Is Consciousness All There Is?
A Response To Peter Russell
I recently watched a recorded lecture by Peter Russell about his views on the nature of consciousness and reality. His claim is that consciousness is all there is, and that everything we think is the material world is actually just a projection of consciousness. This is a view that I have seen becoming quite common among ‘new age’ groups. He seemed to absolutely convince his audience in the video, but after watching the lecture in full I was not as convinced. So I want to raise some questions and points about his argument that I think reveal this concept to be flawed.
The lecture titled The Primacy of Consciousness ultimately makes the claim that consciousness is the only thing which exists; that all matter and experience are not actually there in any way, and instead everything we think we perceive is simply a formation of consciousness.
His argument is built on the fact that we know consciousness exists – since we are indeed aware and have feeling and experience – and on the assertion that science cannot observe or explain consciousness. He claims that consciousness is an “anomaly” in the materialist scientific worldview, and thus that worldview must be wrong.
As I think he rightly points out, all the discoveries of science would seem to work if consciousness was not part of the picture at all. From there he claims that in our efforts to understand consciousness people have been wondering “How does consciousness arise from unconscious matter?” He believes this is the wrong question to be asking since it presupposes that matter actually exists.
So he then points out – and again he is correct on this point – that everything we know and experience about the world is ultimately a perception in our mind. Everything we see and hear for example, are not the seen or heard objects themselves, but rather are images and sensations produced in our mind.
But where Russell diverges from the modern scientific view is that he does not think the images and sensations in our minds are the result of inputs from our environment. He thinks that instead, all images and sensations are produced in and by consciousness itself. He implies this is the case since he thinks we have no basis to believe that matter actually exists.
Why I am not convinced
I thought Mr. Russell raised interesting ideas, but I felt that his arguments were too simplistic, and that they overlooked what he would call “anomalies” for his own view. My goal here is not to claim that he is definitely wrong – I cannot prove that – but I want to raise some questions and points that I think indicate that his perspective on consciousness and matter is not the most probable answer.
Before I launch into my points, let’s reiterate Russell’s claim: that we only experience reality in our consciousness and that actual matter does not exist. As I will explain, to me this seems to be a non sequitur from the evidence. It does not follow from it as the most probable answer. It’s assumption or speculation. We simply cannot claim it is the most probable answer because it does not directly follow from the evidence he provides.
To begin, we need to establish a basic understanding of why certain theories are considered more or less probable than others. It comes down to which theory accounts for the pertinent evidence while using the fewest assumptions. This could also be described as the theory whose ideas, if true, would be most directly expected to result in the observed evidence. A theory which requires more assumptions and speculations to make the theory fit is much less likely to be correct (This logical principle is called Occam’s Razor).
Personally I often refer to this difference among theories as a distinction between ones that offer “explanations” as opposed to “excuses”. An explanation inherently would lead us to expect the observed evidence, while an excuse is an assumption or speculation used to justify why the theory itself does not inherently account for the evidence.
I think the “all is consciousness” theory justifies itself in the latter way – by needing excuses because it fails to offer a direct explanation for the evidence.
In this first section I will explain my reasons for doubting his main conclusion – that consciosuness is all there is. Then afterward I will provide my reasons for doubting his total conclusions which include other views such as there being many cnsciousnesses that are part of one whole, and so on.
Why I doubt Peter Russell’s primary conclusion
1. No Consciousness Prior To Birth
I have no awareness or memory of being conscious prior to my birth. If there is indeed an external material world – especially one in which consciousness arises due to some sufficient patterns of matter – then this makes perfect sense. It is exactly what we would expect. It directly, logically follows from the concept of a material world in which consciousness arises.
But according to Russell’s view, consciousness is the only thing which exists; it is the creator of everything we experience. So to explain why we are aware only from after our ‘perceived’ birth, we must make completely unfounded assumptions in order to make the theory hold up. But adding more assumptions just makes the theory more and more arbitrary, and therefore less and less likely to be true.
Within Russell’s view, the most directly expected conclusion would be that we should all have constant memories prior to our birth (and maybe even across all other people). Reincarnation has no verifiable evidence for it at all, but even if we assumed it did, Russell’s view doesn’t even provide an expectation that there would be any break or disturbance in consciousness “between lives”.
2. Very Systematic, Consistent Reality
We perceive that we experience a universe that operates according to scientific principles and complex social behavior, and so on – not one that runs wild and strangely like our dreams all the time.
The mind certainly experiences a very high degree of consistency regarding what it perceives as the outside world – including history, science and natural laws, our own bodies, our consciousness beginning at birth, interactions with others, and even the fact that we perceive that we have brains rather than nothing to explain our mental operations.
But if consciousness generated everything, then why would our experience not always be like our dreams? Again, Russell’s theory could of course try to justify these perceptions by making assumptions, but these things would be the inherently expected result of the existence of an actual material world.
3. How to Explain Mistaken Beliefs and Illusions
If everything we perceive is completely generated by consciousness, rather than being a mental formation formed partly from inputs from an outside, material world, then why do some beliefs fail to hold up, and the believers end up having to adjust their views accordingly?
And I wonder the same thing about visual illusions. When our mind receives contrasting information from different senses, we are commonly surpised. But why would this happen at all if consciousness itself were generating all experience without any inputs from an external material world?
Russell’s theory would have to make ‘excuses’ for these experiences. But if there is an external material world, these issues would be inherently expected. So the more direct explanation for these things would be that an external material world, which we experience through sensory inputs, indeed exists.
In his lecture, Russell accuses a materialist scientific view of not being able to explain consciousness. He argues that according to such a view, consciousness (more aptly called ‘awareness’) might as well not even exist.
But his argument never actually explains consciousness any better than science currently does. All he’s done is remove the material world from the equation, but not offered any explanation of how consciousness/awareness exists or works; or what it even means to say that consciousness is not material in any sense nor has any material basis.
Also I should point out that we simply do not understand consciousness yet or have a way of observing it yet. Consciousness is not ignored by science. (In fact in his lecture, Peter Russel even acknowledges the interest of neuroscience in this area). But this current inability to understand it or “witness” it does not mean we won’t in the future – nor would the inability to do so ever mean that consciousness is all that exists. Just like it was wrong of people centuries and millennia ago to think that disease was caused by the supernatural, we cannot make assumptions about consciousness. And likewise, our technical inability to observe anything before the Big Bang does not mean that we have reason to believe in a supernatural origin.
Why I doubt his additional conclusions
1. Other Consciousnesses
Peter Russell goes beyond simply claiming that consciousness is all that exists. He also describes there being many consciousnesses – or many entities of consciousness that are part of one complete one (which he unsurprisingly calls ‘God’).
But his view that there are many entities of consciousness is completely baseless if we accept his primary claim that consciosuness is all there is. This is because if everything we see and feel is just a formation in our own consciousness, we have no basis at all for thinking anyone else even exists.
The view that there are other consciousnesses in addition to our own is a conclusion that only logically follows from a dualist or materialist view that our minds actually perceive real matter; ie. other human beings.
But if Russell is correct about consciousness being all there is, then how would I know that I am not the complete, and only, consciousness in existence since all other people would be simply a perception of mine generated entirely by consciousness itself? And if there are other consciousnesses and we’re all part of one whole consciousness, then why do we not know everything that others know and experience?
Russell’s view – that consciousness is all there is – logically only enables us to conclude that other people are merely illusions generated in our own consciousness. As usual, it can only make excuses. These additional claims of his do not inherently follow from his own primary claim even if we assume it outright.
2. Men and Women
For this issue, let’s even grant Mr. Russell his unfounded claim that other consciousnesses indeed exist.
Russell also speaks of men and women, but in his view, the concepts of “men” and “women” would not exist since they are material things – in other words, what defines men and women is physical biology. This includes not just their bodies but also there very thoughts, feelings, and perspectives are influenced into recognizable trends of ways of thinking or feeling.
This is inconsistent with his main conclusion that consciousness is all there is, because what should define male or female consciousness? Again, Mr. Russell must appeal to arbitrary assumptions, while a materialist view inherently explains it.
I plan on viewing some of Mr. Russell’s other lectures to see if he provides answers to these questions. But until I find sufficient responses to these points, I must still side with the view that a material world exists.