I’ve spoken a lot on The Psychedelic Scientist about the neurobiological basis of consciousness. I’ve written about how scientific research into psychedelics is helping us piece together how consciousness works. By understanding exactly how psychedelics alter our brain function, we come closer to understanding how consciousness is constructed in our brains, but, as I’ve tried to make clear in my posts, all this fascinating research doesn’t solve the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness – that is, why does consciousness exist at all?
Figuring out what parts of our brain correlate to our experiences, or precisely what organisation of information is required to elicit consciousness, will not solve the hard problem: “Why are we even experiencing any of this in the first place?”
I’ve faced a fair amount of criticism that my posts focus too much on the neurobiological basis of consciousness (let’s call it the ‘soft problem’) – so I think now’s a good time to address the philosophers and psychonauts who want to know what the subjective psychedelic experience can tell us about solving the hard problem.
So let’s leave the research behind for a minute and talk about non-reductionism, idealism, and a psychedelic universe.
Disclaimer: I’m not a philosopher. I’m not even very clever. In this article I run through a lot of philosophical concepts very haphazardly. If you want to learn more about these concepts, I recommend reading a book by someone who knows what they’re talking about.
Why reductionism doesn’t work for the hard problem
Reductionism is the view that every problem can be solved by reducing it to its constituent parts. A lot of our lives rely on reductionism – if your washing machine breaks, for example, it makes sense to reduce it to all its individual components and figure out which one isn’t working. You could theoretically explain every physical fact by reducing it down to smaller and smaller parts – for example, I’ve decided to write this blog because atoms have interacted in just the right way, starting back when the big bang created quarks and strings and every part of the fabric of the universe, producing a causal chain leading right to this moment.
But reductionism can never explain subjective experience.
Think about it – when you see the colour red, reductionism explains the experience in terms of certain wavelengths of light being processed by your brain in a certain way. But it doesn’t explain why you feel the colour red, or how your feeling of the colour red objectively fits into the physical universe of reductionism.
Reductionists might point to neural correlates of consciousness to try and produce a physical explanation of experience, but this is just shifting the blame. You end up getting into smaller and smaller details, smaller and smaller particles, without producing a fundamental explanation of why red feels so red to me.
Imagine if reductionists found a ‘consciousness particle’ that correlated perfectly with every experience of consciousness in existence. You could point at that particle, say “you are feeling red right now because these consciousness particles are arranged in the exact way that produces the feeling of red”… but would that satisfy you? We would still have the question: “Why are consciousness particles correlated with subjective experience?”
In this way, reductionism can never explain why red feels so red to me, and can never explain why consciousness exists.
The uncomfortable option of dualism
If we reject reductionism, where does this leave us? A particularly uncomfortable option is that of dualism – the idea that the mind can exist separately from the body, but somehow can both inhabit the same universe.
It sounds somewhat illogical – how exactly can a non-physical thing interact with a physical thing? Surprisingly, there are numerous philosophical explanations for why dualism isn’t as crazy as it sounds.
One argument for the existence of dualism is actually pretty intuitive. Imagine that you have a physically identical twin existing on another planet. They have exactly the same arrangement of atoms and cells as you do. If the ‘consciousness particle’ exists, then those are identical between you as well.
Now, can you imagine that twin of you existing, but existing without consciousness? Basically, it’s a robot that functions in a way that exactly replicates your physical self, but doesn’t have subjective experience. When it sees red, its brain goes through all the motions, its consciousness particles get into the right alignment – but your twin does not feel red.
This type of ‘twin’ is known as a ‘philosophical zombie’. The fact that we can imagine this situation occurring, and it doesn’t seem particularly illogical to us, is used as an argument for dualism. We seem to have an innate awareness that consciousness is somehow qualitatively different from physical systems.
If dualism still seems too far-fetched for you, philosopher David Chalmers has put forward a unique form of dualism that sounds more sensible. Called ‘naturalistic dualism’, Chalmers’ idea is that there are fundamental laws of the universe that directly link physical systems with consciousness. These ‘psychophysical laws’ mean that consciousness is always produced by certain physical systems. Even though we can imagine a zombie twin, it can’t possibly exist – physical arrangements that produce consciousness in one instance will always produce that exact same consciousness in every instance.
This view is still a dualist one, because consciousness is a non-physical phenomenon produced by physical systems. Additionally, this naturalistic dualism leaves open an extremely unpleasant possibility; epiphenomenalism, which is the idea that we have absolutely no free will and are just dragged along by the physical universe in a never-ending rollercoaster of deterministic experience.
Thankfully, if you don’t like the thought of tagging along with the physical universe, there’s another option for you… although you may think it’s a little drastic.
There is no physical universe – welcome to idealism
Now you might be starting to feel uncomfortable… especially if you’re a scientist who firmly believes that the physical world is really out there. If you’re still reading, at least you’re open-minded. I hope you can keep it open for a little longer.
Idealism, in a broad sense, states that the mind is everything. Instead of trying to solve the hard problem with reductionism or dualism, idealism throws out all that nonsense and states that consciousness is the very core of existence. There is no physical universe to get our heads around – because everything is in our heads.
OK, that description sounds very extreme, and it’s actually a little more nuanced than that.
Idealism states that because reductionism can’t explain the hard problem, experience is irreducible, and is an ontological primitive (this means it exists because it exists – it’s existence itself). Basically, the thing that came first was consciousness, not a physical universe, and from it sprouted everything we see around us.
Just like how we imagine other natural laws being primitive (like how 1 = 1 or how mass produces gravity), idealism states that consciousness is the most primitive natural law, from which everything else is produced.
How does idealism explain the external world?
What about all the things we can experience outside of our minds? What about the stars in the sky? Surely that train is really charging towards me, and doesn’t just exist ‘in my head’.
Idealism states that we are all ‘alters’ of a universal consciousness, like islands in an ocean. At the centre of existence, there is only consciousness – a magnificent universal consciousness that exists as pure abstract thought and emotion. There are no perceptions or senses, just thought. Within this totally connected and pure consciousness, natural boundaries are formed. Alters develop from these boundaries; beings that start to feel and perceive. The things they feel are in fact extensions of the universal consciousness, seen from the outside looking in, separated by natural boundaries (see the figure below). By this explanation, everything we perceive in the external world is just a projection of the universal consciousness, a projection of pure thought and emotion.
So that train rushing towards you definitely exists. But it’s not a physical object existing independently of consciousness. It’s the projection of the pure thoughts and emotions of the universal consciousness onto the borders of your alter.
You can this imagine life in idealist terms as being like living in a dream. When the speeding train hits you, according to all the natural laws put in place by the universal consciousness, you die… and the borders of your alter dissolve, letting you fall back into the universal consciousness whence you came – waking up from the (extremely vivid and well-structured) dream of reality.
If you’re still with me, let’s think rationally about idealism. Idealism takes the one fact that we know with absolute certainty, the fact that we experience, as an ontological primitive. It doesn’t deny that a world exists around us – because undoubtedly it does. Instead, it says that the world around us doesn’t exist in the way we think it does (as a collection of causal physical interactions independent of consciousness). Idealism suggests that the world around us is a reflection of the universal consciousness that we’re all a part of.
Idealism and the psychedelic experience
You can maybe see the attraction of idealism to those who are familiar with the psychedelic experience. Psychedelics show us the hidden connectedness of everything in nature. They show us the infinite possibilities that exist within our own minds. They show us that experiencing is the same as existing.
Many ancient religions are based on a form of idealism. Countless religious myths describe their gods ‘dreaming up’ reality. You can argue that religious myths like these reflect a primitive truth that we are all aware of deep down – that we are all connected beyond any physical boundaries. If idealism really is true, then our entire universe is a beautiful, eternal reflection of the god inside all of us.
I hope I’ve at least given you something interesting to think about. Even if you aren’t convinced by the arguments for non-reductionism, dualism or idealism, hopefully you now have a drive to explore your own opinions, perhaps with the help of psychedelics. Understanding how you fit into the universe is a crucial part of being happy where you are.
For more reading on David Chalmers’ naturalistic dualism, I recommend “The Conscious Mind”.