicts the original assumption of the neuron-based consciousness.”
Let me ask a more relevant question -
Why is it that “Same awareness”, if present in two physically separated beings, automatically contradict neuron-based consciousness? You’re making the jump that “same awareness” means that they are both experiencing the same thing – together, rather than separately. There is a logical flaw in your “contradiction”.
@rickvonstar, that’s a good question, I haven’t actually thought about it in too much depth. I guess that by physical I mean everything that can be objectively observed or measured. So I would say non-physical would encompass subjective experiences that are not based in the materialistic world (like dreams, OBEs, psychedelic trips…).
@eliot, i believe that awareness is the contrast between something and nothing…the something-ness in front of you and the nothing-ness from which senses emerge, so to speak.
@eliot, “So I would say non-physical would encompass subjective experiences that are not based in the materialistic world (like dreams, OBEs, psychedelic trips…).”
Don’t all these things take place as experiences? The only thing that experiences that we know of is the human mind, which is a material thing.
@rickvonstar, Yes, but experience doesn’t have to be physical or based on physical. Again, by physical I mean objectively observable world – something that both you and I can see and then confirm to each other that we’ve both seen the same thing.
How do you know that mind is a material thing? This is exactly what I’m trying to argue against.
@eliot, I would say that the brain is material, and the mind is an immaterial outgrowth of that. The mind is definitely subjective.
But It seems to me that in between and every where, there is a thing called not a thing.
@eliot, I would recommend looking into Token Identity and Type Identity theories. I, myself, lean more toward substance dualism, but I’m not convinced by your argument (it reminds me of the case of Multiple Realizability, but I’m not sure how closely-related they are).
Brain damage can alter a person’s consciousness drastically.
There’s a certain disorder where a person’s emotional attachment to a person or thing is severed from his or her recognition of it. You could see your mother, recognize that she looks like your mother, but have no emotional attachment to her.
I could give many more examples, but I’m sure my point is clear. Your connection to reality stems from your brain and your brain alone. Damage the brain in a certain area; perception of reality is altered. Kill the brain; consciousness fades.
@eliot, the experiment in is void in the case of 1) is void, because you could simply test if the two separate beings are sharing a conciousness by putting them in two completely different environments. If they act exactly the same they are sharing a conciousness, if not they are not. And they could not act identically as their environment would not allow it.
I’m very confused on how you came to the conclusion in 2) that the conciousness is non-physical.
“imagine that A’s brain was instantly replaced with the newly created brain of B’s. From the physical point of view, nothing in A’s physical composition has been changed, but his awareness has been replaced with that of B’s. This implies that consciousness must be based on something that is outside physical.”
This actually implies that conciousness is physical because B’s conciousness has been carried, into A, through the brain, suggesting that the conciousness resides within the brain (physical). Any way you are jumping to conclusions, even if B’s conciousness didn’t transfer it would not prove the physicality or non-physicality of the conciousness.
My argument for the physicality is age old, I think therefore I am. If I can logically perceive my own conciousness, therefore it is physical. If everything you can logically perceive is physical then the conciousness must also be.
Interesting thread. Thanks!
Logical flaws in your argument have already been remarked upon. I would like to add that injuries and experiments in the past have made it pretty clear that profound effects can occur when certain areas of one’s brain are compromised.
@rickvonstar, material things…as in matter and energy.
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@eliot, “Just as two separate flashlights or radio stations would produce two independent sets of waves”
This needs to be explained a bit more and explored, because I love this kind of metaphor!
The waves of any two flashlights are made of the same thing -photons. In this regard photons are consciousness, and the two flashlights are the expressions or emissions of that single “photon” consciousness. It can be said that the flashlights produce light, but upon closer inspection they convert energy from the battery into light. Our bodies convert energy from food into human experience.
Similarly, the waves or any two radio stations are formed by electromagnetic waves. In this case the waves are distinct waves coming from different towers but their electromagnetic ‘substance’ is the same. That is why one radio can tune to different frequencies. It is looking at the same vibrating spectrum, just isolating a certain part of it. In that way, each human brain anchors a conscious experience related to that body and brain, but the consciousness that feeds the body and brain with power is the same all across the board – consciousness.
There is nothing unique about a certain consciousness, it’s just having a different experience on a different location on a landscape of possible experiences. When one has had all the experiences needed to know there is not an experiencer, they unify with that consciousness, and consciously surrender into the flow of that supreme love that is the Godhead. Not everyone wants that. But those who do want it can do it. Then there is no doer, or thinker, just the consciousness expressing it’s own flow of goodness. This is the experience of consciousness.
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@chekovchameleon, if you could prove the seer of experience to be physical I would be very interested. From my looking the seer is no where to be found.
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@rickvonstar, can the perceiver of physical things be perceived and if so, who or what is perceiving that the perceiving is taking place?
@eliot, “a thought experiment which under certain assumptions leads to the conclusion that consciousness cannot be based on physical matter.”
-AKA NOT PROOF AT ALL. Game over before you even started.
“Now, B itself must be conscious, since lack of consciousness would imply that there must be some other, non-physical quality of A’s which wasn’t “copied” to B,”
-No it wouldn’t. There’s a huge gaping hole in that logic, a quantum leap of illogical conclusions.
“2) B has a separate awareness which is independent of A (although they would obviously have same thoughts and behaviours)”
-Same thing again. Why/how would they have the same thoughts and behaviour? There’s free will, imagination, reaction to environment, etc. Doesn’t matter that the brains are identical, doesn’t matter one bit. And it won’t even stay that way for more than a moment, because the brain is constantly changing.
“This implies that consciousness must be based on something that is outside physical.”
-It most certainly does NOT. There is nothing that’s outside of physical, everything is physical. There is no separation, it’s all one big thing. Light, sound, feelings, etc. are all physics, we can’t touch it but it’s there nonetheless.
Back to the previous “copy” thing. You can have a whole bunch of computers, with identical hardware, identical OS, and the exact same programs installed. They will still work independently of eachother, and there will be some differences in how they work.
Same thing goes for the mind and consciousness. Each body has its own.
And if consciousness wasn’t a brain thing, please explain why people lose consciousness when they take a blow to the head… or how lobotomy takes away consciousness… and how come there’s hard factual charted evidence of how neural differences show consistent parallels to mental and intellectual differences…
I don’t mean to be rude or anything, but this whole thread is just silly.
@healingchime, I am perceiving, but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence for a perceiver of percieving
@manimal, “-AKA NOT PROOF AT ALL. Game over before you even started.”
Every proof that has every been constructed is based on a certain set of assumptions (called axioms). These are usually so obvious and intuitive that there is actually no need to prove them at all. For example, we all know that any two dots can be connected with a straight line and the fact that we can’t prove this claim doesn’t stop us from using it in other, more complex, theorems.
“-No it wouldn’t. There’s a huge gaping hole in that logic, a quantum leap of illogical conclusions.
I don’t see a gap in there. Assuming that everything in existence is based on physical matter and then having two physically identical entities which posses different qualities certainly sounds like a contradiction to me. Maybe you could provide an actual counter-example? You analogy with letters, frogs and aliens is not very helpful.
“-Same thing again. Why/how would they have the same thoughts and behaviour? ”
Because the assumption is that everything, including thought and behaviour, is based on physical matter and those two entities are physically identical.
“There’s free will, imagination, reaction to environment, etc.”
And what exactly is free will? We assume that our awareness springs from interactions between neurones, but we know that neurons are deterministic systems (i.e. if their current state and input remain the same, their output will also be the same). And at the same time we know that we somehow have indirect control over those neurons. Doesn’t this sound odd to you?
@chekovchameleon, “he experiment in is void in the case of 1) is void, because you could simply test if the two separate beings are sharing a conciousness by putting them in two completely different environments. If they act exactly the same they are sharing a conciousness, if not they are not. And they could not act identically as their environment would not allow it.”
I deliberately wanted to avoid this case, because someone could claim that two sets of consciousness would begin to diverge as soon as they being to receive different stimuli. This is a compelling argument, because single awareness having two different experiences at the same time is way beyond our comprehension.
“This actually implies that conciousness is physical because B’s conciousness has been carried, into A, through the brain, suggesting that the conciousness resides within the brain (physical).”
This is a good point, but I don’t think this is a logical fallacy. I’ve assumed that B’s conciousness has been carried over because that is implied by the original assumption (which I’m trying to disprove). But the whole thing than lead to contradiction (change of awareness without physical change), which can only mean that the original assumption was wrong (provided that there are no other fallacies present).
“My argument for the physicality is age old, I think therefore I am.”
This doesn’t say anything about the nature of consciousness, but conveys the idea that all we can truly know is our own awareness. Ironically, the very person who said this, René Descartes, is considered as a father of dualism.
@healingchime, I actually agree with you on many of the things you stated, but I’d prefer to keep this discussion within the limits of objective reasoning.
@everyone, I’m not trying to convince you to anything nor do I claim that I know anything for sure. I understand that my idea conflicts with most people’s common beliefs, but I urge you to read my reasoning with an open mind (while remaining sceptical at the same time). If you start reading with bias and prejudice, you are likely to notice fallacies even where there aren’t any. I’m pretty sure there is an actual mistake in my reasoning (or something else that I’ve missed), but I haven’t managed to spot it yet and would certainly like if someone could point it out.
As for the change/injury in the brain causing the change in awareness – this is perfectly fine and I’m not trying to oppose this claim. But it still doesn’t reveal a mistake in the original experiment.
@eliot, You made a “proof” of consciousness being non-physical.
I pointed out various flaws, which you haven’t amended, and everyone else has as well.
I think you are just trying fit the evidence (in any way possible) to your wanting of a spiritual consciousness, rather than looking at the evidence, and deducing the most logical explanation.
@ijesuschrist, I didn’t respond to all of your remarks because it seemed to me that you’ve completely misunderstood what I was trying to say.
“You’re automatically thinking that these two consciousnesses are going to be of the same consciousness.”
No, I’m not. I’ve said that there would be two possible results and then shown that they both contradict the original assumption.
“1) If they experience different upbringings and different experiences, the consciousness is separate, right?”
Let’s stick to the case when they are both exposed to exactly the same environments and stimuli.
“but in your example -
I’m not talking about similarity here – I’m talking about whether making a perfect copy of one human being would create a separate, independent awareness or not.
It might be that I didn’t explain everything very well, but I still can’t see how any of the remarks given so far points to a flow.
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