According To Consciousness, Lemons Aren’t Sour

Consciousness is not a new phenomenon: it even precedes the Big Bang.

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By Phoebe Buckwalter

Galileo once stated that “if the living creatures were removed [from the multiverse],  [color, taste, and smell] [...] would be wiped away and annihilated.” He developed a theory that sensory details only exist in the minds of the animals that perceive them. Galileo’s theory was the beginning of the idea of consciousness, defined as a state of awareness of one’s surroundings. The development of consciousness has long perplexed scientists, but new theories have come to light providing insight into this complex phenomenon. 

Consciousness is an extremely nuanced concept—one that scientists haven’t been able to completely grasp for centuries. Simply put, consciousness is the state of experiencing. It is being aware of the sensory details you observe, interpreting and feeling the hormones your brain sends as emotions, and acknowledging the synapses your brain sends to develop thoughts and memories. Consciousness is thought to have originated in the cerebral cortex (otherwise known as gray matter), a section of the brain located in the cerebrum’s outer upper layer that is responsible for perceiving sensory information, planning future actions, and controlling voluntary movements. It is crucial for animate organisms (such as animals, insects, humans, etc.) to process internal and external stimuli in order to function properly; damage to the cerebral cortex can cause difficulties in cognition and motor action, which occurs when the nervous and muscular systems work together to stimulate limbic movement. The cerebral cortex is indicative of consciousness because it processes outer information and allows for decision-making in response. At a September conference at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, a group of philosophers, neuroscientists, and psychologists proposed the idea of panpsychism, which challenges the fact that consciousness originates in animals’ cerebral cortices.

Panpsychism states that consciousness has always existed in all matter in the universe. According to this theory, monads—the smallest particles of matter—have awareness. The amount of consciousness that an organism possesses is determined by the consciousness-strength of the individual monads it’s composed of. The complexity of an object (determined by size, how many organ systems it has, and the amount of functions the organism performs simultaneously) increases the consciousness-strength of a monad. For instance, inanimate objects, such as rocks, are not particularly complex due to the fact that they aren’t alive, and therefore have no biological systems. However, they still technically have an extremely low level of awareness due to their monads, but it is insignificant—hence why inanimate objects don’t have abstract thoughts. A plant is inanimate but functions using biological systems, making it more complex and therefore giving it a slightly higher level of consciousness; plant consciousness is also negligible. Animate objects, like humans and other animals, have significantly higher levels of consciousness because they are sentient beings. In his book, The Four Realms of Existence (2023), New York University neuroscientist Joseph E. LeDoux explains that only biological organisms can have consciousness due to their possession of biological systems (such as the nervous system) to process stimuli. This supports the idea that everything humans perceive with their senses is the result of their brains processing the high levels of consciousness within them.

If all matter has a level of consciousness, then that raises the question: why aren’t objects such as soil, or a desk, able to sense and experience awareness as well? How do animals’ brains utilize their immense complexity in order to experience consciousness? The Psychological Ether Theory, proposed by philosopher Paul Draper, provides an explanation for this occurrence by stating that our brains do not create consciousness. Consciousness preceded even the Big Bang, the very cosmic explosion that created all matter. Therefore, consciousness does not automatically guarantee the ability to feel awareness; rather, a multifunctional and intelligent organ, such as the brain, must individually process its consciousness to deliver the results seen in animate objects. Thus, sensory details are simply an illusion created by such organs. Similarly, cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman proposes a seemingly outlandish theory: that in the same logic, space and time might not be fundamental—they too could be effects of our consciousness, an illusion constructed from processed sensory details. Not enough research has been conducted to support or reject this theory, but it is actively being explored today.

Current research dictates that true consciousness arises from monads and biological systems. However, there’s so much more to explore, from how time and space are connected to consciousness to whether consciousness can be generated. These new ideas indicate that our understanding of consciousness is only just beginning to develop.