Is Consciousness an epiphenomenon of molecular reactions and interactions?
Dr. Ramagopal V. S. Uppaluri
Honorary Director (Dept. of Distance Education), Bhaktivedanta Institute, Kolkata
Senior Professor of Chemical Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati
With no universal definition of consciousness, it is often being defined through variegated characteristics such as wakefulness, awareness, the self, subjective experience, feeling and mind controller. Till date, hard and binding problems are the most fundamental unresolved problems of consciousness. Among these, the hard problem is very hard to solve given the inability to transform physical interactions into an experience . On the other hand, recent advances in modern science have been anticipated to offer a new hope towards a fundamental understanding of consciousness in terms of molecular phenomena. Needless to convey, such scientific research methodologies advocate upon the reductionist framework of consciousness. Primarily, the reductionist framework of consciousness advocates towards the early onset of self-organizing quantum processes of simpler bio-molecules and subsequent generation of qualia sensitive conscious bio-molecules that eventually took over a neo-Darwinian paradigm for the onset of higher dimensional features of consciousness such as awareness. Thus, it is very important to resolve the fundamental question associated to the Consciousness being an epiphenomenon of molecular reactions. To ascertain upon this fact, one has to delve deep into various scientific discoveries and thereby conclude upon the answer towards this question. In this article, relevant perspectives have been considered to address and resolve this fundamental question. The subsequent sections address the same.
2. Fossil record based perspectives
Continued stasis in the fossil record affirm that macroscopic evolution through neo-Darwinian paradigm is a questionable proposition. The punctuated equilibrium theory being proposed to encourage fitness with the sudden explosion of species complexity during Cambrian era is in dire disagreement with the very principles of natural phenomena i.e., while natural phenomena indicate slower and continuous microevolution, the punctuated equilibrium theory advocates upon sudden discontinuous macroevolution which has not been observed till date. In this regard, the views of Donald Prothero, an evolutionary biologist can be noted as follows , ‘In four of the biggest climatic-vegetational events of the last 50 million years, the mammals and birds show no noticeable change in response to changing climates…no one (including myself) has a good explanation yet for such widespread stasis despite the obvious selective pressures of changing climate.’ In other words, Darwin’s simpler rules of evolution appear to be not at work in the evolutionary traits of species complexity.
3. Quantum Mechanics based perspectives
The quantum mechanical systems demonstrate a discontinuous quantum leap, observer-observed paradox and quantum measurement inducing wave function collapse. Similarly, the consciousness system demonstrates a discontinuous leap in the creativity & free will and a tangled hierarchy of the subject-object paradox. For these analogies, few scientists opine that the quantum mechanics is analogous to consciousness. However, a fundamental analysis of quantum mechanics affirms that Consciousness is the irreducible phenomena for the onset of quantum mechanical system characteristics. Thus, to presume that the consciousness can be represented through a physical quantum mechanical system is a fallible interpretation of the associated facts. This is due to the fact that the quantum mechanical system is unable to represent itself as a subject or object without invoking the inclusion of consciousness. In this regard, the views of renowned philosopher David Chalmers are relevant : ‘the theory is silent about how these (quantum) processes might give raise to conscious experience. Indeed, the same problem arises with any theory of consciousness based only on physical processing.’
4. Biomolecular perspectives
A fundamental proposition in the biomolecular perspective is with respect to the ascribing of qualia related characteristics to bio-molecules. Thus, prior to the advent of these bio-molecules, consciousness shall not exist. However, it is a fact that the characteristic traits of consciousness are not physical but metaphysical. Hence, consideration of biomolecular evolution of consciousness needs to define consciousness in terms of physical system rules. Then only consciousness could be considered in the context of qualia specific molecules. In this regard, it shall be accepted without any doubt that the experience could not be defined till date as a hardware or software (transcendental) problem or a combination of both of them. Thus, considering these limitations, a paradox is very much evident in terms of the correlation between consciousness and evolution based on biomolecular representations. The paradox once again needs non-physical laws of consciousness to break the log jam. Thus, biomolecular perspectives once again posit towards the fact that consciousness can’t be a epiphenomenon of molecular reactions and interactions.
5. Para-psychology perspectives
The largest CPR study being conducted by Dr. Sam Parnia’s team in the UK affirms amazing revelations. Their AWARE study  affirmed that consciousness could exist even without external senses, brain and body i.e., consciousness can exist independent on its own! Dr. Parnia recalls that among 2060 cardiac patients being subjected to the CPR, 9% had near death experience and 1 person had complete conscious awareness even during clinical death conditions! The patient opines as follows in due course of the surgical procedures, ‘I saw a nurse that did not know beforehand who I saw after the event. I could see my body and saw everything at once. I saw my blood pressure being taken whilst the doctor was putting something down my throat.’ In summary, para-psychology perspectives confirm the non-physical origins of consciousness.
6. Vedantic Perspectives
Bhagavad Gita (BG)  affirms that consciousness is a transcendental property of the soul (BG13.34) and is the knower of the physical and philosophical field. Further, the holy scripture affirms that presently the consciousness variegatedness is through a function of the matter or the three modes of material nature (BG 14.5). This is due to the conditioning acquired by the soul in due course of its contact with the material modes of nature. Thereby, the conditioning reflects in the arrangement of a gross body with limitations associated to its mental and sensory faculties. Thereby, Bhagavad Gita instructs a conditioned soul to reach the higher reality through the practice of constant and unalloyed devotion to God (BG 14.26).
7. Synthesis Perspectives
Dr. T. D. Singh, the founding director of the Bhaktivedanta Institute opined that the science of consciousness needs to be explored through the spiritual senses of the spiriton or atman . Thus, one needs to become spiritual and interact with Paramatma or absolute consciousness to understand one’s own status as an elemental particle of God. Further, one can also explore the consciousness-species complexity correlation through a graphical representation of the mental faculties vis-à-vis awareness traits of various species such as elephants, monkeys, human beings, lizard, spider and nematode.
Fossil record, quantum phenomena, biomolecular, para-psychology and Vedantic perspectives converge and affirm upon the fact that Consciousness can’t be the epiphenomenon of molecular reactions and interactions. The answer to this question can be only resolved through the formalization of physical laws of consciousness, which to the views of the author are not possible. Synthesis perspectives involving the integration of spiritual laws and life-matter interactions hold the key for an improvised framework to address the fundamental problems of consciousness. For a detailed understanding of the subject matter, you can register in the Short Term Online Certificate Courses of the Bhaktivedanta Institute.
- Chalmers D., (1995). Facing up to the problem of consciousness, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2 (3), 200 – 219.
- Prothero, D.R. (1999). Does climatic change drive mammalian evolution? GSA Today, 9, 1-5.
- Chalmers D., (1995). The puzzle of conscious experience, Scientific American, 62-69.
- Parnia S., et al (2014). AWARE – Awareness during resuscitation – A prospective study, Resuscitation, 85 (12), 1799-1805.
- Bhaktivedanta Swami A. C., (1972). Bhagavad Gita as it is, Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, Mumbai.
- Singh T. D., (2006). Life, Matter and their Interactions, Bhaktivedanta Institute, Kolkata, p. 99-101.
Born at Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh, India, Dr. Uppaluri holds B.Tech. (Chemical Engineering from Andhra University, Visakhapatnam), M.Tech. (Chemical Engineering, from Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur), Ph.D. (Process Integration, University of Manchester, United Kingdom). After a brief tenure of post doctoral research at Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen (Scotland), he joined IIT Guwahati as a faculty of Chemical Engineering. Within a short span of 8 years, he became the youngest professor at IIT Guwahati. Till date, 16 scholars received PhD under his able supervision. Presently, 20 PhD scholars are working under his active guidance. He also held many administrative positions at IIT Guwahati.
Prof. Uppaluri wishes to take stiffer challenges in academia and research of higher education. Apart from his past success stories involving Mass Transfer Virtual Laboratory and Refinery Process Design lecture notes, his recent success story has been in the affirming of Indo-Japan Joint M.Tech. degree in Food Science and Technology between IIT Guwahati – Gifu University (a first of its kind among the IITs). Further, he is famous in the academic circles of IIT Guwahati to be a troubleshooter and counsellor for PhD scholars in the field of research methodology and scientific writing.
Despite having a very busy and demanding academic and research guidance schedule, Prof. Uppaluri works extensively on the affirming of science-spirituality synthesis model of Dr. T. D. Singh through the formal offering of Certificate and Diploma Courses on Science and Spirituality. Along with few other scholars and faculty of Bhaktivedanta Institute, he developed several Certificate courses namely Foundations of Science and Spirituality (FSS), Nature of Reality (NR), Professional Excellence (PROFEX), Personal Excellence (PEREX), Philosophical Excellence (PHILEX). The team also developed a 1 year diploma course on science and spirituality and is presently engaging to have deliberations with reputed institutions to offer the developed course content on a collaborative basis. Prof. Uppaluri is also an expert in teaching Bhagavad Gita, Spiritualty in World Religions. His team developed two Certificate Courses in this direction Successful Life Journey – Insights from Bhagavad Gita and Yoga and Spirituality – Explorations from Bhagavad Gita. With both professional and spiritual maturity, the Department of Distance Education can venture into dynamic and challenging collaborations in the applications of science-spirituality and applied spirituality or Vedanta.