Wednesday, August 27, 2014

From the Big Bang to the Immortality of the Self?

In his 1999 book The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World (Basic Books, New York), the British philosopher Colin McGinn advances a thought-provoking hypothesis concerning the relation between consciousness and the creation of the universe in the Big Bang. Although this hypothesis – as McGinn frankly admits – is wildly speculative, there is a seductively plausible logic to it. In the following I want to use McGinn's hypothesis as a stepping stone towards a plausible or at least possible argument for the immortality of the self. Whether this argument is convincing I leave for the reader to the decide. As a philosopher I have no religious stake in this matter and am merely interested in the rationality of the arguments at hand.

The hard problem of consciousness
The theoretical background of McGinn's hypothesis is the so-called "hard problem" of consciousness, the question of how a straightforwardly physical object like the human brain can produce consciousness. The problem lies basically in the subjectivity of consciousness, the fact that it is first-person-dependent: conscious states – thoughts, feelings, perceptions, emotions – are always for somebody, there is a "raw feel" to them, a way they are like for the conscious subject. And indeed only for this subject, because consciousness is inherently private, inaccessible for other subjects. How I experience redness, for example, is utterly unknowable to others – a fact that, as is well-known, gives rise to the possibility of inverted color spectra (i.e. maybe your "red" is my "blue", but we have no way of telling the difference). Now the hard problem of consciousness follows from the fact that this first-person-dependency is obviously missing in physical reality as described by science. Physical reality has a third-person mode of existence, it is observable for different subjects at the same time (otherwise science as a public enterprise would be impossible). Physical reality exists independently from its observer(s). So how can nature make the causal transition from brain to conscious? How can the publicly observable reality described by physics give rise to the essentially private experiences that constitute consciousness? Of course, there is no denying that consciousness is somehow causally dependent on the brain: stimulate the brain and as a result consciousness changes. We have moreover no evidence whatsoever that consciousness survives the biological death of the brain (or do we? here McGinn's hypothesis seems to have some interesting consequences, as explained below). Yet the precise nature of this causal dependency of consciousness on brain is deeply mysterious. According to the advocates of the"hard problem" thesis, this mystery is basically impenetrable for standard science, remaining as it must within the third-person observable realm of physical nature.

Consciousness and the Big Bang
Now it is not my intention to examine all the diverse arguments pro and contra the physical irreducibility of consciousness (though the apparent physical impossibility of freedom must at least be mentioned here as a major part of the hard problem). My aim is to show what McGinn does with this problem and then to offer some thoughts of my own inspired by McGinn's ideas. For McGinn, the hard problem of consciousness shows that the latter is definitely in a different ontological category than physical reality. Whereas physical reality is material and spatial, consciousness – though somehow causally connected to the brain – is in itself immaterial and non-spatial. So far there is basically nothing new to McGinn's approach. The fun starts when – in a brilliant leap of originality – he relates this special nature of consciousness to the question: "What caused the Big Bang?" The strength of McGinn's argumentation here is that he takes the physicists at their word when they say that matter, time and space only came into existence with the Big Bang itself. Thus there is no point in asking for a standard, i.e. physical, explanation of the Big Bang, since any such explanation must presuppose the presence of matter, time and space. Hence, McGinn reasons, the cause of the Big Bang must have been immaterial and non-spatial. One could object to this that since not only space but also time arose only with the Big Bang, there was no time before the Big Bang and hence no prior cause. But this is a non-starter, given the fact that a cause need not necessarily precede its effect in time. Causation can be instantaneous. Think, for example, of a locomotive pulling a train: the motion of the former causes the motion of the latter, yet the two are concurrent in time. Hence the claim that there was no time before the Big Bang does not rule out a cause for the latter. And since science, if anything, is the search for causes, science must reckon with the possibility of a non-spatial and immaterial cause of the Big Bang. No doubt the reader will already foresee the direction in which McGinn will take this issue. If (and admittedly it is a big if) consciousness is immaterial and non-spatial, and if the Big Bang must have had an immaterial and non-spatial cause, then doesn't it stand to reason that the two are intrinsically connected? Wouldn't Occam's Razor ("entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity") enjoin us to investigate this link, to investigate whether the immaterial and non-spatial cause of the universe is the very same 'substance' of which consciousness is made? This, indeed, is McGinn's suggestion. Here is what he writes:

"It seems to me that the Big Bang must have had a cause, and that this cause operated in a state of reality that preceded the creation of matter and space... This is a kind of converse to the emergence of consciousness from the brain... Maybe consciousness exploited those nonspatial features of the pre-Big Bang universe to lever itself into existence. The universe had a nonspatial "dimension" in its pre-Big Bang phase, and this persisted in some form after the Big Bang... Eventually brains made their epoch-making entrance and tapped into this pre-spatial dimension, transforming it into consciousness... The nonspatial "dimension" was, so to speak, resurrected by the brain and took on the garb of consciousness... Of course, I have no idea what this dimension of reality is like, what composes it, what its laws are. I have simply deduced, speculatively, to be sure, that something along these lines has to be true, given what else we know about the universe." (pp.119-122)

A most fecund hypothesis
The astute reader will no doubt have noticed McGinn's faux pas of presupposing a time before the Big Bang. This assumption, to repeat, has been discredited by current scientific theories, according to which not only space but time as well came into existence with the Big Bang. Even apart from that mistake, however, McGinn's argument retains its strength, since the relation from cause to effect need not be temporally extended, as we already noted. It seems to me that McGinn's argument is basically valid and only dependent on one somewhat iffy premiss, namely, the assumption that there is indeed a hard problem of consciousness, such that consciousness is irreducible to matter and hence immaterial and nonspatial (personally, however, I am quite convinced there is a hard problem of consciousness). The other premiss, that the cause of the Big Bang must have been immaterial and nonspatial as well, seems to follow automatically if science is right in claiming that matter, time and space arose only with the Big Bang. That premiss is therefore in essence scientifically sound, as strange as it may seem. (But so what? Strangeness is after all not a stranger to quantum physics, with its superpositions, wave-particle duality, quantum entanglements, spacetime loops, vacuum polarization and what not.) Science must search for the cause of the Big Bang; otherwise it wouldn't be science. Hence, if we accept the hard problem of consciousness, Occam's Razor forces us to hypothesize that the immaterial and nonspatial 'substance' of consciousness is the same (kind of) 'thing' that caused the Big Bang. Here, I think, McGinn has really given has something to chew on.

I greatly admire the bold way in which McGinn, through a relatively simple but quite legitimate question about the relation between the Big Bang and the nature of consciousness, opens up a whole panoply of entirely new philosophical and scientific vistas. If McGinn's hypothesis is correct, it gives us a revolutionary novel way of studying these matters. The causation of the Big Bang and the emergence of consciousness from the brain become mutually clarifying research areas. As McGinn himself notes: "If the present speculations are correct [...], then we have the strange result that the best way to understand the pre-Big Bang universe might be to study present-day consciousness, for consciousness carries the remnants of that distant time." (p.122) What McGinn doesn't note, but what is nevertheless implied by his hypothesis, is that the converse holds as well: the best way to understand consciousness might be to study the origin of the Big Bang. Thus quantum cosmology, which attempts to explain the Big Bang in terms of quantum mechanics, might become directly relevant to solving the mystery of consciousness. Roger Penrose already hypothesized that quantum mechanics might be the key to unravel this mystery, but – by lack of tangible scientific results – this research program ran into a blind alley. Now McGinn's hypothesis opens up a whole new way of resurrecting Penrose's program of using quantum mechanics (or rather quantum cosmology) to explain consciousness. On a more philosophical note, McGinn's hypothesis gives new food for thought to those philosophical idealists who theorize that mind produces matter rather than vice versa. For if the immaterial, non-spatial and timeless cause of the Big Bang is the same (kind of) 'substance' that underlies the nature of consciousness, then doesn't it stand to reason that consciousness has somehow been involved in the production of the Big Bang?

Hawking and the timeless beginning of time
Here I obviously cannot investigate all these questions further. What I would like to do, in conclusion, is draw attention to just one particular consequence of McGinn's hypothesis, namely, the fact that it can be used as an argument for immortality. This is suggested by the fact that the cause of the Big Bang must have been timeless, since time – along with space and matter – only came into existence with the Big Bang. This requires, however, that we go beyond the letter of McGinn's hypothesis. For as we have seen, McGinn makes the faux pas of talking about a "pre-Big Bang universe" (p.120) as the cause of the Big Bang. But as Stephen Hawking has aphoristically noted: asking what was before the Big Bang is just as absurd as asking what is north of the North Pole. According to the current scientific model of the Big Bang, the beginning of the universe in the Big Bang was also the beginning of time. "But how can time have a beginning?" we might ask: "If there is a beginning of time, shouldn't there are also have been a time before that beginning? Does it make sense to speak of a timeless beginning of time?" According to Hawking, however, there is no problem here, since time – like space – becomes 'looped' as we move backwards to the singularity with which the Big Bang started. Thus if we could move backwards in time, ever closer towards the singularity, we would nonetheless never reach it, since we would invariably arrive at a later moment in time, a moment we had already passed, as if we had been running in a circle. This is because as we approach the singularity, we approach an infinite mass with infinite gravity compressed into an infinitely small point. Since, as we know since Einstein, gravity curves spacetime (or rather: gravity is the curvature of spacetime), the curvature of spacetime is infinite in the singularity. In other words: spacetime becomes looped, circular, such that even when you move in a straight line (whether in space or backwards in time) you nevertheless arrive at your starting point. Thus we come to what might seem to be a paradoxical conclusion: although time only began with the Big Bang, there nonetheless was never a beginning in time. Time had always already begun. Due to the infinite curvature of spacetime, there was never a first moment (a first "Planck time"). For Hawking, this is a way of saying that the universe is both finite and infinite at once: it is finite because it only began with the Big Bang some 14 billion years ago, but at the same time it is infinite since there never was a first moment in time. The universe, as Hawking puts it, is infinitely finite. Now this is a paradox, but only if we assume that the 'beginning' of time must have been an event in time. The beginning or rather the cause of the Big Bang (since "beginning" already connotes temporality), then, must have been timeless.

The immortality of the self
This is where we can transform McGinn's hypothesis into an argument for immortality. For if the 'substance' of consciousness is the same kind of 'substance' that caused the Big Bang, and if the latter cause must have been timeless, then doesn't it stand to reason that the 'substance' of consciousness is timeless as well? Indeed, if we take McGinn's hypothesis seriously, we cannot escape such a conclusion. The question then remains, of course, to what this timelessness – this immortality – pertains? Is it consciousness as such which is timeless, or just some as yet unknown substrate underlying consciousness? What seems to weigh in favor of the latter possibility is the fact that individual consciousness, as it exists in individual persons, is undeniably temporal. We experience our thoughts, feelings and sensations not as eternally static entities, like Platonic intelligibilia, but as processes that come and go, incessantly flowing in what William James called the "stream of consciousness". Hence the timelessness inherent to consciousness seems to pertain primarily to some sub-personal level of consciousness. But does "sub-personal" here imply the complete absence of personhood, of subjectivity, of selfhood? That seems problematic in light of the hard problem of consciousness. As we have seen, that problem arises specifically because of the first-person-dependency of consciousness, i.e. the fact that it cannot be abstracted from a particular subjective point of view. Consciousness is always consciousness for someone. But if we cannot abstract consciousness from its subject, then shouldn't we say that the substrate of consciousness necessarily involves subjectivity? If so, then the timelessness of that substrate implies the timelessness of subjectivity as well, in other words: it implies the immortality of the self. But whose self is this? Is this the human self, such that each individual consciousness presupposes an individual yet timeless self as its substrate? This seems to be Kant's position, who argued that each "empirical self" presupposes a "transcendental subject" or "subject in itself" outside of time and space. Or should we say that this immortal self is God? I must, obviously, confess complete ignorance here, though I must admit that the connection with the causation of the Big Bang seems to make God the most likely candidate.

1 comment:

  1. The conclusions here are similar to what Lord Krishna explains in the Bhagavad gita: He says that the soul is superior to consciousness and that consciousness exists because inside the body (in the heart) there is the tiny soul that "activates" the body, making each of us alive. He says that the soul -like a lamp- illumes
    the entire living entity giving rise to consciousness. At the same instant when the body dies, consciousness is turned off but the soul can go back to reunite with Krishna, since all of the souls are sparks of his effulgent body. So yes, the immortal self is God, but this (in Vedic terms) doesn't entail that we will lose our selfhood after death. In fact, it is explained that once having reached the kingdom of God each of us is recognized personally and welcomed personally by the Lord and that in His realm we will enjoy a spiritual eternal lifetime of renderng service unto Him.