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.
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@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.
@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.
That’s like me saying “This is the letter T, this means frogs are aliens.” There’s a huge hole there, a completely abridged “logic.””
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.
@ijesuschrist, But from the physical point of view, nothing has changed: every neuron, every molecule, every single atom remains in its place because your brains was instantaneously changed with its identical copy. How is this possible, if your consciousness is based only on those basic physical units?
@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.
“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. ”
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, Please see above computer program analogy… it won’t be long until you can program a computer to recognize itself in the mirror…
but I think this last scenario you describe is better…
If your brain was replaced with identical configuration of new atoms, instantaneously, would you still be aware, or would your awareness disappear. Now I’m starting to think.
@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).
@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.
@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, SO i think I tried to split the topic, using your last response as the first post, but I don’t know if it worked… I think its a more interesting question and a lot easier to contemplate than the first examples.
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.
@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 -
2) If they experience the exact same upbringing and experiences are identical, their consciousness will definitely be similar.”
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.