What is consciousness? How does a man differ from a highly complex machine? What exactly is a spirit?
Perhaps in a thousand years' time, science will be able to detect spirits directly. Perhaps spirits will turn out to be "physical" forms from a parallel dimension. Or made of "dark matter," or some other material that we cannot yet detect. That is the simplest explanation. But is it necessary? Perhaps all the evidence we need is already here, or pretty close.
What follows is a theory of consciousness and spirits that does not rely on major new discoveries. It is based on existing science, plus concepts that, while unproven, appear to be plausible.
Atheists would say that "life" is just electrical signals buzzing about in the head.
Maybe that is literally true?
On this page I suggest that :
- If some physical things are conscious, we can assume that all are conscious to some degree.
- The basic unit of consciousness is the basic unit of matter - the energy packet (e.g. a photon).
- If a particle increased its level of consciousness, it could use its freedom (what we see as uncertainty) to control other particles.
- A single photon of energy would be sufficient to control a human body.
- "Each person's consciousness could be traced to the single particle that controls the others.
- This organizing principle could be referred to as "spirit."
Is this crazy? You be the judge.
Other theories for spirits in a physical universe
These are the three ways that religious people often like to hide from science:
1. "God of the Gaps":
Some people look for any gaps in science and tries to put God there. In ancient times, most people were happy to attribute almost everything directly to God, without asking "how". These days, believers still do not ask "how." They just push God back into one of three corners: (a) the origin of the universe, (b) the origin of life, and (c) human consciousness. This whole approach is basically a retreat. It says "we only need God where we can't think of another explanation."
2. "Science is stupid"
It is very common for people to say "science has nothing to say about love, beauty, feelings, etc." This is another way of hiding from science. The fact is that science has plenty to say about these things, but we don't want to listen!
2. "We haven't discovered it yet, but..."
This is a perfectly fair approach to take, since new discoveries are being made all the time. But what if the discoveries have been made, and we just did not notice? This is similar to the case of some Bible prophecies. We assume they are all set in the future, and do not notice when they have already been fulfilled.
All of these approaches show an unwillingness to look at scientific evidence. But if religion is any good (and it should be, having thrived for thousands of years) it should be able to cope with new information. Rather than say "no" to scientific theories, a better approach is to say, "since there are good reasons to believe in God, maybe I'll look again at the evidence."
How much can we learn from modern science?
On this page I will try to take 20th century science very seriously. But we should not treat it as the final word on anything. It is changing so fast, that all we say for certain is that, after another thousand years of scientific investigation, none of today's ideas will really matter. Not that they will be disproved (some will, some won't), but we will just see them in an entirely different light.
These quotations are from "The point of physics - Physics in the 20th Century" by Curt Suplee:
"The world as it is now understood differs more dramatically from the Victorian view than the science of Galileo, Copernicus, and Newton differed from that of Aristotle." - so what will it look like in another hundred years? In a thousand? In ten thousand? Religion can remain fairly consistent in these time frames, but science does not.
At the moment, the human spirit still seems like an analogy, or a metaphor at best. But is it? We have been here before. "At the turn of the century  even such formidable figures as Austrian physicist Ernst Mach were still insisting that the supposed atom was no more than a useful fiction",
Please do not misunderstand. I love science, and feel bound by its conclusions. But please, let us see it in context. "Science is not some set of specific goals to be achieved once and for all... it is a never-ending, ever-improving, self-correcting means of expanding human understanding of nature."
Warning: wild speculation ahead!
This page is personal opinion, and goes way beyond what the church teaches.
Worse, it tries to conform to 20th century scientific ideas. These are almost certain to change in the next few hundred years. So this theory will be wrong in important respects.
So why suggest a theory at all? Because the subject will come up. Scientifically literate non-believers will ask perfectly reasonable questions. The alternative is to avoid the question, or come up with quick, badly thought-out theories that do more harm than good.
How scientific are these theories?
This theories aim to get across the barrier of "it seems fundamentally impossible." I take existing concepts (such as consciousness or complexity) and take them to extremes. However, these subjects are still poorly understood. So it would be very difficult to prove or disprove this theory. In this respect, it is not very scientific. But given the subject matter, that is all we could expect.
What is "refined matter"?
Back in the nineteenth century, Joseph Smith said that spirit was simply matter, but more "refined" than matter we normally see. It was soon suggested that maybe electricity was a very crude form of "spirit,"and that something becomes more refined as it becomes able to control less refined forms of matter. As quoted on another page:
"Now let us apply this philosophy to all the degrees of spiritual element, from electricity, which may lie assumed to be one of the lowest or more gross elements of spiritual matter, up through all the gradations of the invisible fluids, till we arrive at a substance so holy, so pure, so endowed with intellectual attributes and sympathetic affections, that it may be said to be on a par, or level, in its attributes, with man.
What is electricity?
- Simply the movement of charged particles (ions). In other words, a subtle, yet very powerful, organization of more crude forms of matter.
- Or we could also see it in terms of electric charge - even in the nineteenth century, this was believed (as it is today) to be an important property of matter. In dealing with physics, it is common to refer to something as an "ion" (a charged particle), because whatever else it may be, the unbalanced charge is the property that is most important.
- Or we could see it as a sign of electromagnetic phenomena - the most pure form of energy, the basis for matter in all its forms.
Electricity is nothing more than a property of matter.
Could it be that "spirit" or "refined matter" is also a property of ordinary matter? Not a new and exotic form of matter, but a property or organization of matter that is so important it can be treated as a entity in is own right? After all, this is the common meaning of the word "spirit." If a person is said to "have spirit," they have more life, more energy. They are not physically different.
But can we refer to a property of matter as if it is matter, as the scriptures teach? Yes we can. This is just what we do when we refer to a charged particle as an "ion."
Spirits look like physical forms
If the spirit is just the organizing property that controls a body, it does not have an appearance in and of itself. It looks like the matter that it organizes. Hence, when we talk of electricity, we visualize copper wires, electrons, or nerves. If we were to draw what the electrical activity in a body (human or machine) looked like, we would draw the exact shape of that body.
To understand how a spirit could control a body, we need to look at consciousness.
What is consciousness?
Perhaps the hardest question is to define what consciousness is. Thankfully, this may not be necessary, except in general terms.
Some people believe that understanding our own nature is fundamentally impossible. This conclusion (which some others question) is based on Kurt Gödel's famous proof that some things can never be proven:
"The same argument has been adapted to infer that humans can never fully understand the inner workings of their own minds, since your mind, like any other closed system, can only be sure of what it knows about itself by relying on what it knows about itself. What the proof seems to be saying, the reason why we can never understand ourselves, or why computers can never be truly as smart as a human, is that 'rational thought can never penetrate to the final ultimate truth'".
If you try to understand exactly what makes you "you," you can stray into some very deep and complex issues. It can really make your head hurt! Most philosophers avoid the issue by narrowing the definition down to "self awareness." But they ignore the really interesting question - of existence itself. My definition of consciousness has four components. Starting with the most important:
1. Being the center of the universe.
You are not just a feature of the universe. The universe only exists because you choose to interpret it that way. Everything is seen from your point of view. If you lose awareness of it, your universe in effect ceases to exist. Any idea that you have an objective view of the universe is a fiction, a model that you choose to hold, and that you can adapt as you wish.. The importance of this fact cannot be overemphasized, yet it is ignored in most discussions of consciousness.
This is not the same as self-awareness. It is theoretically possible to be self-aware, but to be part of a wider network. Any one part is expendable and perfectly replaceable. "Death" would not be any problem because your awareness could be picked up by some other part of the network. This shared-identity idea is popular among mystics, but I reject it. To show why, I refer to a suggestion from an old science fiction book that inter-stellar travel would be possible by beaming information about a person from one star to another, then recreating the person (atom by atom) at the other end. The original person could then (presumably) be destroyed. Would you be happy with that? No, neither would I. I believe that each individual is genuinely independent and matters as an individual.
The ability to make independent choices that exhibit purpose (see the simple test, below). Less importantly, the ability to reproduce, eat, move, etc.
3. Self awareness
This is the usual definition of consciousness - the ability to look at yourself and your thoughts, as if you were s separate person from your thoughts. This is the so-called "mind-brain" split.
This is the crude definition, as used in the Turing test. Intelligence allows a machine to mimic the other characteristics. This is the part that requires the large brain.
How do you decide if something is conscious?
Given that we these things may be difficult to test, I would sugest a minimal test would be to ask the following questions
- Is the thing entirely predictable?
- Do its actions have a purpose?
Everything is conscious (it is just a question of degree)
Where do we draw the line between being "conscious" and being a machine? I suggest that we have to start from the assumption that everything is conscious to some degree, unless proven otherwise. This is why.
Let us look at consciousness from a behavioral point of view. A kind of "Turing test," if you like. If two creatures exhibit the same behavior and one is definitely conscious, then the other is conscious also.
By this method, we can attribute consciousness to all humans, without any great effort. But where do we draw the line? The difference between the behavior of humans and the behavior of animals is only a matter of degree. So animals, too, have consciousness, but in smaller amounts.
Here, I am taking consciousness in the sense of life, not self-awareness. It is easy to imagine that self-awareness begins when our brains are sufficiently complex. But life is something different.
Plants, machines, and simple organisms
Let us take this to its logical conclusion. Are plants conscious in ny way? Anyone who has seen the BBC series "the Secret life of Plants" knows that plants have behaviors that are like a limited form of animal behavior. So even plants have a limited form of consciousness. Remember, too, that consciousness is personal. We cannot judge another being's inner state. Just because someone or something looks or behaves differently from us, that does not necessarily mean it does not have its own kind of consciousness.
To take a Star Trek point of view, it is conceivable that a machine could be have some kind of consciousness. So could a gas cloud (good sci-fi stuff!) Similarly, where to we draw the line with life? We usually talk about certain processes, like reproduction and ingestion. But these things happen in different ways - for example, under certain conditions, atomic particles can absorb other particles, create new particles, etc. Does that mean they are alive?
The point is, that we cannot draw a line between "conscious" and "not concious" or "alive" and "not alive." It is all a matter of degree.
Consciousness is the same as existence
It therefore seems reasonable that "consciousness" is a property of all matter, but is only apparent insofar as the matter exhibits free will. Like many other properties (gravitational attraction, wave-like properties, etc.) it is more obvious in some arrangements of matter than others.
The basic conscious entity is VERY small
To take this to its extreme, even an atom is conscious. Even a photon of energy. In fact, if consciousness is a property of matter, and it cannot be shared (unless the object is deeply schizophrenic), it follows that only the fundamental particles of matter could be conscious.
Where is the evidence for conscious particles? A sub-atomic particle is fundamentally unpredictable. Presumably, these fundamental particles are ultimately responsible for the unpredictability of how a cell operates, and thus of the human brain. If we allow the possibility of free will, we have to say that the brain, and thus its components, must ultimately have a purpose. So the particle also had a purpose. Unpredictability plus purpose equals consciousness, even if only at an unimaginably small scale.
But how could a photon be conscious?
I would ask, how could it not be? I am not trying to guess how a photon "feels" - it is fundamentally unknowable. It is hard enough to guess how another human being feels!
But the qualities of a complex system lie in its organization, not in its individual parts?
This is only partly true. It is true that complex systems have behaviors that scientists cannot predict from the individual particles involved. But that is probably just because we do not understand the particles enough. Is anybody seriously suggesting that complex behavior appears by magic? Somehow, in ways that we do not understand, properties (e.g. behaviors) of individual particles contribute to the complex behavior of the group.
HOW conscious would a particle need to be?
Not very. A particle exists mainly through its interactions with other particles. On its own, it would have an existence (e.g. a minimal level of consciousness) and not much else.
Back to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young
I do not claim that this is only way to interpret LDS scripture. But we are told that:
- Every particle of the universe has intelligence.
- Each intelligence is indestructible, and has existed from eternity.
- Intelligence is the same as light and truth.
The simplest interpretation is that a basic "intelligence" is a basic unit of matter/energy - the photon.
There is some support for the idea that consciousness is the key to understanding fundamental physics - an observer is needed to "collapse the wave function" in quantum states. The role of the observer is the basis for almost all modern metaphysics :-)
"But you need a brain to be conscious!"
Why? Consciousness is not the same as memory or computational skill.
A brain is just a tool of consciousness. Like a computer, it allows for various processes to take place, but it is really just an information handling tool. It is theoretically possible for a conscious entity to have brain-like abilities without a brain. Anything that can handle information could be used as (or evolve into) an equivalent device given the right environment. And remember that information is a property of just about everything. For example, a mathematical equation can be answered using a system of cogs and wheels (as devised by Babbage), by a silicon based processing chip, or by a human brain.
Anything that can be organized can be used to process information. You could even make a slide rule out of feathers if you really wanted to. It is simply a question of ingenuity, or of trial and error. And much of what we think of as "consciousness" or "intelligence" - memory, for example - just refers to separate systems that can be organized and accessed only when needed. The conscious part is just that tiny seed that does the top level organizing.
Imagine a conscious photon of energy...
Individual energy changes are unpredictable
Imagine the human brain as a physical system. Billions of cells are active, driven by trillions of molecules. These molecules are interacting, by means of photons of energy passing between individual atoms. Although they follow strict laws as a group, the individual events are unpredictable. Presumably this leads to "free will" choices in which signals are sent to other parts of the brain or body.
Consider a single energy packet
Photons of energy travel at the velocity of light. One particular photon could be involved in a huge number of interactions every second (though of course current science is not able to identify one photon from the next).
"But an energy packet is the smallest unit of existence - it cannot be unique."
That is only how it looks to us. But why should we asume that all energy packets are the same? yes, they behave the same, but so do some humans. It is perfectly possible that individual energy packets may have individual features. Each packet may be made of much tinier constituents. Ever heard of string theory?
A single photon could make a difference
Imagine that, through trial and error, a single photon of energy had experience of how the brain works. Not every interaction would be controllable (depending on the laws of chemistry), but enough would be so it could influence a few different atoms every split second. By dancing between the right atoms, and changing them in the right way, it could subtly affect the whole brain by a tiny amount.
And if the other photons could be trained to follow certain rules (within the bounds of their quantum uncertainty-given freedom), this one photon could control the brain completely!
Very little intelligence would be required
The photon would not need to be highly intelligent. Most of what it "learned" would be by trial and error, by forming habits from what worked at each interaction. Also, it could itself be trained by some higher power. And most of its "intelligence" (memory, for example) would be provided by interactions with other sections of the brain.
Thus, by working with the brain as a whole, a single conscious photon of energy can become the core of a human being. Stripped of these support systems and habits, the "intelligent" photon would be very confused and restricted in ability - just like a human being with severe brain damage. But with all these systems working together, the photon would feel like it was indeed the whole system.
An interesting quotation...
A month after completing the material on conscious quanta, I came across the following. The wording is probably just coincidence, but who knows? it is from a discussion of Melchizedek in the dead Sea Scrolls:
"John J. Collins notes in his 'The Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other Ancient Literatures' that the 'sons of El,' are, to be sure, 'most often heavenly beings in the Hebrew Bible, examples include Genesis 6, Psalms 82, Deut. 32:8-9...' (p. 161). Collins also notes that Melchizedek in 11Q Melchizedek, is called 'Michael, Melchizedek, and the Prince of Light were three names for the same figure.' (p. 176). ... Melchizedek was also in charge of the eternal process of creation, who by the spark, ignited light into the worlds, hence an organizer of the worlds with the gods. God's assistants, 'the faithful servants of Melchizedek,' rescue and preserve light particles lest any be lost in space."
Where, in your brain, is your consciousness?
If consciousness resides in individual particle, your body is actually a collection of trillions of conscious entities. Which one is "you"? If you are in control of your body, "you" are the one that controls the others. Where is this particle? Apparently in the brain. But where in the brain? A basic particle - a photon of energy, for example - would be able to move about constantly. So the answer is "everywhere in the brain."
I don't feel like I am a photon!
Of course not. Since before you were born - perhaps for billions of years - you have known about, prepared for, and been associated with your body. Since birth you have relied on it for memory, appearance, and everything you are and do. It is almost impossible to imagine existence without it.
Imagine that all the particles of your brain are like a huge crowd of people. They are all constantly interacting. But most of the people are not intelligent - they blindly go about whatever they are told to do. The crod looks busy, but it is chaotic. Now imagine that one very intelligent person joined the crowd. By running between the people he could plant ideas in their heads, and gradually organize everyone to do his will. From a distance, the crowd would look as busy as ever, but now it is following the commands of its one intelligent member.
How to visualize the human spirit
1. As the complete package - the body, the whole system that is controlled by the one intelligent particle.
2. As the minimal indestructible unit: as a basic particle, dancing between atoms.
A computer analogy:
It may be difficult to imagine a single photon having such power. But imagine a cursor dancing along lines of code in a complex program, which in turn drives an even more complex piece of machinery. The seat of consciousness need only be very small. Everything else - the real power - is in the organization.
|More about how a particle could control a body|
Spirits and butterfly wings
If spirit refers to the smallest possible particle, how can one particle control an entire body? The answer lies in chaos theory. According to the famous example, a butterfly beating its wings could cause a tidal wave on the other side of the world. Tiny influences can have massive effects. We just need to understand how life is (or can be) organized. This is what God tries to teach us.
Science starts with asking the simple questions. So, for the first few hundred years, pure science has only dealt with simple physical particles and forces. It has rightly been accused of reductionism - of reducing everything to physics, and then reducing physics to particle physics. So all of reality is "nothing but" a few fundamental particles and forces.
But in recent years, a whole new kind of physics has emerged - often referred to as "chaos theory," but also involving other attempts at discovering the laws that guide complex systems. Why? Because the simple laws of physics are no use in the real world - it is just too complicated. Even something as relatively simple as predicting the weather (just predictable sunlight and predictable oceans in a known quantity of air) requires the most powerful computers in the world. And they still get it wrong even when only looking as couple of days in advance!
The study of complexity does not just reveal chaos, but it uncovers new laws and structures that apply on a large scale, yet are unknown at a small scale. As Paul Davies put it, "Complex systems really do have their own laws and principles, and their own internal logic. ... physicists are increasingly recognizing the importance of looking at the collective, organizational, and qualitative features of complex systems, and recognizing that they have their own laws and principles and qualities, in a way that makes them every bit as fundamental as the elementary particles out of which the world is built"
- From The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution
by John Brockman (Simon & Schuster, 1995) .
|Questions and answers|
(Much of this section assumes some familiarity with LDS doctrine.)
How does this compare with the other page on a spirit world as another dimension?
It is possible to look on complexity as equivalent to another dimension. The closer we look, the more we discover worlds within worlds. For example, on a fractal shape, the distance between two nearby points can be infinite.
What does it mean to be given a body?
Gaining a body means being given authority over trillions of lesser spirits. God offers us this as a test: Can we rule our own bodies, and use them to do good in the wider physical world? If we can, we will be "made ruler over many things." If we cannot, we are still given the body in the resurrection (a free gift because God loves us), but that is all. Compared with being a spirit on its own, having control over a body of other (far less conscious) spirits is something indeed.
Why does a pre-mortal spirit look like its mortal body?
When you see a spirit, you do not use your "natural" eyes. Spirits communicate by feelings as much as anything else, so you probably communicate directly with the other spirit. You see him either as he sees himself, or as he wants to be seen. A pre-mortal spirit would be busy preparing for this life, and would see himself in terms of his body-to-be.
Why have a pre-mortal spirit creation?
Preparing for the physical world would simply be a case of getting every controlling spirit together and saying "listen: this is what is going to happen. Get yourself ready! All those controlling spirits would then be busy getting ready for the most amazing and scary experience imaginable - birth into a physical world!
Some problems that are solved by this theory
the bottom line
Every particle of creation has intelligence. Some kind of "life" is a basic property of physical matter.