Cave Of Plato goes deep caving into the intriguing topic of Consciousness with Nick Day, producer and presenter of Consciousness Chronicles and Consciousness Central and director of an award winning film Short Cut to Nirvana : Kumbh Mela.
What inspired you to take off on your journey of exploring Consciousness?
I’ve always been attracted to the bigger questions of life. A few years ago I made a film about the greatest gathering in the history of humanity, the Maha Kumbh Mela.
Afterwards, I found myself wondering what could possibly follow that? The answer turned out to be the greatest mystery known to humanity: the ontological nature of our own consciousness! In 2004 I attended the Toward a Science of Consciousness conference in Tucson, where I was fortunate enough to interview several leading thinkers in the field, including philosophers David Chalmers and Daniel Dennett, and consciousness theorist Stuart Hameroff. What they had to say inspired a longer term inquiry into all aspects of consciousness, and I went on to produce a DVD series, The Consciousness Chronicles, and an online TV program, Consciousness Central, that are still ongoing after 14 years. I also give public talks on the relationship between consciousness and the arts, specifically cinema and storytelling.
What is Consciousness? Is it the same as self awareness?
Defining consciousness is challenging, partly because the terms consciousness and awareness often get used synonymously or in a context where one is said to give rise to the other. When considering the science of consciousness, I tend to go along with philosopher David Chalmers and define consciousness as a sense of subjective experience, what it feels like from a first person point of view. Descartes famously said cogito, ergo sum — I think, therefore I am — meaning that consciousness was the one thing that could not be denied: The external world could be a simulation created by an evil genius, we could be a brain in a vat, rather like The Matrix, but the one thing we would be sure of is our own subjective experience.
From a more spiritual perspective, when we examine our own experience, the entirety of the universe appears only in consciousness, therefore consciousness can be regarded as the ground of all existence. We have no absolute way of knowing that anything exists a priori to consciousness, despite the fact that all the physical sciences regard consciousness as a given.
Self awareness I would define as the cognitive capacity to be aware that we are aware, generally believed to be unique to humans. While other species are certainly aware, it is unclear whether they are self aware. We can never know this definitively, of course.
Does consciousness exist within our body or do we keep downloading it from an external source?
Mainstream Western science makes the assumption that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of brain activity — although just how the non-conscious atoms that comprise the brain somehow give rise to subjective awareness remains a mystery. This is the essence of David Chalmers’ “hard problem” of consciousness. Current theories of physics don’t acknowledge that consciousness even exists, which is an untenable position given that matter must have some integrated relationship to consciousness. Non-material thoughts and intentions are converted into material action all the time.
Could it be that we “download” consciousness? Possibly. To be alive and aware is in some sense analogous to being “cosmically online.” If we take consciousness as fundamental to the universe just as we do with electromagnetism and gravity, then the brain might be considered as a finely tuned instrument that resonates within a field of consciousness, rather like a radio tunes into a specific electromagnetic wavelength to produce sound. It’s also possible that using our current level of technology as a metaphor falls significantly short of describing what’s actually going on.
Do only living beings have consciousness? Is it likely that objects we consider non living, including computers could have consciousness?
Consciousness as we currently understand it is exclusive to life. Therefore according to the current scientific paradigm, inanimate objects and computers are not conscious. However, proponents of artificial intelligence (AI) maintain that a powerful enough computer will eventually become conscious. The issue with this approach is that it reduces consciousness to binary switching and algorithms, which may be entirely erroneous. Even attempts to model a simple roundworm — C. Elegans — with just 302 neurons, have so far failed. Attempting to model a human brain in a computer and expecting it to magically become conscious may prove to be an impossible project.
Some Western scientists and philosophers have recently shifted towards a more panpsychist position, the idea that every physical particle has some kind of consciousness attributed to it. This doesn’t imply that rocks and spoons are conscious as we understand the term, but when matter becomes organized in a highly complex form such as the brain, consciousness would presumably arise. The panpsychist position remains essentially dualist.
A controversial but compelling alternative comes from mathematical physicist Sir Roger Penrose and anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff, who propose that consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe caused by quantum gravitational effects and is therefore beyond computation. Penrose reinterprets Schrödinger and suggests that consciousness does not cause collapse of the wave function, rather it is the collapse of the wave function. A fundamental “moment” of consciousness occurs with the self collapse of separations in spacetime. According this model, what is called proto-consciousness is arising everywhere all the time, and all things are indeed minimally conscious. Even a rock would be experiencing almost imperceptible glimmers of consciousness, although insufficient for sentience as we understand it. It requires significant scaling up and “orchestration” before the continuum of rich awareness emerges. Such orchestration takes place within highly complex neuronal substructures called microtubules, and quantum coherence across the cortex is required for a “moment” of consciousness to be experienced. This theory is known as Orchestrated Objective Reduction, or Orch. OR, and if shown to be valid would mean that consciousness is essentially non-computable, no matter how powerful the processor or well coded the algorithm.
Tell us about your experience at the Kumbh Mela in India. What perspective shifts and transformations did it bring about?
The moment I heard about the Kumbh Mela I knew it was a story that needed to be told. It seemed beyond belief, that so many millions of people could gather together and almost no-one outside of India knew anything about it. How could such an incredible event have escaped the notice of the rest of the world?
With only four weeks’ notice, our team decided to travel to India and search for a local co-producer to act as a translator and guide. The film we had in mind would be fairly conventional, with formal interviews and scripted voiceover. We arrived fully intending to stick to our plan, but of course Mother India had something quite different in store. It just took a while for us to realize it and accept it. Then, once we stopped trying to force our plan into being and instead surrendered to what was actually arising in the moment, doors opened and the magic began. Over several weeks of filming we had the most amazing encounters that we never could have planned for, and moments of serendipity flowed freely. As a result, our film was far more experiential and immediate than the journalistic documentary we had set out to make. Audiences felt closer to the Kumbh Mela and shared in the sense of spiritual celebration and joy. So our transformation and shift of perspective was about tuning in to something greater and allowing it to guide us whenever it became clear our “plan” wasn’t working. This wisdom teaching may have come from India but it applies universally — that is if we can remain open to it!
What similarities and differences have you found in the way the eastern and the western worlds approach the idea of Consciousness, life and death?
Wow, this is a huge question! To summarize rather crudely, the cosmology of the Western world is dualistic and mechanistic, while the East has the ancient teachings of advaita vedanta and the practices of yoga and meditation woven into its cultural and spiritual fabric.
As I mentioned above, the prevailing Western view of consciousness is that it is produced by the brain: The mind is treated as an object to be studied from the outside, rather like any other organ of the body. From this we get psychiatry and psychology, both of which are valid and useful but incomplete.
The Eastern approach to mind is entirely different. The ancient contemplative traditions use the mind as an instrument of exploration, to inquire into the deeper nature of reality itself, which is often described as infinite consciousness. Millennia after the early rishis came to this realization, a number of western quantum scientists including John Hagelin, Menas Kafatos and Henry Stapp are proposing something similar. And while we generally label eastern traditions as spirituality, they may yet be reclassified as a deep science of mind and considered as complimentary and essential to Western psychology.
Death and the extinction of individual consciousness is regarded as absolutely final in Western dualistic science. When we die, that’s it forever. However, if consciousness is indeed fundamental to the universe, then the idea that the quantum-level information that comprises the self (atman) might be retained in the universal field of consciousness (Brahman) and eventually re-embodied, then reincarnation becomes a scientific possibility.
Mention 3 tips and recommended books/films for those just starting off on a journey of self exploration.
- Inquire into and meditate on the distinction between the contents of consciousness — thoughts, feelings, associations, memories — and the pure awareness within which those things arise.
- Existence is amazing. Every moment of it. Once we look at the world and witness each unique moment unfolding, every blade of grass becomes a wonder instead of something banal, every single cell in our body is worthy of awe in its complexity and function, words and music become rich experiences in consciousness.
- A wise person once said: “We exist in the universe but we live in the world.” Which means, the discovery that we are pure awareness doesn’t preclude the forms our psyche and our heart take in human society. Learn what it means to confront and work through those complex human issues that spiritual awakening tells you are just the illusion of identity. Anything less is spiritual bypassing.
The Primacy of Consciousnes
I AM: The Movie
Wings of Desire
1 Giant Leap
Eternal Sunshine of the Eternal Mind
Synchronicity – F. David Peat
Buddha’s Brain – Rick Hanson
War of the Worldviews: Where Science and Spirituality Meet – and Do Not — Deepak Chopra & Leonard Mlodinow
DMT, The Spirit Molecule — Rick Strassman
The Biology of Belief— Bruce Lipton
Breaking Open the Head — Daniel Pinchbeck