Article | October 21, 2020
Consciousness—it’s one of the biggest questions out there.
One thing that people today have in common with those from the earliest ages is questioning consciousness and our own existence. It’s taken different forms through the years, but the questions are largely similar at their core and the answers are still at large after all this time.
The good news is that while we don’t have the answers yet, or even a timetable for when we might get those answers, we know more now than we have at any other point in human history.
It’s easier to share information than it ever was in the past, and in this era, even an average person can study the big questions about life without the requirement of a formal education or access to a university.
But in this age where it’s easier to ask questions, what kind of answers are we actually being led towards?
We could be in a simulation—but not in the way you think
One of the more modern theories on consciousness proposes that we might be living in a simulation. And modern really is the right word to describe this one, because it would have been an unthinkable idea even 20 years ago.
However, as computing has grown stronger and stronger over the years, a key question was raised by these advancements: Is it possible that somewhere, computers are already powerful enough to run an entire universe? And if that’s the case, are we living in one of these simulations?
While this sounds outlandish, it’s certainly a theory that has at least some support. That includes support from Elon Musk, who says we probably are living in a simulation.
Don’t think, however, that we’re living in some version of the Sims catered to an alien audience. Games might be the first thing that comes to mind for us when simulations are brought up, but a more serious answer is quite a bit different from that idea.
Rather than a game, such a simulation may be for, to put it simply, historical purposes. That is to say, instead of some advanced alien civilization running their own simulated universe, it may be advanced humans from the future simulating the lives of their ancestors.
But this simulation of the past would be real enough that for the simulated person on the other side, everything feels real and there’s no way to tell that it is a simulation.
This isn’t just an idea from science fiction, as much as it might sound like one. It was proposed by Nick Bostrom, an Oxford professor. There’s a lot of possible reasons why a future society might want to run a simulation in this way, ranging from studying history to preserving the records of the past.
If you don’t think this would be possible from a technical perspective, just consider the jump in quality between early computers and the computers of today. Computing has already improved exponentially within our lifetime. In the very far future, this growth may have continued to heights that would have been unimaginable previously, just like computers today would have been unimaginable to someone used to the first computers.
Quantum mechanics could be part of the explanation
We don’t know much about how the brain works. While there’s been a lot of scientific progress since the questions around the nature of consciousness were first raised, there’s still a long way to go in figuring out just what makes the brain tick so to speak.
Quantum mechanics, however, is good at explaining these kinds of things that don’t operate along the regular laws of physics. It’s hard to explain exactly how quantum mechanics work also, but we do know a bit more about them than we know about the brain.
Essentially, if you break things down to a small enough level, they begin to respond differently. Some of the laws and theories that would have dictated their behavior previously begin to behave more loosely.
Take a toothpick for example. You can move it around or drop it or throw it and it follows the same laws of physics. And if you snapped it in half, those halves would also follow the same rules. However, if you kept doing this until you reached a certain tiny, microscopic level, things would get weird.
But just saying that the brain might work on quantum mechanics doesn’t actually explain much. After all, that statement says nothing about what these mechanics may actually do, and more importantly, what that means for us.
Fortunately, though, more detailed theories on the subject do exist. It’s been said that quantum mechanics could explain these different quantum laws working with our brain to create consciousness from a “fourth dimension” around us.
Quantum laws may also dictate that particles behave differently depending on if they’re being observed or not. Of course, the definitions are complex. Observation is a general term that doesn’t literally mean looking at something in the context that the word would come up in a regular conversation.
But at least in theory, it’s possible that much of how we experience the world has to do with our brain observing and interacting with particles around us at the quantum level. These observations may be a basic building block behind everything—a source code, so to speak, for the universe at large.
Universal consciousness remains a theory
Universal consciousness might be the oldest theory on this list. It predates the more modern ideas mentioned with quantum mechanics and the simulation theory, but there’s enough anecdotal evidence surrounding the subject to at least consider it.
It’s not complicated such as quantum mechanics.
On the other hand, it’s probably the easiest theory to understand between the three. It’s the idea that essentially we come from the same place, or that consciousness itself is an extension of the universe.
This belief has been seen in religions from differing times and places, with Buddhism notably claiming that consciousness is around us everywhere. It’s not just Buddhism that has reflected these ideas, however.
There’s many anecdotal stories over the years of people who have been close to death or have medically died and believed that during these experiences, they’ve become one with the universe or something else along those lines.
Of course, these stories won’t hold up in the opinion of the scientific community and it’s obviously hard to study this kind of phenomenon in a meaningful way.
But to consider a subject like consciousness, something that we don’t understand, entirely using the same scientific methods used for other things may be a mistake.
After all, the concept of the universal mind has been around since at least 480 B.C., when it was introduced by Anaxagoras, a philosopher from before the time of Socrates. While this much time passed doesn’t necessarily mean the theory is true, a lot of people have put their belief behind it between that time period and now.
Optimism about the future
Earlier in this article, we mentioned Elon Musk’s belief that humanity is living in a simulation. It’s not the only time Musk has spoken about things that would be considered outlandish by a lot of people.
He’s spoken of other things that might as well sound like something out of a science fiction novel, such as the threat of artificial intelligence.
When Musk did speak about AI, however, he had a notable quote that didn’t have to do directly with that specific subject matter at all. Rather, it was a general outlook on philosophy and life.
“You kind of have to be optimistic about the future. There’s no point in being pessimistic,” Musk said. “I’d rather be optimistic and wrong than pessimistic and right.”
It’s philosophical advice worth keeping in mind.
The fact of the matter is, we don’t have the answers. There’s various places to draw the answers from, whether it’s conventional theories or these newer modern ones about simulations and quantum physics, or even religions which have been around for hundreds or thousands of years.
Whatever you do believe about the mind, or even if you don’t believe anything at all and you’re just waiting to see what answers scientists come up with in the future, keep your head up.
When the answers aren’t around yet and all of them could be wrong, you can only keep a positive outlook on things and hold a hope that your preferred theory is one with truth behind it.
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