What do you think consciousness is?
Do you think consciousness is clearly just a factor of brain tissue and energy?
Or do you think it's possible that what our brain is, is something that tunes into consciousness?
Well, I spend some time thinking about this question.
I think it's perhaps the deepest question that faces science or even humanity at some level.
And my own personal perspective is that consciousness is nothing more than the choreographed motion of particles in various quantum states inside a gloppy gray structure that sits inside this thing that we call a head.
Do I have any proof for that?
Does anybody have any proof for what consciousness is?
Not at all at this moment.
But the history of the reductionist program where we've been able to take some of the more spectacular creations that have emerged in the world and recognize that they are nothing but the product of their ingredients in the laws of physics leads me to extrapolate that idea to the experience of consciousness.
Now having said that, there's a deep puzzle.
It's called the hard problem of consciousness, which is if electrons and quarks in particles and laws of physics are all that there is, and if you buy into the fact that electrons don't have an inner world, that quarks don't have an inner world, how can it be that by taking a collection of those particles, you can turn on the lights?
How can a collection of mindless, thoughtless particles somehow yield mindful experience?
And that's a deep question that science has not yet answered.
My own feeling is when we understand the brain better, that question will evaporate.
We'll look at the brain with our newfound understanding, maybe it's 100 years in the making, maybe 1,000 years in the making, and we'll say, aha, when electrons and quarks and protons move in this particular configuration, one of the byproducts is an inner sensation that we call conscious experience.
And that to me is the likely answer that we will find.
But there are some very smart, well-respected people who go in a very different direction.
There are some who say electrons and protons and quarks, they do have a fundamental, protoconscious quality.
They themselves are conscious beings of a sort.
Now it's not like you're going to have electrons that are crying or quarks that are anguishing, but if you have a little proto-element of conscious experience that is imbued into a particle, and then you take a lot of the particles and put them together, the idea is that yields the manifest conscious experience that we're familiar with.
I don't buy into that, but there are people who do.
Why do you pick a position?
Well, I take a position on this because I guess my view is you look out at the world, and what you do as a physicist is you move the smallest degree required to explain the phenomena that you are observing.
And to move from our current understanding of the world to leapfrog to a place where electrons are conscious and quarks are conscious, to me is such a fantastically radical move that I don't consider it justified to make that move with our current level of understanding.
There was a time back in the 1800s when life itself was so mystical that people basically said the same kind of thing.
How could a collection of lifeless particles ever come together and yield a living being?
They said that they can't.
You have to induce a life force.
You have to inject a life force, and that's what sparks the emergence of life on lifeless particles.
I don't think any serious scientist thinks that today.
I think most serious scientists say, yes, life is wonderful.
Life is in some sense miraculous, but life is nothing but the particles of nature coming together to yield the complex molecules of DNA and RNA, the complex cellular structures, the cells come together to yield the more complex multicellular organisms, and that's all that it takes to have something that's alive.
No life force is necessary.
That way of thinking about the world has gone away.
My own feeling is that that kind of progression is going to happen for consciousness.
Today it's utterly mysterious how it is that I have this inner voice talking inside my head, how it is that I look around the world and I can see the color red and I can experience the color red.
I don't just have sensors that can call that red.
An iPhone can do that.
I actually have an inner world where I feel that color red.
Where does that come from?
Hard to answer that question, but I think 100 or 1,000 years from now, we'll look back and smile at how we in this era invested consciousness with such mystical quality when in the end it's nothing but particles and the laws of physics and that's all there is to it.
Well, what's interesting too to me is that as a human being, my thoughts on consciousness are very deep and profound and this idea like what is this thing?
But if I really break it down objectively and animals have some sort of a consciousness, I mean including they have instincts, right?
They try to get away from danger.
They try to survive and procreate and we developed something far more complex in our ability to express ourselves in language and in doing that language during that creation of that language, we developed all sorts of bizarre concepts and we've developed all sorts of different ways to describe feelings and emotions and contemplate the future as well.
These things are continually getting more and more complex.
If you go to single celled organisms, work your way up to early hominids and then get to human beings, you just see this ever increasing form of complexity in every way.
And in the way that the things see the world, of course it makes sense that there would be more complexity.
But we don't think about that when we think of a parakeet.
We don't think of a parakeet as being conscious, but a parakeet, relatively speaking, is far more primitive than a chimpanzee, which is relatively speaking far more primitive than a human being.
And it's just going to continue to evolve or if we survive, things will continue to improve due to natural selection and random mutation and all the other factors and will be something that makes this today look like...
Look at single celled organisms or champs or whatever.
Yeah, I can well imagine that.
Because we see small changes in DNA, a tiny fraction of a percent yields a radical change in what the being that has that DNA is able to accomplish.
But at the same time, you made reference to psychedelic experiences.
And I trust you agree, but tell me if you don't, that those psychedelic experiences were generated by a slight change in the chemical makeup of the particles coursing through your brain and your body.
Sometimes not even a change.
Sometimes a lot of them, the heavier ones are actually produced by the brain.
So to me, that's a great piece of data that speaks to the fact that all it is is particles and chemicals coursing through a structure.
Because if the mind was somehow external to the physical makeup and the law is describing it, then how would the injection say of some kind of foreign substance or as you say, the brain producing some sort of substance that it didn't ordinarily have within its makeup, why would that be able to have such a radical impact on conscious experience?
The way I would look at it if I was trying to argue against that would be that your eyes and the organs of the human eye are taking in light and through that light are able to perceive physical objects in the world that they would not be able to do without light.
It's something that allows you to see and allows you to take in depth perception and understand shapes that the human mind and particularly these glands that produce these psychedelic chemicals, when experiencing these chemicals, it allows the brain to experience things that might be there all the time.
You cannot perceive with normal human neurochemistry that needs to be enhanced or the levels need to be changed and shifted.
What's really perplexing about these chemicals is that these chemicals are produced by your brain and if you do take these, particularly dimethyltryptamine, is the most potent of all the psychedelic chemicals, if you take that, you have these insanely profound visions.
Which leads to a lot of people having these religious spiritual epiphanies.
Have you done anything?
Have you done any psychedelic experiences?
That you're allowed to talk about?
What have you done?
Not many and I'm a complete lightweight in this arena because I hardly drink, I hardly do anything that puts foreign substance into the body.
But yeah, I was in Amsterdam.
I was there because I was giving a lecture to the Queen of Holland and I gave the lecture and my wife and I were both there and after that was over, we decided to do a little experimenting.
And for somebody like me who doesn't experiment, I made a mistake because...
Did you eat it?
Well, the first night we went out and we went to one of these coffee bars and I guess I can speak about this.
You know, I...
It's legal here.
Yeah, totally legal, exactly.
You know, we took the easy way in, like the novice version and it did nothing to me at all that first night.
So the next night when we went, I went right to the bottom of the list where it was in Dutch or something, but it had like machine guns pointed at a brain kind of thing.
So I did that version and it was the most terrifying experience of my fucking life.
I didn't even say that either.
But we were in a club, we were in a club and all of a sudden the world changed and what started happening is my brain started manufacturing versions of myself that would converse with me and convince me that the reality that I was experiencing was real.
And then that version of me would destroy that reality and the process would start over and over and over again.
Is this something you smoked or you ate?
It's definitely smoked.
And that was because my body has no experience.
Oh for sure.
And so I think that just enhanced the impact.
And it was terrifying.
I was in the hotel room and I was clinging to the bed and I actually said to my wife, tie me up.
Not in any, it sounds wrong.
I mean, because I'm like terrified of what I'm going to do.
And so instead she called the doctor and I was like, she was afraid this would be like in the newspaper because I'd just like give a lecture to the queen.
But they're so used to Americans getting in over their head with this kind of experience.
It was something that they were completely used to.
So they sent up a doctor and the doctor basically just gives you sugar.
And my wife knew that this was an extreme circumstance for me because I don't eat any sugar.
But I was like, he said eat as much.
I was like taking the Milky Way bars.
So sugar is somehow another counter-adhesive situation.
I don't know the chemistry behind this, but sugar is the antidote.
Caffeine is supposed to help as well.
Caffeine can help too.
Yeah, I guess.
But it lasted eight hours.
Even flying home on the plane the next day, all I did is I sat on my seat and I put on the headphones and there was a Beatles channel and I just like listened to Beatles for like seven hours and I was just in this place that I had never experienced before.
Now, for our conversation, this just made it so intuitively obvious to me that my conscious awareness is totally dependent on a few chemicals.
That's all that's happening inside of the head.
So in a way, it was a valuable experience.
It's not something that I want to ever experience again, absolutely.
But it was something that helped align my intuitive understanding of what consciousness is with the scientific recognition that it all relies upon the stuff that's circulating inside of your mind.
What's interesting about these heavy-duty psychedelic experiences, because what you took was by most people's idea very mild, but the more profound psychedelic chemicals that are also produced by your brain.
If you just shift that ratio and not by too much, really, you're not talking about even ...
You're talking about little small doses of this stuff.
Shift that ratio, it produces these profound visions.
Is this like ayahuasca type type?
Yeah, ayahuasca is just an orally active version of dimethyltryptamine.
They figured out how to ...
Your brain, your gut rather produces monoamine oxidase and it breaks down dimethyltryptamine.
And so they figured out how to combine an MAO inhibitor with the leaves of another plant that has the dimethyltryptamine.
But you could take it ...
There's synthetic versions of it.
But the point is, this is something that your brain produces, your liver produces.
We know it's produced in the lungs.
The body makes it.
But it's in there, but then if you shift the balance and all of a sudden you have these incredibly profound visions, it makes you think like what we have now in terms of our balance and our chemicals must be different than what this fella must have had.
This chimpanzee thing.