All sentient people possess the same intuitive awareness of their own existence. We refer to this cognizance as the "self," and though it is one of the most fundamental human experiences, it is also one of the most mysterious. I have asked people on very many occasions to answer the question "who are you?" without using their name, profession or character traits. Most are stumped and find themselves surprised to have never really considered the question before. Who indeed are we? It seems to me that the answer to this query is fairly binary -- either our self-awareness is a function of the mechanistic forces of the brain and its structure or our consciousness exists in time but not in space and is rooted in a plane of reality that is beyond (but interacts with) our own. All we need concern ourselves with is -- what is the simplest solution to what Tufts University philosopher Daniel Dennett has referred to as the "problem of consciousness?" As I have in the past, I draw much of my inspiration on this topic from my friend Moshe Averick and his compelling book "Nonsense of a High Order."
In this discussion, many modern scientific thinkers have taken position that consciousness is an illusory faculty created by our neuronal activity. According to this position, our subjective self-awareness is wholly imagined fantasy that has no objective existence:
"Despite our every instinct to the contrary, there is one thing that consciousness is not; some deep entity inside the brain that corresponds to the "self", some kernel of awareness that runs the show ... after more than a century of looking for it brain researchers have long since concluded that there is no conceivable place for such a self to be located in the physical brain, and that it simply doesn't exist." (Journalist Michael Leminick, Time Magazine)
"We feel, most of the time, like we are riding around inside our bodies, as though we are an inner subject that can utilize the body as a kind of object. This last representation is an illusion ... " (Atheist author Sam Harris)
"The intuitive feeling that we have that there's an executive "I" that sits in the control room of our brain ... is an illusion." (Dr. Steven Pinker)
These thinkers all readily acknowledge that our actual experience of reality seems to fly in the face of their description of it -- hence Professor Dennett's "problem of consciousness." One would think that in order to draw conclusions about the true nature of this problem they would rely on carefully researched evidence and hard facts before informing us that every experience that we have (or will ever have) -- from love and morality to the appreciation of beauty and free will -- are fictitious. Here are some examples of what the world of science does actually offer on this topic:
"Nobody has the slightest idea how anything material could be conscious." (Dr. Jerry Fodor, Professor of philosophy and cognitive science)
"The problem of consciousness tends to embarrass biologists. Taking it to be an aspect of living things, they feel they should know about it and be able to tell physicists about it, whereas they have nothing relevant to say." (Dr. George Wald, Nobel Prize winning biologist)
"Science's biggest mystery is the nature of consciousness. It is not that we possess bad or imperfect theories of human awareness; we simply have no such theories at all." (Dr. Nick Herbert, Physicist)
Based on these honest assessments of the state of scientific knowledge on this topic one might think that these thinkers -- who have a priori drawn conclusions on a subject for which they seem to have little to no evidence -- would speak in far more humble and guarded tones. No one seriously suggests that protons, quarks or chemical compounds possess innate awareness. Why then do they suggest that the products of these foundational materials will suddenly leap into self-cognizance? Is this a truly rational position to hold? Exactly how many electrons does it take for them to become "aware" of themselves? Cells do not wonder about themselves, molecules have no identity and a machine -- no matter how sophisticated -- is imbecilic (without its programmer).
If our decision-making faculty was indeed an illusion of the brain it should be impossible to physically affect the brain through our own willful decisions and yet research has demonstrated that the "I" can and does alter brain activity through the agency of free will as described by Canadian neuroscientist Dr. Mario Beauregard:
"Jeffrey Schwartz ... a UCLA neuropsychiatrist, treats obsessive-compulsive disorder -- by getting patients to reprogram their brains. Evidence of the mind's control over the brain is actually captured in these studies. There is such a thing as mind over matter. We do have will power, consciousness, and emotions, and combined with a sense of purpose and meaning, we can effect change."
Why then should we not consider the possibility -- the one that satisfies our deepest, most powerful and intuitive sense -- that the "I" that we all experience is the human soul? And that the reason that science has not discovered its whereabouts is not that it doesn't exist, but rather that it is not part of physical reality as we know it and as such is undetectable and unmeasurable by material means. It is certainly understandable that for those who believe that material reality is the only reality this would be an unwelcome notion. Nonetheless, I submit that in absence of any compelling alternative and with the obviousness of the reality of our self-awareness so manifestly apparent -- it is the rational conclusion to draw.