Physics has succeeded brilliantly in explaining many features of the inanimate universe. The basic picture involves, at the most basic level, collisions and interactions of particles and fields, with forces being the cause of how the particles and fields interact with each other, and move through space-time.
But in this picture, it is not at all clear how matter particles could clump together into objects, i.e., animals, that have seem to have some kind of self awareness and that apparently experience conscious thoughts. More ever, some of these clumped objects (e.g., human animals) that have, by the materialist hypothesis, formed from blind forces, yet have systems of thoughts--theories--that seem to go a long way toward explaining how the universe works.
In other words, we would have to imagine that the laws of physics and chemistry have somehow accidentally given rise to brains, and currents within brains, that correspond thoughts that allow us to understand these laws. There seems to a paradox, or at least an absurd circularity, in that vision of how a clumped object can generate thoughts that partly explain itself.
Bertrand Russell posed the idea of “conscious life as an accident” with great eloquence in his classic essay A Free Man’s Worship:
“....Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms........A strange mystery it is that Nature, omnipotent but blind, in the revolutions of her secular hurryings through the abysses of space, has brought forth at last a child, subject still to her power, but gifted with sight, with knowledge of good and evil, with the capacity of judging all the works of his unthinking Mother.”
Hmmm…"accidental collocations of atoms". But, are there really any accidents? In the deterministic picture of reality, the universe as a whole is simply unfolding according to fixed laws that have no “wiggle room” for anything happening that is not in a sense “programmed into” the universe. In other words, there are no accidents, nor is there any novelty, in the mechanistic picture; everything unfolds deterministically, from the time of the Big Bang to the “closing seconds” of the universe. The motions and dynamics may at times be chaotic, but chaotic process are still deterministic---just not predictable.
Quantum mechanics, which is the way we humans at the moment understand the sub-microscopic world of particles and fields, suggests that only when a conscious observer interacts with a sub-system within the universe can “novelty” enter the time evolution of the universe. The cosmologist Andre Linde has written that, in effect, the quantum state of the universe as a whole, absent conscious observers, is independent of time, and hence static, or frozen, in space-time.
Consider, accepting for the moment the materialist picture of consciousness, that if thoughts result from the physics of particles interacting in a deterministic way, then our thoughts are not determined by logic and reason, because they are determined by external causes (pushes and pulls from the blind forces of nature, just as with inanimate matter). So this seems to, in turn, undermine the validity of our theories of physics because the thinking and reasoning leading to them have been just due to the actions of blind, non-rational, forces.
Maybe trying to understand consciousness is like trying to imagine how a person in a totally dark room with only a flashlight can shine the light on the flashlight to examine and understand the flashlight. In a similar way, the conscious observer may simply be forever logically prevented from objectively viewing his/her self, because his/her consciousness can only examine things outside of it.
Another analogy is imagining a person sweeping a room, and sweeping the dirt under the rug. What does he then do with the dirt under the rug? He can’t sweep that under the rug.
If reasoning in an animal brain is a pattern of billiard balls colliding and interacting, as the entire process of the universe is assumed to be in a mechanistic physics perspective, doesn’t that seem to undermine the validity of reason? Or at least make it seem to be “over determined”. By overdetermined, I refer to the situation where something is attributed to two or more incompatible causes, or an accusation is rebutted by two or more incompatible alibis. For example, suppose you say I damaged the umbrella you loaned me. I respond that not only did I never borrow it, but it was already damaged when I borrowed it. Or as in Woody Allen’s clever joke about how “Einstein said the laws of physics say that you can’t go faster than the speed of light. It is also undesirable, because at that speed your hat would keep blowing off”.
Now none of this is to say that the brain is not involved in conscious thought. Indeed, that it is seems to be true almost beyond a doubt. I think the brain is a necessary thing for thought, consciousness, and reason. It's just not sufficient by itself. Some have proposed that the brain is a type of antenna, whereby thoughts are generated through some combination of an underlying substrate of consciousness and the organic matter of the brain. It must be admitted that it is not clear how to experimentally broach this idea. It would, in any case, explain why, under surgical anesthetic, conscious thought seems to cease.
I favor a type of dualism, similar to (but different than) a model that long the philosopher Rene Descartes proposed, namely that “mind” and “matter” constitute a dual reality. Descartes’ view is called “Cartesian Dualism”, because he considered mind and matter to be fundamentally different substances.
Well, I am inclined to look at it this way: There is a "bottom up" approach to reality, which leads to trying to understand and characterize the physics of the microcosm, and attempts to explain systems larger than the microcosm in terms of that derived physics understanding. But there is a top down approach, which recognizes that high level phenomena have emerged; such things as love of friends and family, passions for various subjects, the beauty of music, painting, literature, and nature. It recognizes (or assumes) the existence and validity of values, thoughts, reason, consciousness and free will.
The duality I speak of here, based partly on my understanding of the “cognitive dualism” model of philosopher Roger Scruton, recognizes both “top up” and “bottom down” realms as both being valid and yet independent of each other. Yes, there is a powerful desire among us humans to unify the bottom up and top down approaches. But for reasons I have discussed above I do not think this is possible, because the bottom up approach, if carried all the way to its logical conclusion, undermines itself. We should just recognize the two visions of the world as being equally valid, yet irreconcilable, and neither being fully understandable in terms of the other.
Interestingly, there is a precedent for this kind of seeming paradox in quantum physics: Just like in quantum mechanics particle are paradoxically both waves or particles, depending on what kind of experiment is involved. That is, in certain contexts, a microscopic particle, e.g., a photon, is a particle, in others, it behaves like a wave. Classically, i.e., in our macro-world, the two pictures of a particle are incompatible, but apparently Nature does not care. She says, “Sorry, but that’s just the way it is. Why would you expect your macro-world evolved brains to understand how that can be?”
Does any of this mean we have to postulate a “God’ or “gods” that is responsible for the mind being partly inexplicable in physics terms? Well, that would be a possible argument, but not one that necessarily follows. And a God/Gods hypothesis raises a great many problematic questions, such as “who made God/gods?” There are plausible responses to that, but I do not wish to go into that area in the present essay.
In any case, the issues discussed herein are all tied in with the questions about why there is a universe at all, and is there any purpose to existence. No one knows the answers, but I do not think it is foolish to ask the questions (even knowing that we cannot expect to find clear cut answers).
One possibility that must be considered is that consciousness is somehow embedded in the cosmos from the get-go....i.e., present in some way in the “Big Bang”. When carried to an extreme, this kind of thinking can give rise to “Panpsychism”, which imagines that all matter, animate as well as inanimate, has some type of consciousness. (Speaking for myself, I have trouble believing that a rock, or a hunk of metal, is conscious, so I tend to give that very little weight).
Another slightly different approach--and there are many variations on this---is to insist that consciousness is actually more fundamental than the physical world. In other words, the goals of the materialist, that strive to explain consciousness from motions of matter, is turned up-side down. I believe some of the thinking inspired by Eastern religions finds the “primacy of consciousness” congenial.
This also all bears on a question that is very hotly debated in the western world these days, and that is the question of whether human-kind can create “artificial beings (robots or androids) that are conscious, and that are quite possibly vastly more intelligent and much more quick thinking than humans. The consensus seems to be “yes”. If so, this would perhaps give credence to the materialist position.
But not necessarily, since, if consciousness is in some way embedded in the very stuff of the universe (not going all the way to panpsychism), it is plausible that conscious beings could impart consciousness to other beings that they create.
Of course all the above considerations lead into other perplexing puzzles such as “do we, or the androids, have free will?” (whatever that concept might mean). Certainly, on the mechanistic picture, the answer would be no, since in that picture all is just deterministic motions of particles. But even the dualism proposed above does not provide a clear path to free will.
Quantum mechanics does, at first sight, seem to offer a way out of determinism. But this is not really true, since the state of a physical system (as represented by its “wave function”) is predicted to evolve in a deterministic way until it is observed. And if conscious beings are always part of the system comprised of the physical universe, observations by such beings within the universe do not really interrupt the deterministic evolution of the universe.
Even if we allow that QM does offer a way out, there is still the problem of determinism from the all inclusiveness of “nature plus nurture”, which seems to exhaust the possible reasons for a person’s actions and thoughts. That is, every thing we can imagine a conscious being to do seems to be due to a combination of its physical makeup (e.g. its genes) and its life experiences. There appear to be no other options that would allow any sense to be made of “free will”.