The Most Important Thing in The Universe

Writing this article has been a struggle. It’s on a topic that is difficult to talk about clearly, on which I have no solid answers to give. What I want to do is inspire others in the same way I have been inspired, with a question. The subject of the question is one of the trickiest I’ve tackled yet.


'Toward Digital Consciousness' -- Image by agsandrew License: Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Toward Digital Consciousness‘ — Image by agsandrew
License: Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

What is it? What is ‘The Hard Problem’?

Thomas Nagel said that a thing is conscious when there is ‘something that it is like’ to be that thing. For example, we don’t generally think there is ‘something that it is like’ to be a sofa, but we do think there is ‘something that it is like’ to be a dog. Hence dogs, to some degree or another, are conscious. Sofas are not. Mosquitoes? Mollusks? Maybe somewhere in between.

But here’s the kicker of a question: Why is it ‘like something’ to be anything?

You may have to read that sentence a few times, but it does make sense, and it’s a terribly important question. It’s called the ‘hard problem of consciousness’. Put another way, the hard problem asks this: How does unconscious matter (like the molecules that make up our brain) generate conscious experience? Why are we not philosophical zombies, walking around, reacting to stimuli, but having no internal experience?

The task of explaining this is not a trivial one. As Sam Harris points out:

“The problem[…] is that no evidence for consciousness exists in the physical world. Physical events are simply mute as to whether it is ‘like something’ to be what they are[…] Absolutely nothing about a brain, when surveyed as a physical system, suggests that it is a locus of experience. Were we not already brimming with consciousness ourselves, we would find no evidence of it in the physical universe — nor would we have any notion of the many experiential states that it gives rise to.”1

When talking about consciousness and questions surrounding the nature of its existence, an evidential (ie: objective) account is simply not forthcoming. One of the juiciest, most delicious morsels of epistemological quirkiness in the universe is that there is no way — by definition — to fully account for subjective experience through objective means — because subjectivity is precisely what objectivity is not. It would almost be like attempting to account for the qualities of dryness by pouring water over something.

The existence of pain, for example, can only be established through subjective reports. We can learn what kinds of brain patterns are associated with pain, and infer its presence based on them, but that association must be constructed by relying on the same subjective reports. What we mean when we say ‘pain’ is something that only exists as a subjective experience, and should be given separate consideration from its physical correlates (brain waves, bleeding, bruising, nerve impulses, saying ‘ouch’, avoidance reflexes, etc).

If one is devoid of the ability to have certain kinds of experiences, there are no objective facts that can impart those experiences to them. For example, for a person who can’t see color, no amount of explanation about the qualitative difference between a green and blue mug will allow that person to know what it is like to see green and blue, because green and blue (and pain) are experiences.

They are what we call ‘qualia‘.

The hard problem asks: how and why do qualia arise in a universe that — objectively — appears to be nothing but swarms of interacting particles and forces?

'Molecule' - Illustration by Caroline Davis License: Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Molecule‘ – Illustration by Caroline Davis
License: Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Physicist James Trefil points out that the hard problem “is the only major question in the sciences that we don’t even know how to ask.”2

Okay. Got it? Good. Here’s why it matters.

David Chalmers, who is credited with formulating ‘the hard problem’, said: “I think that consciousness has always been the most important topic in the philosophy of mind, and one of the most important topics in cognitive science as a whole.”3

I find it hard to disagree with him. Consciousness is just another word for our experience. What could we possibly care about more than our own moment to moment experience? It’s all we can know directly.

Well, there is altruism — an action or ideal which values the experience of others above our own — and there is planning for the future, but both of these are still all about consciousness. Most, if not all, discussions of social organization, ideologies, and rights (including animal rights) ultimately come down to questions about the experience of conscious creatures and its quality.

Consciousness is the most important thing in the universe. It’s all we could ever really care about. It’s all that could ever do the caring.

The ‘hard problem’ however, at first glance, may seem like a really esoteric and piddling concern — but it actually cuts down to some of the deepest questions people have about how the universe works. I know that personally, the moment I understood ‘the hard problem’, I never thought about the universe the same way again.

No big deal. You gotta have faith!

Despite all of this, some very respectable people maintain that consciousness is not so special. Dan Dennett refers to it as an “illusion” and “a bunch of tricks”.4 No big deal.

Dan Dennet is a materialist; he holds the view that everything which exists, including consciousness, is fundamentally the product of matter — and the forces and energies causing interactions between matter. If all that exists is objective reality, subjectivity must be ‘a bunch of tricks’.

Most materialists believe that consciousness emerges from complex interactions of (completely unconscious) matter. In order to do this, it is thought, these interactions must conform to specific brain-like patterns of information processing. These patterns generate (or are synonymous with) consciousness. So, much time and effort is put into tracking these patterns with ever increasing efficiency and detail, and mapping the findings onto the reported or presumed experiences of the subject.

While this sort of work is extremely useful for helping to categorize the things consciousnesses tend to do, discovering their physical correlates, and providing valuable insights and perspectives on experience, they don’t touch the hard problem. They couldn’t. This type of stuff is sometimes referred to as ‘the easy problems of consciousness’.

It’s actually hard to find materialists who admit that the hard problem is even a question worth asking. The worldview almost prevents it from being one. Sam Harris, however, does admit it. He’s called the idea of emergence from unconscious matter “incomprehensible” and “impossible to properly conceive”,5 but one wonders how else a materialist could possibly conceive of it. Harris gives no alternatives.

Ray Kurzweil holds this view of consciousness as an emergent property, and in his latest book How to Build a Mind he acknowledges that “these questions can never be fully resolved through science[…] Where consciousness is concerned, the guiding principle is ‘you gotta have faith’ […] My own leap of faith is this: Once machines do succeed in being convincing when they speak of their qualia and conscious experiences, they will indeed constitute conscious persons.”

Materialists often contrast their worldview with Cartesian dualism. Like materialism, dualism is a thoroughly western idea. It posits that matter and objective reality exist exactly as the materialists say, but that consciousness is something extra special that sits on top of matter in some vague and indiscernible way — the proverbial ‘ghost in the machine’.

Most scientists and pop-skeptics today thoroughly reject dualism, and accept materialism. Often, they treat the discussion as if these were the only two options available6 — but that isn’t the case.

What else is there?

Well, panpsychism is the view that consciousness and matter are equally fundamental aspects of reality. It agrees with materialism and dualism that we inhabit some kind of objective spatio-temporal universe, but proposes that all matter is, in some primordial sense, conscious. It doesn’t ‘arise from complexity’ and it isn’t a ghost in the machine, consciousness is a quality that all matter just has.

To be a panpsychist one must believe that, however dimly, there is ‘something that it is like’ to be an electron, or a rock. This also leaves open the possibility that there is ‘something that it is like’ to be a planet. Or a universe. This, of course, is fertile ground for spiritual ideas to flourish, as we hear echoes of Gaia, Mother Earth, and the Universal Mind of God.

Panpsychism solves the hard problem by imbuing all matter with consciousness, by making them coexistent and equally elemental in nature.

Universe in a Magic Drop -- Photo by Hartwig HKD License:

Universe in a Magic Drop — Photo by Hartwig HKD
License: Creative Commons (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Now, while my categorizations here are far from exhaustive — there are almost as many variations on these themes as there are thinkers who’ve seriously tackled them — there is just one final model I want to discuss. It is associated with eastern mystical and religious traditions, but is not limited to them.


Max Planck, the founder of quantum mechanics, states this alternate view succinctly: “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.”7

As Sam Harris says, we cannot deny that consciousness exists.8 It is the only thing we cannot deny exists. Descartes recognized this fundamental truth when he began his epistemological explorations with the truism ‘I think, therefore, I am.’ Idealism does not postulate that anything beyond consciousness (like external material worlds) actually exists. Bernardo Kastrup argues that because idealism makes the fewest assumptions, it is therefore supported by Occam’s razor.

However, it’s not so simple. If this is true, we must believe that matter (and our spatio-temporal universe), rather than consciousness, turns out to be ‘a bunch of tricks’ — a dream; a hallucination. Kastrup’s view sees each of our individual consciousnesses like whirlpools in the vast, oceanic consciousness that is the universe; that again, in eastern traditions, might be called God.

In other words, that we are one consciousness, dreaming the dream that we are many. Allow me to quote at length the great philosopher Alan Watts, because I can’t, and wouldn’t ever try, to say it better:

“I wonder, I wonder, what you would do if you had the power to dream, at night, any dream you wanted to dream — and you would of course be able to alter your time sense, and slip, say 75 years of subjective time into 8 hours of sleep.

You would, I suppose, start out by fulfilling all your wishes. You could design for yourself what would be the most ecstatic life — love affairs, banquets, dancing girls, wonderful journeys, gardens, music beyond belief. And then after a couple of months of this sort of thing, 75 years a night, you’d be getting a little taste for something different, and you would move over to an adventurous dimension, where there were sudden dangers involved, and the thrill of dealing with dangers, and you could rescue princesses from dragons, and go on dangerous journeys. Make wonderful explosions and blow them up. Eventually get into contests with enemies.

And after you’ve done that for some time, you’d think up a new wrinkle. To forget that you were dreaming. So you’d think it was all for real, and be anxious about it. Because it’d be so great when you woke up, and then you’d say — well, like children who dare each other on things — how far out could you get? What could you take? What dimension of being lost, of abandonment of your power, what dimension of that could you stand? You could ask yourself this ‘cos you know you’d eventually wake up.

And after you’ve gone on doing this, you see, for some time, you’d suddenly find yourself sitting around in this room — with all your personal involvements, problems, etc, talking with me. How do you know that’s not what you’re doing? Could be. Because after all, what would you do if you were God?”9

So what do I think?

First and foremost, I’ll say this: I don’t know. I delight in not knowing. It’s a fun game.

However, I do have my biases and intuitions, and I hope that in my exposition above, I haven’t hid them too well. I don’t think I have. But let me be more clear:

I reject dualism. My understanding is that Descartes designed it as a way to appease both enlightenment scientific thinkers and the church, by placing issues of spirit and substance into two distinctly separate realms. Perhaps I do a disservice by rejecting panpsychism (because I can’t, for the life of me, imagine what ‘it is like’ to be a coke can), but in my mind, the two most interesting, vital models of the universe are materialism and idealism.

Idealism, because it imbues existence with meaning and reality with intelligence. It solves the hard problem by removing any claims of something called ‘unconscious matter’ from existence. Materialism, because one must gape in wonder at a blind, mechanistic universe that created this, our world and our selves. There’s something intensely beautiful there. The blind watchmaker. A clock that builds itself. Materialism is beautiful.

In my experience, intensely rational, objective, reductionist, and anti-religious thinking tends to produce materialists, while ecstatic, peak, introspective experiences tend to push people into the realm of idealism. Or, at least, away from materialism.10 The issue we face surrounding beliefs that are based on these powerful subjective experiences, however, is that they mean almost nothing to those who haven’t had them, and often almost everything to those who have.

I am in the somewhat (though not really that) unique position of once having been a dedicated materialist. However, my experiences with psychedelic drugs have given me access to the kinds of peak experiences that are extremely hard to deny, unless you’ve never had them.11

My experiences were that of a diminished sense of my individual ego and a connection to something bigger: A unitive, loving, all-encompassing consciousness. They were also an experience of outer reality as a mirror of my own thoughts, feelings, and intentions — an experience that to some small extent has trickled over into my daily life.

To say, as materialists might, that the understandings about the nature of the universe I came away with, which so closely match the understandings of others who’ve had such peak experiences, were ‘just a hallucination’ is a difficult pill for me to swallow. Not impossible, but difficult.

Once again, we run into the ontological quirkiness that objective information cannot transmit subjective experience. Furthermore, these peak experiences are as varied as are the people who have them, and so their interpretation, from an entirely objective viewpoint, is ineffectual and often useless. Of course, this is what we might expect, if what they do is expose the dream-like nature of reality.

fsdfdfsdfsdfs License:  Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Reality As a Dream — Photo ‘Dematerialization‘ by Hartwig HKD
License: Creative Commons (CC BY-ND 2.0)

If there is some transcendent, ineffable truth that these experiences point to, it seems to evade linguistic description. Words melt on approach, and their meanings buckle and soften. Ideologies can encircle but never encompass it. Like the fable of a group of blind men, all touching and describing different parts of an elephant, not realizing they are speaking of the same thing. This is why all religions fail at their goal of codifying and imparting the divine experience, because it is just that; an experience. It is subjective. It is precisely what objectivity and codification is not.

For these (and other) reasons, the ‘consciousness is fundamental’ crowd tends to attract a lot of fuzzy-thinkers and funny ideas, but it does do one thing that the ‘bunch of tricks’ materialist model cannot — it gives us a reason why it is ‘like something’ to be us.

I have to admit, I find myself seriously entertaining the notion that reality itself is the ‘hallucination’.

That is the power of these experiences.

Maybe this sounds crazy, but…

If you are a staunch, skeptical, philosophical materialist, it may seem as though I’ve triumphantly entered the loony bin. Sorry. Another one bites the dust, I guess. I hope we can still be friends.

For those who are still with me, I want to clarify. It would be too simplistic to say it was these experiences alone that altered my worldview. They were essential, because no words or objective facts could have imparted the understandings I currently consider possible, but words and objective facts did help push me in that direction.

Before having my experiences, simply understanding the hard problem put cracks in my certainty about materialism. It is the only worldview to which the existence of consciousness, our basic experience, seems incomprehensible or illusory.

At that time, I was also diving headfirst into the bizarre and curious world of serious scientific research (yes, it does exist) into stuff like telepathy, remote viewing, mediumship, and near death experiences– and realizing that there is actually some very interesting data there, which, while maybe not conclusive, as I’ve argued before, should be taken more seriously than it currently is.

In the time between, and even after my initial experiences, I was still a materialist for quite some time, but the door had been nudged open. I was examining alternatives. The more I began to entertain viewing the world through through these different perspectives, the more sense it started to make. The more possible and real it started to seem to me. I started to see and hear what Terence McKenna called ‘The Cosmic Giggle’, tittering around the edges of reality.12

Despite these leanings, though, I’m not really sure. I’ve become far less certain of anything, and I’m definitely not making any formal claims about the nature of reality. I fully accept the possibility, though find it hard to believe, that this perception of a universe imbued with intelligence, meaning, and synchronicity is merely a product of wishful thinking and confirmation bias.

So maybe I’m not completely nuts, but I’m enjoying the flirtation.

I’ve become a fascinated fence sitter, and an enthusiastic indulger in what many skeptics would term ‘fuzzy thinking’. But I can’t lie. My intuitions (and dare I indulge to say my hopes) lie with the view that all is consciousness, playing a trick on itself. Creating a drama for fun.

“I will participate in the game. It is a wonderful, wonderful opera – except that it hurts.” – Joseph Campbell 13

So what do YOU think?

I don’t know that this debate will ever come to an end. Not because one side or the other is ‘too stubborn’ to see the truth, but because the answer is inaccessible by design (at least, objectively). Both Idealism and Materialism can be modeled effectively in accordance with our scientific knowledge, and in some sense or another, both can be squared with our subjective experience.

We just have to decide, which do we think is the ‘illusion’? Consciousness or the material world?14

  1. The Mystery of Consciousness – Sam Harris  (back)
  2. One hundred and one things you don’t know about science and no one else does either. – James Trefil  (back)
  3. Interview in Philosophy now magazine — here  (back)
  4. Illusion — here; A bunch of tricks — here  (back)
  5. Ibid  (back)
  6. An interesting example of this came up when I was grabbing the wiki link for ‘Philosophical Zombies’ above. I came across the RationalWiki page on p-zombies. They state: “There are philosophers who actually take this notion seriously and consider that the p-zombie thought experiment is sufficient to prove dualism.[1]” That reference number leads to a footnote which states: “Or disprove materialism. Expect hair-splitting.” I think this is a really great example of the bias towards these western models displayed by pop-skeptics (whose worst kinds of qualities reach a fevered pitch on RationalWiki) today. As if the difference between dualism and every other non-materialistic worldview is just ‘hair-splitting’. David Chalmers, the current philosopher who most often refers to the p-zombie issue is actually sympathetic towards panpsychism.  (back)
  7. Quoted in ‘The Observer’, Jan 25, 1931 — article reprinted here  (back)
  8. Ibid  (back)
  9. Hear audio here  (back)
  10. Note: These are generalizations about billions of people, and as such, there will likely be millions to whom they don’t apply. There are materialists who’ve had peak experiences, and believe them congruent with that framework. There are idealists who’ve arrived at that position based on logic, reason, and evidence. I am speaking here of general trends and not of absolute categorical distinctions.  (back)
  11. You can see my earliest attempt to express this changing worldview in this mock conversation with myself I created at my old blog, addressing statements I had made three years prior, and how my positions had changed.  (back)
  12. If you are unfamiliar with the concept, first watch this one minute video, then click to view this text: “The ‘Cosmic Giggle’ is a randomly roving zone of synchronicity and statistical anomaly. Should you be caught up in it, it will turn reality on its head. It is objective and subjective, simultaneously ‘really there’ and yet somehow is sustained by imagination and expectation; the umbilicus of our ontology, the place where we see that the world came from something very different from what it now appears to be.” – Terence McKenna and then if you are completely confused by that word salad, you need to take more acid or meditate or something. I’m kidding. Kinda. No words can impart the experience. No words would have convinced me of the experience before I had it.  (back)
  13. The Power of Myth – Joseph Campbell  (back)
  14. Or, of course, you can entirely reject my framing of this issue and come to some other, completely novel conclusion. 🙂   (back)

3 thoughts on “The Most Important Thing in The Universe

  1. says

    Whenever we are feeling a bit overwhelmed by the nature of things, it’s probably good to remember that Campbell quote at the end there. Be the kid who finds a way to enjoy the vacation that he had no say in planning, even if the very nature of it hurts. Thanks for putting so much effort into your writing. I’m following your blog so I’ll try to comment more when I can. Peace.

  2. Jordan says

    Yes!- someone else who respects Alan Watts.

    I think it takes courage to move from an objective view to a subjective view. This causes your whole view of the universe to crumble. An objective view is very concrete and certain, but a subjective one is not. Overall I think the subjective view is correct. There are many people who have moved from materialism to idealsim, but I don’t know anyone who has moved the other way. That “spark” is such a jolt that you recognize it being beyond the objective universe. This experience you cannot describe to any materialist, just like you can’t describe colors to a blind person.

  3. Michael Larkin says

    Just a word about “what it is like to be a…”. Things like rocks, sofas, coke cans and and sand dunes are what Ken Wilber calls “heaps”. Just collections of things. There is nothing it is like to be a heap. In my view, being animate is what introduces the possibility of being something it is like to be, because with being animate comes the possibility of consciousness. Or, maybe, it’s the other way about: with being conscious comes the possibility of being “animate”: literally, with being imbued with anima or spirit. An organism, as Bernardo Kastrup might put it, is the image in localised consciousness of a process in universal consciousness. A process whereby universal consciousness is able to experience itself from a particular, restricted viewpoint.

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