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​​​Religions, Science and Consciousness

Religions assert the existence of an immaterial principle, parallel to the physical body, which somehow generates both consciousness and the sense of identity. Mystery solved for religions! But there are differences between doctrines as to the course that takes such a principle when someone dies.

Buddhists are reborn in an extension of the current life span and the fate of the new life manifestation is determined by karma, the good or bad actions accumulated until the moment of the transition. Hinduists reincarnate in another body but with the same soul of their previous stage. Christians, after staying in intermediate heavens or hells, will resurrect with their same identity on the day of the final judgment.

For most scientists, in contrast, consciousness is a physical phenomenon, though there is no satisfactory explanation as yet of how it works. "There is no ghost in the machine," says English philosopher Gilbert Ryle with humor. And when death arrives, we are gone forever.

Between these opposing positions, the religious and the scientific, there are two interesting approaches, we want to highlight. The first is by Max Tegmart, cosmologist and physicist from MIT; the second one is by Matthieu Ricard, a former molecular biologist and now an active Buddhist monk.

Max Tegmark's theory is quite novel. Physicists and chemists have for decades studied molecular arrangements with countless variations, and have found that the behavior of the whole depends on the way the components are arranged. "The difference between a solid, a liquid and a gas, the three commonly recognizable states of matter, does not depend on the molecules themselves, but on the way they are organized," Doctor Tegmark says. Ice, water and steam are H2O molecules but we see and feel them differently.

This Swedish-American scientist suggests that consciousness is equivalent to another state of matter, besides the three commonly recognized; all humans feel this fourth state or phase but do not realize its existence. Perceptronium, the assigned name, is the state of matter that makes consciousness and the experience of subjectivity arise. The scientist adds that "this state not only stores and processes information but it does it so that it forms a unified and indivisible whole." Dr. Tegmark's hypothesis, which has been formally revised in the scientific world, is imaginative yet controversial.

Let us now see what the Buddhist monk says. The process of rebirth involves the flow of a continuous stream of consciousness that connects deaths (or dissolutions) with rebirths (or reappearances). "This chain", according to Matthieu Ricard, "is like the fire of a log that passes to another log, which in turn ignites a third, and so on. The flame of the last log is not the same from the initial one, but neither is it a different one either."

And he adds: "There is no thread going through the beads of the necklace of rebirths. Throughout the successive rebirths, what is maintained is not the identity of a person but the conditioning of a stream of consciousness”. My interpretation? The monk is talking about something measurable (the conditioning} and about a variable (a stream of consciousness) that could perhaps be calculated as a physical property. Is there in the monk's approach any influence from his scientific background as a molecular biologist? Doctor Ricard says nothing about it.

Consciousness is a yet unexplained phenomenon that we, humans, experience. The absence of understanding, however, does not make it a metaphysical enigma. As an example​, dark matter and dark energy are two mysterious substances, both invisible but real, that make up ninety-five percent of all of what exists in the universe; nobody would dare to consider  such strange entities as supernatural. Similarly, many ancient cultures, illiterate in physical sciences, worshiped the Sun as a divinity. No one does now.

From hypothesis like doctor Tegmark’s or metaphors such as doctor Ricard’s, lights emerge that could illuminate the unknown. Are they correct? Perhaps not, but the proposals of consciousness as a result from unknown molecular structures or from subtle flows of something not yet known could be both sparks of creativity that will contribute to the future understanding of consciousness, by far the most complex of the many mysteries that humanity has yet pending to resolve.