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The Ancient Riddle of
Consciousness


The Problem at Hand
Science has been very successful at explaining the world
around us. Only a few hundred years ago our daily lives were
full of mysteries: Where do the stars reside? How does life
continue from generation to generation? What makes water
different from fire? One by one these questions and countless
others have been answered in the most explicit detail. The
mysteries of our everyday existence are virtually gone. Science
is now concerned with problems that are extremely obscure and
far beyond our normal experience, such things as the curvature
of space-time and the composition of subatomic particles. For
instance, suppose that Galileo Galilei, the great 17th century
scientist, had written down a list of his 100 top questions about
the world. It is likely that all 100 questions could be answered
today, at least to Galileo™s ability to understand.
Well, almost. There is one question in our everyday lives
that has seemed defiant of a satisfactory explanation, being as
much a mystery at the beginning of this new millennium as it
was in the day of Galileo. It is a question that has been argued
by philosophers and scientists since the dawn of man. And that
question is this: What is consciousness?
We have all had the experience of waking from a deep
dreamless sleep. In the first few seconds we realize that some-
thing new has been brought into the universe, something that
did not exist the moment before. A conscious mind has come
into being. It is our thoughts and feelings. It is what allows us
to perceive the world around us, and move our bodies to interact
in the world. It is the embodiment of our free-will, the ability

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to think and act in the way that we choose. It is who we are at
the most personal and private level, the thing we identify as
ourselves. This is how we see consciousness from the inside,
the way we perceive our own minds by introspection.
The problem is, science can see none of these things.
Neurosurgeons have opened the skulls of living humans for
decades, and in every case they have found a brain, not
thoughts, feelings, free-will, or anything of the like. While we
do not fully understand how the brain operates, it is now
abundantly clear that it is a computational machine, one that is
capable of producing the behaviors we see in humans. From the
view of science, it is the brain that allows us to recognize our
grandmother™s face, cry out in pain, and kiss a young child™s
hand. As seen from the outside, consciousness and the mind are
nothing more than the machine-like activity of the neural tissues
within our skulls.
But how can this be? How is it possible that the mind
appears as one kind of thing from the inside, but a totally
different kind of thing from the outside? This discrepancy is
known in philosophy as the mind-body problem. It is a classic
paradox, two points of view that should agree, couldn™t disagree
more. And when scientists and philosophers have tried to force
them together in some way, the results are unsatisfying, and
often in conflict with established knowledge. Something seems
to be missing, a fact, an explanation, a property, or something
else that provides understanding and unification. This dilemma
is presented to us each second of our waking lives. We see the
redness of a rose, smell its fragrance, and appreciate its beauty.
We contemplate the meaning of life, and freely decide how to
think and act. How can these things be nothing but electro-
chemical activity in nerve cells? As put by the American
Philosopher Patricia Churchland,1 “How do you get awareness
out of meat?”

1. The Computational Brain, Patricia S. Churchland, 1994, MIT
press, 560 pages. Neuroscience view of the brain.
Chapter 1: The Ancient Riddle of Consciousness 3

Surprisingly, not all scientists agree that there is a problem
here. For much of the 20th century the topic of consciousness
was virtually banned from the scientific arena, and much of this
sentiment can still be seen today. Young college professors are
counseled to find other specializations, medical textbooks have
little or no mention of the topic, and government funds are not
granted for research. Since consciousness is something that can
only be subjectively observed, many feel it has no place in the
objective world of science.
Nevertheless, the scientific attitude toward consciousness
has changed significantly in the last two decades. The primary
reason is that new brain scanners have been developed that can
observe the neural activity in the living human brain. These go
by such technical names as: Functional Magnetic Resonance
Imaging (fMRI), Positron Emission Tomography (PET), and
Magneto-Encephalography (MEG). Human subjects are placed
in these machines and brought into specific conscious states.
For instance, a subject might be asked to perform mathematical
calculations, recognize faces, listen to a symphony, or some
other task. The brain scanner then identifies the regions of the
brain that are active, the precise neural tissues associated with
the mental state of the subject.
This is immensely important work, and will eventually lead
to a full and detailed understanding of the human brain. It will
also tell us something very interesting about the mind-body
problem, what brain researchers call the neural correlates of
consciousness. This is the brain activity that is necessary and
sufficient for a person to be conscious. For instance, imagine
being strapped into a brain scanner one day in the distance
future. After a few moments, the operator will tell you what
you are thinking and feeling. He may say that you are deciding
what to have for lunch, enduring the pain of a toothache, or
feeling proud of your children. And he will be right; he will
know the contents of your consciousness by looking at the
neural patterns in your brain. Although a little frightening,
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there is every reason to believe that science may one day have
this type of capability.
However, does knowing everything about the structure and
function of the brain also mean that we know everything about
consciousness? Many claim that the answer is no; there is still
something missing. How can the blueness of blue or the terrible
feeling of pain be reduced to mere neural activity? How can
human free-will or the meaning of our thoughts be created by
something so dissimilar as brain tissue? In short, it is a common
belief that “mind stuff” is different from “brain stuff,” and one
cannot be used to explain the other. It is said that consciousness
must entail something above and beyond the operation of the
brain. But if these assertions are true, we are left with an even
bigger mystery, why is there not the slightest scientific evidence
that this “mind stuff” really exists?

Organization of this Book
The goal of this book is extremely ambitious, nothing less
than providing a scientific explanation of consciousness, a
solution to the mind-body problem. This intention is not to be
taken lightly, or without due reverence for the work that has
gone before. The journey to grasp the mind has been long and
rocky, enduring centuries with little or no progress. First and
foremost, this is a book of science, adhering to the rigorous
methodology and skepticism that have brought us our current
knowledge of the universe. As such, it invites and welcomes
the most critical scrutiny. Even more, it demands it.
This book is organized into three sections. In the first,
Defining the Problem, we examine the foundations of the
consciousness paradox, examining in detail why the mind-body
problem is such a mystery. Our task is to precisely identify the
problem, and just as important, outline what would count as a
solution. The findings of this section are absolutely critical to
the overall theory. Properly defining the question takes us more
than halfway to the answer.
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The second section is entitled The Information-Limited
Subreality. This refers to a strange situation that could exist in
our universe, where an observer is trapped within an artificial
world. We explore this idea by using the theory™s namesake,
The Inner Light, an episode from the popular television series
Star Trek: The Next Generation. This leads us to a key property
of how we observe and understand reality, what we will name
the Principle of Relative Reduction. It is within this principle
that we find the solution to the mind-body problem, as we
defined it in section one. But there are consequences to this
solution, requiring us to change the way we view reality and
ourselves. The scientific evidence for these startling assertions
is examined, from the origin and function of the human brain,
to the strange world of our dreams.
In the third section, Consciousness as a Limitation, we
focus on how the mind is connected to the physical universe.
Why does consciousness seem so disconnected from the
material things around us? Could a computer ever become
conscious? Is there any way to bridge the gap between the
human mind and the physical world? In short, we are searching
for the place that consciousness holds in the universe, and
where the human mind sits in relation.

The Strangeness of Modern Science
Many readers will find the ideas in this book bizarre,
something more akin to science fiction than science. But
science itself has become increasingly strange during the last
one hundred years. In the early part of the 20th century, Albert
Einstein and his colleagues developed two new fields of
physics, Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity. The
first of these, Quantum Mechanics, deals with the very small,
such as the physical laws that hold atoms together. In contrast,
General Relativity deals with the very large, such as the
structure of the entire universe. Neither of these can be
understood from the events we experience in our daily lives. In
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fact, they grossly violate our everyday beliefs of how things
should behave. For instance, Quantum Mechanics tells us that
waves can collapse into particles, while General Relativity
describes space and time being distorted by gravity. These laws
of nature are more than unexpected; they defy commonsense.
And there is no question that they are true; they have been
verified in the finest detail. We will look at a few of these
strange results in later sections of this book.
The point is, something is not false just because we find it
bizarre or in disagreement with our everyday experience.
Indeed, the Inner Light Theory is tame compared to other areas
of modern science that are accepted as fact. In the end, science
has little use for our desires and expectations; the only thing
that matters is the evidence and where it leads. Science is about
keeping the method and procedures pure, and then accepting
whatever consequences result. What we end up believing is not
important; our justification for believing it is everything. This
is the way of science.
And on this note we begin the development of the Inner
Light Theory, starting with the foundation and working upward.
Brick by brick we will construct the answer to the ancient
question: What is consciousness?