The following essay was originally published in the Journal of Consciousness Exploration & Research, Volume 7, Number 11 (2016).
Our capacity to be conscious subjects of experience is the root of our sense of being. After all, if we weren’t conscious, what could we know of ourselves? How could we even assert our own existence? Being conscious is what it means to beus. In an important sense—even the only important sense—we are first and foremost consciousness itself, the rest of our self-image arising afterwards, as thoughts and images constructed in consciousness.
For this reason, the question of what happens to our consciousness after bodily death has been central to humanity throughout its history. Do we cease to exist or continue on in some form or another? Many people today seek existential solace in body-self dualism, which opens up the possibility of the survival of consciousness after bodily death (Heflick et al, 2015). But is dualism—with the many serious problems it entails, both philosophical and empirical (Robinson, 2016)—the only ontology that allows for this survival?
Although consciousness itself is the only directly accessible datum of reality, both dualism and the mainstream ontology of physicalism (Stoljar, 2016) posit the existence of something ontologically distinct from consciousness: a physical world outside and independent of experience. In this context, insofar as consciousness is believed to be constituted, generated, hosted or at least modulated by particular arrangements of matter and energy in the physical world, the dissolution of such arrangements—as entailed by bodily death—bears relevance to our survival. This is the root of humanity’s preoccupation with death.
However, the existence of a physical world outside and independent of consciousness is a theoretical inference arising from interpretation of sense perceptions, not an empirical fact. After all, our only access to the physical is through the screen of perception, which is itself a phenomenon of and in consciousness. Renowned Stanford physicist Andrei Linde (1998) summarized this as follows:
Let us remember that our knowledge of the world begins not with matter but with perceptions. … Later we find out that our perceptions obey some laws, which can be most conveniently formulated if we assume that there is some underlying reality beyond our perceptions. This model of material world obeying laws of physics is so successful that soon we forget about our starting point and say that matter is the only reality, and perceptions are only helpful for its description. This assumption is almost as natural (and maybe as false) as our previous assumption that space is only a mathematical tool for the description of matter. (p. 12)
The physical world many believe to exist beyond consciousness is an abstract explanatory model. Its motivation is to make sense of three basic observations about reality:
- If a physical brain outside experience doesn’t somehow generate or at least modulate consciousness, how can there be such tight correlations between observed brain activity and reported inner experience (cf. Koch, 2004)?
- If the world isn’t fundamentally independent and outside of experience, it can only be analogous to a dream in consciousness. But in such a case, how can we all be having the same dream?
- Finally, if the world is in consciousness, how can it unfold according to patterns and regularities independent of our volition? After all, human beings cannot change the laws of nature.
Nonetheless, if these questions can be satisfactorily answered without the postulate of a physical world outside consciousness, the need for the latter can be legitimately called into question on grounds of parsimony. Moreover, while physicalism requires the existence of ontological primitives—which Strawson (2006, p. 9) called “ultimates”—beyond consciousness, it fails to explain consciousness itself in terms of these primitives (cf. Chalmers, 2003). So if the three basic observations about reality listed above can be made sense of in terms of consciousness alone, then physicalism can be legitimately called into question on grounds of explanatory power as well. And as it turns out, there is indeed an alternative ontology that explains all three basic observations without requiring anything beyond consciousness itself. This ontology will be summarized in Section 3 of this brief essay.
In addition, the inferred existence of a physical world outside and independent of consciousness has statistical corollaries that can be tested with suitable experimental designs (Leggett, 2003; Bell, 1964). As it turns out, empirical tests of these corollaries have been carried out since the early eighties, when Alan Aspect performed his seminal experiments (1981). And the results do notcorroborate the existence of a universe outside consciousness. These seldom-talked-about but solid empirical facts will be summarized in the next section.