A proof that consciousness is non-physical

Profile photo of Eliot Eliot (@eliot)2 years, 11 months ago

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.

December 13, 2012 at 12:19 pm
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Healing Chime Audio (106) (@healingchime) 2 years, 11 months ago ago

@ijesuschrist, @eliot, The only thing that can be proven is I AM. All else is causeless speculation. . .

There is a gift in that but it’s too simple for most people to open!

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Eliot (5) (@eliot) 2 years, 11 months ago ago

@ijesuschrist, “Firstly – how would you determine whether the awareness’s are separate or not?”

I’ve already responded to this in my original post:

“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.”

“Secondly – why would you even consider that the two awarenesses aren’t separate?”

Because this is a theoretical possibility. I’ve tried to be systematic and cover all possible results of the experiment.

“I see nothing that would point in the direction that these two conscious minds aren’t separate. ”

Great, could you read case 2) from the first post then and see if you can spot a flaw in it? This refers to the case when two entities have two independent sets of consciousness.

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Healing Chime Audio (106) (@healingchime) 2 years, 11 months ago ago

@eliot, @ijesuschrist, Consciousness cannot be known in the mind. Only felt in the heart. Nobody can touch this flower, but it’s fragrance is magnificent!

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Anonymous (2,821) (@) 2 years, 11 months ago ago

@eliot, “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.”

First: “Because two identical physical entities produce two different awarenesses.”
This isn’t a contradiction. Two physically identical computers hold two separate hard drives, but the hard drives may contain the exact same data.

Again if they were completely identical – “His awareness has changed to that of B’s” Yes, tah dah, because you switched the brains… why would this be based on anything but the physical. But if the two brains were identical, there would be no change in perception/awareness – the awarenesses would be the same, just what holds them would be different.

The same concept could be applied to any program on a computer.

Computer A downloads Microsoft word and writes up a letter based on an string of letters pre-loaded (experienced) by the computer.
Computer B gets the same package, and writes the same letter.

Now we switch the two hard drives. The letters are the same (the experience) and the programs are identical (perception).

What you are saying is that
1) The two programs are thus, the same program, which aren’t separate, but the same thing… proving they are “immaterial, or spiritual”.
2) Or if you replace the hard drives, and since the hard drives can be replaced, and are physically two separate things, but produce a different program (but they DON’T) there is a flaw.

The real contradiction is in your logic – you make a claim that the experiences would be exactly the same, but then switch it to being different, thus producing what you think is proof that things are non-physical, but actually a flaw in that you thought that the experiences would be exactly the same, and different at the same time.

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Eliot (5) (@eliot) 2 years, 11 months ago ago

@ijesuschrist, I’m not sure the computer programs would be the best analogy in this case, because they don’t have self-awareness which is crucial here.

Let’s put it this way: someone makes an identical copy of you. You say that this copy would have independent awareness, that’s fine. Now, what would happen to YOUR self-awareness, your sense of self, your own consciousness if I was to take a brain from this copy and put it inside your head (while permanently destroying your original brain)?

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Anonymous (2,821) (@) 2 years, 11 months ago ago

@eliot, My awareness would be gone… minus the slight bit of unconscious thought that happens in the spinal cord.

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Eliot (5) (@eliot) 2 years, 11 months ago ago

@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?

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Anonymous (2,821) (@) 2 years, 11 months ago ago

@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.

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Anonymous (2,821) (@) 2 years, 11 months ago ago

@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.

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darryl (14) (@darryl) 2 years, 11 months ago ago

@healingchime, i like the way you experience it…..

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St Emilion (2,920) (@manimal) 2 years, 11 months ago ago

@eliot, “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.”

-Not all proof is constructed. Gravity is real no matter what set of assumptions you filter it through, throw something and it falls, you can’t deny it. A tree absorbs water and nutrients from the ground no matter what set of assumptions you filter it through. It keeps doing its thing whether you believe it or not. That’s because it’s hard fact, true reality, beyond bona fide.

That’s real proof. Not just a poorly rationalized, wishful conclusion based upon nothing but belief.

“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.”

This comes as no surprise, if you could see the gap nobody would have to tell you. It’s tricky to see the gaps in what you’ve constructed yourself, because of that part of the self that doesn’t want you to question your own beliefs.

Doesn’t matter if two things are identical, they’re still separate. Two things are two things, not one thing.
The contradiction you speak of isn’t real, it’s just based in faulty beliefs.
There could be a million explanations for what happened, how it happened, and why, and there’s not much proof supporting any of these explanations. Yet you immediately jump to one of them, without a logical conclusion leading there.

That’s like me asking you if you have a lawnmower, and you answer no, so I conclude that you’re a homo. Where’s the connection?
Sure, I could come to the conclusions by assuming that no lawnmower means no lawn, no lawn means no house, no house means no family, no family means no wife, no wife means homo. But even that chain of “logic” is full of crazy gaps and jumped conclusions.

Just like yours, but actually not as badly.

“Because the assumption is that everything, including thought and behaviour, is based on physical matter and those two entities are physically identical.”

Identical doesn’t mean united. They’re still two separate brains. Two separate brains thinking, perceiving, reacting to the world, etc. They don’t even stay identical for more than a very short moment, because the brain is always adapting.

“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?”

Free will is just that, free will, the ability to choose. Does it need further explanation?
Whether our control over the input is direct or indirect (or both) is not proven yet, it could be direct, but let’s go with indirect.
The neurons act and react through bio-electrical impulses, and we can somehow control these, how it works hasn’t been established yet. We just know THAT it works, not how or why. A jumped conclusion isn’t gonna change that fact.

It doesn’t sound the least bit odd to me, because it’s reality. Reality isn’t odd, reality is real. Theories are what’s odd, when reality contradicts assumptions things seem odd. But that’s of the theory, not of reality. Reality isn’t the least bit odd.

As for the physical vs non-physical thing, it seems you don’t fully grasp those terms. There is nothing non-physical, nothing other-worldly, nothing supernatural. Real is real, and physical. Just because we have yet to find a way to chart and measure it, doesn’t mean it isn’t physical. It’s just like light, sound, thoughts, electricity.
Just a few centuries ago, people were still ascribing these things to otherworldly spirits or such, that it wasn’t physical, but we now know that they were wrong about that. Still, people keep claiming the same thing about other similar phenomena that they don’t understand, such as consciousness.
It’s amazing how slowly such insane habits die.

There is nothing non-physical, that doesn’t mean I’m denying the existence of things that a lot of people choose to call non-physical, only denying that stupid assumption.
And now someone will probably say “But urr there’s a lot of dimensions and we can only see four of these…”
That’s also bullshit. All the dimensions are right here, right now, and they’re all equally physical. What you’re looking at right now, what you’re hearing right now, etc. is the sum total of all of it. The so-called “spirit world” is not another world, but one of the aspects of the one reality, it’s right here right now, and it’s physical.

Ever heard of things like quantum physics, string theory, and such? They’re discovering some really strange shit that could explain all this “non-physical stuff.”
Not too long ago, people thought atoms were the smallest physical units. Then someone discovered the neutrons, protons and electrons of which the atom consists. And some time later someone discovered that these too consisted of even smaller particles. Then someone discovered that these consisted of still even smaller particles. Etc.

Everything is maso. The one fabric of reality, out of which all forms and “non-forms” are carved and moulded.

“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.”

Yes it does.
If brain trauma alters the function of consciousness, that means the brain is causal to consciousness. Unless you come up with some backwards rationalization such as “but the event that led to the injury was just a parallel manifestation to what was already happening to the spirit. In the other world.”

This is a universe of cause and effect, and it is just that, the universe. It means “the one verse” simply put, all that is, AKA “the word of god.”
The maso, of which all consists.

The separation between the aspects of the world is an illusion, a figment of YOUR IMAGINATION.

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MPHill (769) (@everymorningbornfromtheashes) 2 years, 11 months ago ago

The way I simply put it is…

Consciousness dictates our actions, or non actions.

So it is synonymous with our being.

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Healing Chime Audio (106) (@healingchime) 2 years, 11 months ago ago

@everymorningbornfromtheashes, @darryl, Likewise, I am glad to be graced with your thoughts!

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Brozus (2) (@brozus) 2 years, 11 months ago ago

I have thought through this scenario a bunch of ties. Never had a good conclusion. However, About it, I always run into the thought that your atomically a 100% different person every 2 years or so.

This also led me to a video called the primacy of consciousness which describes consciousness as perhaps more fundamental than time & space or even light. He explains how consciousness fits outside current science, but science will one day be forced to include it if science is to remain a pursuit of observable truth, consciousness exists and so it cannot be ignored, or written off so easily has a chemical or quantum property.

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sart living or start dying (3) (@antoesguerra) 1 year, 5 months ago ago

There is a very simple flaw to this hypothetical exercise. It is not encouraging any academically supported base for it. If you want to theorize on consciousness and consider a non-physical solution, you must first define what this non-physicality is. Cause in essence if there is a spiritual existence in the universe then it would belong to the realm of physical things. Now I am not sure of your stance on the following statement, but if consciousness is entirely constituted of something material, that is also governed by physical laws (therefore eliminating the possibility of free will), does it actually mean that there is no realm of spirit? The exercise to approach such a question must first reconcile a very simple tug and pull war that goes on between scientists and religious folk (not sticking strictly to religious doctrines, but to the mere sense of believing or experiencing the spirit), and that is that science might be the perfect route to reach a spiritual understanding of the world. I am proposing this without arguing a theology, I don’t think of any reason why the lack of a god could dismiss the existence of a spiritual sense. But if in essence science is the study of reality, and reality contains spiritual phenomena, then science might find it eventually. Or has it already found it?
There are about 300 billion stars in the milky way, the entire concept of 0 had to be developed to reach an understanding of that number. Imagine a world without that concept, a world where your counting was confined to the quantification of a few every-day instances. Back then it was sheep, or an army of men, or a population (a much smaller one than ones conceived today). And then a man in the ancient Arab world came up with the concept of zero. This could not only contemplate a lack of things but could also approach counting beyond the boundaries humanity was stuck in. If theory can do that with missing parts of a puzzle in a matter such as counting, why shouldn’t it be able to attack a problem such as spirituality. To me spirituality is much more abstract than an psychedelic experience, or an after life, but it does have to do with connection, the “oneness” of reality. Consider that theory empowered the ancient man to go from contemplating a beach, to contemplating a beach where he could count the grains of sand, we are in the same position regarding consciousness. So 300 billion stars is a number that we can conceive, and to a relative extent understand, but I feel like we are falling short of appreciating what this quantification of things really means. Lets consider this, if you ever tried to count to 300 billion your lifetime would run out, in fact the lifetime of your children’s children would only get them about halfway there, and even this example falls short cause I don’t think you’ve experienced an assumed lifetime of 80 years (which is generous). But if we then compare the assumed amount of stars in the milky way, to the number of neurons that comprise your consciousness, we begin to tap a phenomena that to me can be the proof of the spiritual. The number is 100 billion, but your neurons are not your consciousness, the connections between your neurons are what build your consciousness. That which strongly tells you that there must be an answer, that there is a reason, is actually the logical organization of an estimated 100 trillion neural connections either firing or keeping still at about 100 times per second. The quantity of dynamic parts is so staggering that contemplating the logical order it is, brings in a new kind of intelligence of its own to the table. How can there be that many active parts in a mechanism without a reason for it. The problem however with your hypothetical exercise, is that it is assuming such a feat as having to equal consciousness happen in this universe is even possible, and that if so there is anything in this instance that could teach us anything about consciousness. There is no physical law that dictates that this is impossible or that the consciousness would be the same, or that a non-physical phenomena (whatever that is) could be contemplated from it. Your problem with consciousness is being attacked from the wrong frontline.
As I have stated the case of the quantification of neural impulses as the base for consciousness consider contemplating the atoms that comprise your neurons. The complexity and magnitude of the order of things is magnified to mind bending dimensions. And if you then consider the connection that each moving part has to each other moving part, you realize that every single subatomic particle in this exercise is in fact connected with all the others through all the others, and therefore the ever flowing state of instances of not only your consciousness but the universe (something that is measurable in physical forces), is actually the only way it could be, the mathematical possibility of any instance is one.
This is only partially true though because we have to consider that the dimension of space time, which is generated by the quantum world, does not only allow for phenomena such as time dilation , quantum entanglement (compromising a phenomena that occurs due to a force that hasn’t yet been measured) and the Schrodinger equation (which proves that a subatomic particle can be in two places at once and that many subatomic particles can be in a single place at the same time), that the nature of the mechanism of things is also abstract very much in the same way as a sense of spirit. An instant contemplating it from its smallest units is then not so static at all.
Spiritual can be our way of categorizing these intangible sense of experience, that can merely be just another facet of existence for which we haven’t found numbers and words for yet. Your exercise is assuming that science cannot explain some things, but in truth you do not have to doubt science for it’s sole purpose is exactly that, understand that which isn’t understood. It bends over without shame for this, a missing result, a wrong hypothesis, an unexpected result and even flawed experiments such as your own are all accountable and valuable. There are no wrong answers in science, just maybe not the right questions at times.
However from my exercise I can conclude that there is no evidence that supports any sort of non-physical phenomena occurring in human consciousness. However also conclude and build upon that which Descartes famously said. The only reason we can contemplate a magnificent order of innumerable parts in non static instances of time, is because we have our own mechanical share of a system between our shoulders. Therefore “I think, therefore I am”, has become: “I think, therefore there is”.

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Ray Butler (1,401)M (@trek79) 1 year, 5 months ago ago

Everything is made up of parts, but functions themselves are not strictly a part, they are just the potential of how those parts behave, and it is the circumstances or situation that those parts are in that determine how that potential will be expressed in function.

In a sense you could claim that either function or circumstances, the laws that govern how potential can be expressed, either or both of those can be described as consciousness.

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Finnn (0) (@Finnn) 1 year, 5 months ago ago

The duality of things fully explains the phenomenon of consciousness. It’s neither physical or non-physical. It’s both.