Here’s one thing we know, and know for sure: dumb matter and energy can become self-aware. How do we know? Because we know; because we are dumb matter and energy, and we are self-aware. Si cogitationem mundo: if we can think, the world can. The only question — but boy, it’s a doozy — is how.
Is consciousness an inherent state of matter? In other words, if you arrange matter just so, can it become aware? If so, what is just so? What are the requirements for consciousness? Is it a function of the complexity of any feedback-capable system? In other words, if you make something that can input from the world and output back into it, and you make that thing’s structure and capability complex enough, will it become conscious? Could you build a mind out of wood, powered by waterwheels? I don’t think it’s a stupid question, though it may seem stupid on the face of it. Because I keep coming back to the irrefutable fact that a bunch of soggy carbon powered by electrical impulses converted from the chemical energy stored in glucose can, in fact, not only become aware of itself, but write shitty pop songs. There is nothing exotic about the stuff our dreams are made of: we’re complicated systems, sure, but there’s no odd elements in our brains or bodies, no unobtanium. Most of the complex organisms on this planet are made of, by and large, the exact same chemicals in near-identical proportions.
And yet, we think. (I’m not saying that animals don’t think, or aren’t self-aware, because I think many of them are or approach that state, but purely from a Darwinian standpoint, they’re not as good at it as we are; no other species has developed advanced language or the ability to store ideas beyond the lifetime of their creator, or at least insofar as we know, and I’m pretty sure we could recognize that sort of thing if it was there. I could be wrong. But it’s a reasonable guess.)
Alan Watts once said: “You are an aperture through which the universe is looking at and exploring itself.” That is not mystical bullshit — or rather, it’s mystical, but it’s not bullshit. One of the great benefits of psychedelics is that they can make you viscerally aware that there is no real distinction between you and the universe that you perceive as being outside of you, any more than there’s a distinction between a tree and the ground it grows in. There is no barrier, no separation. You are simply a part of the continuum of the universe. And in that sense, Watts is absolutely correct: you and your mind are a node in the universe, through which it is experiencing itself.
To me, consciousness is all part of the Mystery: the infinite universe in which we exist, which we know so much and yet so little about. We can use telescopes to look backwards in time nearly to the beginning of the universe itself, and yet we are still so ignorant of how we ourselves work. We can guess at the composition of the heart of a star, but we haven’t been able to work out how the photosynthesis that happens in the leaves of a house plant works well enough to create it for ourselves.
Of course, a lot of people have pointed this out…but for, I think, the wrong reasons. They use it as a sort of smug humility, a way of saying “See? All your science is hubris.” But that’s just nonsense. We’re not ignorant because we can’t understand these things — I believe the human mind’s capacity for understanding is nearly infinite. We’re ignorant because we haven’t been doing this for very long at all. Shit, we’re still less than three hundred years away from Isaac Newton. A thousand years ago, most humans thought the world was flat and the stars were termite holes in the floor of Heaven. The fact that we’ve come so very far so very fast is encouraging, even if we have so far to go.
The mysteries of the universe are exciting not because I believe they can’t be solved, but because I believe that they can, and because I believe that doing so is the primary useful activity of the human species, and a lot of fun along the way.