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 a fantastical version of our world, the fiery heroine Lyra sets off to the frozen North, a land of witches and armoured bears, to find her lost friend and a mysterious force known as dust. Trying to stop her: a religious and political organisation called the Magisterium.

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. But it is dangerous even to speak about it.

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.

What does it mean to be aware, to think, to feel and experience the world?

Religions call it the ‘soul’ or the ‘spirit’; science calls it the ‘mind’ and ‘consciousness’. It gives us imagination, intuition and free will. In Lyra’s world, it is called dust.

In trying to nail down what and where is consciousness, philosophers divide into two camps.

Dualists argue that mind is different to matter, and cannot be understood in the same way.

Physicalists disagree. Everything is matter, and the mind can be studied scientifically, just like atoms and cells.

But some thinkers refuse to choose a side. Take, for example, Dr Phillip Goff.

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

In Pullman’s second book, The Subtle Knife, a scientist communicates with dust. She asks what it is, and it replies, “From what we are, spirit. From what we do, matter. Matter and spirit are one.”

Dr Goff 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.

There is a gap in our knowledge that Goff suggests we call consciousness. It is not different from matter — it is matter. But, in a way, that cannot be measured.

The name for this theory is panpsychism, the idea that consciousness exists in all things, however small and basic.

So, are dust and dæmons fiction or fact?

Stranger than fiction

Many scientists aren’t very impressed by panpsychism. “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. Minds are very sophisticated machines and there’s nothing unique about them.

Others argue that there might be something in this dust thing. Dr 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. Science is about asking difficult, probing questions and this is just the beginning of a “new science of consciousness”.

You Decide

  1. Is consciousness an illusion?
  2. Will science one day understand everything, or are there things beyond the reach of scientific investigation?

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. Describe it and explain why you chose it.
  2. If our minds are just very complex machines, imagine that computers have become conscious. In groups, discuss the implications of conscious machines for society.

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. What is it like to be a dog? A tree? A table? A piece of paper? We just don’t know and maybe we will never know.

Word Watch

Dæmons
In Philip Pullman’s books, these are animal spirit companions that are manifestations of 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.
Dualists
The theory of mind that argues that mind (consciousness) and body (matter) are radically different.
Physicalists
The theory of mind that argues that “everything is physical” and there is nothing above or outside of the physical world.
Panpsychism
The theory that consciousness exists in all matter in the universe, and is not unique to humans or animals.

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