Consciousness is at once mundane and profound. It’s mundane because it’s as common as the air we breathe. It’s profound because it shapes our view of the spiritual world.
Consciousness is by nature non-physical. For most of us, it seems to be “centred just behind my eyes, right in the middle of my head,” says Jay Ingram in his book Theatre of the Mind – Raising the Curtain on Consciousness. That’s not the case for everyone. Some locate consciousness in the back of the head, or even the throat or heart.
Sometimes consciousness seems not to be in the body at all, as when you think of the last time you were on the beach; you might see yourself from behind, from above or just about anywhere except inside your head.
Consciousness leads us to imagine beings without bodies. The existence of ghosts, gods, angels, devils seems perfectly plausible. If gods exist, then religions are a natural consequence.
The speculation is endless. If our minds are as separate from material bodies, then it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that we continue to exist after we die. And maybe those non-physical beings materialize in the bodies others as in reincarnation.
There are some indisputable qualities of consciousness. John Searle, in his book The Mystery of Consciousness lists them. For one, consciousness is completely subjective: it’s all about us. Another is its singular nature. Despite drawing from widely different senses, it presents us with one view. The pain of stubbing your toe occupies the same world as what you are reading.
However, the impression that consciousness is non-material is wrong. It seems to me that the mind and body are one and that dualism, the so-called mind-body problem, is a consequence of the misunderstanding of consciousness. That would explain why mental illness can be treated through chemicals or through the mind. George Johnson explains:
“Depression can be treated in two radically different ways: by altering the brain with chemicals, or by altering the mind by talking to a therapist. But we still can’t explain how mind arises from matter or how, in turn, mind acts on the brain (Globe and Mail, Aug. 5, 2016, Magic in the machine)”
The two treatments only seem different if we are convinced that the mind and brain are separate.
Just what consciousness is remains a mystery but here are four explanations from the most plausible to least.
Neuroscientist Michael Graziano proposes that consciousness is a kind of con game the brain plays with itself, similar to a dream. Consciousness is simulation of the workings of the brain –the firing of neurons and synapses. “The machine mistakenly thinks it has magic inside it.”
Along the same lines, Jay Ingram suggests that consciousness is a story that our brains tell ourselves: “consciousness is a highly processed and abstracted version of the world outside the head, an invention more than an impression… (p.27).”
John Searle: “In my view we have to abandon dualism and start with the assumption that consciousness is an ordinary biological phenomenon comparable to growth, digestion, and the production of bile (p.6).”
And lastly, consciousness is built into everything including molecules and atoms. Called panpsychism, advocates see themselves as minds in a world of minds.