Identity and Consciousness

Suggested prior reading


1. I think the question of identity and consciousness are tightly bound together. I consider my identity to be the 'thing' that experiences the consciousness in me. What is that 'thing' that experiences consciousness and has the ability to perceive and know? That, I think, is the most profound and interesting question there is.

2. This is my answer to that question: There is only and exactly one conscious entity, and therefore only a single identity. That consciousness has existed for all past time and is, in fact, the only true element in the universe. All of the various individuals with seemingly independent identity are but instances of the single consciousness appearing to be separate. (I believe Freeman Dyson developed such an idea in his youth.) Everything else that exists is a result of this single conscious entity's thought (as Bishop Berkeley proposed).

3. Among the consequences that can be derived from this answer, is that the cosmos is perfectly fair and just because the experiences of perpetrator, victim, benefactor, and beneficiary would all be experienced by one and the same conscious 'experiencer'.

4. A fairly elaborate case must be made in order for this conjecture to make sense. I will try to lay the case out in a logical order in this essay, so please don't form an opinion about it too early. I hope I will deal with the difficulties in the same order that they occur to you, but if not, please read the entire case before making a judgement on its worthiness. (Incidentally, I will be using the term 'universe' to mean the familiar 4-dimensional space-time continuum of science in which we all live and have our normal experiences.)

5. The 'sharing' of the single consciousness appears to be multiple and simultaneous and at the same time continuous for each seemingly conscious individual among us. This is an illusion from our point of view. Our point of view is from our familiar 4-dimensional space-time continuum, whereas the reality takes place in a space of at least one greater spatial dimension, and more importantly, of at least one greater temporal dimension.

6. I think there is a straightforward proof that at least one additional dimension exists: Einstein proposed, and it has been since confirmed, that our 4-dimensional space-time continuum is curved. There is a mathematical theorem that says that in order for any space to be curved, it must necessarily be a manifold imbedded in a space of at least one higher dimension. Q.E.D.

7. Hyper-spatial dimensions, i.e. spatial dimensions beyond the familiar three, are commonly discussed and are not impossible to visualize. The important aspect to note when considering higher spatial dimensions is the vastly increased possibilities for complex structures. Almost anything that can exist in a particular space can also exist in a space of one greater dimension, plus a lot more. For example, planes can contain lines segments, just as a 1-dimensional space can, but in addition, they can contain curved lines and loops which 1-space cannot. 3-space, likewise can contain lines and loops as well, but in addition can contain knots, which 1- and 2-space cannot. It may be possible to configure a viable life form in Flatland, but 3-space with its potential to contain tube-like manifolds makes the configuration of 3-space matter and energy into life forms commonplace (at least on our Earth).

8. It is easy to imagine, and probably possible to prove mathematically, that moving up from 3-space to 4-space would provide even greater possibilities for the configuration of 4-space matter and energy into life forms. Moving to greater spatial dimensions beyond 4 should provide even greater, even maybe unimaginable, possibilities for viable life forms.

9. Not only does an increase in the number of spatial dimensions give us greater potential for complexity, it also gives us vastly more 'room'. For example if you consider a finite 2-dimensional space containing 1 square foot of 'room' (e.g. a sheet of paper), then by adding one more spatial dimension (still keeping things finite and small for easy discussion) we get a cube containing one cubic foot. This would give us 'room' to hold several thousand sheets of paper, each as capable of containing whatever complex drawings or other manifestations of the 2-dimensional matter we could contain on the original sheet of paper. This brings up the question of how structures in different order spaces relate to one another. For example, to keep the discussion informal and familiar, we might ask, "How thick is the ink or whatever is used to make the structures on the paper?" and "Does the paper itself have any thickness so that the number of sheets we can get in the box is limited?"

10. These questions are details that some Theory of Everything, or whatever, will have to deal with. For our purposes here at a conceptual level, it is sufficient to note that an increase of a single spatial dimension gives us 'room' for many 'copies' or 'instances' of the entire original space (or world) that are all within short, measurable, real distances from the original space. All of the sheets in that cubic foot box are within one foot of the original sheet, and yet they are all completely independent and inaccessible to any structures confined to the original sheet. This concept provides 'room' for the many worlds that are postulated by some interpreters of the Quantum Theory. Note, the addition of a single spatial dimension provides 'room' for an enormous number of other worlds; it is not necessary to add as many dimensions as there are other worlds.

11. The number of dimensions (or levels of existence) that exist in reality might be the Mayan 6, or the 11 of string theory. It doesn't really matter. That is another detail that is not necessary for an understanding of the principle I am proposing.

12. In addition to hyper-space, I propose that the single conscious entity exists in hyper-time. Additional dimensions of time are not as frequently discussed, or studied,as spatial dimensions are, but I think additional temporal dimensions are the fundamental key to understanding how the illusion of multiple identities works.

13. To visualize how an extra temporal dimension would affect reality, start by considering the familiar 4-dimensional space-time continuum of Einstein. It consists of three spatial and one temporal dimension. To us, seemingly conscious inhabitants of that continuum, time seems to be flowing inexorably along that single temporal dimension. Einstein says that you can sort of interchange some space-like travel with some time-like travel, but for practical purposes, we have material and energetic structures that exist in the 3-space continuum and these structures change, or participate in events, as time moves along the 4th dimension. I will call this 4th dimension 'Einstein Time' to distinguish it from additional temporal dimensions that I will discuss later. Einstein Time is the familiar time that we mark and measure with our clocks and calendars.

14. It is interesting to note at this point that our consciousness experiences reality only at a single point in this 4-space. The single point in 3-space seems to be located between and just behind our eyes. The single point in the temporal dimension, or in Einstein Time, is the point we identify as 'now'. This point is the boundary between the past and the future, neither of which is accessible directly to our consciousness. We can be conscious of memories from the past and we can be conscious of plans, expectations, and anticipation of and for future events, but again, we have no direct access (that we know of for sure) to the reality of the future.

15. It is even more interesting to note that despite the significant role this point called 'now' plays in human consciousness, it plays absolutely no role whatever in any equation in any theory of science that describes any phenomena in our 4-space universe. Furthermore, for a great many equations in scientific theory, they work as well if you assume that time runs backwards.

16. Now, to continue visualizing how an extra dimension of time would affect reality,let's move up from the familiar 4-D continuum to a 5-D continuum. That is, start with our familiar 4-space and add one more spatial dimension. This gives us a 5-D space with the potential for 'many worlds' with vast potential for complexity that we discussed earlier. To this space, then, let's add one additional temporal dimension. Just to keep things straight, let's call time running along this dimension, 'spiritual time'. So now we have reality consisting of a 6-dimensional continuum, 4 spatial and 2 temporal dimensions, with the potential for our universe (along with many other similar universes) to exist comfortably within it.

17. If you were an inhabitant of this 6-space, your 'body' could be a very complex structure, maybe even unimaginable to us humans. What it would be like is another detail we needn't be concerned with here. But if you were such an inhabitant, then you should be able to 'see' our 4-dimensional universe (along with possibly many others) laid out in front of you so that you could see it all at once, much like we can see an entire sheet of paper at once.

18. Furthermore, since your bodily processes are proceeding along spiritual time, you would be able to look down on our universe and see all four dimensions laid out including the dimension of Einstein time. That is, the time by which we mark and measure events in our universe would be laid out and visible to you, the 6-space inhabitant. There would be no point on that time dimension that would be identified as 'now'; it would be a complete, continuous dimension containing the entire history of our universe from the big bang to the big crunch. Moreover, you would be able to see the world lines of each and every particle and organism in the universe. The universe would be a big static picture to you.

19. At this point, the problem of predetermination rears its ugly head. It might be a lot to ask, but I ask you to consider this to be a detail, also, that we needn't get bogged down with here. The answer probably lies in the enormous potential for vastly more complexity in that space than we are used to. For example, maybe the universe does bifurcate into separate universes each time someone exercises free will and makes a conscious choice. Then each world would proceed on with a different choice setting the boundary conditions at that point. Maybe each quantum event causes such a bifurcation. Who knows? We don't care at this point.

20. Now let me launch into a sort of fantasy. Bear with me. I am not suggesting that this fantasy is what is actually going on, but I only use it to illustrate the general idea I am trying to get across, and to suggest some possibilities that might really exist. Let's go back a couple paragraphs ago and again suppose that you are a being in the 6-space continuum, living out your life in spiritual time. Let's say that you have had some influence on the universe that is laid out before you similar to what an artist might have over a painting that is spread before him. Or more to the point, to an inventor who is looking at a machine that he built that is operating in front of him. Or maybe even closer to what is really going on, to a programmer who is looking at a 2-dimensional screen on which he is watching the outcome of a program which he has written.

21. We have to be careful to separate out the temporal dimensions when thinking about examples of this type. In the case of the artist, the work he is examining is truly static, even though the artist is at liberty to direct his attention to any part of the work he likes for as long as he likes in spiritual time. If the painting contains a dimension of time, then that would be the equivalent of Einstein time and would appear static to the artist. In the case of the inventor, or the programmer, the invention, or the program is operating in spiritual time along with the programmer or inventor and as a result would appear to be dynamic to them. In the case of the programmer, however, he might be perusing a printout of a trace of the entire dynamic activity of the program which to the programmer would appear to be static. In this case, he would be able to focus his attention on any part of the trace for as long as he wants, and in any sequence he likes, since he is doing that in spiritual time and the trace depicts Einstein time.

22. So to continue with the fantasy, you are looking at some sub-dimensional structure (our universe) that you had some hand in creating or influencing. You might be able to watch how it unfolds by following some rules you made up or whatever. You might like what you see, call it good, and frame it, or put it on the market, or you might not like what you see, so you change it and have another look.

23. Now leaving the fantasy, and thinking about what we observe going on in our universe, it is easy to imagine scenarios of the type suggested in the fantasy that would explain what we see going on. Every religious description of what is going on is an example of such a scenario. Various Gods have been described as creating and influencing our universe in various ways down through our history. Any of those descriptions would be consistent with the stage I have described and the possibilities for things to be happening on that stage.

24. The God of the Bible might have created the universe, interfered occasionally with miracles, floods, and so on, all the while operating exactly as I described in the 6-space system.

25. Scientific descriptions would also be consistent with this scheme. For example, Newton's description of a God building the mechanism, winding it up, and watching it run without further interference would be completely possible within my scheme.

26. The paradoxes, at least the confusion, accompanying quantum theory, likewise could easily be explained within the context of my 6-space system.

27. How any of these descriptions of reality might relate to, or be described in the context of, my 6-dimensional stage, are again, details that I don't want to get bogged down with here. What I am out to explain is consciousness and the apparent individual identities that seem to exist, not a comprehensive cosmological description of reality.

28. Now, let's return to the fantasy, with the understanding that it is simply for illustration and not a proposal of what is actually going on. Let's say that you had created the universe, established whatever laws of physics and boundary conditions that were necessary to produce the universe that we are familiar with. Let's say you were gazing at the entire thing at once and were focusing your attention on the organisms on Earth in particular. You would see their world lines as the organisms were born, moved around within the 3 spatial dimensions, and after an extent of Einstein time, each one died. (or dies. We have to be careful using time related words and tenses because we could be confused between spiritual time and Einstein time. Saying that an organism died implies that it happened in the past. If you are living in spiritual time, there is no dividing line between past and future in the Einstein time that you are looking at. It is just one single expanse of undifferentiated time. You are at liberty to look at any portion of the Einstein time dimension in any sequence and at any rate measured by the spiritual time in which you operate and do your gazing.)

29. To continue the fantasy, let's say you took a look at the world line of a person who took a bite of an apple. You could see at once all the positions of the person as they picked up the apple, then took a bite, swallowed it, and went on their way. You focused down on that event of biting into an apple and wondered 'what it would be like' to bite into an apple. (I have read somewhere that this notion of 'what it would be like' is the closest we can get to describing the conscious experience. That is, to be conscious is to be aware of what it would be like to experience something. I have often wondered 'what it would be like' to be a cat or a frog and experience what they evidently do. It seems easier to imagine what it would be like to be a rock.)

30. Now, to continue, you have a very comprehensive, if not complete, understanding of what is going on there on that world line of the guy eating the apple, because, after all you created it (or built it or programmed it or whatever). But in spite of knowing a lot about that event, you, yourself have never experienced biting into an apple, or seeing a sunset, or a thousand other experiences of the organisms in your creation. So you wonder 'what it must be like' to bite into an apple.

31. So you decide, somehow, to experience that event for yourself. Somehow, information about what is going on in the universe is available to you. It might be that 6-D (or 5-D?) photons that originate in your 5-D laboratory bounce off the universe and form images in your 5-D eyeballs that allow you to see what is going on in the universe. It might be that sensitive induction coils placed near, but not in, the manifold of the universe pick up signals with information about what is going on in the 3-D structures in the universe over the course of Einstein time. (The coils would have to move over the static universe manifold in the direction of Einstein time, sort of like a read head passes over the surface of a magnetic disk, in order to 'read out' what is going on.

32. However it happens in reality, it is not a problem to imagine how it might happen in principle because, after all, we have no problem seeing images that exist on 2-D sheets of paper. Seeing that world line is only a simple possibility. There could be a more complex possibility that allowed you to somehow 'enter' the organism with your (the one and only) consciousness and peer out of that organism's eyeballs and feel the sensations produced as the bite of apple slides past its epiglottis. Maybe there are coils that are very near the brain, but outside, and therefore inaccessible to observation from, the 4-space manifold of the universe, that deliver information about that experience to your much more complex and advanced 4-D (or 5-D) brain. (I don't know if your brain structure has an extension in the direction of Einstein time or not, so I don't know whether it is a 4-D or a 5-D brain. Another mere detail.)

33. If you liked that experience of biting the apple, nothing would prevent you from doing it over and over a dozen times, savoring a different aspect of the experience each time.

34. Now, your experience of taking that bite would be occurring in spiritual time and it may have taken you an hour of spiritual time to go through those dozen swallows. The guy in our familiar universe, however, operating in Einstein time only swallowed once and if you asked him, he would say the experience only happened once, not a dozen times, and it only took a few seconds.

35. Now let's expand the picture along a few different lines. First, you might have 'gone down' into that organism to experience an entire day, not just one bite of an apple. (At this point I want to interject a seemingly unrelated, unanswered question that I think is a profound mystery and most other people don't see anything unusual in it at all. That is the question of why mammals sleep? The fact is that no one knows why. Furthermore, if evolution is correct, animals that sleep would have been selected against long ago because sleep makes animals vulnerable and unproductive for no apparent benefit. Could it be that sleep and awakening mark the points at which the consciousness of a 6-space entity leave and enter, respectively, our bodies in order to experience 'what it is like' to live one day in the life of Ivan Denisovich, or whomever?? Hmm?)

36. (Continuing the parenthetical interjection, consider the question of "How can you be sure the identity you experience now is the same as the identity that your body experienced yesterday?" In other words, how can you be sure that identity is continuous across episodes of sleep or unconsciousness? When we awaken, we are often disoriented momentarily and seem to have to dredge up memories in order to establish who and where we are. This disorientation is uncomfortable and we try to get oriented and forget the discomfort as quickly as possible. But isn't it possible that whatever that identity is, that is experiencing the disorientation and then the orientation, it wasn't along for the ride in your body yesterday, and now, after the orientation, thinks that it was?)

37. We could expand the picture further in another way. Suppose that you 'dipped' down into your creation and sampled many, or all of the organisms in it. It might be that such a 'dipping' is necessary for the organisms to make decisions, and that the full structure of the universe doesn't unfold until you get down there and make each and every conscious decision for each and every organism. This would sort of align spiritual time and Einstein time for periods, but not completely. For example, you might try a single decision event several times, to pick the one you like, and then let the universe unfold after taking the decision that you liked. Or maybe you let the universe bifurcate and let a bunch of parallel worlds all develop. I only bring this up to illustrate the rich possibilities that this scheme offers, and not, in any way, to claim that this is what actually goes on.

38. Now let's expand the picture in a different way yet. Let's suppose that you weren't the only conscious entity in your 6-space environment. On the surface, this seems like a violation of my original postulate that there is exactly and only one conscious entity. Aha. This is where it starts getting interesting.

39. One immediate question would be, "Do more than one of the entities get involved in a single universe? Or does each of the entities get their own universe?" (I think the Mormons believe something like the latter.) I have some ideas about the former (so, of course, did the ancient Greeks and Romans), but I will save them for other essays.

40. To avoid violating the original postulate, the explanation for the multiple conscious entities in your 6-D environment would be exactly the same as the explanation we just went through, except that we would simply add a couple of dimensions, one of space and one of time.

41. We would have to postulate an 8-D space which is even more complex and vast than your 6-D space and which contains a conscious entity that created and somehow is involved in the running of your 6-D environment. That entity somehow dips down into your 6-D world, samples your world lines to get an idea of 'what it would be like' to be a 6-D spiritual time being who is involved with those 4-D experiments, or works of art, or whatever.

42. Of course, you see where I'm going. There might be multiple beings up there in that 8-D space. The explanation for multiple 8-D beings would be the existence of a 10-D space and so on. Now with each jump up in 'level' or number of dimensions, we get, not only vastly increased potential for complexity, but we get a reduced number of conscious entities.

43. The logical stopping point is when we get to a sufficiently high level that there is only a single conscious entity. That is the true God, or the Wizard of Oz, or the Omega Point, or however you want to describe it. But this single entity is the only consciousness in the entire system of reality.

44. The entities on the level below seem to be conscious with independent identities, but it is only an illusion. Likewise, the apparent consciousness experienced by each of us is an illusion. The real experience of consciousness and identity that we experience is really an experience that God is having. (This might sound like blasphemy to some, but I sincerely mean no disrespect to any religious views.) Each apparently conscious experience seems to be, and is, happening at a specific point in Einstein time, but in reality, it is also seeming to be being experienced, maybe multiple times, at multiple levels, by multiple, seemingly conscious, entities. What is really, really going on, is that only God experiences that consciousness and he does it in cosmic time.

45. One implication of this scheme is that there is a great amount of flexibility in how reincarnation might be taking place. Ordinarily, when we think about reincarnation, we think a soul is limited in the timing. For example, a reincarnated soul would have to wait until the death of its 'host' before being reincarnated into another. It would also only be able to move on to a 'host' that lived later in time than the first one. And, further, only one 'host' could be occupied at a time in a serial fashion, albeit, gaps between them would be allowed.

46. In this scheme, all conscious experience, by all organisms, is a result of reincarnation of a sort that is not sequential or even continuous at all. The conscious entity might 'enter' a 'host' at birth and 'leave' at death, similar to typical reincarnation thinking, but it might also enter and leave coincident with sleeping and waking, as I have already suggested. It might even be more frequent than that, for example at each quantum event in our body or brain. There are many possibilities.

47. That is the end of my explanation of consciousness and identity. There are many loose ends that have frayed from the fabric I have just woven, but there is just one that I want to pick up and tuck in before I bring this essay to a close. That loose end is the cosmological question of "How did anything, or we in particular, get here?" It is a variant of Einstein's question of "Why is there something and not nothing?"

48. I happen to believe that there is nothing infinite in nature (After all, physics abhors infinity and they give Nobel prizes to people who can make singularities disappear, and no one has ever observed anything infinite in nature.) except, possibly, the past end of cosmic time. All other dimensions, I believe, are finite, and thereby bounded.

49. In my mind, the question of the open-endedness of the past end of cosmic time is still open. If it is closed, and cosmic time had a beginning, then it is hard to imagine how God and his consciousness suddenly appeared out of nothing. If cosmic time had an infinite past, then God and his consciousness, as Bishop Berkeley explained, always existed and is the only thing that really exists. All the rest is a product of his imagination. That seems to me to be a likely scenario.

50. With all that time on his hands, so to speak, God would have 'produced' temporal and spatial dimensions similar to the way in which fractals are produced. The idea of fractals is that they are fractional-dimensional figures. For example, you can draw a fractal which is a one-dimensional line in a two dimensional plane such that the line 'sort of fills up the plane'. These are referred to as 'space filling' curves, and the extent to which they fill the space is measured by the fractional dimension. So a 1.5 dimensional fractal would sort of fill up half of a plane, or you could interpret the number 1.5 as a line and half a plane. Fancier fractals fill more and more of the space, and they approach the next dimension up.

51. In this way, God could start out with his single dimension of cosmic time, and begin to imagine patterns in that time, on the order of a Beethoven Symphony, or something that would be interesting to him, after all that time of knowing about nothingness. The patterns in that cosmic time dimension might be equations for fractals that would produce the illusion of a spatial dimension. Then, a pattern in that new space, together with cosmic time, might be sufficient to produce an additional dimension of either time or space. And so on. At some stage, it would get complex enough so that God could create functioning organisms and 'get down into them' to sample the organisms' experiences. The rest, as they say, is history.

52. Nothing infinite is created. At any point along the way, the picture has unfolded only so far. We are now up to ___ dimensions and growing (I will leave it to the string theorists or someone else to fill in the blank.) Even though there may never be an end to this process, it will always be finite and everything real will always and forever be finite. And the only thing that is really real is God's consciousness and the continuum of cosmic time.

Please send me an email with your comments.

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