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What is the basis of reality: matter or consciousness? Why?

My answer on Quora

I. What is the basis of reality?

A. Is it Matter?

1. Matter is thought to emerge from fundamental physical forces.

a. The strong force, the weak force, electromagnetism, and gravity are considered to be the as-yet-irreducible ingredients of matter. We do not really understand what forces themselves are made of, or could be made of, so they are considered axiomatic. Known forces, fields, and the particle-wave effects which are produced by them can explain all of the scientific observations that we have, or so it would seem.

b. Not included in these physical fundamentals are ideal influences, such as geometry. How does a wave become wavy? Where does waving come from? Why are there geometric shapes when information processing of geometric problems can more easily be solved using binary math? This is a good way of showing that the hard problem of consciousness extends beyond biology and into metaphysics, since a universe which arose purely out of unconscious function would not be indicated by the symptom of being filled with figures and forms that require conscious sense modalities and perspectives to define.

If the universe were blind and intangible, and needs conscious beings to compose it into visible and tangible phenomena, then how can we say that what we think of as reality is composed by matter? Reality, as we have ever known it, is tangible (touchable) substance, with forms that often reveal characteristics of those substances. Certainly human consciousness is not what defines the universe, but how can we say what a universe would be without any definition from any consciousness? If such a ‘reality’ could exist, what would be the difference between that and nothingness, except that it is a nothingness which somehow leads to the birth of consciousness of an experienced reality?

B. Is it Consciousness?

1. What is beneath consciousness is debatable.

a. Some say that consciousness is information processing which is substrate independent. Subjective qualities like color and flavor are emergent from the complexity of arithmetic relations and exist for functional purposes (labeling or compressing data). If we recreate the complex interactions in silico, or even in a large network of pipes and mechanical valves, experiences such as the flavor of pineapple would emerge, just because that is what must happen.

b. Some say that it is the product of neurochemical functions, which could either be a computation which is substrate dependent for an unknown reason, or it could be a non-computational biological product such as digestion. A computer program could simulate digestion, but it can’t digest physically real food.

These both take the modus ponens approach to logic, where a proposition that is the same as something true is also true: Since we can taste pineapple, and we are made of a brain process, anything that performs the same process well enough must yield the same result.

If we take the modus tollens approach to logic, which is equally viable, we would say that since there is no logical justification for the flavor of pineapple to exist in either a computer program or a neurochemical function, and since a computer program or neurochemical function could conceivably be created that matches our brain to an arbitrary degree of precision, then it is false that consciousness can be defined purely in terms of biology and computation.

c. Some say that consciousness is of divine origin, or unexplained, or unexplainable. Others say that consciousness could have no origin. In my view, this makes the most sense, since the idea of an origin does not seem native to mathematics or physics, and originality appears to be a quality within consciousness rather than the other way around. In fact, every quality that we experience seems to emerge from beyond the rational limits of arithmetic or pure functions. In a universe of only material process, the idea of emergent flavors or colors, feelings, etc.seems no more plausible than divine Creation. The deeper that I have looked into the physics of perception, the more it is clear to me that our current models lack a deep understanding of the reality of consciousness, and rather assume a linear, toy model made of black boxes and behaviorism.

C. What is reality?

Typically this question takes a detour into what I consider a philosophical dead end, of trying to prove that illusions are real or reality is an illusion. The fact that we can tell the difference between illusion and reality, or that we can even conceive of a difference suggests to me that reality is category of sensory qualities – enduring sensations which are harder, heavier, more complex and filled with interrelated truths than we could have imagined. The universe that we experience, however, includes much more than that. Besides the qualities of realism, we have surreal fantasies, dreams, fiction, etc. We have fiction intended as fiction, and fiction intended as reality (like money). If we have spun for ourselves a cocoon of ’emergent’ human illusions, we must either acknowledge that such an emergence is either metaphysical, or we must expand our definition of physics to include these private and social phenomena. Looking at it objectively, something like the idea of money is causing more changes on this planet than any function of matter alone.

Isn’t it really a human bias to think that physics only includes what came before humans? If the basis of reality were matter, there seems to be no good argument for why it wouldn’t stay that way. Appealing to ‘complexity’, emergence, and randomness is to me very clearly circular thinking, as it assumes that such things are both physical yet free from the requirement of physical explanation. They indicate instead that the materialistic view has focused on the nature of physical surfaces and functional skeletons…spaces and dimensions composed of purely abstract measurement or purely concrete objects, with nothing in between. Consider that a universe of matter is one which exists from the outside in – a place ‘out there’ which only recently developed a sense of ‘in here’. Without some kind of experience which makes sense, all of the functions of nature become abstractions; un-realities which have no good excuse for ever becoming ‘realized’.

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