He was saying that we humans know we exist because we observe ourselves thinking. We would no doubt all agree with that. Actually, it’s almost right, but he went a little too far. We know we exist because we observe ourselves, period.
So, “I observe myself, therefore I am.” “I see myself, therefore I am.” “I think myself, therefore I am.” “I experience myself, therefore I am,” “I am self-aware, therefore I am.” “I am conscious, therefore I am.” And by “conscious” here we of course mean self-aware in the way that we believe is uniquely human and not just “awake” or the opposite of unconscious, which can apply to all living things.What is this “I” that observes itself? It’s a thought, isn’t it? Scientists will tell you that “I” is generated by brain function and that’s why we’re conscious. However, most admit that this answer does not solve what David Chalmers called the “hard problem of consciousness,” the question of why our inner lives are so rich—much richer, it seems, than what other animals experience. Human consciousness, as far as we know, is unique.
The ability of a thought (“I”) to think itself, to experience itself, is the very essence of consciousness of the human kind. If you insist that “I” is generated only by brain function, you have a “hard problem” understanding human consciousness. “I” must be more than that. Let’s go deeper.If “I” is generated by the brain, it must die when we do, right? But wait! How can a thought that thinks itself ever die? It doesn’t need any physical host to exist. It simply is. Therefore, it must exist always and everywhere. On the other hand, when I die, my brain stops functioning. If it generates “I”, how can “I” continue to exist? Confusing.
To break through this confusion and achieve some degree of understanding, one has to get comfortable with the concept of complementarity. This is the idea that in this universe, there are some things that can be looked at in more than one way and what one sees looking at such a thing in one way may be completely incompatible with what one sees observing it another way, and yet both views can be real and correct. In physics, cases where something has two aspects that look completely incompatible are called dualities. The best known is wave-particle duality. All elementary particles can behave like either waves or particles, depending on how they’re observed. Now, particles have semi-definite positions and waves do not—they’re completely incompatible aspects of the same particle. Danish physicist Niels Bohr’s principle of complementarity allows such dualities to exist. As long as no observer can see both views at the same time, there’s no incompatibility.The “I” that my brain generates sums up everything about me—my body, my history, my personality. But if you stop and think about it, although your body changes and things happen to you, at the center of your being is this consciousness that doesn’t change from birth to death. We experience constant change, so we can’t experience what it would be like to actually be that unchanging consciousness, but we know it’s there, and as a result we find it difficult to imagine no longer existing after death. On the other hand, when we look at everything that we are and everything that happens to us in life, then we see a brain-dependent creature and feel very mortal indeed.
So “I” seems to have two aspects, that is, there are two ways for it to look at itself, and what it sees depends on how it looks at itself. The pure consciousness is the atemporal aspect of “I”. It doesn’t change. Time doesn’t exist for it. It doesn’t need a brain to exist. The other aspect of “I” is the temporal aspect. It lives in this temporal universe where time flows and things are constantly changing. Being temporal creatures, we only experience this temporal aspect. It’s impossible for us to imagine what the atemporal aspect experiences, let alone experience it ourselves. To us, the atemporal aspect, which doesn’t experience time, seems to exist for too short a time to be observed (you can’t talk about zero time in a quantum mechanical universe). In this respect, it’s like the physicists’ virtual particles, which are constantly popping into and out of existence, but are never observed. You can see this by watching what happens when you fall into a deep, dreamless sleep. Your brain is unconscious and the temporal “I” disappears. The atemporal “I” continues to be conscious, so when you wake up, you are the same person and you’re not aware of having been nonexistent for a few hours. On the other hand those few hours seem like just an instant because to the atemporal consciousness an instant is the same as an eternity.The atemporal, independently existing “I” has no temporal attributes—no brain, no body, no personality, no history. Yet it’s the same thought as the temporal “I”, just observing itself in a different way. What’s more, it’s the same thought in me as it is in you, just observing itself through the window of a different brain. These are all different, sometimes incompatible views of the same thing, but since each view is seen by a different temporal observer, the principle of complementarity says this is permitted; there is no conflict. Reality itself, it seems, depends on who is looking at it, and how.
Because all of these different aspects of “I” are the same thought seeing itself in different ways, they are all conscious in the same way. They all observe themselves and they all feel immortal in some ineffable way. Of course, while the atemporal aspect really is immortal, the temporal aspects aren’t, and we know we aren’t.The atemporal “I” existed “before” us and exists “after” we die, although these temporal words mean nothing to it. It can be given other names. We’ve already seen that the atemporal “I” is pure consciousness. Because its other defining characteristic is that it exists necessarily, it is also pure existence. Thus, it is identical to the atemporal aspects of both existence and consciousness.. These thoughts also have temporal aspects, which are different from the temporal “I”. But atemporally, there is no difference.
The atemporal aspect of existence is the only thing in the universe that exists independently of anything else. It is the source of everything else, including space and time, matter, and us. Our brains then create the temporal “I”, which by observing itself, allows existence to observe itself temporally, that is, in this temporal universe. Because it is just a different aspect of the same thought, the temporal “I” inherits its consciousness from the atemporal “I”, the source of everything, which we have seen is consciousness itself and existence itself. So this is the answer to the “hard problem.” While our temporal selves are generated by brain function, atemporal consciousness is the source of everything, including brains, and is not something that emerges from brains.David Chalmers has speculated that something nonphysical must exist and be the source of our consciousness. He thought it might be conscious experience. We see that it is consciousness itself.
But is it nonphysical? Notice what I’ve been doing here. I’m talking about a thought as something that exists in itself. That makes it physical. It’s a thing (and it’s conscious, so it’s also a person). Are all thoughts physical things? No, thoughts that are generated in our brains certainly aren’t. But atemporal existence, as well as all of the thoughts that exist within it—or all of the thoughts directly implied by it (thoughts are logical entities)—should be thought of as physical things, the stuff the universe is made of. The temporal universe itself, to use a word popular with physicists these days, is emergent from the collective behavior of these primordial thoughts, in the same way that chemical reactions are emergent from the collective behavior of elementary particles. My physics model shows exactly how this temporal universe arises from atemporal existence.How an atemporal being comes to have a temporal aspect is covered in my metaphysics paper, where I start by analyzing the logical structure of the thought existence. When we say it observes itself, we mean it’s really three thoughts in one. There’s observing existence, observed existence, and the relationship—identity—between these two. Once we have three thoughts, we can get a lot more. Combining thoughts always results in another thought. Just by taking the nonempty subsets of a set of three thoughts we get seven thoughts, from seven we get 127, and so on. Therefore, within existence—implied by it—are an infinite number of thoughts that occur in steps, with the total number increasing with each step. This is a purely logical progression and has nothing to do with time, but it’s not hard to see that the steps do sort of look like time and the number of thoughts, larger at each step, looks like an expanding space. If there were a way for existence to observe the thoughts within it as time and space, existence would have a temporal way of observing itself. That turns out to be our role. (In my physics paper, these thoughts are called spacetime points.) Our bodies are created from the collective behavior of all of these thoughts so that we depend on time for our existence, and our brains then generate the temporal “I” as a window for existence to observe itself temporally. This simply happens because it’s possible. No designer needed.
Why not? It’s a consequence of a thought that exists necessarily. We call this thought existence (or consciousness, or “I”)—I’m speaking atemporally now). Existence exists and observes itself. What does it see? The only possible answer is that it sees everything that can possibly exist, that is, everything that isn’t impossible, exactly as predicted by quantum mechanics. That turns out to include this time-dependent universe, with us in it.The atemporal aspect of existence is what we call “God”. Since it’s easier to write than “atemporal existence, I’ll use “God” a lot. We can think of existence observing itself outside of time as God, and existence observing itself within time as our brain-generated selves.
Why is the universe so riddled with dualities? You might prefer to call them contradictions or paradoxes or inconsistencies or something else, but ultimately, they all stem from the self-referential nature of atemporal existence, which creates itself. Existence is a concept that can only be defined in terms of itself, and logically, self-reference always results in contradictions. We have to keep in mind that what is real is relative to each observer, It’s the principle of complementarity again. We only get into trouble with contradictions when we try to make every observer’s view consistent with every other observer’s view. That’s impossible. As long as we think we need complete consistency, we’ll never find that “theory of everything.”