On the Nature of Consciousness: a Scientific Hypothesis*

Wim Rietdijk, D.Sci.

Man is a message.
Norbert Wiener

Wouldn't it be strange if the world were coherent up to magnificence, but too "vacuous" - unconscious - to realize it and to have wanted it so?


Many experts feel that consciousness is a kind of epiphenomenon of electrons or chemical substances flowing in the brain, and also concomitant with artificial intelligence once it is sufficiently sophisticated.
      I dare to doubt it. I simply don't get the Aha-Erlebnis - don't see any understandable model - as to consciousness in mentally playing with dead particles that move or constitute complicated patterns...
      There is a vital progression in the triad: chaos - coherence - meaning. E.g., meaning essentially transcends even the utmost coherent complication. It adds, so to say, a knowing glance. It introduces to-the-pointness as a fundamental new category in nature that, e.g., further reduces coincidence, inter alia, in the sense of coordinating events to purpose, often nonlocally, and from a central command post - the conscious "I" -, which also radically facilitates feedback.

Some hypotheses and coherences

1. My first hypothesis is that, in certain processes, the phenomenon of consciousness is inherent to the way truth, logic and laws of nature coherently and integratedly define the functioning of and order in the universe, rather than being a separate epiphenomenon of something else. It is a dimension of nature, just as fundamental as, say, time, not a by-product of special material configurations.
      Consciousness is a hitherto unrecognized function in the inevitable and consistent whole constituted by logic, truth and the laws of nature.

2. A prominent experimental principle in the order of natural processes is that seemingly independent physical laws, quantities and variables, on a closer look, appear to ensue from, or are special aspects of, greater, more comprehensive laws, principles or processes.
      E.g., all equations of motion in fundamental physics follow from the Principle of least action, whereas all conservation laws - as to energy, (angular) momentum, electric charge,... - can be derived from Noether's formula. Also, Relativity theory shows that space and time are "mere variable projections" of one integrated entity called spacetime.

3. The integration of laws and phenomena at stake in (2) is an aspect of what made Feynman say: "Truth can be recognized by its simplicity and beauty". That is, by the fact that nature appears to aim at optimum simplicity and coherence: avoiding anything superfluous or needlessly complicated.

4. Some laws of nature even appear to produce coherence to such an extent that it points in the direction of "nonlocal orchestration". E.g., in the phenomenon of Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen, measurements at different spacetime locations A and B show correlations that cannot even be produced by the fastest possible signals transmitted between them (i.e., with the velocity of light), and, therefore, indeed show nonlocal coherence. The latter also appears to be implied by a physical situation first described by Bohm and Aharonov.

5. In the spirit of the above motto's, points (1) - (4) now suggest my core hypothesis:
The coherence and hierarchy of the laws of nature, and their being attuned to optimum integration and simplicity, can go even farther than we realized up to now. I.e., in some processes the mutual integration, feedback and coherence of such laws, logic, truths, and nonlocal "orchestration" are so subtle that the simplest solution for nature appears to be that it causes such integration etc. to come about via a "central command post". Such "conscious I" as mentioned above is optimally equipped and attuned to be indeed a nerve centre processing and "weighing" complex information, forces, constraints, hierarchies and results ("conclusions"). It can even do so chunk-wise: extremely simplifying processing information in greater wholes and essentials that, by this, can have effects, can act, in the shape of language. That is, act and be processed in symbolic forms, "by shorthand".
      Psychological categories such as organizing, essence, symbol, meaning, purpose, striving,... all contribute to making things simpler and at the same time to attaining higher levels of coherence. That is, they "simply" are in the produced part of what we saw about the laws of nature in (2) - (4) above, this telling for our core hypothesis on consciousness as a "central command post" simplifyingly coordinating (the effects of) such laws, logic and truth in the especially sophisticated and coherent natural processes called "conscious life".

Conclusion: Consciousness fits well into the picture of nature's more general functioning according to laws, logic and truths that are mutually coordinated according to principles of simplicity and hierarchic integration, in the sense that its command post and nerve centre function embodies a culmination of such general characteristics.

Further elaboration

Consciousness differs from mere artificial intelligence, inter alia, by its embodying a high level of coherence and hierarchy of laws of nature, logic and truths as such coherence etc. are naturally inherent to the very kind and mutual relations of these laws etc., whereas artificial intelligence "simply" processes data in ways programmed into the apparatuses, and especially by systematically getting through pre-organized schemes. Within the scope of such difference, only consciousness shows complicated forces of nature being integrated into "striving", priorities such as values and subtly coherent reactions such as disappointment or anxiety. For the rest, consciousness fundamentally transcends intelligence at all by its also being associated with drives and experiences as just mentioned.
      Spinoza said: "If a stone could think, it would strive after falling". Well, various natural forces in man indeed attain the level of feedback, central integration and hierarchy that in psychological language translates into "striving after".
      The following example of consciousness as a natural device optimizing both simplicity and coherence via a central command post integrating forces, laws of nature, information etc. may be prototypical:
      Suppose the laws of nature and the world as a whole were precisely as they are now, only consciousness and other psychological categories lacking. Then imagine, say, a horse race. All laws being as they are, "dead natural forces" would direct men and horses towards the finish and cause the public to shout etc. Well, without consciousness "centralizing" and integrating biological, chemical and physical laws into the psychological and conscious force of "wanting to get at the finish", complication, far-fetchedness and contrivedness would be beyond credibility and imagination! Feynman's simplicity and beauty would be nowhere! That is, consciousness here too constitutes a natural produced part of the hierarchic, simplicity-optimizing integration of "dead laws, truths and logic" that also manifests itself in the rest of nature. It is part and parcel of their mutual relations in situations like the one at stake.
      The mere phenomenon of language - once having resulted at all from the laws of nature - presupposes simplifying and integrating consciousness to avoid our being confronted with an inveracious "massive conspiracy of sounds and letters". On the other hand consciousness, by its very feature of command-post integration of laws etc., and of its processing also abstract information chunk-wise and hierarchically, facilitates the development and functioning of language at all.

The concept of God and the survival problem

Note that the concept of God may fit in our picture as the utmost comprehensive Law, Truth or Principle integrating all "secondary" laws of nature, truths and values optimally coherently, "diametrically".
      In addition, some idea of reincarnation or other way of survival could be implied. Viz. we, as human beings, in our hypothesized ideas are representatives of mutually cooperating laws, truths, values and forces, our conscious lives constituting messages or stories more or less integrating such laws etcetera - in particular as an inclination, state of mind, psychic force -, rather than being mere local coincidences produced in our brain by chemicals and electrons. In this picture, the death of a body expressing the "chunk of truth and logic" the relevant message is, may be far from eliminating the significance of such "aspect of integrated truth", so that it could manifest itself elsewhere, though attuned to local circumstances. (Also compare the next paragraph.) As an individual, I could be a particular complex or projection of the Great Consciousness integrating all laws of nature, truths and values to optimum coherence and simplicity. A complex that reflects such Master Law's and Consciousness' articulation and many-sidedness. (Compare the saying of man's being "a spark of God".)
      The above tentative, hypothetical theory of consciousness tends to our recognizing concepts like values, meaning, striving and other psychological catagories as being much more essential and inherent to the world than as mere subjective inventions or preferences of individuals or civilizations. Coherence, meaning, good and evil "rise in status". Man recognizes himself and his consciousness as functional in the universe, as a message of the Unspeakable that at the same time comes under the laws of nature and scientific truth. The Unspeakable: that is the utmost consciousness integrating all laws, truths and values of the universe, and with respect to which our organism may also function as an antenna or "projector" that somehow like a radio - or prism - receives more or less coherent parts ("chunks") of such integrated whole. This would then result in processing an individual situation or generating an individual story. Note that this model of a radio receiving a message implies that the instrument's "death" need not mean the end of the broadcast, and the relevance of this, e.g., to the concept of reincarnation.
      The above ideas also mean one more step in transforming religion into science. Let us humans continue our path of evolution in the spirit that many wise men and prophets ascribed to the Sender of the message.

* This page appeared in a more extended form in the Dutch periodical Civis Mundi of January 1998 (Editor Prof. S.W. Couwenberg).

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