Despite the countless laws of physics, chemistry and biology that mankind has discovered and the extraordinary progress that has been achieved through the practical application of such laws, researchers are nowhere near falling short of enigmas to solve. We do not yet know whether there are other universes, as string theory suggests; neither can we imagine the structure of the first molecule that replicated by itself to open the door to life three billion years ago; nor we know what dark matter or dark energy are, phantasmagoric substances these that together account for ninety-five per cent of the content in the known universe.
Without downplaying such remote unknowns, the primary mystery, however, is very close to our eyes, more precisely behind them. How do neurons create consciousness in our brain? How does the sense of identity arise, grow in early childhood, stabilize after a few years, decline with old age and extinguish when the body expire?
Consciousness provides us an overwhelming and intimate conviction of an ‘I’ that draws limits and sets us apart from other people. Like all the characteristics of human life, consciousness and all the links and organic functions associated with its functioning are the result of evolution by natural selection in sequential processes that took millions of years. Nevertheless, we know little beyond this description.
The emergence of the sense of identity is the reward of evolution to the genetic memorizing of events that benefited the survival of our primitive ancestors. The stabilization of favorable mutations gradually formed the genetic coding of consciousness, though we don’t know yet what genes are involved or how they generate the brain messages that make us feel unique and know that we are such.
Detailed explanations of the emergence of consciousness in our remote ancestors are just somewhat a bit less unknown than in 1858 when the naturalist Charles Darwin and anthropologist Alfred Wallace first postulated, publicly and for the first time, the theory of evolution of species by natural selection.
Wallace was a spiritualist that spent his last years trying to communicate with the dead. Within such metaphysical framework, he came to question his great ‘materialistic’ intuition (in his time the words ‘neuron’, ‘gene’ or ‘byte’ did not exist) and at some point expressed that natural selection was insufficient to explain the evolution of consciousness. “I hope that you have not murdered too completely your own and my child,” wrote to him with concern Darwin. Fortunately for science, this did not happen.
The initial lack of explanations for consciousness seems to be moving toward the other end in recent years. Now the abundance of hypothesis could create confusion before reaching a final theory, and the awarding of the corresponding Nobel, be it in physics, chemistry or medicine, could take several decades.
Here are three examples that are making scientific noise. Bernard Baars, neuroscientist of the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, California, likens consciousness to the memory of a computer that preserves data from experiences after having lived them through. According to this theory, thinking, planning and perception are generated by biological adaptive algorithms.
The integrated information theory of neuroscientist Giulio Tononi at the University of Wisconsin in Madison maintains that consciousness must do two things; one, it must be able to store and process huge amounts of data, as computers can do, and two, it must be able to integrate such data into a unified whole of information that cannot divided into its components.
Cosmologist Max Tegmark of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, on the other hand, suggests that consciousness is a state of matter, and arises from a particular set of mathematical conditions. According to Dr. Tegmark, there are varying degrees of consciousness, as there are different states for water (steam, liquid or ice).
Consciousness is the primary mystery and not only because everybody experiences it. For a problem to be recognized as such there must be someone who identifies it and wants it solved. If nobody had consciousness, that is, if there were no human beings, aware and curious, there would be neither explorers nor areas to explore. And no phenomenon would be enigmatic at all if there were nobody who would like to solve it. It is because we have the privilege of possessing consciousness, even if we do not understand it, that all the other mysteries exist.
Atlanta, September 1, 2015