One of the great philosophical debates is between materialists and idealists. The materialists consider their opponents to be mentally ill dreamers, while the idealists consider theirs to be literal-minded children. This essay expounds a thought experiment that shows that materialism is not tenable.
Materialists believe that the consciousness is generated by the brain. The most popular materialist theory is that consciousness is an “emergent property” of the combination of the various senses. Consciousness has evolved as a kind of supervisor of this sensory input, presumably for the purpose of making decisions or similar.
Therefore, materialists believe that the individual’s awareness of the outside world resides in the physical brain. It is the brain itself that is aware of the outside world through the impressions it receives from the various sensory organs. It follows from this that when the brain dies, consciousness also ends.
A simple thought experiment shows that this position is not tenable.
When a person goes to bed and dreams at night, they habitually find themselves exploring alien worlds. They do this while occupying a body that seems very similar to the bodies we occupy here on Earth. This body can see, seemingly through eyes about five or six feet off the ground, and it can also hear, seemingly through ears. In the dream world, these eyes and ears observe other bodies much like the bodies on Earth.
In this dream world, one’s surroundings seem very real. It’s rare for a dreamer to become aware that they’re dreaming – if they do, they usually wake up. While dreaming, it’s no more common for the consciousness to question the reality of the sensory impressions it receives than it is for a consciousness awake on Earth to do so. It seems very much like a real world.
The question that exposes the weakness of materialism is this. When you are dreaming, which brain generates consciousness? Is it the brain of your body here on Earth that generates the consciousness that observes the dream world, or is it the brain of your body in the dream world?
From a materialist perspective, one of those two things must be true – but both put the lie to materialism itself.
If the brain in your body here on Earth generates the consciousness that observes the dream world, then a brain on Earth is not necessary to observe Earth. This is because, if the dream world is being observed by a consciousness that is generated by a brain in a different reality, then the consciousness that observes Earth may be also generated by a brain in a different reality. Or perhaps not even generated by a brain.
This means that it’s possible that the consciousness that observes Earth is generated by a brain somewhere else, perhaps in a reality outside of, or more fundamental than, the one in which Earth resides. In such a case, we have no more reason to think that the death of our body on Earth should be the end of consciousness than we do to think that the death of our body in the dream world should be the end of consciousness.
On the other hand, if it is the brain in the dream world that generates consciousness – perhaps on account of that it is connected to the eyes and ears of the dream world and therefore receives sensory input from the dream world – then a material brain is not necessary in order to observe a world. The brain in the dream world cannot be definitely said to exist, because there is no evidence of the true existence of the dream world (at least none that can be produced on Earth).
But if it is the brain in your body in the dream world that generates consciousness, then there’s no reason to assume that the death of one’s body here on Earth ought to result in the end of that consciousness. If the brain in your body in the dream world generates consciousness, then consciousness cannot be “tied” or “fixed” to a brain. If a brain in a dream world can generate it, then so could many other things, such as other brains in other dream worlds.
The simple fact that it’s possible to be conscious in a dream world while dreaming makes it impossible to state that the brain on Earth generates consciousness. The fact that one is conscious in the dream world must mean that either a brain is unnecessary to generate consciousness, or that there are multiple brains in multiple levels of reality that consciousness can move between.
In either case, materialism is untenable.
This apparent paradox can be resolved in an instant, simply by realising that it is consciousness that is the prima material and fundamental basis of reality. You are not your body, you are consciousness – and, as consciousness, you can travel between worlds. In fact, all worlds are merely dreams, just patterns of perception – as the Buddhists have long known.
Because of all this, there’s no reason to think that the death of the physical body on Earth ought to affect one’s individual consciousness. It’s possible for consciousness to travel between worlds without being bound to a body – dreams are proof of this. Therefore, materialism is untenable, and the fundamental materialist fear – that the death of one’s Earthly body means the extinguishing of one’s consciousness – is unfounded.
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