As some of the greatest minds in human history have maintained, consciousness is primary and fundamental:
Consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms. For consciousness is absolutely fundamental. It cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else. (Erwin Schrödinger, 1931)
I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness. (Max Planck, 1931)
Now in the modern world, leading-edge analysis shows they were right. And the implications are every bit as immense as those of QBism.
In order for this to make sense it is important to understand that the word consciousness is commonly used for two very different kinds of phenomena. This is explained in detail by David Chalmers. As he explains in his book The Conscious Mind, the word consciousness is used both for that which gets experienced, which is of course in the brain, and that which does the experiencing, which is not.
That which gets experienced – the contents of awareness – is what you actually see, hear and so on. Chalmers refers to the contents of awareness as psychological consciousness.
Ned Block calls it access consciousness, defining it is as the answer to the question: “What makes neuronal representations available for thought, decision, reporting and action?” (2003, 8). Thus access consciousness is the process which produces the contents of the sensorium, the neuronal representations of world and inner state, available for thought, decision, reporting and action.
This is now well understood. This is the perceptual reality, as described in The Perceiving Subject. Awareness itself, the experiencing consciousness, he calls phenomenal consciousness. Here, the word consciousness is used exclusively to mean this experiencing consciousness, awareness itself.
To date this phenomenal consciousness has been a complete mystery; there is no trace of it in the brain. Now we know why. It is not there. Chalmers shows that consciousness is definitely not a property of the brain; it cannot be part of physical reality at all, in any way. It is something altogether different. The experiencing can only be:
… a fundamental feature of the world, alongside mass, charge, and space-time. (1995, 216)
In other words, consciousness is not part of reality at all. It is contextual to reality, on a par with space-time itself. As stated by Michel Bitbol:
Consciousness is existentially, transcendentally, and methodologically primary. (2008, 16)
In other words, this is what breathes fire into the equations of physics.
It seems obvious that the experiencing consciousness is ‘in here’, so it is natural to think of it as something going on in the brain. But this is simply and solely because what is being experienced, the perceptual reality, is in the brain. It is the brain that produces everything that gets experienced, the perceptual reality. But consciousness itself is something else entirely. It has been a complete enigma. In fact it is a phenomenon of a completely different kind to anything in reality. It is fundamental, a property of the universe itself.
The Passage of Time
This idea is usually rejected automatically. It is far too alien to the current worldview. However, we have powerful evidence from the new physics that this is correct. As stated in the home page, in order to explain the passage of time there has to be a moving reference point. What is more, this means there has to be a phenomenon that is contextual to physical reality. This page explains the scientific logic of these requirements.
The universe is static, which is not in question. As Deutsch states:
Spacetime is sometimes referred to as the ‘block universe’ because within it the whole of physical reality – past present and future – is laid out once and for all, frozen in a single four-dimensional block. (1997, 268)
As he goes on to explain in some detail, this means there cannot be any such thing as the passage of time. The objective world is static. Nothing moves and nothing changes.
Incidentally, the static universe referred to here is not what cosmologists mean by the term – one that does not expand or contract. We know our universe is expanding, i.e. getting bigger as time passes, but time is not passing, as the physics make clear. It is static in that sense.
The reason why is straightforward. Relativity shows us that time is a straightforward linear dimension. It is essentially the same kind of thing as each of the three dimensions of space, except that it is invisible.
Mathematically, it differs from the dimensions of space in having an ‘imaginary’ component, the square root of -1.
This is not in question, and neither is the very strange but inevitable implication. The past, and even the future, exist in the same way as above and below.
Just as the reality of the universe above us exists up there in space, and also below us in the other direction, it exists also off in the past, back there in time, and off in the future in the other direction. The universe is all laid out in four-dimensional space-time; and it is all there ‘already’. This is well understood. As Deutsch states, the complete, four-dimensional ‘block’ of space-time simply exists. Nothing happens.
This is obviously a major paradox because we are experiencing the passage of time and events happening. And this certainly requires some explaining. We are experiencing the movement of our frames of reference along the time dimension (when at rest) at 670,616,629 mph. If some evenings it seems like a long time since breakfast, that was after all about 5 trillion (5,000,000,000) miles back down the time dimension.
As our best science shows, this movement through time is absolutely impossible. But this is what is happening. The extent of time stretches out before us like a linear highway, and we experience travelling down that highway at lightspeed. But this movement through time is something very deeply different to what we quite naturally imagined in the classical view. We thought this was the working of physical reality, the activity of molecules and atoms, working like Newtonian mechanisms in action. It is not. The whole universe is static. This movement through time is the operation of the reality of the perceiving subject, and this turns out to be a very different kind of thing.
The whole thing seemed inexplicable, but to Hermann Weyl it was straightforward. As he emphasised:
The objective world simply is, it does not happen. Only to the gaze of my consciousness, crawling up the life-line of my body, does the world fleetingly come to life. (1949, 116)
In other words, yes, time does not pass. But consciousness passes along through time, crawling along the life-line of the body, nowadays called the world-line; and as a result it seems that time passes.
All the moments of the future exist already, laid out in space-time. The physical body does not, cannot, move through time. There is a different, solid, three-dimensional version of the body-mind at each moment. This is well-established science. This is the world-line, symbolised here as a sequence of moments in my life, working on the computer.
So this represents a little segment of the world-line of my body. And at each moment, the body contains the mind in a different state – the mind of me a moment later. As the experiencing consciousness sweeps through these moments, up the world-line of the body, there is the experience of reality, moment after moment, being me, working on my computer. Thus there is the effect of time passing, as moment after moment is experienced.
This is how the experiencing consciousness gives rise to the experience of the passage of time, exactly as Weyl states. As you drive down a dark road in the night your headlights make a flood of light that moves along the road with you, lighting up one section of the road after another, always lighting up the road where you are. In a logically identical way, consciousness moves along the world-line, ‘lighting up’ each moment in turn. All the moments are already there in space-time, just as all of the road exists in front of you, out of sight. The frame of reference of conscious awareness moves through space-time, and as a result moment after moment is experienced in sequence in the gaze of consciousness. This is what we experience as the passage of time.
Nothing Can Move
Given the static four-dimensional block universe, a moving frame of reference is a fundamental requirement. As Weyl simply points out, this is the frame of reference of consciousness. But although Weyl’s explanation is simple and elegant, it has been automatically rejected because it is directly at odds with the current scientific worldview.
Although the nature of consciousness is unknown, it is taken for granted that it must, obviously, be just a property of the physical brain. In which case, equally obviously, the consciousness of a specific moment would be just a property of that particular moment, at a particular point in space-time. Which would mean there was no possible way that it could go crawling up the world-line of the body. Like everything else, it would be stuck in time, a static part of the static physical universe. As Deutsch emphasises:
It is often said that … our consciousness is sweeping forwards through the moments. But our consciousness does not, and could not, do that. … Nothing can move from one moment to another. To exist at all at a particular moment means to exist there for ever. (1997, 263)
This is precisely true of access consciousness. This is just a property of the brain, and the statement is correct. The access consciousness of each moment is simply a property of that moment. Therefore, it obviously cannot pass from moment to moment as Weyl says it does. But he is referring to the experiencing consciousness, which is not a property of the brain, although this is the standard assumption. It is a fundamental property of the universe as a whole as demonstrated by Bitbol and Chalmers. And this means that reality works exactly as Weyl describes.
Because the passage of time only happens in experience, it is possible to consider that this subjective phenomenon is not directly relevant to the physics. It has even been suggested it is an illusion. However, there is an even bigger paradox, a real showstopper, and this provides what could be seen as solid evidence for the moving frame of reference. As Professor David Mermin of Ithaca University explains, a special point in time, the present moment, the Now, is immediately evident to us, yet there is no such thing in physics:
My experience of the Now is a primitive fact. It simply can’t be argued with. Sum; ergo nunc est. [I am; so now is] How can there be no place in physics for something as obvious as that? (2013)
This paradox is fully and naturally resolved when we bring in the necessary phenomenon, contextual to the physical reality. As Mermin explains in his article in Nature:
My Now — my current state of affairs — is a special event for me while it is happening. I can tell my Now from earlier events, which I only remember, and from later events which I can only anticipate or imagine. The status of an event as my Now is transitory: it becomes a memory as subsequent Nows emerge.
Yet clear, evident and banal as this is to us all, there is no Now in the usual physical description of space and time. Physicists represent all the events experienced by a single person as a line in four-dimensional space-time, called that person’s ‘world-line’. There is nothing about any point on my world-line that singles it out as my Now. (2014)
The moving frame of reference automatically resolves this problem. Indeed, the whole issue is really evidence for it.
Each event exists at a particular point in space-time, a point along that person’s world-line, a specific moment, like each of the moments depicted in the picture above. Objectively, none of these moments has any special status; they all simply exist, laid out in space-time. Naturally, as the moving frame of reference arrives at each moment, it becomes the Now. The Now is simply the moment being experienced, in the moving frame of reference, as it passes along the world-line. One moment after another becomes the Now, acquiring this special status, as the moving frame of reference passes along the world-line. This is evident from what we know.
What It Means
The Now cannot occur in physics because the science defines space-time in which there is no such thing as a special location, point of view or frame of reference. That is the whole thing about relativity, all are equal, all exist. The Now is not a property of this system, at this first, primitive level of logical type. It is the gaze of consciousness referred to by Weyl. It is an attribute of the moving frame of reference and thus a property of the universe as a whole, contextual to the moments through which it passes. It is third logical type, being to the moments as the computer playing a movie from solid state memory is to the frames of the film. This Now, and this movement, cannot occur within physics because physics deals exclusively with physical reality. Relativity cannot address the Now, or the passage of time, because is the physics of the physical space-time universe, which is static and all pre-existent.
As we know from direct experience, the moving frame of reference is the frame of reference of consciousness, as Weyl states. This confirms that consciousness is a system property, on a par with space-time as a whole, as stated by Chalmers. It is the movement of consciousness along the world-line that brings reality to life. The moving frame of reference is a retrodiction, meaning it is the explanation of scientific facts we know for sure but have not been able to understand.
Professor Michael Lockwood of Oxford University provides an ideal metaphor, quoting the physicists Arthur Eddington and James Jeans:
… events do not happen; they are just there and we come across them … In this case our consciousness is like that of a fly caught in a dusting-mop which is being drawn over the surface of the picture; the whole picture is there, but the fly can only experience the one instant of time with which it is in immediate contact (2005, 54)
This is simply what happens as consciousness crawls up the worldline of the body. Just as the frame of reference of the fly moves across the canvas, the frame of reference of consciousness moves through the events laid out in space-time. This is what we have discovered but been unable to take in.
Given this is such a simple explanation of a major puzzle, it seems very strange that it has not been recognised before now. This is a phenomenon produced by the current paradigm, as explained in Paradigm Shift. The truly bizarre implications are described in Quantum Immortality.