I’m going to share my thoughts on a very complicated problem which I’ve been struggling with for the past fifteen years. Say I bump into you in the store. Our eyes meet and then I lift my arm and wave hello. Here’s my question. How was I able to do that? And if it wasn’t “I” who did it, then who lifted the arm?
You may think this problem is common sense — Jason, you used your free will to wave at me! Ok, fair enough. I chose to stand up, I chose to sit down, I chose to say the words coming out of my mouth, and so on. Ok, but let’s dive into this problem and think about everything that claim entails. I want you to think of all the electrical impulses which must happen within my brain, and all the electrical cascades within the nerves connecting my brain to my arm, and the microscopic changes in the countless muscle cells, how they all had to fire and move in the perfect patterns, just right, all so my arm would lift and wave at you. You’re claiming “I” did that? Really? That’s strange because when I examine the conscious contents of my mind, I only barely understand how the brain functions, I don’t know how the brain is wired, I don’t even fully understand how muscles contract in the body, nor do I have any conscious recollection of initating all these electrical firings. But “I” did this you say?
Sure, after the event of my arm being lifted a thought enters my brain which says, “I did that”, but I don’t believe this thought. There’s not enough information or ability in my conscious mind to do such a thing. But it’s all common sense? Ok, I’ll lay on an operating table, give you an electrical probe, and I want you to stick that thing in my brain and activate all the proper neurons and nerves all over my body, and lift my arm. Go on! It’s simple! It’s all common sense. Anyone can do it! What voltages would you need? Which points would you stimulate? How long would you stimulate them? Common sense. Just cut my skull open, stick some probes in that blob of jelly in my head, and lift up my arm. Go on! Do it!
But that’s just the beginning of this problem. You’re going to lift your right arm and wave hello to your friend across the room. Think about everything that needed to happen. According to physics, every Planck time there is a new “frame” of reality. Every 5*10^(-44) seconds a new frame needs to be generated, containing all the new positions of every atomic nucleus, every electron, all the photons creating the electric and magnetic fields, the exact curvatures of space-time due to energy and mass, and all the rest of it. Think of all the frames required to move your arm! It’s a number so large we don’t even have words for it, and within each frame you’re going to have to give positions and velocities to all the particles, which are also so numerous we don’t have words for it either. So who lifted the arm? Me? Ok, then what am I that I can do such things? And how is it that my conscious mind lacks the details of all the atoms and particles it moved. Yet I moved them all?
If you’re not puzzled yet, this only gets more interesting. The standard conception of free will seems to imply that I had a choice to lift my arm and wave. I could have waved or not waved at the store. But wait! How many different ways are there to wave an arm? When I think of quantum physics, and the superposition of all the different ways of atoms and energy to make that arm movement happen, the different combinations are endless, probably infinite! You could lift your arm out sideways, or front ways, straight armed, a bend in the arm, hand partially closed, hand completely open, waving in a circular motion, or left to right, or up down, or whatever you want, apparently. So when you went to wave your arm, did time stop, and were you presented with a catalog of all the practically endless options of arm movements available to you? Then, after browsing them all, you said to yourself, “I’ll go with that one!”, and then your arm waved in just that way? I can’t speak for you guys, but that’s not what I experience. In my case, the arm waving just happens the moment I see you. There may or may not be accompanying thoughts.
Speaking of which, this same argument can be applied to all “internal” states of consciousness as well, such as thought and emotion. At any point you can remember, were you ever presented with a catalog of thought processes and emotional states which you arbitrarily could assign to each and every moment? I never did. My best guess is this doesn’t happen for others either because if they were choosing their thoughts and emotions, moment to moment, there wouldn’t be anywhere near as much misery in the world. Everyone would be choosing happiness and bliss for themselves. Quite a puzzle. Why do we feel these states as “my” thoughts and “my” emotions? Why is there this sense of ownership when there seems to be so little control over what transpired?
Let’s try to solve this problem. First off, there’s no reason to believe that there’s some special universe that begins and ends at your body’s bag of skin. This idea that “you” are controlling your arms, legs, and body, but somehow are not controlling the rest of the environment around you seems highly artificial. The same laws of physics govern your body, other people’s bodies, and the environment around the bodies as well. But if that is true, then you are everything. You’re the walls, the hamburger you’re stuffing into your mouth, your body, other people’s bodies, and everything you perceive through all your senses. So would that mean you’re identical with all that is? You’re somehow the substratum of reality? If so, then the question as to who or what you are becomes a question of, “What is reality?”
So now that we are describing reality, doesn’t that bring in science? Is reality a big machine, following mechanical laws and mathematical equations? If so, you never had any free will to begin with. The universe is a type of algorithm, following some simple ruleset, repeatedly, over and over, and all of our thoughts and actions are just a complex consequence of this ruleset. All claims that you have an independent existence is an illusion, and you’re nothing more than a biological robot, putting around, claiming to do this and that, when really there was never any sort of “choice” available to any of us. The universe does what the universe does. The powers behind this world made all these decisions for you, dictating what you love, what you do, and how you feel about everything. You’re just experiencing some accidental consciousness generated when these deterministic electrical pulses flow through your brain. One great consequence of this big accident is the illusion that some independent and separate “you” exists.
That’s one option I suppose, but when I hear something like that, I immediately have to ask, “What is this subjective consciousness happening, supposedly due to the electrical pulses within the brains? Why would the operation of a mechanical algorithm produce such a subjective feeling?” Also, when one deeply examines the physics of this universe, is it mechanical in nature?
We have two major clues available to us which I feel rule out this way of seeing the world. For one, when you lift your arm, there is a subjective experience that you really did lift your arm. Secondly, quantum physics is our fundamental ruleset for how this reality behaves and it doesn’t point toward this mechanistic machine like view of the universe. In physics jargon, if you’re an illusion, there’s no observer to collapse the wave function. Without a wave-function collapse, Schrodinger’s equation predicts that given enough time, the universe becomes a cloud of probability where any and every possibily becomes equally likely. I’m not even sure what time would mean without a collapsing creating the series of events happening in succession. We’re left with a big “world” filled with infinite potential but nothing actually realized. Many like to explain this problem away, saying it is all taken care of by theories of decoherence. Like all things, take some time and actually investigate it deeply for yourself (I recommned https://arxiv.org/abs/quant-ph/0112095). This idea of quantum decoherence was first introduced by a guy named H. Dieter Zeh. It became a really hot topic throughout the 1980’s, but after it was all completely worked out, Zeh was forced to admit, “…no unitary treatment of the time dependence can explain why only one of these dynamically independent components is experienced.” He wrote this paper with a guy named Joos, who also later concluded, “Does decoherence solve the measurement problem? Clearly not. What decoherence tells us is that certain objects appear classical when observed. But what is an observation? At some stage we still have to apply the usual probability rules of quantum theory.” Decoherence is interesting, but we’re still left with the original problem.
Now that we’ve put some technical objections aside, quantum mechanics seems to indicate that the universe we observe, with this flow of time, doesn’t even exist outside of consciousness observing something. But what does that mean? Who or what observing what? We don’t know who we are (that’s what we’ve been investigating), and we don’t know what reality is either. We’re throwing around blind conceptions of what we are, combined with blind conceptions of what reality is. Well, we have to try I guess! Thinking about all we’ve discussed thus far, the line of reasoning seems to be leading us down a path that there’s no fundamental distinction between what we are and what the world is, whatever the world may be. The founders of quantum theory held similar opinions. Take Erwin Schrodinger. In his book, “My View of the World”, he argues that there is only a single consciousness of which we are all different aspects. Interesting! Not a single mechanical machine, but a single consciousness! So how would that apply to this problem?
What if you are not your thoughts, not your emotions, and not even your body and brain? We’ve argued quite strongly that the “I” bouncing around in your head is an illusion. Its claims of control are unjustified. It lacks the power, the knowledge, or the ability to make the events of your life happen. It doesn’t know how to move your arm, or create your thoughts, or dictate your emotional feelings. It’s not making you move, or making you think, or making you feel. So what is?
What if it is God who makes you move, makes you think, and makes you feel? An interesting proposition, but would it help us explain or understand this problem in any deeper way? It sounds as if we’re just pushing the problem onto God, without explaining or understanding things. Or maybe it is a better explanation? -shrugs- Let’s just entertain the idea for a bit. God could be this “single consciousness” Schrodinger and others speak of. What if we are all characters God is manifesting within His mind? If this were true, there would be a deep connection between all of us and God. Growing up in a Christian household, I would pick up the Bible and read about Jesus saying things like, “I and my Father are one”. Or in another verse of the Bible you read, “In Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible … He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” All things were created by God (including all of us), exist within God, and cannot do anything without God. Other spiritual texts from all over the world make similar claims. So, when you go to lift your arm, God moves through you to move the arm, and you are an aspect of God, made in the image of God, as the scriptures say. Interesting thought, but what does this explanation add over say a mechanistic, mechanical view of the universe? Mainly, the universe becomes a place filled with intention and intelligence, and if things are seemingly following mechanical rules, it’s because something willed that to be so. It would explain why you feel that ownership when you move, even if “you” (the made-up character) don’t understand how you (the real I AM) did it. You really did move the arm, but you are not the made-up character you believe yourself to be within your human mind, but are actually something far greater contained within the Mind of God.
That would also give a method of wave-function collapse. How could a mindless, mechanical universe do something like that? You’re left with some complicated many-worlds interpretation, or some sort of constant universe splitting like in the Everett interpretation. If we apply Occam’s razor, it’s literally an infinitely simpler explanation. It also explains subjective consciousness, such as the taste of sweetness while eating an orange, perceiving the color red, or enjoying a musical symphony. A world of mechanical vibrations doesn’t contain these dynamics and subjective consciousness remains a total mystery. This new explanation says we’re all manifestations within the consciousness of God, so consciousness makes more sense. And if I’m nothing more than an illusion, then why do I feel this sense of ownership of my bodily movements? You could explain it away as an illusion of the brain I suppose, but does it feel that way to you? Dangle your arm now in front of the computer screen. Are you controlling it? I definitely feel this sense of control and response to my willful intentions. You say that’s an illusion? Also, if “you” are an illusion, who doesn’t exist, just a by-product of a mechanical algorithm, who is it who’s worrying about all of this? Something or someone is perceiving this all taking place, right? I certainly experience it. What is that? Why is that happening?
But in the end this is all theoretical. After all, where is God? Look at all the evil around us, and things are far from perfect! Why is that? Why am I suffering like I do if all follows the will of God and this being is supposedly infinite love and goodness! A powerful and difficult point. To that, well, I’m not making any claims as to what God is or isn’t, or even why things are happening as they are. All I’ve reasoned thus far is we’re all contained within a single consciousness, which ultimately we are all manifestations of, and that the individual identities we hold onto are deluded fabrications of our confused minds. I’ve claimed nothing more.
But with all things, I want direct experience. Is there some way to directly experience this God, this I AM, supposedly within all things, even within us? We need proof of some kind, otherwise it’s just spiritual scriptures making all kinds of claims and us philosophizing about it all. I’m someone who wants direct proof, direct experience. But what sort of experience would that even be? Even if Jesus, or Shiva, or Allah appeared before me in my bedroom, that’s just a form. Isn’t God beyond all form? Beyond even thought itself? Beyond even emotional experience? We’d be in search of some root consciousness, somehow underpinning all experience. What would an experience of that even be? Does such a question even make sense? Even visions of the Christ shouldn’t satisfy us. We need something deeper, as sacrilegious as that sounds. Interestingly enough, the more I pursued this question, I eventually came across a great Indian yogi named Ramana Maharshi, and read his book on Self-Enquiry. He claimed that anyone can experience the direct presence of God within their consciousness! I was like, wow, how would I do that? And what should I experience?
His method is extremely simple. Everytime the “I” thought arises in your mind, such as “I am hungry”, or “I need to see a doctor”, or “I don’t want to go to work today”, ask yourself who is speaking? Who is having the thoughts? Who is it that experiences hunger? Who is having the experience of needing to see a doctor? Who is it that has the feeling of not wanting to go to work? Who or what is this “I” who says these things? Put this “I” on the witness stand and ask it, “Show me who you are”. It is extreme Self reflection.
The point of the process is to discover what is real and what is illusion. Maharshi had a very specific definition for what to consider “real”. To him, anything real must be eternal, unchanging, and self-shining. By self-shining he meant that it must experience itself by its own light of self-awareness. It’s a very strict definition, but I accepted it. I’d search for things of this nature within my consciousness, if it’d lead me to this root “source” experience of God.
I spent many many hours meditating, seaching for what’s real (using Maharshi’s conception of reality), and applied this process anytime I heard some “I” bounce around in my conscious mind. If you spend enough time doing this process, tracing your thoughts of “I”, you’ll find that you’ll always come to the same ever present, unchanging root. It never changes. It’s always the same. It’s also aware of itself. This is the root from which all your subjective consciousness stems from. This root can only be described as, “I AM” (just as spiritual scriptures all over the world, such as the Bible, describe God), though it’s not words, nor is it thought, nor is it form, yet it can be experienced firsthand. It seems that everything is coming out of it, since everything traces back to it. And isn’t it strange that this is found directly within you, whenever you trace your own “I” thoughts back to their source? You found the I AM directly within yourself. (or at least you can do so if you desire) God is omnipresent, and lo and behold, you’ll directly find God within you! That to me was the proof I needed, or at the very least, lent extreme weight toward a… spiritual (for lack of a better word)… view of the universe.
Everything in your experience, other than this I AM root perception, will change. Your body will change with time. Your friends will come and go. Careers will come and go. Thoughts come and go. Emotions come and go. But this I AM directly perceived within you never goes anywhere. Ever. When I went through this process, and kept coming back to the I AM, time and time again, tears came to my eyes. In my search for what’s real, it turns out the only thing that is real is God, which is with me, and is me (when I move beyond false identifications of things I am not), and is the source of everything happening. Maharshi calls this Self-realization, when you finally realize who you truly are, an emination of God, moving beyond the false “I” conception you had of yourself before. The great single consciousness is all that’s real. This ultimate substratum of reality. Upon this realisation, you become, as the saints like to say, one with God, and the old (false) self dies, just as Christ died on the cross.