Why we should rethink what we've been told about consciousness

If we as adults are not free to make sovereign decisions – right or wrong – about our own consciousness, that most intimate, that most sapient, that most personal part of ourselves, then in what useful sense can we be said to be free at all?

New Statesman
Our brains and our conscious lives: how do they relate? Image: Getty

Consciousness is one of the great mysteries of science – perhaps the greatest mystery. We all know we have it, when we think, when we dream, when we savour tastes and aromas, when we hear a great symphony, when we fall in love: it is surely the most intimate, the most sapient, the most personal part of ourselves. Yet no one can claim to have understood and explained it completely. There’s no doubt it’s associated with the brain in some way but the nature of that association is far from clear. How do these three pounds of material stuff inside our skulls allow us to have experiences?

David Chalmers, a professor at the Australian National University, has dubbed this the “hard problem” of consciousness; but many scientists, particularly those who are philosophically inclined to believe that all phenomena can be reduced to material interactions, deny that any problem exists. To them, it seems self-evident that physical processes within the stuff of the brain produce consciousness rather in the way that a generator produces electricity – that is, consciousness is an “epiphenomenon” of brain activity. And they see it as equally obvious that there cannot be such things as out-of-body experiences or the conscious survival of death, as both consciousness and experience are confined to the brain and must die when the brain dies.

Other scientists with equally impressive credentials are not so sure and are increasingly willing to consider a very different analogy – that the relationship of consciousness to the brain may be less like the relationship of the generator to the electricity it produces and more like that of the TV signal to the TV set. In that case, when the TV set is destroyed – dead – the signal still continues.

Nothing in the present state of knowledge of neuroscience rules this possibility out. True, if you damage certain areas of the brain, certain areas of consciousness are compromised, but this does not prove that those areas of the brain generate the relevant areas of consciousness. If you were to damage certain areas of your TV set, the picture would deteriorate or vanish but the TV signal would remain intact.

We should remember that what seems obvious and self-evident to one generation may not seem at all obvious and self-evident to the next. For hundreds of years, it was obvious and self-evident to the greatest human minds that the sun moved around the earth – one need only look to the sky, they said, to see the truth of this proposition. Those who maintained the revolutionary view that the earth moved around the sun faced the Inquisition. Yet the revolutionaries were right and orthodoxy was terribly, ridiculously wrong.

The same may well prove to be true with the mystery of consciousness. Yes, it does seem obvious and self-evident that the brain produces it (the generator analogy) but this is a deduction from incomplete data. New discoveries may force materialist science to rescind this theory in favour of something more like the TV analogy, in which consciousness is recognised as fundamentally “non-local” in nature – perhaps even as one of the basic driving forces of the universe. At the very least, we should withhold judgement until more evidence is in and view with suspicion those who hold dogmatic views about the nature of consciousness.

It’s at this point that the whole seemingly academic issue becomes intensely political. Modern technological society idealises and is monopolistically focused on only one state ofconsciousness – the alert, problem-solving state that makes us efficient producers and consumers of material goods and services. At the same time, our society seeks to police and control a wide range of other “altered” states of consciousness. I refer here to the so-called war on drugs, which is better understood as a war on consciousness and which maintains, supposedly in the interests of society, that we as adults do not have the right or maturity to make sovereign decisions about the states of consciousness we wish to explore and embrace.

This extraordinary imposition on adult cognitive liberty is justified by the idea that our brain activity, disturbed by drugs, will adversely impact on our behaviour towards others. Yet anyone who pauses to think seriously for even a moment must realise that we already have adequate laws that govern adverse behaviour towards others and that the real purpose of the “war on drugs” must therefore be to bear down on consciousness itself.

Confirmation that this is so came from the last Labour government. It declared that its drug policy would be based on scientific evidence yet in 2009 it sacked Professor David Nutt, chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, for stating the simple statistical fact that cannabis is less dangerous (in terms of measured “harms”) than tobacco and alcohol and that Ecstasy is less dangerous than horse riding. The present coalition remains just as adamant in its enforcement of the so-called war on drugs and continues to pour public money into large, armed law-enforcement bureaucracies that are entitled to break down our door in the dead of night, invade our home, ruin our reputation and put us behind bars.

All of this, we have been persuaded, is in our own interests. Yet if we as adults are not free to make sovereign decisions – right or wrong – about our own consciousness, that most intimate, that most sapient, that most personal part of ourselves, then in what useful sense can we be said to be free at all? And how are we to begin to take meaningful responsibility for all the other aspects of our lives when our governments seek to disenfranchise us from this most fundamental of all human rights and responsibilities?

Graham Hancock is the author of the bestselling “Supernatural” (Arrow Books, £10.99). For more details visit: grahamhancock.com