Matter, Consciousness, and All That

1)      Is existence determined by the consistent behavior of fundamental material particles?

Spinoza and Albert Einstein were adamant on this point. In Einstein’s words, “Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control.” He added, however: “I am compelled to act as if free will existed, because if I wish to live in a civilized society I must act responsibly.”

His convictions were challenged by the rise of quantum theory, which identified some areas of uncertainty. As Einstein’s biographer, Walter Isaacson[i], noted: “Einstein quickly realized that quantum theory could undermine classical physics.”   Einstein himself acknowledged that “It was as if the ground had been pulled out from under us, with no firm foundation to be seen anywhere.”

We live today in a quantum world. Scientists have shown they can make extremely accurate predictions based on deterministic cause and effect. The recent identification of “gravity waves,” as predicted by Einstein, which depended on amazingly precise measurement, is an example. But a world of quantum waves that may stretch to other parts of the universe, or “entangle” instantaneously with waves / particles in distant places, seems a less solid basis for deterministic causality than a world of particles colliding like billiard balls.

Where there is uncertainty, some freedom is not absolutely ruled out.


2)      Is consciousness merely the motion of molecules or the interaction of neurons in our brains?

No. Consciousness may be a product of those interactions, but most philosophers would agree that the experience of life is a different kind of thing from any observation one can make of it. As an illustration of the difference, Colin McGinn, writing in the April, 2014 New York Review of Books, cites some well-known examples, noting that “a blind man ignorant of the nature of color will never come to understand what color is (while remaining blind),” and “our inability to imagine what it is like to be a bat is permanent, since our imagination is constrained by the type of mind that we happen to have.”

So, we know of at least two kinds of things in our universe: the interaction of matter, and the phenomenon of awareness, or consciousness.

The above does NOT contradict the possibility that our conscious thoughts are completely determined by their material base. Spinoza boldly dismissed all other possibilities: “Man considers himself free,” he says, “because he is conscious of his wishes and appetites, whilst at the same time he is ignorant of the causes by which he is led to wish and desire.”

Colin McGinn grimly acknowledges in the book review referenced above that: “If there is anyone left in the world who does not believe that the mind can be minutely controlled by the brain, right down to particular molecules, then this book (‘Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain,’ by Patricia S. Churchland) might disabuse them of such ideas.”

The late J.B.S. Haldane, a polymath and biologist in the first half of the 20th century, was an example of a person who did NOT believe physical matter controls our thoughts. More interestingly, he also commented that “if my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically.”[ii]

The argument from logic resonates with me: if we lack free will, it seems quite a leap of faith to trust that ideas we were effectively programmed to hold long before we were born, are true.   How would we ever discover that we were NOT living in a “Matrix” situation? Are the wind-up toys in the cartoon on this page pre-programmed to understand their situation?

It may, in fact, be impossible to understand our situation here on Earth without faith of some kind. The same Baruch Spinoza who dismissed the possibility of ontological freedom also insists that political “freedom is absolutely necessary for progress in science and the liberal arts.” Einstein (and probably most scientists) would agree. Perhaps the “quantum weirdness” he resisted to the end of his days is our only hope for actual, not illusory freedom.


3)      Is there a direction to evolution?

Paleontologist / Catholic priest / philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, writing in the first half of the 20th century, described a mystical vision of evolution. Teilhard believed that all matter had a spiritual quality and was fore-ordained to evolve toward life (seen as a “biosphere” surrounding the Earth), then to individual consciousness (the noosphere), and then to universal consciousness, which he called the Omega Point. In effect, he shared Spinoza’s belief that God was immanent in Nature, but differed not only in understanding that life evolved, but in believing that it evolved through stages toward a moral transfiguration. For Teilhard, evolution was the ancient God’s progression through time toward the goodness of Christ.

Earth Sciences Professor Robert Hazen, in a Learning Company lecture course recorded on CD in 2005, lays out a more dispassionate view of the “Origins of Life” on our planet – but one still resonant of Teilhard’s revelation. The Theory of Emergence that Hazen and most contemporary scientists follow appears built into the nature of the universe itself. The direction is toward increasing complexity.

As Hazen describes the process of “emergence”, once enough interacting particles of any kind come together – whether hydrogen nuclei, stars, planets, complex molecules, organisms or neurons — and energy is applied to the system – the units self-organize into patterns of increasing complexity and novel structure. The new structures “appear to be much more than the sum of the parts… New, often surprising behaviors emerge with each new level of complexity.”

Once the Earth’s initial violent formation was completed, Hazen explains, and the planet cooled to a point where large water oceans could form, a process leading to life began. Whether in tidal pools, underwater vents or sheltered mineral deposits, simple molecules, energized by ultraviolet radiation in an atmosphere with no initial ozone protection, gradually and spontaneously combined into complex organic molecules, then to life.

In the course summary, Hazen gives an overview of the process that goes beyond the emergence of life. “The theory of emergence,” as he sums it up, “argues for an inexorable evolution of the cosmos, from atoms to stars to planets to life.” But “we recognize this progression only in hindsight…. Emergent phenomena are all but impossible to predict from observations of earlier stages.” [iii]

Hazen – and this is the consensus view of contemporary scientists — describes the origin of consciousness as simply the latest emergent step. Human brains are the most complex entities of which we are now aware. This places us, I would say, in a leading role on our planet.

But, “perhaps,” he concludes, “the universe [beyond Earth] holds levels of emergence beyond individual consciousness, and beyond even the collective accomplishments of human societies. If that’s true, then the story of life’s origins and evolution is far from over.”

Certainly, given the natural flow of evolution, it seems likely that new, more complex and surprising phenomena will continue to emerge. One possibility, among many, is that something akin to Comte, Haldane and Teilhard’s vision of an emerging collective consciousness on Earth lies in our future.

Many scientists in addition to Hazen, of course, now also find it likely that life may already have emerged elsewhere in the universe, or will emerge in the future. Certainly, many astronomers and biologists are looking for it. A “second genesis” on a different planet, Hazen points out, would “reveal countless details about life’s inevitable origin.”

As has been clear through one hundred fifty years of discussion about natural selection, no external intervention is required to shape Nature’s pattern of emerging complexity. We may, however, reasonably ask why it is that we live in a universe where this seemingly improbable trend is part of Nature’s program.

Hazen’s lectures, and the Theory of Emergence, in fact, challenge not only traditional religious distinctions between matter and spirit, but also the now common perspective that humans are only one among myriad equal life forms on our planet. Confronted with evidence of progressive and directional evolution, and with the extraordinary “friendliness” towards life in general on our planet, some scientists and some atheists have responded defensively, predicting that many other universes may exist, where nature’s laws are randomly different from ours, and NO life or no consciousness emerge.

As yet, there is no compelling evidence of any universe beyond our own, and certainly no hint of possibly different natural laws.

4)      Is consciousness an “arrangement” of matter, or a “property” of matter?

The question here – addressed directly by Teilhard de Chardin, but not by Hazen – is: does consciousness emerge ex nihilo from matter, once it attains a certain level of complexity, billions of years after formation of the universe? Or is there a “pre-conscious” characteristic of all matter, or of certain particles, that develops into “full” consciousness through a long evolutionary process?

A Bethesda neighbor of mine, Robert Burruss – a former newspaper technology writer, has suggested a way of thinking about the origins of consciousness in pre-life. Every physical interaction – down to the collision of a photon with an electron, or the reaction to sunlight of a stone – may be said to communicate some information. But actual intelligence or awareness would only begin with the ability to compare two events or states. Even a one-celled paramecium, of course, can distinguish between food (which it surrounds and absorbs) and non-food.

Also critical to perception and consciousness is the ability to filter out irrelevant information. Burruss uses the analogy of a newborn child whose senses receive an overwhelming amount of information which s/he is at first totally unable to differentiate. Vision, for example, would be a complete blur until the mind learns to focus on discrete objects and ignore the rest.

A rock in the sun would, by comparison, have no means to compare or filter all the information reaching it – but the material of which it is made would still have the potential for consciousness when properly organized.

However this may be, many investigators have traced the origins of consciousness far back in time, if not to an elementary “quantum” unit of a colliding electron and photon.

Oliver Sacks, for example, in a fascinating article, “The Mental Life of Plants and Worms, Among Others,” in the April, 2014 New York Review of Books, reports on numerous scientific investigations into the emergence of “mind” or consciousness. Daniel Chamovitz, for one, comments in “What a Plant Knows,” (2012) that, though plants lack neurons, they “are capable of registering what we would call sights, sounds, tactile signal, and much more.” Charles Darwin believed he detected in worms “the presence of a mind of some kind.” His student, George John Romane, conducted what he described as “comparative psychology” research on nerve cells in jellyfish. The young Sigmund Freud, working in a physiology lab in Vienna, “was able to show and illustrate, in meticulous, beautiful drawings, that the nerve cells in crayfish were basically similar to those of lampreys—or human beings.”

More recent research has added numbers to this history. Jellyfish have about one thousand nerve cells, bees have up to one million, and the octopus may have half a billion nerve cells distributed between its brain and its ‘arms.’ Human brains are distinguished by our one hundred billion neurons, organized through trillions of connections.

Though Hazen appears to argue that emergence initiates completely novel realities, which appear to be much more than the sum of their parts, I favor the view of consciousness as a property of matter, which then emerges into full bloom in higher forms of animal life. Since consciousness is so fundamentally different from “billiard ball” matter, its sudden appearance from nowhere, billions of years after the formation of matter, would seem more like a second creation than simply the product of a new structure of matter, comparable to planets forming from the residue of exploded stars, or organic molecules learning to reproduce.

There appears, in any event, to be a characteristic of matter that can produce the immaterial phenomenon of consciousness, a quality which may have evolved from the beginning of time. This is a remarkable characteristic of our universe, one that would be hard to account for as “just the way things are.” Perhaps it was among the factors that prompted Einstein’s observation that: “To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: that deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.”[iv]


5. Will the future be like today?

In speaking of universal history as a slow and often bloody march of progress, we must consider what to expect of the future. Obviously, and even if we assume that all is determined, we don’t know. But there are a number of realistic and radical possibilities:

  • We now have it in our power to destroy ourselves and most life on Earth. Anyone’s guess on this is as good as another’s. I would hope there is another populated planet – or perhaps a million – to pick up in case we drop out.
  • “Synthetic biology” is now the subject of high school experiments and courses. This is about creating new life forms. We can expect human and animal life to be changed in science labs in fantastic ways, for good, ill or both.
  • Space travel may turn out to be viable.       We may encounter intelligent life outside our solar system and be changed for better or worse.
  • Collective human consciousness, or other weirdness may be emerging outside our awareness. Next steps may not be obvious.
  • Or, we may just continue to evolve in less dramatic ways

It seems likely that change will accelerate, and the future will look very different.


6)  “Religious” questions

We will deal here with questions that don’t have definite answers, but perhaps we can narrow the differences between “believers” and “atheists” by looking beyond the least probable.


      Is reality eternal?

The universe today is known to be larger than people throughout most of history could have imagined. There are trillions of stars (at least) and possibly many planets with life. Some scientists speculate that there are many universes, and others popping (Big Banging) into existence from “time?” to “time.” Our material / mental multiverse could be eternal, with universes rising and falling and rising again.

If universes collapse into “singularities” and rise again, then entropy, time and life could be cyclical. Our religious myths are mostly too small. Only science fiction seems to have any grip on the situation.


      Is Nature God?

This perspective seemed good enough for Spinoza, who was dazzled by the rise of natural science. For most of us, if there is no purpose, there is no God.

But a God “immanent” in Nature, and moving, through us, in a definite direction, was good enough for Teilhard de Chardin, and could be inspiration enough for most of us.


      Is God / Nature “good?” And do we have immortal spirits that go to heaven when our bodies die?

 Voltaire, in Candide, demolished Leibniz’ sycophantic pretense that we live in the “best of all possible worlds.” How could it be good for innocent children to die miserable deaths — in the great Portuguese earthquake of Voltaire’s day, or in shipwrecks, for example?

We are related to all life on Earth.   Many other life forms are conscious. Our closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, are genetically almost identical to us. So, do chimpanzees have an immortal spirit? Do dogs and cats? Ants and bacteria? This seems unlikely.

Evolution and survival seem focused on the species and the tribe, with individuals regularly exposed to random dangers, sometimes including sacrificing themselves for the good of their family or group. If life is not about us as individuals, it seems implausible that this changes with death.

I would say that God, Nature, or whatever “spirit” motivates the universe or multiverse, appears to be a “big picture” kind of entity. The world evolves, but individuals often suffer and always die. We should try to take satisfaction in the progress of life, the happiness and achievements of friends and family, and the beauty of the Earth.  


      Are we are part of something extraordinary?

Absolutely. The evolution of Earth to date is consistent with the possibility of a purposeful God, or with conscious Nature. If consciousness can emerge from “brute matter,” could there be a spiritual consciousness without matter? And do we participate in that?

We don’t know. That is a question of faith.



[i] Isaacson, Walter, “Einstein: His Life and Universe,”….


[iii] Hazen, Robert M. , “Origins of Life, Part 1 and Part 2,” audio lecture course and guidebook, The Great Courses (The Teaching Company Limited Partnership, 2005)

[iv] Isaacson, ibid

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