Clarifying Consciousness

I just finished watching a conversation about life, death, and the afterlife between Michael Shermer and Jordan Peterson on YouTube. They brought up some intriguing points that hovered on the line between the physical and metaphysical. Unsurprisingly, the topic of consciousness came up and I found myself wishing I could comment on some aspects of their exploration.

Consciousness is often spoken about as if it's another piece of the puzzle of life, like matter or our thoughts. While it may seem that way, a close analysis reveals that consciousness is of a different order, because everything we know and believe, including perception, science, history, philosophy, and even supernatural phenomena, depends on consciousness being present to begin with.

With this in mind, I'd like to comment on a few points brought up in the conversation.

Where does consciousness go when I die?

This question reveals one of the most common misunderstandings about consciousness - that it is fundamentally personal. While consciousness also appears as a personal experience (for example, our personal thoughts, emotions, sense of identity), it is also non-personal and non-localized.

A good way to understand this is to look at your last dream. In that dream, you had your own personality, your own brain, and your own body, but the stuff those were made of is the same stuff that the furniture in the dream was made of, namely your sleeping mind.

Similarly, consciousness appears as the localized personality, but is in no way restricted to a particular type of appearance. All appearances are oscillations or patterns of consciousness.

With this understanding, it is seen that time and space are also appearances of consciousness. So where does consciousness go when I die? It doesn't go anywhere because it hasn't come from anywhere. Every "where" is a location in space and time. What "dies" (or, more precisely, what trans-forms) is a particular pattern of consciousness.

Is consciousness required for the world to exist?

The world that we perceive is a human world. It is not an objective world. First, we must recognize that the brain interprets stimuli into a perception of the world. The photons that arrive at the retina carry no color or form. The vibrations of air that strike our eardrum carry no sound. And so on for every sensation we have of the world. The world is an amalgamation of interpreted sensations.

Now further consider that sensations the brain interprets are based upon a infinitesimal fraction of the data that exist in the world. For example, the retina transmits light only if its wavelength falls between 400 and 700 nanometers. So not only is the world we perceive an interpretation of reality, it is an interpretation based on a tiny fraction of the available data. The world is our collective projection.

Professor Anil Seth says something similar to this in his TED talk about consciousness. But he doesn't go far enough. The next step is a doozy, but we can't hide from it.

To say that the world we perceive is an interpretation of our nervous system is still a cop-out. After all, isn't our nervous system, including the brain, itself a perception? My first-person brain sees your third-person brain, but the first-person brain is a concept and the third-person brain is a perception. Either way, the brain itself is an interpretation, and according to the science of perception, a poor interpretation of what is actually here.

What we call a "brain" is simply how we project a localized human process of consciousness. The brain is a partial image of the human mind. That process understandably co-influences other processes (accounting for neuroplasticity and personal will.) When we get lost in the perceptual side of this experience, everything seems to localize within the framework of time and space as hard and physical - the material world.

So, to answer the question, some kind of personal consciousness, or mind, is required to perceive this world, as in the human world. There is no sense in talking about the world because we don't perceive the world. All we perceive is this human world. In a broader sense, yes, consciousness is required for any perception. Just as the furniture in your dream is made of your mind, the furniture in your room right now is sustained by consciousness.

Are we living in an iconic reality?

In other words, is everything we perceive a representative of reality, so to speak?

Yes. We just saw that the human world is a human interpretation. It is a representation of reality. However, that doesn't make it unreal or meaningless. It makes it more beautiful. In fact, stunning. This is a different level of reality - rich, meaningful, full of possibility. By seeing the full picture, we are enriched. We are home.

Is it possible to go outside this human reality? Is it possible to see more, know more? If it is possible, the human mind would have to be swapped. It's not about dropping the body or the brain, which is why trying to escape this world doesn't work. The body can be injured but the mind remains intact and will revisit the experiences it tends toward. The key is to see this experience you are having now, looking at this screen, fully. Right here, in this experience, is the mechanism of all experience.

Is a soccer ball really a soccer ball?

A soccer ball can be considered an icon, at the level of perception. But to answer whether it really is a soccer ball, we have to recognize that perception depends on the identity of the perceiver.

  • If I am a human body, then the soccer ball is interpreted as really a soccer ball.
  • If I am a mind, then my body is a projection of the mind and the soccer ball is really a projection of the mind.
  • If I am consciousness, then there are no projections or interpretations, including no projection of a localized, personal identity.

Jordan explores whether the soccer ball might actually be a low-resolution image of what's actually here. But the fact is, what's actually here is entirely dependent on the sense of identity. The low-resolution image occurs at the junction of the body-mind identity, or at what I call the junction between First Mind and Second Mind.

Why are we, as a species, so interested in heaven and immortality?

Religion talks about it.

Spirituality talks about it.

Philosophy talks about it.

And now science is talking about it too.

How can we live on? And, just as importantly, why do we want to? The interest in heaven, immortality, and supernatural states stems from the deep recognition every human being has that there's more to the picture than the 4D world. Every human has the capacity for wonder. Regardless of which thought system you subscribe or don't subscribe to, wonder comes standard. That wonder is an opening to infinity. It hints that beyond that gateway is something beyond imagination, even if we never conceptualize or articulate it as such. 

Heaven and immortality are not physical things. They exist in their own way right now, right here, beyond the veil of physicalized perceptions and localized identity. As they are recognized, the interest in them naturally wanes, because they are not somewhere else, some goal to be attained. Paradoxically, the more unreal they seem, the more intriguing they are, because that means the gap between my perception and reality is great, and so I pant for clarity.

The desire to live longer is an opaque projection of the desire to see this moment fully, clearly.

How can I understand consciousness?

First recognize that what scientists are calling consciousness is almost always not consciousness. They are referring to aspects of consciousness, or patterns of consciousness, or localizations of consciousness, all which which we can call "mind." Anything that has a pattern, fluctuates, or changes is the mind, including spacetime itself.

Understanding consciousness requires recognizing shifts in our identity. Everything else is window shopping. An exploration of identity usually begins with body and moves inward toward the personality, thoughts, and emotions. From there, it may move to the sense of division between "in here" and "out there." At this point, thinking can only be of so much help, because it tends to localize the identity back in the personality. (That doesn't mean we shouldn't think, only that thinking has to be suspended for some time, after which it can be brought back in subtle form to contemplate the experience.)

Through meditation, which can take a variety of forms, one has to recognize the fluctuating sense of identity that localizes and de-localizes, based on which thinking takes on a perspective. When that sense of fluctuating identity becomes the most prominent aspect of any experience, whether falling asleep, eating a bowl of cereal, or exploring the implications of quantum mechanics, the mind is beginning to give way to reality, which itself is beyond thought and perception, shining of its own accord.

There is no fixed self, as Michael notes in the video. There is only that which knows the relativity of all selves. Consciousness isn't something separate to understand. It is what we are.

Is this metaphorical talk and hyperbole?

The only way to know is to experiment. Consider what I've said as a hypothesis, and be diligent and meticulous with your experimentation.

Anoop Kumar, MD, MM is board certified in Emergency Medicine and holds a Master’s degree in Management with a focus in Health Leadership from McGill University. He practices in the Washington, DC metro area, where he also leads meditation gatherings for clinicians. He is the author of the book Michelangelo’s Medicine: How redefining the human body will transform health and healthcare. Follow him @DrAnoopKumar.