We experience consciousness in several realities

The fifth world puzzle: consciousness

My humanistically educated friend teases me by dropping chunks of Latin every now and then - my secondary school education is not enough for that. Spirit versus matter, an old philosophical argument shimmers through. Different frames of thought open up different perspectives. The fact that our views nonetheless converge astonishingly often creates a certain accuracy in the judgment.


On occasion I hear or read from him the quote “Ignoramus et ignorabimus”. I look up and find out what that means: “We don't know and we will never know.” This saying is the culmination of a lecture by a certain Emil du Bois-Reymond from almost a century and a half ago. This is how I learn from this great physiologist and philosopher who discovered the electrical nature of nerve signals and thus made them accessible for measurement.

At that time, Du Bois-Reymond formulated what he named eight years later in a series of seven world riddles as the fifth: The emergence of simple sensory perceptions. He writes (du Bois-Reymond, 1982, p. 35 ff.): “I feel pain, feel pleasure, taste sweet things, smell rose scent, hear organ tone, see red [...] It is absolutely and forever incomprehensible that it a number of atoms of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, etc. should be indifferent to how they lie and move, how they lay and move, how they lie and will move. In no way can it be seen how consciousness can arise from their interaction. "

Du Bois-Reymond sees the limits of the knowledge of nature here and he closes his lecture with the distinctive "Ignorabimus!"

The red hat, the nod in agreement, the skyline of Frankfurt, the throbbing tones of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony are so immediate and unadulterated appear, For me, everything comes to a head as to whether my neighbor perceives the color red as I do, or whether it is his own Experience the same situation differs from mine.

The reason why people today shy away from putting an exclamation mark behind du Bois-Reymonds Ignorabimus and preferring a question mark is also due to the fact that one increasingly grasps how the excitation patterns in the brain are related to the situations encountered. But this growing knowledge seems to me to be more of a sideways movement. It still tells us nothing about the nature of experience. The spiritual processes cannot be understood from their material conditions. The awareness remains a mystery.

For du Bois-Reymond, there is a hard limit to our knowledge of nature. He makes this clear with this picture (1882, p. 38): Even at the highest conceivable level of our own knowledge of nature, our “efforts to lift ourselves over this barrier are like an airship looking for the moon”.

At least the airship has the moon in front of his eyes. Peter Bieri says that we don't even know the place of longing (1992, p. 56): “Something applies to the riddle of consciousness that does not apply to other riddles: We have no idea of ​​what would count as a solution, as understanding. "

Dead ends

Any metaphysics restricts thinking. Anyone who deliberately restricts their thinking is not getting any closer to solving the world riddle. He undertakes such a failed attempt to solve the world riddle Naturalist. It already fails on the level of logic; Experience and facts are not required to prove his mishap.

The naturalist builds his knowledge on the metaphysical assumptions that there is only a World admit that it is uncreated and governed by laws. Above all, this world - reality - should be located “outside of our thinking” (Mahner, 2018, p. 46); it is consequently “independent of our consciousness in its existence and its properties” (Vollmer, 2013, p. 22).

I am reluctant to explain that these do not go together. It's too obvious. If there is only one world to be recognized, where do thoughts about that world find their place? Their place cannot be in the world, because the world is supposed to exist independently of consciousness and the thoughts contained therein. There is no room anywhere else, since there is only this one world. From this it follows thoughtlessness. The concept of “consciousness” is thus obsolete. But without thoughts there is no philosophy. Naturalism is self-extinguishing. Funny that there are these naturalists: philosophers without philosophy.

Since I am already at my favorite occupation, picking up naturalism, I come to speak of another world puzzle, the existence of which the naturalist denies rather than solving it.

The seventh world riddle concerns the question of the Free will (du Bois-Reymond, 1882, p. 84). Here, too, the naturalist has a simple solution: there is no such thing, this free will. Schmidt-Salomon writes: The concept of free will is the "assumption that a person could have made a different decision under exactly the same conditions than he de facto made" (p. 102). He thinks that identical causes necessarily have identical consequences.

That may well be. However, no experimental arrangement can be conceived with which a person's decision could be checked by establishing identical conditions. It would have to be the same person. But after the first run, their mental makeup is already changed, so that they cannot be considered for the next test run. The Popper criterion is relentless: the naturalist's statement is metaphysical, unscientific, a matter of belief.

For both world riddles, the naturalist's solution amounts to denial: there is no consciousness, just as there is no free will. This violates common sense so blatantly that it may not follow the naturalist. The fact that naturalists get tangled up when it comes to the spiritual has been a topic in this weblog book several times, including in the article Der Spiegel der Natur.

A fundamental consideration by Peter Bieri fits in with this. This trilemma is from him:

  1. Mental phenomena are non-physical phenomena.
  2. Mental phenomena are causally effective in the area of ​​physical phenomena.
  3. The area of ​​physical phenomena is causally closed.

Each of these statements appears to be reasonable on its own. The only bad luck is that they cannot all be valid: 1 & 2 excludes 3; 1 & 3 excludes 2 and 2 & 3 excludes 1.

The naturalist rejects 2; so there remain 1 and 3. Since he only recognizes one world, there are no non-physical phenomena. Hence there cannot be any mental phenomena. The statement 1 thus becomes meaningless. This shows once again: Consciousness and free will do not exist for the naturalist; at best, they are illusions that the body has in store for us (Schmidt-Salomon, 2006, p. 12). The naturalist lures us into a loop of thought: An illusion that no one perceives is not one. We ask about the addressee of the illusion and end up at the beginning of our search, with the question of the nature of consciousness. So we become victims of word acrobatics with no deeper meaning.

Sideways movement

Under the shackles of metaphysics, we get at best sham solutions to the world riddles. Let's get rid of it. Science does not know such restrictions. Only consistency and consistency with the facts define the framework for thinking. There are, it seems to me, quite a few scientists who are grappling with the world puzzle. I just want to talk about two of them here: Wolf Singer and Roger Penrose.

Man's thinking about his thinking has its difficulties. To keep confusion within limits, I have grouped the most important terms in a table. The left column shows the rough division between the outside world and the inside world: From the first we only have the “images in the head”, the appearances. They form the inner world. (Florey, 1997; Grams, 2020, p. 248ff.)

The right column contains the world segment that is relevant for the study of consciousness. Here, too, the upper part with a dark background relates to the outside world that is not directly recognizable and the lower part to the inner world.

Let us let Immanuel Kant speak. In his work “Critique of Pure Reason” (2011, “Appendix. Von der Amphibolie der Reflexionsbegriffe”, p. 283) he writes: “But if we too of things to themselves could say something synthetically through the pure understanding (which is nevertheless impossible), then this would not at all be drawn to appearances which do not represent things in themselves. In this latter case, then, in the transcendental reflection, I will always have to compare my concepts only under the conditions of sensuality, and so space and time will not be determinations of things in themselves, but of phenomena: what things in themselves may be knows I do not and do not need to know, because a thing can never appear to me other than in its appearance. "

The white arrow alludes to Kant's thought: Since we only experience the appearances and not “the things in themselves”, we group the supposed things of the outside world according to the appearances. So we “think” in the direction of the arrow.

The cause-effect direction is exactly the opposite. Science has made great strides in elucidating these causal relationships since the mid-19th century. The electrical nerve impulses resulting from an environmental stimulus can be measured. The causal dependence of nerve impulses on environmental stimuli is no longer a big secret. The sensory input ensures specific activity patterns of the nerves. This provides the brain's internal representations of the input.

Objects of the environment are now not immediately grasped in their entirety. The brain is organized according to the division of labor. A taxi driving past excites the nerve cells to record color, contour, orientation and movement, etc. This happens in separate areas of the brain. How these partial representations become the representation of the object is one of the great puzzles in neuroscience (Ramachandran, Blakeslee, 1998, p. 80).

Even if this riddle will one day be solved to everyone's satisfaction, the decisive step is still missing. Strictly speaking, you didn't get any closer to your goal. It amounts to a sideways movement, like that of the airship, which just doesn't get any closer to the moon.

Such a sideways movement is provided by Andreas Engel, Peter König and Wolf Singer (1993). You write: "Correct assignment requires a mechanism that selectively identifies those in the multitude of activated cells who respond to one and the same object."

They see the oscillatory firing of the nerve cells as a binding agent. Synchronized firing distinguishes what belongs together from the rest - this is the hypothesis. The partial representations can thus be combined to form an overall picture. But this does not elevate the representation beyond the physical and physiological level. The event remains located in the hereafter.

New ideas asked

Much has happened in science since the time of du Bois-Reymond. Milestones are the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. Nevertheless, we humans have not come much closer to an understanding of consciousness. We are still "airmen who seek the moon".

This year's Nobel Prize winner, Roger Penrose, writes in the foreword to "The Emperor’s New Mind" that today's physics does not do justice to the phenomenon of consciousness (2016, p. Xv): "The conscious aspects of our minds are not explicable in computational terms and moreover that conscious minds can find no home within our present day scientific world view. " And further (p. 580): “One can argue that a universe governed by laws that do not allow consciousness is no universe at all. I would even say that all the mathematical descriptions of a universe that have been given so far must fail this criterion. It is only the phenomenon of consciousness that can conjure a putative ‘theoretical’ universe into actual existence. "

As long as the laws of the world that we have recognized do not permit conscious thinking, the universe cannot be thought either. So it doesn't exist for us. Today's science is evidently not rich enough to understand the spiritual.

(January 31, 2021. This article was also published on Stephan Schleim's blog MENSCHEN-BILDER, with many other comments.)


Bieri, Peter (1992): What Makes Consciousness a Mystery? Spectrum of Science 10/1992, 48-56.

du Bois-Reymond, Emil (1882): Beyond the limits of the knowledge of nature. The seven world riddles. Two lectures from 1872 and 1880. Leipzig: VON VEIT & COMP.

Engel, Andreas K .; King, Peter; Singer, Wolf (1993): Formation of representational states in the brain. Spectrum of Science 9/1993, 42-47.

Florey, Ernst (1997): The fifth world riddle - Ignorabimus. Festschrift on the 100th anniversary of Emil du Bois-Reymond's death. Reports and treatises / Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences. 4/1997, 161-174.

Grams, Timm (2020): Err smarter - avoid thought traps systematically. Heidelberg: Springer.

Kant, Immanuel (2011): Critique of Pure Reason. Cologne: Anaconda. (After the second edition of 1787.)

Mahner, Martin (2018): naturalism. Aschaffenburg: Alibri.

Penrose, Roger (2016): The Emperor’s New Mind. Oxford: University Press. (First published 1989)

Ramachandran, Vilayanur S., Blakeslee, Sandra (1998): Phantoms in the Brain. New York: HarperCollins

Schmidt-Salomon, Michael (2006): Manifesto of Evolutionary Humanism. Aschaffenburg: Alibri.

Singer, Wolf (1997): Awareness, something “new, previously unheard of”. Festschrift on the 100th anniversary of Emil du Bois-Reymond's death. Reports and treatises / Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences. 4/1997, 175-190.

Vollmer, Gerhard (2013): Crucial questions to the naturalist. Aschaffenburg: Alibri.