Why do most scientists not consider the primacy of consciousness?

What if matter is made of consciousness, just like a dream is made of consciousness?

This is a radical notion to be sure, and it's easily misunderstood. Let's address the most common misunderstandings.

Misunderstanding #1: The scientific evidence supports the idea that the brain creates consciousness, and therefore that consciousness is not primary.

The argument here goes something like this: Since evidence shows we can create changes in mental experience by activating or deactivating areas of the brain, it means the brain is causing changes in consciousness. Therefore the brain (matter) is primary.

At first glance this may seem like a compelling argument. But on closer inspection, we see that the cited evidence is also entirely consistent with the view that consciousness is primary. If consciousness is primary, then what we call the brain is also a mental experience, a partial representation of local mental processes (such as personality and body). From this perspective, changing the brain simply means changing aspects of the mind. We would definitely expect one to reflect in the other, because they are not fundamentally different to begin with.

So why is this misunderstanding believed so strongly? One reason is that many who conduct these experiments implicitly believe in a philosophy of dualism - namely, that there is a physical world and a separate mental world, based on their experience of the world. Investigating that belief and seeing how evidence might truly influence it is as much a matter of philosophy (ontology) and self-reflection as it is of science, yet our schools generally don't teach such a balanced approach. Hence, we see many well known public figures who present this unexamined belief as fact, with a legion of unsuspecting students following suit.

The cited evidence is consistent with consciousness being primary and matter being primary. In other words, the evidence is agnostic.

Misunderstanding #2: If you say consciousness is primary, then you are suggesting that this whole world is happening in my head.

This misunderstanding again first presumes the duality of brain and mind, and then deduces that since the brain is in the head, the entire world of mental experience is also in the head. What I'm saying is that consciousness is fundamental and that the brain (a local reflection of a local personality in consciousness) is an experience in consciousness.

Consciousness is not mine or yours; it is the nature of reality, just as consciousness is the nature of dream, in which individual characters can appear. Therefore the brain is not needed for consciousness in general, although it certainly appears in strong association with a local identity like you and I. The world is mental, even if my brain isn't perceiving it.

Another way of seeing this is to recognize that the mind is the primary organ of experience, not the brain. However, that mind wouldn't be my mind or your mind, but rather the universe (or all universes) as mind, of which my mind and your mind are localized processes.

Misunderstanding #3: If this is all a dream, why should we bother?

I'm not saying this waking experience is a dream. I'm saying that whatever this universe of stuff is made of, it's the same stuff that a dream is made of, namely consciousness. As such, it appears as a dream appears, but it is not a dream.

There is a continuity to this waking experience that is generally not present to the same extent in episodic dreams. We still have responsibilities. We still have the ability to improve the quality of our lives and the lives of others. And an important aspect of that is recognizing what we are and what this world is more clearly.

Misunderstanding #4: Matter can't be made of consciousness because we already know it's made of particles.

If I research what my hand is made of, I would find that it's made of muscles, bones, and tendons. A chemist might answer differently and say that it's actually made of carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen. A physicist might disagree with both and say that the hand is made of elementary particles. Of course, all three would be right, depending on the scale we are looking at. 

A closer look reveals that none of these answers tells us what the hand is, they only describe what the hand looks like at smaller scales. In other words, the hand is a thing, and so are muscles, carbon atoms, and elementary particles. But what is a thing, fundamentally? This is where consciousness fills out the picture.

In a dream, a dream-scientist could study a dream-hand and still find dream-muscles, dream-atoms, and dream-elementary particles, yet it's obvious that all those levels of structure are still nothing but consciousness appearing as forms at different scales. Importantly, the scientist that is studying the structures is also made of the same stuff. As a hypothesis, consider that the same might be happening right now.

All things are objects of our perception. Even our own bodies and minds are objects of our perception. Consciousness is that which modifies itself as both the observing scientist and the hand that is observed. It modifies itself as the individual you and these words you are reading.

Misunderstanding #5: Even if consciousness is primary, it doesn't matter. It doesn't change anything.

The more we recognize ourselves as a dance of consciousness, or consciousness reflected upon itself, the more we move toward self-love, love for all, peace, and joy. I'm not saying it's impossible to experience these without realizing the primacy of consciousness, but I am saying that there is a limit to how deeply these experiences can unfold as long as our psyche is split into two parts - mental and "physical."

This unnatural mental schism engenders an underlying anxiety and fear that perpetually runs in the background of the mind. At the deepest level, we know something is missing, that something doesn't fit. Recognizing the radical incompleteness of the stories we've been told is the beginning of healing that schism and unleashing the full scope of the mind.

There are many more reasons to consider the primacy of consciousness, including

  • It's the simplest and most comprehensive theory of the nature of reality.
  • It will lead to a deeper understanding of science that can help us understand anomalous experiences. (The primacy of consciousness is pro-science, a point that is often missed due to these misunderstandings.)
  • It will lead to the development of more powerful technologies. (It can be argued that perhaps it is good we don't have a deeper understanding of the nature of reality given that the knowledge can easily be misused.)

Misunderstanding #6: This is too complex and convoluted.

The radically incomplete stories we've been told are much more convoluted than the idea that consciousness is primary, which is the simplest and most comprehensive theory of the nature of reality. The primacy of consciousness is something we all experience as children, until we reify stories from those who haven't examined life into concepts of reality. You can absolutely understand and experience this if you are open to exploring it as a real possibility. It is your nature after all. Take the primacy of consciousness as a hypothesis and begin experimenting.

An educated society cannot afford to ignore the primacy of consciousness.

Tweet questions and comments to @DrAnoopKumar

Anoop Kumar, MD, MM is board certified in Emergency Medicine and holds a Master’s degree in Management with a focus in Health Leadership. 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.