No one knows. No one is close to knowing. Many philosophers and scientists give reasonable explanations as to why reason will never explain awareness. Many more scientists feel strongly that there must be a physical explanation for it, that science can therefore one day reveal. Those sentiments remain squarely in the realm of faith; a certainty not grounded in evidence.
One way to frame the argument is this: there are exterior/objective and interior/subjective aspects to reality. We can study our physical bodies, and we can experience thoughts and sensations. We can not study the subjective by objective means;- whatever we study objectively is an objective study. Nor can we study the objective by subjective means; you can’t examine your dreams to confirm if the moon is made of cheese. Subjective doesn’t reduce to objective, nor objective to subjective. What is the ultimate cause of time and space and matter and energy? Not our awareness, certainly. What is the ultimate cause of awareness? We have no measurements to show an objective cause. This has led some to speculate that awareness is a property of the kosmos, such as gravity and time and space.
Cosmologists speculate that at one point in time near to the Big Bang, gravity and time and space had not differentiated. Even time and space and gravity therefore are emergent properties, relying on causes and conditions, and fundamentally interdependent.
The fact that organized consciousness may not happen without complex nervous systems doesn’t mean that complex nervous systems cause awareness. Planets cause gravity, but gravity is also an inherent potential of the being of the kosmos. Planets don’t exactly cause gravity, they warp space/time. Gravity is the expression of space/time, dependent on something like a planet to focus it. Gravity naturally occurs and arises from the fact of being.
Likewise our brains don’t exactly cause awareness. They warp an innate property into integrated data-filled consciousnesses.
Remember not to confuse data organization with the subjective experience – no Turing test has any import on the issue of subjectivity. The fact of subjective awareness is not to be confused with the conception of self. Awareness is what I am saying must be primal – not data organization.
Meditators claim non-dual, non-conceptual, non-referential awareness is a human “experience”. Awareness without an object of awareness. Awareness can be cognizant with very little data – at least very little in the form of concept or image or feeling or sensation. If we could experience that, would we be tasting a basic flavor of the Kosmos?
Speculation on whether human awareness can know a basic nature of reality aside, we have no more reason to think that awareness is created by the actions of atoms than we have to believe that gravity is created by matter.
These wonders, this magic, is too usual to us. That we wake up and see stuff. It’s really incredible. We have no explanation and are not close at all to one – this question of beingness.
Friday, September 15th, 2006
IN HIS RECENT REVIEW of the Dalai Lamas book, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, George Johnson criticizes the Dalai Lama for opposing physical explanations for consciousness, invoking instead the existence of some kind of irreducible mind stuff, an idea rejected long ago by mainstream science.  While it is certainly true that mainstream science insists that there must be a physical explanation for consciousness, the empirical evidence supporting this view is tenuous. Since scientists have devised objective means of measuring all kinds of physical phenomena, it is remarkable that no scientific instruments can detect whether or not consciousness is present in inorganic matter (e.g., computers or robots), in plants (e.g., insect-eating plants), or in animals (e.g., single cells, insects, human fetuses, or normal human adults). Given that consciousness is invisible to all known means of scientific measurement-unlike all other kinds of physical phenomena-the burden of proof for the physical status of consciousness should be on those who make this assertion, not on those who question it.
Scientists have established that specific neural processes are necessary for producing specific conscious mental processes in humans and some other animals. In this way, correlations have been identified between brain and mind processes. Brain processes are detected with the third-person methods of biology, but mental processes are directly observed only by means of the first-person perspectives of individuals introspectively monitoring their own states of consciousness. This evidence proves that certain neural processes are necessary for producing specific mental events in humans, but not that they are sufficient causes of consciousness, nor does this indicate that consciousness itself is a physical phenomenon. Moreover, while many scientists believe that mental phenomena are emergent properties of brain, no one has ever objectively measured any mental event emerging from the brain, so that, too, remains an untested hypothesis that can be taken for the time being only on faith.