Big ideas hit prime time in His Dark Materials

Riddle: Is consciousness at the very heart of the tiniest subatomic particles? © HBO

Are dust and dæmons fiction or fact? A new book about consciousness argues that the ideas behind Philip Pullman’s books and new TV series maybe closer to reality than you might think.

Airships and dæmons and armoured bears…

Last Sunday, in the UK, 7.65 million viewers tuned in to watch the first episode of His Dark Materials, an HBO/BBC adaptation of Philip Pullman’s bestselling fantasy trilogy.

In this world, everyone has an animal companion, a dæmon, who reflects their personality and shares their innermost thoughts. To be separated from your dæmon is the worst thing that can happen to you, and there is a mysterious connection between these spirit animals and the strange substance, dust.

So, what is dust? Pullman calls it a metaphor for “everything that is consciousness”.

The problem of consciousness has troubled philosophers and scientists for centuries.

Religions call it the ‘soul’ or the ‘spirit’, science calls it the ‘mind’ and ‘consciousness’. It gives us imagination, intuition and free will.

But Dr Phillip Goff has just written a book, Galileo’s Error, arguing that consciousness maybe a lot like the dust in His Dark Materials.

He argues that science only explains what matter does: how atoms move, how cells replicate, how organisms behave. It tells us very little about what matter actually is.

Stranger than fiction

Many scientists aren’t very impressed. “With so many idiots working on the problem,” Professor Daniel Dennett writes, “no wonder consciousness is still a mystery.” On the contrary, consciousness is an illusion: it just doesn’t exist. What we call imagination, intuition, free will, self-awareness — these are all stories our mind tells us to make sense of what we do.

Others argue that there might be something in this dust thing. Goff himself admits that his own ideas may sound “crazy” and “just obviously wrong”, but they help us get closer to something people have struggled to understand for centuries.

You Decide

  1. Is consciousness an illusion?

Activities

  1. In His Dark Materials, everyone has a dæmon (a spirit animal that represents their consciousness, identity and personality). Choose your own daemon and draw a picture of it.

Some People Say...

“We are the cosmos made conscious and life is the means by which the universe understands itself.”

Brian Cox, British physicist and TV presenter

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The average human brain has 86 billion neurons, each with 7,000 connections to other neurons. Neuroscientists study the activity of these neurons to understand more about consciousness. We now know which parts of the brain are active when we create internal images and make ‘conscious’ decisions. We can study the brains of people who have suffered strokes to see what happens when certain parts of the brain do not work properly.
What do we not know?
But the biggest problem with studying consciousness is that it can only be fully understood from the inside. It is about subjective experience rather than objective reality. We know what it is like in our mind and we assume that other people’s minds are similar to our own.

Word Watch

Dæmons
In Philip Pullman’s books, these are animal spirit companions that symbolise a person’s “inner-self”, their personality and inner thoughts.
Consciousness
To have perceptions, feeling and thoughts. To be aware of the internal and external world.
Intuition
An instinct or gut feeling that isn’t based on reason or rationality.
Replicate
To make a close or an exact copy of; to reproduce.

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