“What is Consciousness” and “Does God Exist”?
March 20, 2014

As is not entirely uncommon for me, I got thinking about the mystery of consciousness again today.  What happened to strike me in this instance was that, as you may yourself have realized, it is fascinating that consciousness is both extremely observable and extremely unobservable. On one hand, we’re all consciously aware, and our sense of self and our ability to experience what we see, hear, and touch is one of the best-known things in the universe to us.  On the other hand, science hasn’t been successful at being able to observe consciousness.  There is no microscope that can see it.  There is no test that can indicate whether something is conscious or not.  There are no compelling theories about what it is, or how it works.  And so, amazingly, many scientists dismiss consciousness as uninteresting or irrelevant.

So we have this amazing, incredible phenomenon in the universe, as profound (or more profound) than the three dimensions of space, or the dimension of time, and it is completely undetectable by science. Do you see where I’m going with this?  Many scientifically minded people dismiss the notion that God exists, because there is no way to directly observe God. And that’s where consciousness becomes an interesting beacon of truth: It declares to us that there amazing, profound things in the universe which science has no ability to observe.  Woah.  That kind of opens the door, now doesn’t it.

A secondarily interesting, but strongly related thought is that consciousness tells us that there are potentially other incredibly profound aspects to the universe/reality that science is unable to detect. Things which humans may never be able to observe, may never know exist.

I want to play with this notion that consciousness is unobservable for a moment.  Let’s say that there was another planet in the universe that had robotic life on it.  Unconscious robotic life.  These robots were able to procreate by making replicas of themselves, they were able to roll around and do things, and they were many times more intelligent than human beings, but they were just as unconscious as a calculator. One day, those robots came to earth and chatted with human beings.  The question is: Would they be able to detect consciousness from observing our behavior?  Would they see a certain glint in our eye and conclude “Oh my, there is something really profound going on inside of these creatures”.  Or would they merely conclude that, yup, there’s another group of behaving robots out there in the universe, just like them.

Let's re-ask the question: Is there any link between consciousness and behavior?  Another way to phrase that question is: Could you design a robot that looked and acted exactly like a person, but which was just that, an unconscious robot? In university, my sense was that in theory, I couldn’t see any obvious proof that such a thing was impossible, and so I leaned towards saying that “no, consciousness is experienced, but there’s no proof it loops back and affects behavior”.  Sometimes later I realized there is actually quite a simple proof to the contrary that was right before my nose.  The very fact that I was sitting there pondering the question was proof: My amazing, mystical, mind blowing experience of consciousness was causing me to sit there and reflect on it, and my sitting there and reflecting on it was behavior.  I never would have guessed that the proof would be so simple, and concise.

Some people would say the same thing about the existence of God: That while we typically don’t observe God directly, you can see the glint in the eye of the universe.  It’s as if we were those robotic explorers, peering into the eyes of a creation. Do we see the that there’s something amazing going on inside?  Or do we conclude, “Nope, nobody’s home, just a bunch of behaving dust”.