Consciousness in a pointless cosmos

Conference : Exploring Consciousness, Bath, 24 June 2004.

Ultimately everything is pointless, and without purpose or plan. Why, then, are we conscious? I suggest that it is because human intelligence and language have evolved by the blind creative processes of evolution and, along the way, have given us the illusion that each of us is a non-physical being inhabiting a physical body, and having consciousness and free will.

This dualist view of self has been common throughout human history and is prevalent today. But it is almost certainly false. As Buddhists have long been aware, and scientists are increasingly demonstrating, there is no persistent, separate self inside us. The brain does not have, or need, an inner controller. Even more disconcerting is that we may be wrong in thinking of consciousness as like a stream of experiences, passing through the mind. I shall describe a few of the major experiments which suggest that consciousness and free will may be grand illusions.

How can we find out the truth of these claims? There are two methods: scientific exploration, and personal practice. Both are hard, but I suggest that neither can thrive without the other. I shall end by considering how it is possible to have a spiritual life in the pointless cosmos.