Bag of Chemicals Thought Experiment

With dualism it is hard to conceptualize how consciousness could arise from matter. If there are two separate categories of things (i.e. substances), how could they ever interact?

In order for two things to be able to interact in any manner, they must have something in common in which to interact. Imagine two people with lots in common, they have many means to interact. Imagine two people with polarizing personalities/interests/traits, they would have less things in common in which to interact, but at the end of the day, they still have quite a lot in common being that they are both humans, both on earth, both have physical bodies, etc.

Oil and water have minimal interactions. If you combine the two in a container you will find all the oil stays together on the surface of the water. Water is hydrophilic (obviously), while oil is hydrophobic. It doesn’t like to interact with water. Now, despite this, it still does interact with water because they both, categorically, have something in common: they both are made up of physical matter (i.e. atoms).

Now, mind/experience/consciousness is a non-physical thing (substance). While physical matter is, well, a physical thing (substance). How is it that one could possibly produce the other?

Let’s address the possibility that matter produces mind, as is commonly held in various schools of thought (scientific, psychological, etc). This is the underlying assumption behind views that depression is just the result of chemistry of the brain. What this view holds is that the presence or absence of more or less or different atoms touching other atoms (physical) results in a different state of consciousness (non-physical).

How can this be?

Some take this to be the case, as it stands. It is that way. I would like to bring a thought experiment into view which might challenge such a view. It addresses the ontology of consciousness, how consciousness, this non-physical thing, comes into existence, into being.

Let’s assume that a single atom (or sub-atomic particle such as an electron, a quark, etc) has no consciousness. It is dead. Lifeless. Inert.

Imagine someone has a bag of chemicals (atoms). The bag might be really big. It could even be the size of the universe. But for all intents and purposes, it is a bag of chemicals of a certain size, with a certain amount of chemicals in it. The chemicals have no means of escaping the bag, and no chemicals can enter the bag. Essentially, it is a closed system (just like the universe).

Now, the chemicals at first are just elementary elements to start with. Just your basic building blocks of matter. Hydrogen atoms, helium atoms, etc.

You shake the bag of atoms, and you do so over time (perhaps over 14 billion years; you are quite old and quite determined to perform this experiment). The atoms will, according to the laws of physics, move around, collide into each other, be attracted, be repulsed, bind to one another, dissociate, etc, etc.

Now, remember, initially we started with a bag with just physical stuff. Only one category of thing, physical matter. There is no consciousness, no non-physical thing in the bag yet. Now, today, in this moment, we can agree that there is consciousness in the universe, this non-physical thing. So, in order to go from a universe made up of ONLY one category of things (physical stuff) to a universe in which there are two categories of things (physical and non-physical stuff), there must be a precise moment where that one new category of things (non-physical stuff) comes into existence.

So, the bag of chemicals is being shaken around. Atoms are combining, doing their thing. At some point a star is formed, and at some point a star explodes, heavier atoms like metals are formed, some come together under certain forces and form structures we might call planets. Atoms keep atoming. Physical matter keeps doing its physical matter stuff (motion and collision).

Now, whether or not it is human consciousness, animal consciousness, a plant consciousness, a rock, a worm, a bacteria, a whatever, it is of no concern. What matters is that at some point the bag of chemicals (the universe) goes from a state of only atoms (physical stuff) to atoms and consciousness (physical and non-physical stuff). Now, at this current moment there is still only physical stuff (atoms), and as we approach the moment where consciousness comes into being, what do we have? We have dead, lifeless, non-conscious atoms in motion, in space, colliding and interacting according to physical laws. In theory each atom could be known by simply its location in space (if we could apply a gps location to it over the bag (universe), and it has motion. That is ALL THAT THERE IS in the bag (universe) at this point. Atoms. Moving. Some atoms are grouped together, and some form structures, but still, it is just dead, lifeless, non-conscious bits of physical stuff of certain amounts in certain arrangements. Like lego pieces arranged in a certain way over here, and arranged in a certain way over there.

Now, if our starting assumptions are correct, them being:

  1. There exists two different things in the universe: physical stuff (matter) and non-physical stuff (mind/consciousness/etc).
  2. Matter causes consciousness (physical stuff causes non-physical stuff to exist).
  3. Fundamental physical stuff (atoms, sub-atomic particles, etc) do not, in themselves, have consciousness.

So, if these assumptions are to be correct, and our system, our bag of chemicals (the universe) is to make a transition from a system that has only matter (physical stuff) in existence to a system that has both matter and mind (physical and non-physical stuff) in existence, and this transition occurs at a definite moment in time, t, then we should bring our attention to this moment in time, t.

Just moments before this moment in time, t, let’s say t minus 1 minute, maybe t minus 1 second, maybe t minus 1 nanosecond, maybe t mins 0.00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000001 seconds. Whatever. As you approach time point t, what you will have are physical atoms in specific locations in space (three dimensional space coordinates, i.e. gps locations). Then, at time t, what has changed? If we are to accept that in one moment the system has no consciousness, and then the next it does, what has changed? Imagine a system of dead, lifeless atoms, and they all have their locations in space, and are moving on their paths (as they have for all of time), colliding, attracting, repulsing, etc, based on the laws of physics. Then, all of a sudden, the different just before time t and the actual moment of time t, what has changed? Atoms just moved a bit more into different spatial coordinates (gps locations), just as they have for all eternity before this moment in time, t.

Why is consciousness, this non-physical thing supposed to exist now? What is special about THIS spatial coordination of atoms, of matter? Literally, just a nano-second earlier there was no consciousness in the system. Remember, we are holding that the system goes from non-consciousness to consciousness. So there must a an exact time, t, where the transition occurs. So, just a nano-second earlier there was no consciousness in the system. You could give every single atom in the system, the bag, the universe, a specific gps location. And then a nano-second later at the moment of time ‘t’, the moment where consciousness comes into existence, what has changed? In a nano-second each of those atoms, those non-conscious things, have moved a little bit, based on their individual velocities given to them by forces from the physical laws of the universe/bag/system/nature. Where is the cause of consciousness? How could it arrive? And even if it were to somehow be formed from such a system, “where” does it exist? “What” is being conscious? Is it a property of the atoms? Is it a property of something other than the atoms? But there are only atoms. Is it something separate from the atoms? If so, how could the atoms, the only things in existence, create something from which they had no starting materials? What does that even mean?!?!

It seems logically inconsistent. A contradiction. Impossible, or at least, conceptually inconceivable.

Perhaps our starting assumptions are not correct. Let us start with the third.

Fundamental physical stuff (atoms, sub-atomic particles, etc) do not, in themselves, have consciousness

Is this a self-evident truth? For what reason do we have to hold this to be true? Well, assuming the first assumption is true, in that there is a dualistic universe of matter and mind, two distinct and mutually exclusive categories of stuff, I am forced to look at my own experience as a human. I have a body, and that body is made up of large number of cells. Each of these cells is made up of a large number of molecules. Each molecule is made up of a large number of atoms. Each atom is made up of a large number of protons, neutrons, electrons. We could keep going. Essentially, the thing I call ‘my body’, is a collection of an insane number of constituent building blocks of physical matter. Now, I only experience a single consciousness. Consciousness is irreducible, in that it is single, continuous, contiguous and it unites all my experience and perceptions into one single field. It is single, and it must be single, because if it was fragmented I could never have the possibility of memory. If each perception, each moment, was a different/separate consciousness, then information from one could never be made available to another. Memory, and so much more, would not be possible. I don’t experience my laptop as a separate experience to the temperature I am feeling now, as a separate experience to my dog snoring on the couch. Consciousness is all unified, singular, into one experience.

Now, I experience this singular, continuous, unified field of consciousness (thought the objects of my consciousness change, it is always “I” who experiences them). But the body is made up of a ridiculously unfathomable number of physical things. If each of these physical things had their own consciousness, how could I arrive at a single unified experience of consciousness? Especially if I am in perfect fluidity with the greater system, my environment. At every moment atoms, dead, lifeless, inert, non-conscious atoms from my environment are flowing and assembling “into” my body, and at that same moment atoms, dead, lifeless, inert, non-conscious atoms from “my body” are flowing and “leaving” and going off into the environment. I breath. Dead, non-conscious physical atoms come from my environment, enter my blood stream by binding hemoglobin, get shuttled to cells, form chemical reactions, and now, as opposed to just moments ago, are now structurally a constituent of the body. Did I gain consciousness? Does that even mean anything? When I eat, when I defecate, when I spit, when I scratch my head and thousands upon thousands of skin cells are removed from my body, when I bleed, I am losing these atoms. Is my consciousness being lost or affected?

We don’t believe so, do we? Because we have one unified consciousness. So we hold this assumption that atoms do not have consciousness. Otherwise, why wouldn’t I experience multiple consciousnesses. The consciousness from that atom, or that, or that, and that, and that one over there too. That is not our experience.

We also do not accept that atoms have consciousness, otherwise that would raise ethical issues as to how to treat every single atom in the universe.

Assumption two:

Matter causes consciousness (physical stuff causes non-physical stuff to exist).

Perhaps this assumption is not warranted. It is a generally held belief by modern scientific thinkers. Why are we becoming such a medicated culture? Why do we give our children drugs that we infer will have a causal effect on how they behave, how they perceive and experience existence? Someone that is depressed believes that the drug, which is just a collection of dead, lifeless atoms, will lead to a causal path where those dead, lifeless atoms will, following the laws of chemistry (which is nothing other than physics), interact with other dead, lifeless atoms, and somehow, in some way, that will lead to a change in the quality of the conscious experience (from depressed to not depressed).

I am not sure that this assumption is true, but it is not wrong to say that this is a standing assumption that the western, scientifically minded world holds to be true. Whether conscious or not, it is an underlying philosophical assumption and world view in which our behavior and decision relies upon.

Assumption one:

There exists two different things in the universe: physical stuff (matter) and non-physical stuff (mind/consciousness/etc).

This the biggest assumption of the three. The other two rely completely on the truth value of this assumption. This assumption is actually an inference that we make, as I mentioned in the materialism vs. immaterialism post, here. Essentially, we infer that there are these two things because we have a conscious experience. This conscious experience is of things. That is, consciousness has objects. When we are conscious, we are conscious of things. The only criteria that you have that you are conscious right now is that you are conscious of something. Properly put, in Descartes cogito ergo sum, what he is saying is that for as long as he is thinking (conscious), he is. For as long as we have an object of which we are conscious of, then we the thing that is doing the consciousness, the thing that is aware (the Self, consciousness itself), then we know that we are conscious. This is the case in waking life and dream states. But in deep sleep, there is no object of consciousness. The object of consciousness is no-thing. It isn’t that consciousness does not exist, rather, with the lack of an object of consciousness, there is no ego, no self, no criteria, no “I-am-ness” to make an inference of experience.

Now, we definitely know that consciousness exists. This is the single most truthful axiom, the single most self-evident truth that cannot be denied. More so than any other assumption or axiom, such as the axiom of non-contradiction (i.e. If P then not P is not true as it would imply a contradiction, i.e. my dog is sitting on the couch, by the principle of non-contradiction I cannot logically structure the thought that she is also not sitting on the couch (though this is quite possible and quite common in dreams, i.e. it was my house but also not my house, that person was my family member but also not my family member)))))))

So, we are conscious. And we are conscious of objects. Dualism comes into play when we infer that the things we are conscious of (which, in itself, consciousness is a non-physical thing, it is an experience, and nobody can touch my experience, though they can touch me and the things I am experiencing) have a physical true existence outside of our minds. We quite literally through this inference bring the objects of consciousness into a physical real existence. Just think, if a new born was put into a coma, and like the matrix movies, was kept alive for the span of a regular human life via feeding tubes, heart pumps, etc, etc, and that baby were to dream its entire life. For that baby (or adult or anyone in this thought experiment), all of the objects of its consciousness (the content of its dream) would be given ontology. It would be given existence. Reality. It would be real. The objects of the consciousness would be inferred to have real existence, out there, external to the mind.

When we are in dreams, in the moment, while we are conscious of those objects of consciousness (the content of the dreams), we are experiencing them as real. They ARE real. The mind, the consciousness, makes them real. We are experiencing them. There was a dream that changed my life and compelled me to investigate consciousness. I was in nature, some sort of forest type setting. I came to a narrow stream, it was about 3 feet wide. I decided I wanted to jump over the stream, I was heading to the other side. As I jumped over the stream a snake sprang out from the water and was looking to bite me. I was so scared, so startled, I woke in one of those cliche tv/movie panics. I was terrified, even still in waking life.

How could this be so?

If I think of a snake jumping at me now I am not scared. It is not real. There is no reality to it. I “know” it is just in my mind and not something that is actually “out there”, with a real physical existence.

But in the dream, the dream IS the object of my consciousness. It is the ONLY object of my consciousness. It is the only thing that IS. What is the object of my consciousness is brought into a real existence, it is inferred to be real, to be true, to be out there. The conscious experience of the object BRINGS it into existence, in relation to the thing that experiencing it, me.

Anyway. I have gone way off track and I am hungry.

Though I cannot prove any of the three assumptions to be true, and in fact I do not necessarily hold all or any of them to be true, my purpose of the thought experiment is to see logical impossibility of consciousness coming into existence from such a system.

Though it is worth addressing, quickly, the concept of emergent properties. Emergent properties are only concepts and conceptual. They exist only in the mind, and are analytic, which is to say necessarily definitional. When someone says hydrogen and oxygen combine to form water, and water has completely different properties that did not exist in hydrogen nor in oxygen, and so H2O, water, is more than the sum of its parts. It has emergent properties. And that this is what consciousness is. Something that emerges from atoms.

I have only a few things to say. First, this on the surface seems an intelligible argument, but it isn’t. It isn’t because what has emerged is still a physical thing. No new non-physical thing has emerged. Water is still physical. Show me how hydrogen and oxygen can combine to form a conscious experience.

More importantly, hydrogen + oxygen = water is a definition. It is like all bachelors are unmarried men. When I say the word bachelor, “unmarried men” is not an emergent property. It is just a definition. We first started with something, water, and we gave it a definition, H2O. H2O is given an analytic definition of being two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen. We made that definition, that rule, that concept in order to explain what “water” is.

To say water is an emergent property of hydrogen and oxygen is sillyness. We start with a phenomenal experience and we give it a symbol, syntax, a name, a word “water”. Then years go by, and eventually we want to explain just exactly what water is. So we create concepts of atoms, and we say water is H2O. In order to do that, we first instate what H is and what O is. We make up a system based on definitions. Now to turn around after all that and say “we have hydrogen as the real stuff, we have oxygen as the real stuff, and if we combine them something new comes into being, separate from the two, water. Water is an emergent property” is circular and non-sense. It is like starting off with forming a language, and before the written word existed we might have had the word “goat”. It is an utterance, a sound we make. Then, once someone decided it would be a good idea to take the sounds we make in our language and produce a written language so that we could write things down, an alphabet must be created. “Goat”, the sound and word, existed. Then, by definitions and convention, a certain symbol (letter) would represent the “guh” sound of “goat”, the letter g. And the “teh” sound of “goat” would be represented by the letter “t”, and so on.

Now, to develop the alphabet which is to represent the language and sounds, then to turn around and say “hey, ‘goatness’ is not contained in g, o, a or t alphabet symbols. Yet, when I combine them together into g-o-a-t, something new comes into existence that wasn’t there before, therefore goat is an emergent property” IS JUST PLAIN WRONG! It is not true. We created a definition of what the word goat is to be (g+o+a+t connected into one sound), in the same way that we define a bachelor to be unmarried man. It is purely analytic (definition). The predicate (description) is contained in the concept of the subject. It is contained via a definition. H2O is contained in the concept of water, as are H and O. There is no emergent property.

I have written for too long. I will count this as two blog posts towards my monthly goal of a blog post each day, as I could easily have divided it up.

All this to say, consciousness is not an emergent property. It is the fundamental foundation of our existence, the single strongest assumption/axiom we can rely on, and the thought experiment above shows that it is logically inconsistent and conceptually difficult (to say the least) to conceive of how dead lifeless atoms in one geo spatial position at a moment in time could have no consciousness, but if some of those atoms moved a fraction of a nanometer in one direction, at a new time point, t, consciousness would now exist. It does not seem plausible.