Theoretical Physicist Lisa Randall on Consciousness

Dr Lisa RandallCommentary by UPR Professor Richard Geldard, Ph.D. -

In a provocative article in Smithsonian Magazine by Ron Rosenbaum, he describes a luncheon meeting with Lisa Randall, the Harvard-tenured theoretical physicist and cosmologist on the subject of dark matter and dark energy, those mysterious entities that make up 96% of the universe.

It is a fine interview, but cosmic mysteries aside for a moment, what could be more interesting to our work here at UPR is where the conversation went following lunch and into the dessert phase. Rosenbaum brought up the question of inner space rather than outer space and here is where the conversation went:

“Although Randall’s work takes her thoughts into outer space, it is a question about another dimension, inner space, that she gives the most elaborate answer to during our lunch. The subject comes up near the end, as she is spearing forkfuls of my blueberry cobbler. I ask her about human consciousness—the dark matter within us—namely whether she has thought about the mind/brain question: Is the mind the product of the brain, all our thoughts neurochemically determined (as the “materialists” say), or is the mind not a slave of the physical brain, somehow capable of free will (as the “dualists” believe)? Or can we never answer that question? The philosopher Colin McGinn calls himself a “Mysterian” as an homage to the ’60s one-hit wonder band (“96 Tears”) Question Mark & The Mysterians because he thinks our consciousness may never be capable of comprehending the mystery of its own nature.

Randall seems to take McGinn’s argument as a challenge: “First, I think it’s always a mistake to say ‘never,’ because we probably can understand a lot more about it even if we don’t ultimately understand it. Second, we haven’t been trying to answer this question for a very long time. We understand a lot of things now that we didn’t understand before. And it’s terrifically hard, because we don’t even know what we mean by consciousness.”

What Randall talks about when she talks about consciousness is a continuum.

“I do think one mistake we often make is we think of it as a binary thing, like we’re either conscious or not conscious. I think there’s a spectrum of consciousness and I think it’s interesting to study that—the difference between a plant and a dog, the difference between a dog and a baby, between a baby and a slightly older human… I think it’s sort of a continuum.” Looking at it that way, she says, “would be a good start.”

The notion of consciousness as a continuum is, I believe, central to a proper place to examine its nature and by extension, our nature as well. What we call genius, in all fields of endeavor, should be properly understood as an example of a continuum of consciousness, just as there exists a lower scale of consciousness in some people and in animal and even plant life. For example, watching the movements of a paramecium under the microscope we would have to agree that it possesses a certain degree of consciousness as it looks for nourishment and avoids danger. When a tree develops a chemical weapon in its leaves to ward off insects it too displays a degree of consciousness on the continuum.

That human beings are capable of broadening their consciousness in the continuum is not only a function of evolution but can also be self-aware, intentional, and a self-developing and self-enhancing attribute of our nature. In that sense we are unique in nature. And as we learn in the work of geniuses like Lisa Randall and her fellow explorers of the universe, we come ever closer to the unanswered question: what is consciousness? In exploring that question we acknowledge the importance of the word “Research” in the name of this university.

by Richard Geldard, Ph.D.

Richard Geldard, Ph.D. (Full-Time)
PhD, Dramatic Literature and Classics, Stanford University

  • Adjunct Professor of Philosophy, Yeshiva University
  • Doctoral Faculty, Pacifica Graduate Institute
  • Author of ten books on Early Greek philosophy and the thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson
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