Big Bang Consciousness


There is a genre of thriller in which the detective spends most of the book or movie hunting down an elusive quarry who has been on some kind of wacky crime spree – say pretending to be a ghost and scaring rich people out of their mansions, which he then cleans up.  The clues add up, the plot thickens, and finally, at the denouement, the hero catches him in the act.  They get it all on tape.  And he’s screwed.

Cornered, the bad guy sits defeated and grumpy as the detective – at least metaphorically – reaches out and pulls his mask off – and gasp! It’s the minor character we met at the start, learned to trust, and promptly forgot about.  So that’s who it is!  The bad guy, seeing the gig is up, and woefully ignorant of his Miranda rights, begins to succinctly confess how it all worked.

Or am I just describing Scooby-Doo?

But you know, Scooby-doo is a good metaphor for how most neuroscientists see themselves. We are the detective.  And the bad guy – the man in the mask – is consciousness.

Neuroscience wants to rip consciousness’s mask off and finally find out what it really is.  For all these years consciousness has seemed magical, but all along we have known there was a material explanation underneath that will make sense like everything else in biology.

Just as we know how muscles contract and make movement, we will know how the brain makes consciousness, and the explanation will be just as mechanical.  The way that any doctor can take any patient on a tour of his torn achilles tendon, point here and say “see that’s muscle contracting,” and then point there and say “and there’s joint moving,” so one day neuroscience will point to some neurons and say “see, here’s the thalamus connected to the prefrontal cortex,” and then point to some other neurons and say “and here’s the subjective experience pouring out.  That’s you!”  And just as muscles don’t manipulate some pre-existing metaphysical thing called “movement,” it will turn out that brains don’t manipulate some Cartesian “thinking substance” called “consciousness.”  The contracting muscle is movement, and the wired brain is consciousness.

In this vision, the brain is a machine that creates the Wizard of Oz we call our minds.  But since rocks and trees and Staphylococcus aureus are machines that do not create minds, there must be something about the particular machine that is our brain that does.   Just like a car without a spark plug can’t run, a brain without some magical arrangement of components can’t make consciousness.   Whatever this thing is – and later in this blog I’ll argue that what Deadworld adherents think it is is complexity –  at some point things get complex enough that you get a magical moment of creation that I call Big Bang Consciousness.

The BBC is implicit in the Deadworld Hypothesis.  There has to be some moment where this dead, consciousness-less, meaning-free and insensible world rearranges itself into consciousness.  Because of course if the Dead World Hypothesis was all the way true, and the entire universe was dead, you wouldn’t have an inside.  You’d be as unconscious as the moon, and your brain would execute its various actions the way a computer does.  You’d be dead through and through.

But if you’re like everyone else, you believe that you are conscious.  Right now it “is like” something to be you. Which means that the Dead World Hypothesis can’t be all the way true. Like other secular humanists  – and religious folk! – you believe that the unconscious universe springs suddenly to conscious life inside your head.  And to explain this you believe in Big Bang Consciousness.

Big Bang Consciousness is the party line of modern neuroscience.  It is the party line of modern medicine.  It is the party line of our legal system – it’s why turning off life support when someone is brain dead is legal, but turning off life support when someone is kidney dead (but their brain is working well) is murder.   It is the party line of the modern western world.

BBC says that consciousness pops into existence when you arrange the atoms of the universe in just-the-right-way.  But it has to be perfect and complicated.  Trees aren’t conscious, and crawdaddies aren’t conscious, and lord knows water isn’t conscious, nor rocks or moons or the void of space.  You have to arrange them just right. Which is to say, you have to arrange them into a brain.

To get the idea, watch this video of a guy building a domino pyramid.  Wait for the ending. Or if you’re short on time or orbitofrontal cortical grey matter, just skip to it.

See, that’s a metaphor for the party line.  If you just get one little thing wrong, the whole thing falls apart, you won’t get consciousness.  Just same old Deadworld. Waaaaaa!   But if you organize nervous systems just so, and get the neurons in your brain just so, and build their connections just so, then at a certain point it will be like the opposite of the straw that broke the camel’s back, or the domino that toppled the pyramid.  Instead of adding one… more…. and having everything fall apart, you add one…. more…. neuron and:

Ta-da! Consciousness!

Now listen, there will be apologists for the party line who, when they hear this, will get nervous and try to back-track a bit.  They will say that maybe consciousness is like a phase transition, the way water turns to steam, or to ice.  They will say hey, look, I think snakes are conscious, and maybe ants, and possibly bacteria, and maybe – and here they will be whispering and lowering their eyes – maybe……. trees.  So however low they go, push them farther.  Sand?  How about sand – is sand conscious?  How about space?  How about pure empty space?  They won’t go there, not if they like being respected by fellow scientists and philosophers.  And that means that like Socrates you have proven that they do not believe that there is a continuum of consciousness.  The Deadworld Hypothesis won’t allow for such a thing.

Just like they say you can’t be a little bit pregnant, the Deadworld philosophers say you can’t be a little bit conscious. It’s all or nothing.

BBC and the DWH absolutely require a line.   At some point, somewhere in the universe, they need there to be a quantum leap between dead and alive.  It has to be digital, not analog.  Once you argue for a continuum, the consciousness ends up sliding down a slippery slope and, like the turtles that hold up the world in Hindu mythology, it’s consciousness “all the way down.”  But the dead-worlders don’t want consciousness to go all the way down.  Man is special because the world is dead!  We have inner experience and they don’t!  But to believe this they have to have not a tipping point but a creatio ex nihilo event.  And yes, the reference to Catholic mythology is intentional.  They must say that from no conscious to conscious, boom.

And that is why I call their theory Big Bang Consciousness.

What is absolutely remarkable about these otherwise sane and reasonable people, who know in every other aspect of their lives that Murphy’s law pertains and things go wrong all the time, is that they believe that the BBC trick works ever single time.

They believe that in every single human being ever born, the camel-straw trick has worked, and consciousness has Bang! come into existence.  The human brain, which in my experience can’t even reliably produce the names of people I’ve met at a potluck the week before, can produce consciousness time after time after time, second after second, person after person, without fail.

The human brain, which even when normally shaped produces variation in its capacity for every skill under the sun – walking and talking and creating and consuming and sensing and emoting – is never ever ever born with variation in its capacity for consciousness.  If this were baseball, and the brain were a batter, and consciousness were a home run, not only is the brain batting 1.000, it’s never hit a single! Or a double!  Or a triple! Or been walked or hit by a pitch!  It has never, ever, ever done anything but hit it out of the park.

Which is to say, creatio ex nihilo.  Consciousness is an everyday miracle. 

But God forbid you should tell a neuroscientist or secular humanist that what they believe is a miracle.  God forbid you should ask why it isn’t more likely, more plausible, that consciousness is just built into the universe, the way matter is, and that that explains why there are never any mistakes.  They will go crazy. They will tell you you are something horrible called a panpsychic. They will accuse you of dabbling in the occult and mysticism and religion.  They will say you are a hippy dippy airy fairy touchy feely New Age nutjob.   They will say that would be a miracle.  Which is to say, they become a firehose of social pressure and start getting personal and mean, and scientific thought goes out the window.  For of course, they have no empirical proof of their position – none!  How the brain produces the mind is the most famous “unsolved mystery” in all of science.  Telling them that their question is not a question, and that they can’t solve it because its premise is incorrect, just makes them angry.

In the next section of this blog, Neuroenglightenment, I will present a variety of arguments for why consciousness is most likely information, and information is simply what the universe is, that the word “matter” and the phrase “physical word,” which are in the end just words, have confused us into thinking that objects likes suns and moons and Pomeranians are things when it is much more reasonable to think of them as information or – as Plato came close to saying – ideas.  And I will argue that the electromagnetic field – which transmits light and information and holds atoms together and that kind of thing – is the most likely substrate for this information, and that all of these things you have probably never heard before and for that reason alone sound crazy are in fact far more plausible than the Deadworld Hypothesis and Big Bang Consciousness.  And though the implications of the argument are that a) the whole universe is conscious and b) your self is not isolated from the larger universe and therefore not private and therefore the Enlightenment and our entire legal system and theory of government, which constantly cites nature and natural law, is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of nature, I won’t bring religion in at all – I am not religious at all. If my model is right there is no possibility whatsoever for a personal God; we are all God, if you want to use that word.  But my point is not any of these details at all.

I have a reason – a very carefully thought through reason – for believing that the DWH and BBC are wrong.  My reason is internally consistent, disputes no known scientific facts, and reconciles the mind to the brain without any trouble at all. Meanwhile, opponents of my way of thinking resort to name-calling, because the truth is that they have no logical reason for preferring their model to mine.  Their model doesn’t dispute any scientific facts – obviously, its the model that produced them – but then again neither does mine.  What you are hearing when you hear panpsychism dismissed is fashion.  It is no different than thinking Oscar de la Renta’s clothes are monstrous.

But before all of that extra argument, which should sound crazy if you’ve never heard it before, I hope that DWH and BBC seem a bit shaky all on their own.

The idea that something as reliable as consciousness is premised on something as delicate and recent as the precise organization of 100 billion neurons in your brain just seems unlikely.  It seems – or should seem – as unlikely as that airplanes could be made of playing cards and chewing gum and yet never, ever, ever crash.   Something that delicate shouldn’t be producing something that robust. Particularly – particularly! – when not a single scientist in the world has any frigging clue what this delicate arrangement even is.  For of course, DWH and BBC are just metaphysical beliefs. They are not empirical facts.  They are the very opposite of empirical.  They are absolutely, positively, no more empirical than my belief that they are silly.  We are on equal metaphysical footing – there is no proof for or against either, an idea I will return to at length in Neuroenlightenment.

And yet, having worked in neuroscience full time for six years, and been in scientific training of one sort or the other for twenty, I can assure you of something.  Every single scientist in the world must publicly claim to believe in the Dead World Hypothesis and Big Bang Consciousness. 

Every.

Single.

One.

They seem not to know it is a metaphysical belief.  But this is because, as in all of human cultures, there is massive peer pressure on them to believe it.

You cannot get a grant if your application does not implicitly conform to the DWH and the BBC. You cannot get tenure if your published works do not implicitly confirm the DWH and the BBC  (oh wait… they wouldn’t be published, except in Yoga Journal).  Youcannot give lectures that are taken seriously by the academy if they do not believe in the DWH and the BBC.

Even writing these words makes me feel like I am about to be put on a raft and set out to sea by my sniggering colleagues.

It is, quite simply, socially unacceptable to doubt the DWH and BBC.

And that is what Durkheim called a social fact.  The DWH and BBC are like memes that replicate themselves in Richard Dawkins’s and Christopher Hitchens’s and all the other self-aggrandizing British secular humanists’ minds. And those from other lands as well.

Now it is of course possible that someday, and maybe even someday soon, the culture of science will have changed its mind – for of course the belief in the DWH and BBC are metaphysical beliefs.  And it is possible that because metaphysical beliefs are forms of fashion, and can be switched out for one another at a moment’s notice without any ill effects on the practice of actual empirical science – the way that you can change your coat – that this will happen quickly, as a tipping point.

And it is possible that just like everyone in America seemed at some point to decide that the Iraq war maybe wasn’t such a great move after all, though nobody ever announced it, or even just like all the hipsters showing up to graduate school one Tuesday and declaring no, wait, actually Justin Bieber is cool, it will then become the party line that consciousness is built into the universe.  And the DWH and the BBC will be gone, just like that.  And there will no longer be a quantum leap.  No, the party elders will all say, there is no line, and no Bang, and no poof, and no voila, and no ta-da.

And then the very same sniggering colleagues who would have put me out to sea on my raft will come paddling out to join me and give me high-fives like they have been out there with me all along and say dude, hey dude, wasn’t the beach so lame?   

Heck, with time we may even look back upon the present era with confusion, the way we look back on the alchemists with confusion, or those people who wanted to know how many angels could stand on the head of a pin with confusion.  And we may say condescendingly and rhetorically and contemptuously “I can’t believe they thought that!”  And then the contrast between the esteem in which today we hold modern neuroscience, and the frank silliness of our field’s most central belief, will seem comical, antiquated, absurd.

But that’s all maybe and that’s all possible.  Meanwhile, today, it is the party line and orthodoxy and rigorously socially enforced.  It is a fashion so entrenched that all the party members think it is built into the structure of the world.  It is the only game in town, it is the deal.

And it’s a huge part of why I wrote this blog. Because I’m just a psychiatrist, in the end – and I found, to my great surprise, that I cannot understand my patients, I cannot build a model of the human mind that works and I believe, with the DWH and BBC standing in the way.  And that’s not a metaphysical belief.  I simply could not make the modern models of psychology, overlaid on neuroscience, make any sense.  And so I’ve tried to find another way.

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About Peter Freed, M.D.

I am a psychiatrist (psychopharmacology and psychotherapy) specializing in the so-called "personality disorders," particularly narcissistic and borderline personality disorders. I was a Fellow and then an Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia from 2004- 2011. I am currently in private practice in NYC.