Chemistry and Consciousness


Scientific Views / The Bhaktivedanta Institute

by Richard L. Thompson, Ph.D.

Dr. Richard L. Thompson, a charter member of the Bhaktivedanta Institute, is a formally initiated disciple of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. After studying at the Stale University of New York and Syracuse University, he received a National Science Fellowship and completed his Ph.D. -in mathematics at Cornell, specializing in probability theory and statistical mechanics. His dissertation—”Equilibrium States on Thin Energy Shells”—has been published as memoir number 150 of the American Mathematical Society.

At the present time the life sciences are dominated by the idea that life can be completely understood within the framework of chemistry and physics. By this point of view, all features of life, from the metabolic functioning of cells to the mental phenomena of thinking, feeling, and willing, are to be explained as the consequences of underlying chemical processes. With the spectacular successes of modern molecular biology, this viewpoint has, indeed, become so pervasive that, in the words of James Watson, “Complete certainty now exists among essentially all biochemists that the … characteristics of living organisms … will all be completely understood in terms of the coordinative interactions of small and large molecules.” * (Walson, J.D. Molecular Biology oj the Gene, 2nd ed. Menio Park, Calif; W.A. Benjamin, Inc., 1970, p. 67.)

Yet in spite of the popularity of this view, we can point to at least one feature of life—the phenomenon of conscious awareness—that is not amenable to this kind of explanation. By “conscious awareness” we mean the elemental experience of being aware of something. We are not referring to the particular sensations, thoughts, or feelings that one may be aware of, although these may always be associated with consciousness. Nor are we necessarily referring to self-awareness, although it may be said that consciousness must entail self-awareness to some degree.

Now, the basic assumption underlying modern science is that anything real can be described completely, at least in principle, by a system of numbers, and that all phenomena can be described by transformations of these numbers according to certain rules of calculation. This conception is epitomized by the science of chemistry, and by the attempt to make chemistry the basis of a complete understanding of life. According to this approach, a living organism consists of a combination of many atoms composed of electrons and nucleons, thought to be entities completely describable in terms of numerical variables such as mass, charge, momentum, spin, energy, and so forth. The organism is taken to be “nothing but” the sum total of these atoms in interaction with one another (by Coulomb’s law of electrical attraction and repulsion, the van der Waal’s forces, and other laws expressed in terms of changes in numerical variables with the passage of time).

Let us see how these considerations apply to understanding conscious awareness. The example is often given that describing yellow light as an electromagnetic oscillation with a wavelength of 6,000 Angstrom units does not tell us anything about our awareness of the sensation of yellow. What would constitute an explanation of this awareness? Suppose we were able to give a complete physical description of the interaction of light with photosensitive cells in the retina of the eye, the subsequent flows of ions through the cell walls of neurons in the optic nerve, the resulting discharge of certain chemicals in the synaptic clefts between neurons, and so forth. In its perfected state such a description would consist of a system of numbers and rules of calculation, and it might predict with great accuracy such things as the variation of different electrical potentials in the brain.

It might predict, for example, that when yellow light strikes the retina, a certain pattern of electrical oscillations will occur that can be described by several thousand numbers, beginning with 1.26345, 6.87535, 7.9987. . .. This prediction might then be verified by experimental measurements. Yet this would still tell us nothing about the awareness of seeing yellow light. By its very nature, such a description does not even make reference to conscious awareness, much less provide a clear understanding of it.

In modern scientific thinking, and especially in behavioral psychology, the paradigm of numerical describability has led people to confuse conscious awareness with the behavior of the physical body. Thus, awareness is falsely identified with the sequence of electrochemical reactions and physical movements which result in the body’s emission of the sound pattern “I am conscious,” Yet we can certainly conceive of a physical situation in which such sounds are produced but where we would have no reason to suppose that consciousness is present—a tape recorder, for example, running an appropriate tape. The measurable behavior of objects evidently tells us nothing about any experience of conscious awareness that may be associated with them. Clearly, conscious awareness is something qualitatively different from those aspects of reality that we can hope to describe in numerical terms.

Nonetheless, not only is my own consciousness very real—for it is the very foundation of all my specific experiences of reality—but I have every reason to suppose that other living beings, or at least human beings, are also conscious. Even though an automaton is conceivable that could respond systematically to a printed page without awareness, I am still convinced that you, the reader, are aware of these sentences as you read them. Even though the behavior of a material structure cannot be identified with consciousness, the similarity among human beings implies that they share the property of conscious awareness. Consciousness is thus a common feature of the world, being experienced at present by several billion beings, at the very least.

This brings us to the question of whether or not consciousness is associated with any violation of the laws of material phenomena studied in physics and chemistry, for consciousness is real and is affected by the behavior of matter, as we experience, then it stands to reason that the behavior of matter should also be affected by consciousness. This is certainly the general rule in physics, where if one entity or aspect of an entity (such as momentum) affects another, then it is affected in turn. If this rule applies to consciousness, then activities should be observable in conscious living beings that differ from the activities predicted by the physical laws.

It is interesting that in quantum mechanics, the fundamental theory of modern physics, we seem to find just such a situation. Since the development of this theory in the 1920’s, one prominent school of thought, initiated by John von Neumann, has held that certain basic quantum mechanical principles imply that the consciousness of the observer influences the course of physical events. Here is a summary of this view taken from a standard textbook of physics:

If one accepts von Neumann’s formulation of quantum mechanics, one is led to far-reaching and not entirely palatable conclusions. . . . The outcome of these considerations is that quantum mechanics cannot give a complete description of the physical world because there must exist systems (called “conscious” by Wigner) that are beyond the theory’s powers of description. .. . * (Gottfhed, K. Quantum Mechanics, New York: W.A. Benjamin. Inc., 1966, p, 188.)

Unfortunately, the nature of the observer’s influences are not made at all clear by the quantum theory. This is not surprising, for if consciousness is inherently not describable by numerical systems, we would expect that any mathematical theory of the interaction between consciousness and measurable variables could be only an approximation, at best.

Such methods cannot ultimately touch on the nature of consciousness itself. To actually understand consciousness, an approach is required that completely transcends the basic framework of modern scientific theory. This magazine is, of course, dedicated to the exposition of such a transcendental approach. Very briefly, this method is based on the study of consciousness through the medium of consciousness itself. It depends on the basic principle that our conscious awareness is not merely a passive receptor of material thoughts and sensations, but is the directly apparent symptom of a variegated realm of conscious entities predominated by the supreme Conscious Being. Through development of the relationship between the individual and supreme conscious entities, the true nature of consciousness can be known by direct conscious perception.

From the general point of view of the empiric scientific method, such an approach is as good as the results it produces when put into practice. As we have seen, it is certainly not ruled out by current scientific findings. On the contrary, it provides a challenge to the students of the life sciences. In Bhagavad-gita (7.5) the conscious entities are described as follows:

Besides the inferior nature [matter], O Arjuna, there is a superior energy of Mine, made up of the conscious entities who are struggling with material nature and sustaining the world.

This indicates the extent of the interactions between consciousness and matter, many of which may be accessible to study in approximate form by the experimental methods of physics and chemistry. Far from limiting the scientific enterprise, the higher study of consciousness outlined in Bhagavad-gita suggests opportunities for scientists to make great advances over present theoretical conceptions.

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