Consciousness as a Fundamental Building Block of the Universe

In this wonderful TED talk, the philosopher David Chalmers invites for a new paradigm in science in which consciousness is established as a fundamental and possibly universal building block of nature. Consciousness is a fundamental aspect of our existence, says philosopher David Chalmers: “There’s nothing we know about more directly… but at the same time it’s the most mysterious phenomenon in the universe.”

The nineteenth century physicist Maxwell came to the conclusion that we can’t explain electro magnetic phenomena in terms of the existing fundamentals such as space, time, mass and Newtonian laws, so he postulated fundamental laws of electromagnetism. Chalmers suggests that we might be at a similar point in science today when it comes to consciousness, if we cannot explain consciousness in terms of the existing fundamentals space, time, mass and charge then it is a matter of expanding the list of fundamental laws and postulating that consciousness itself is also a fundamental building block of nature. This postulate will open up the way for science to study the fundamental laws governing consciousness and to investigate the connection with the existing laws.

The second idea Chalmers postulates, is that consciousness might be universal and that every system down to the elementary particles has degrees of consciousness. This view is also called panpsychism in philosophy or nonduality in the mystical traditions. Chalmers believes that the universality of consciousness is what can help us bridge the gap between consciousness and the physical world in science, leaving the equations in physics as they are while using them to describe the flux of consciousness. From this perspective the answer to the famous question of Stephen Hawking “What puts fire into the equations?” is that consciousness is not outside of the physical world but it’s the fire at its heart. Chalmers further proposes that this “new” view can transfigure our relationship to nature leading to profound social and ethical consequences.

The philosopher concludes that we might not “figure out a theory of consciousness over night” but the process of studying consciousness holds the key of understanding the universe and ourselves.

David Chalmers is a philosopher at the Australian National University and New York University. He works in philosophy of mind and in related areas of philosophy and cognitive science. While he’s especially known for his theories on consciousness, he’s also interested (and has extensively published) in all sorts of other issues in the foundations of cognitive science, the philosophy of language, metaphysics and epistemology.

Chalmers placed the “hard problem” of consciousness firmly on the philosophical map. He famously challenges materialist conceptions of mind, arguing for an “explanatory gap” between our brains’ physical properties and our mind’s qualia. Elsewhere he has championed the notion of the “extended mind,” which argues that the mind is not confined to skin or skull, but plausibly may extend beyond them.

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