Timothy DeChenne, Ph.D. You’re sitting in a room, resting. Everything in the room is motionless. Your awareness, on the other hand, flickers ceaselessly. It goes on cycling through moods, motives, and memories. At some level you are very aware of the difference. And that is the crux of the problem. The sensed difference between your shifting mentality, on the one hand, and the apparent solidity of the physical world, on the other, generates an illusion. A tenacious, often unshakeable illusion. The illusion gives birth to a sense of isolation, and as a result, to much of our religion and philosophy. That is, the illusion begins as individual experience but evolves into cultural doctrine. In Western philosophy the doctrine is dualism, the notion that the mind and the physical world are two entirely different kinds of basic reality. In Western religion the related doctrine, of course, is the notion of the soul. Now before you write all this off as an antiquated academic or theological issue, think again. On a moment to moment basis we are all dualists, even those of us who know better. The illusion is powerful and persistent. It’s hovering in the background of your consciousness right this instant. And it comes with a cost. It drives a wedge between you and the rest of existence. It leaves you, in a sense, alone in the universe. So it’s worth thinking the issue through. It’s worth coming to understand how this mind versus matter business is actually just smoke and mirrors. Even a brief glimpse of such understanding can be a kind of relief. The first step is to shake off the dust. The glib metaphor of my title notwithstanding, the physical world as we know it is energy. The dust, those lumps of stuff we call matter, is just a form energy can take. This we’ve known, of course, since Einstein’s work over a hundred years ago. But if I had titled this piece “is your soul a handful of energy”, you might not have even read it. Why? Because consciousness already seems like the layperson’s notion of energy. That is, insubstantial, light, quick, darting about from here to there. But if consciousness seems to us like energy, what are we really saying? We’re saying in one sense, at least, it already seems to us like the physical universe. But obviously metaphors take us only so far. So let’s move on, get down to brass tacks. Let’s crack open the skull and take a look inside. Please excuse the mess. What do we find there? You know the answer. We find the same basic things we find everywhere else in the universe: matter and its alter ego, energy. Do what you will, surgery, EEGs, MRIs, it’s still the same ole same ole, matter and energy. If consciousness is some other kind of basic reality, separate from the other building blocks of the universe, we haven’t been able to find it. And we’ve been looking very hard. For those with an aversion to physics and neuroscience, let’s sneak up on this a different way. In fact, let’s kick back, have a few beers. Well, better make that just a few sips. Because with any substantial amount of alcohol, this supposedly separate reality called consciousness, this thing supposedly operating on a whole different plane than the body, sure does take a hit. If you happen to take LSD it will be more than that; everything you experience as consciousness will be radically altered. If you happen to enter, say, a vegetative coma, your consciousness will be profoundly, drastically decreased. And finally, if you die, poof. There goes consciousness altogether. The point is that consciousness is not some separate basic kind of reality, different from matter/energy. It is itself a function of matter and energy. It is a property of certain complex nervous systems, and it will be explained by the operation of those nervous systems. Although virtually all scientists would agree with this view, there are a few contemporary philosophers who would not, most notably David Chalmers and Thomas Nagel. These and a few others bring up what they call “the hard problem of consciousness” and conclude that because of that problem, awareness must be a whole different plane of reality. And what is that problem? The problem is what philosophers call “qualia”, meaning simply subjective experience. You know, the quality of redness, say, or the sound of high C. And their problem boils down to a question: How could such experiences possibly emerge from a physio-chemical system? The philosophers in question can’t imagine how that could ever be possible. And so they conclude consciousness must be a separate plane of reality, unto itself. I empathize with their failure of imagination. It’s difficult to even begin to speculate on the neuronal nature of consciousness. But it’s not helpful to take the easy way out. It’s not helpful to just invent a magical new plane of reality we’ve never been able to find. It is more helpful to simply accept the staggering complexity of the subject: about 100 billion neurons with at least 100 trillion connections, or about a thousand times the number of stars in the Milky Way. Of course this is going to be a hard problem. But in the meantime let’s be patient, and not fall into superstition. Your consciousness is not separate from the rest of the universe. It is the way the universe understands itself.