On Consciousness

Why I am Interested in Consciousness

Dr. Biagi, 2021

Sometime in the 1980s, I went to a conference on the Science of Consciousness at the University of Arizona in Tucson. There were many philosophers, physicists, neurologists, psychiatrists, etc. including Chalmers, Penrose, Searle, and many other big names in the mind-body field.  Qualia became the hard problem.  There seems to be no way to understand how the chemical, electromagnetic functions of neurons could get to our actual conscious experience.  Many supposed the brain was an extremely intricate supercomputer.  One person claimed that our conscious experience was just an illusion produced by the brain. The majority of scientific types were strict materialists. Others, including most of the philosophers and some physicists, felt there had to be something else. 

The materialist argument relied on our lack of understanding.  The brain is tremendously complex, and we really don’t understand the full complexity of brain functions.  Somehow out of all the complexity our experience emerges.  There is a mess of calculations going on and then complexity ( a miracle) occurs.

Penrose proposed that consciousness somehow was related to quantum mechanics.  This was before he had met Dr. Stuart Hammeroff and knew about tubules.  It may have been during the time he was thinking that a gravitational interaction is what collapsed all the possibilities of quantum wave functions into one actual set of particles.  

Of course, he was roundly criticized. The arguments usually took the form: We don’t understand consciousness and we don’t understand quantum mechanics. Does this mean they are related? But this was the same kind of argument the materialist used connecting complexity and consciousness.

I went to a number of other conferences and continued reading articles on consciousness.  But the difference between the brain as the source of consciousness and there must be something else camps seemed unresolvable.

I remembered a statement that the philosopher, Bertrand Russel made back in the early 1900s.

It was to the effect that there were two major schools in philosophy:  The idealist camp and the materialist camp. To simplify, the idealist believes that our existence is an idea and the material world is an illusion.   All existence is mind, often, the mind of some deity. 

The materialist claims existence consists only of physical matter.  Matter, in the form of the brain, creates consciousness(mind).

We see how the arguments about consciousness revolved around the beliefs of the brain people and the mind people.

But there were a few philosophers and physicists who tried to embrace both philosophical schools.  Why couldn’t existence consist of both matter and mind?  The two who had the most influence on me were the mathematician/philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead and more recently, the physicist, Nick Herbert.  I believe, from my readings of Penrose, that he is also of that camp.  We usually are called dualists. 

Therefore, we can argue that qualia exist in consciousness and our brains connect with consciousness (mind) to produce our experiences (qualia).  But how does this happen?  This is the question Penrose is trying to answer.  There seem to be a number of possibilities that I want to explore later. For example, are quantum waves the elements of existence that connect consciousness with the physical?

Out of Dualism

Dr. Biagi, 2021

There are two things I am empirically sure of: I exist, and I am conscious.  By existence I include physical existence;  I have a body. By being conscious, I have a mind.  But both mind and body are one.  I could not be here writing this if any of this were not true.

There is a major question both materialists and idealists have failed to answer.  How does this unity between mind and body occur?  The materialist argues that mind emerges from the body, in particular, our brain; the idealist argues that consciousness creates the body ( the physical world is an illusion ) as an idea, similar to a dream.

There is no way to answer this question if we deny the fundamental existence of either mind or body. If you feel that physical reality is an illusion, kick a rock as one materialist has argued. That is unless you think the pain you feel is also an illusion.  That takes an awful lot of denial.

 If you feel that consciousness emerges from the activities of the brain, show me how my experience, of, say, the color red, emerges from the electromagnetic and chemical activity of the neurons.  The electromagnetic waves we receive from an object may have a particular frequency, and they may activate a particular electrical response from the cones in the eye, and that may send electrical stimuli to various visual centers in the eye, but where is our experience of the color red.   The brain may be necessary, but it is not sufficient.

 Without considering that mind and body both play a role in our experiences there is no way we will ever be able to understand some of the simplest of our experiences.  Mind and body are both fundamental constituents and both have their sacred place in existence.  This puts me in the dualist camp.  Both materialists and idealists believe in a unity of body and mind but fail at offering an explanation for how this occurs. 

I also believe in this unity and am trying to understand how this unity happens. Somehow this unity produces the awareness and the experiences that are the most important elements of our existence.  Even the laws of material existence come from the unity of our minds and our bodies. I call this unity human consciousness, or evolutionary consciousness, or ego.

 Physical existence is governed by physical laws which we are in the process of discovering or inventing as that part of the universes walking around and looking at ourselves and existence. The distinction between discovery and invention disappears when we are part of what we are trying to understand.  Mind experiences the existence of matter and seeks to formulate the patterns (the laws) of physicality.

The laws of the universe, I mean the actual laws and not the stories we tell which are approximations, are what create harmony and evolution.  With evolution, our physical structures, our body, brains, and connectomes, develop allowing the connection with consciousness to occur.  This melding of the body with consciousness allows for human consciousness. 

Here is where the mystical aspect comes in.  The aspect of consciousness that is not unified with body but is still our unique self is pure consciousness. It is beyond but connected to evolutionary consciousness.  As such it is an aspect of universal consciousness and as an aspect of universal consciousness is eternal.  Our human existence flows from pure consciousness, usually when we are born, and returns to pure consciousness when we die.

Human consciousness because it is unified with the body is not eternal and unchanging.  However, the physical world as a whole is eternal but it is constantly evolving.  It evolves to produce entities of increasing complexity. This increasing complexity produces sentient creatures and allows the unification of mind and body.  So, complexification rears its “ugly” head, but it still does not explain how unification occurs.

Since our physical being flows from the universe we might argue that it cannot be eternal.  This is because we believe that our universe had a beginning ( the big bang) and possibly an end.  However, if our universe is one among an infinity of universes then the big bang is a primal event that gave birth to our universe out of a cosmic field or from another universe.  A number of cosmologists have developed various theories as to how this happens.  From this field, universes are born and die.  But the collection of universes as aspects of existence is eternal.  To borrow from a Catholic catechism, Universes always were and always will be.

Pure consciousness has a place in many orthodox beliefs.  It is similar to soul or higher consciousness.  But there are other deeper connections to some of our ancient beliefs.  Consciousness and physicality are aspects of BEING or Existence.  Being is the ground of existence and all its aspects. 

The foundation of all aspects of existence, BEING, incorporates mind and body but is beyond mind and body.  Because it is beyond mind and body many spiritual traditions speak of it as unknowable.  The Buddhists perceive it as emptiness.  But one of the sutras tells us emptiness is form and form is emptiness.  It correlates with an empty mind out of which flows our consciousness.  It also correlates with the vacuum state from which energy fluctuations in the form of virtual particles emerge and dissipate. 

 BEING has been interpreted as a supreme Deity.  Qabbalists conceive of the supreme Deity as an incomprehensible principle, the AIN SOPH, an eternal state of being.  It permeates all space.  Substances, essences, and intelligences manifest out of the inscrutability of AIN SOPH, but the absolute is without substance, essence, or intelligence.  It is the unconditioned state of all things.

 Much of this came to me through my meditations and as I was writing my books.  I use both my writing and my painting as a form of meditation.  While it tells us we are conscious, physical beings, it does not however explain how we come to be conscious, at least not in a way that satisfies my curiosity.  This is why I look for physical correlates, that is things we know from our theories that are possibilities for the connection.  It may be beyond any of our theories,

but that in itself would be valuable to know because it may lead to new ways of thinking and wondering. 

Time and Quantum Fields

Dr. Biagi, 2021

What most people call god, I call existence.  It is absurd to argue that existence does not exist.  And since I know I exist physically, and I am conscious, I believe that physical existence and consciousness are both aspects of existence.  This is different than the physicalist who argues that mind emerges from the brain and the idealist who argue that all is mind. This makes me somewhat of a duelist. But if consciousness and the physical are both aspects of existence then how do they intersect? And in particular how is it that we as physical beings are conscious?  The answer to these questions depends on the broader question as to how the physical and consciousness interact throughout all of the universes.   

Buddhists, since they have studied the mind for thousands of years offer many insights on how mind relates to our reality.  Where western research has focused on the physical, Buddhists have developed practices that search inward into the mind. With the introduction of Buddhist thought into the West and our interest in mind and how it exists, now may be the time to try to put both our knowledge of the physical world and the Buddhist knowledge of mind together.

 Wallace in one of his lectures on Buddhism gave me an insight. He said the future and the past are pure Mind. It is only the Now that exists as an objective physical entity.  However, it is our minds that experience and give us a description of this physical reality.  This description quickly becomes memory and part of the past, an aspect of consciousness. 

The future exists as consciousness in the form of mathematical expressions which we know as quantum fields. They are mathematical descriptions of future possibilities. The idea that mathematics is one of the aspects of consciousness is ancient.  Plato considered mathematical forms as ideal forms.  For example, the perfect geometrical circle cannot be found in the physical world. It exists as an idea. 

The future in the form of the multiple probabilities of quantum mechanical waves collapses into one actuality when it meets the solid physicality of the Now.  This is when the intersection between mind and the physical occurs.  Our experience of time may be this flow from the future in the form of quantum fields into the solidity of the Now.

 How the collapse of all the possibilities described by quantum fields into the physical actuality of the Now happens is one of the great mysteries of quantum mechanics.  Our mathematics does not describe it, nor do we have any physical explanation for how this occurs.  The mystery has been with us since the very beginning of quantum theory. We only know that when we measure or observe a physical process there is only one outcome.  In a quantum wave, a particle, for example, an electron, could be at many different places at once but when we observe the electron in the Now it is only at one place.  This has been called the collapse of the wave function or alternatively the measurement problem. There are over ten possible interpretations of the mystery.   Penrose proposes that the collapse occurs when the wave meets an object of sufficient mass.  He believes that when we have a theory connecting quantum field theory and the general theory of relativity we will solve the problem.   His theory proposes that the time of the collapse occurs in about 0.7 seconds.  Other studies using brain images show that this approximates the time between when a nerve receives a stimulus and when the subject is conscious of the stimulus.

 This indicates that the physical is only a thin, space-time shell in the Now. The spatial dimensions form a thin membrane ( the spatial universe) with a time thickness of about 0.7 seconds.  After that the spatial membrane which we experience as our physical world passes into the conscious past as memory.  Meanwhile, the shell of space-time moves at the speed of light into the future constantly being reformed by the impinging quantum fields.

 This could fit into a theory of the holographic universe.  The membrane of the Now acts as a film recording the interference pattern between the incoming quantum fields and the wave patterns emanating from the physical shell.  We experience the interference patterns as our physical reality in the Now.  Something to think about!


Dr. Biagi, 2021

Pure consciousness as an aspect of universal consciousness is outside of the laws describing the behavior of physical systems.  This is because initially the laws were concerned with finding and describing the location and movement of heavenly bodies. But how do we locate an idea or talk about a change in the position or shape of consciousness? Neither our language nor our ways of thinking apply to consciousness. 

 The laws of motion also described an unlimited number of earthly phenomena.  Their success led to the triumph of materialism over idealism and what has become physicalism, a new religion.  Physicalism denies the existence of anything that cannot be described and verified by the laws of science.  But the development of field theories to “explain” how one body affects another without direct contact is a failure of this materialistic view. It just says that a charge or a gravitational mass emanates something that affects space and time.  It calls this something a field.  Since measure and see its effects we believe it exists and we give it a name.  Actually, this is true for what we call charge, mass, electrons, atoms, etc.  Each is a set of behaviors that we name, and this fools us into thinking we have “explained” what they are. 

During the 19th century, Faraday and Maxwell developed the theories of electric and magnetic fields, along with the theory that light is a traveling oscillation of an electric and magnetic field (an electromagnetic wave).  

The notion of the field was extended to gravity. The mass of the sun creates a gravitational field. This field acts on the earth and other planets capturing them in orbits circling the sun and keeping them from flying out of the solar system. Thus science “explained” how one body could affect another body over the vastness of empty space (action at a distance). The success of Newton’s theories and the electromagnetic field theories led, at the end of the 19th century, to the belief that physics had discovered all that could be discovered.  The popular view was that physics was dead.  This ended of course with the discovery of the electron and other subatomic particles at the beginning of the 20th century.

Field theories point out that materialism really is not enough to explain the most basic of phenomena.  They do not explain how forces act over a space.  They may provide a description of how these forces act but they don’t show what it is about space that allows it to influence material bodies.  I have often thought that the introduction of fields into physical theory was the death of strict materialism.

Consider the gravitational field. When I was teaching, I would drop something and ask, why did it fall.  Invariably some students would say gravity. It fell because of gravity.  If we look the term gravity up in a dictionary it often defines gravity as the tendency for objects to fall towards the center of the earth.  Therefore, we are saying that an object falls because it falls towards the center of the earth.  But how does gravity pull objects towards the earth’s center?

 Newton, who developed the principle of universal gravitation, described how the gravitational force behaved.  His law stated that the force depended on the amount of the masses involved and then described how the force weakened as the distance between the masses increased. 

He tried to come up with an explanation as to why one object was able to exert a force when not in contact with another but gave up saying (in Latin of course), “I do not make hypotheses. (Hypotheses non fingo.)”

 Similarly, electromagnetic fields describe the behavior of the force between two separated electric charges, but it does not tell us the nature of space that enables it to exert a force on another charge. It just says that if a charge moves into the vicinity of another charge (the source), it will be affected by the electric field created by the source charge.  The source charge emanates something into the space around it so that another charge (called the test charge) moving into the space will feel a force.  The strength and direction of the force depend on the field at that point.

This does seem like magic, and I like to call it ordinary magic because the effects are repeatable and predictable. But is it so surprising that we do not know what these emanations are?  We only know charge and mass produce these emanations. 

 A field then is something in space at a point that exerts a  force.  The strength and direction of the force depend on the source mass or charge and on the size of the test charge and on the distance from the source charge or mass.

If we have some source, an electric charge or a mass, we can associate a set of numbers at every point in space surrounding the source. This number gives us the strength and direction of the field at every point surrounding the source. 

Faraday showed that an electric charge moving at constant speed creates another field, the magnetic field.  He showed that a changing magnetic field produces an electric field.

Maxwell later calculated that a changing electric field produces a magnetic field. Maxwell went further by showing that when a charge changes its speed or direction (accelerated), it creates an electromagnetic wave (a vibration moving through space).  This wave takes the form of vibrating electric and magnetic fields moving through space at the speed of light.  If they vibrate at certain frequencies, we experience these waves as light. 

The electromagnetic spectrum runs from radio waves through light to gamma radiation.  What differentiates the various forms of radiation is the frequency of the electromagnetic fields.  The lower frequencies produce radio waves, the higher frequencies run through microwaves to infrared to visible light to ultraviolet to x rays and gamma rays. The higher the frequency the higher the energy.

 The rods and cones in our eyes capture red, green, and blue light and transmit the energy as electric currents through the retina to the brain.  Our consciousness reports these effects and develops theories regarding their behavior.  Somehow the brain or possibly the whole body makes this connection possible.  But the map we receive of the physical world comes through our body consciousness and is subject to the problems in translation from our pure consciousness to our ego consciousness.

 The picture I have presented here is from what we call classical physics, that is physical theories generated before the 20th century, before the advent of relativity and quantum mechanics. 

 There must be a process where the stimulations become part of our experience and enter our consciousness.  Is there an aspect of electromagnetism that science has missed, a conscious aspect carried by electromagnetic waves?  Does electromagnetism have a conscious component that we experience but are not detectable by our usual scientific observations or measurements? This is especially interesting to me because in previous articles I have speculated on the connection between quantum fields and consciousness.  With the advent of quantum mechanics, the electromagnetic wave became a quantum field generating photons which are particles of light.  I will give the quantum field descriptions of these fields in another article.

I present these arguments not to argue that the physical world does not have its reality as an aspect of existence. But to show that physicalism broke down as early as the 18th century. Physicalists do not accept consciousness as another aspect of existence. Some even argue that consciousness is an illusion created by the brain.  But then these arguments come from consciousness, and is consciousness telling us that it itself is an illusion?  This is an antimony of the same structure as the statement, “Everything I tell you is a lie.”

At the same time, I reject the argument that the physical realm is created by our consciousness.  Some argue that it is an illusion. I argue that both the physical and consciousness have their reality as aspects of a deeper reality I call existence and the core of existence is Being, which is beyond but incorporates the physical and consciousness.

This goes back to my realization, “I exist, and I am conscious.” If both these were not true, I could not be here writing this article.

My Story

Dr. Biagi, 2021

I have been thinking about past lives and I agree with Buddhist thought in most of what it says.  I however have a different slant on it.  I believe the physical and consciousness have an eternal being in Existence.  Existence is eternal and is rooted in Being.  Being is the unmanifested creative principle.  By Consciousness I mean Universal Consciousness and we have eternally existed as aspects of Universal Consciousness which along with the Physical is eternal and unending.  But the Physical is always evolving and reaching for the perfection of existence.

Our universe did have a beginning, a primal event which we call the big bang.  However, I envision a field of universes with individual universes being borne and dying throughout eternity.  Universes are part of the physical and the physical as a whole is also eternal but individual universes are not.  This is one way the Physical differs from Consciousness.

In my book of poetry and images, Membrance, I use the subtitle, An Existence Myth, because I believe in the infiniteness of existence as an emanation of Being.  Referring to the Cabala this sounds like Kether as an emanation of Ain Soph Aur.  Kether in turn emanates to Binah, the protoform of the Physical, and to Chokma, protoconsciousness.

 I realize now, that much of the poetry is about our awakening out of Universal Consciousness and coming into this universe and watching the development of the New Place, our Earth.  Then through evolution, as our bodies became compatible with human consciousness, our consciousness entered into our physical being.  The physical laws have emanated from Existence to evolve sentient beings.  Most of the images and poetry came to me automatically over one or two years.  As a word, a line, or a paragraph came to me, I would jot it down on slips of paper.  For example, the poem, Sleep Stirring Song is about our awakening out of consciousness.  I might add, some of us may travel into this universe from other universes. 

So, my picture is of Being emanating into Existence and Existence manifesting into Consciousness and the Physical.  Some of us, as aspects of Consciousness join our bodies mostly through the birth process.

The physical is subject to the physical laws, that is the laws of evolution, which include birth and death, and this conditions our body consciousness.  The aspect that does not enter the body I often call pure consciousness.  Some may call it our higher self.  It is our true, eternal identity.  Some of us may not choose to reincarnate, maybe for eons, before coming back into the physical.

 While I do not distinctly recall previous lives, I have the sense of being reborn.  My view of Karma is different than most.  Throughout my meditation practices and often throughout the day I often have mental scenarios of things that I have done and that have been done to me.  I call these regrets and recriminations.  Part of my meditation process both in my practice and throughout the day is noticing these thoughts and sensing in my body the associated feelings, whether of guilt, hurt or anger, with these thoughts.  I then breathe through these feelings and drop them.  Some keep coming back because I have not successfully released them.  It is important for me to feel all the pain associated with these thoughts and then release them.  I think of all of these as learning experiences.  Some of these may be related to past life experiences that I have not worked through.  But the more I am able to go into Pure Consciousness free of these feelings and thoughts, the less I will be saddled with them in my coming lives. Also, I am less conditioned in this life by these kinds of habitual thinking. I should add I have a long way to go.

These thoughts also act as a barrier to the flow of inspiration and experiences from my pure consciousness.

My friends in Karma Zong in Boulder told me their particular lineage took Bodhisattva vows.  They vowed to not go beyond the cycle of life and death but to reincarnate out of compassion to guide us, who are still in this life.

I myself through all my trials and tribulations, also great joy and pleasure, love life, and would like to keep coming back for encores until I get it right, that is become fully awakened or evolved or whatever term we use.  Life in the physical realm is a divine aspect of divine Existence, just as is Consciousness.

Anyway, this is my “story”.  It has come to me over many years.  As I grow closer to death it is comforting to know that I will transition into my pure consciousness and become more fully who I truly am.

There is a Zen Koan, “What face did you have before you were born?”