Is human consciousness an epiphenomenon?

Most natural scientists would say yes. In other words, human consciousness is an outcome (derivative) of numerous microscopic processes in the brain. The physical brain is what creates consciousness and not some immaterial mind.

This mechanistic view of consciousness has its foundation in inert physical matter.  This means that physical matter, operating on the tiniest scales of nature, can create thought-ideas. These thought-ideas are further modified to produce the macroscopic outcome of words in human speech by manipulating the voice box, mouth and tongue.

But scientist/theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, argued that thought-ideas were a universal speech. Regardless of what language a person on earth uses to form words, these words come from ideas that all people understand. For instance, no matter what word in any language is used to express the idea of a “tree,” the mental idea of a tree is already universally understood. Otherwise, one human language could not be translated into another.

“Meaning” must be fundamental. But is “meaning” fundamental to inert matter?

This raises a question about consciousness and the human intellect being the mere outcome of some mechanism of matter. If people from all parts of the planet earth learn from conscious experience what a tree is, than one would suspect that such a universal idea would consist of similar microscopic processes in all human brains. So, how could these similar fundamental physical processes create such a rich and diverse of way expressing one and the same human idea?

Put another way, if consciousness is merely physical process, how does inert matter keep an “idea” (mental picture) perfectly self-consistent through numerous cultures and languages? Ponder that a bit.

It is instinctively self-evident that human thought does not consist of words. Consciousness and its thought are prior to words. If people could communicate with their thoughts alone, and not words, they would understand each other all around the world—perfectly.

It seems more likely that a conscious mental idea supervenes upon a physical process. We can each confirm this through our free will and our life choices.


About thegodguy

EDWARD F. SYLVIA, M.T.S. Philosopher/Theologian Edward F. Sylvia attended the School of Visual Arts in New York and received his Master of Theological Studies at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA and a Certificate of Swedenborgian Studies from the Swedenborgian House of Studies. He is a member of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (C.T.N.S.) and the Swedenborg Scientific Association (S.S.A.). Award-winning author of "Sermon From the Compost Pile: Seven Steps Toward Creating An Inner Garden" and "Proving God," which fulfills a continuing vision that God’s fingerprints of love can be found everywhere in the manifest universe. His most recent book, "Swedenborg & Gurdjieff: The Missing Links" is an edgy collection of anti-intuitive essays for personal transformation that challenges and inspires. He has been a student of the ideas of both Emanuel Swedenborg and George I. Gurdjieff for over thirty years. Read more about TheGodGuy, his books and his ideas at
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19 Responses to Is human consciousness an epiphenomenon?

  1. Anon says:

    What motivates your conclusion that ideas are “perfectly self-consistent through numerous [all?] cultures and languages”?

  2. thegodguy says:

    Dear Anon,

    It has been awhile! My motivation is based on the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (which you know). He stated that if we communicated purely by the mind (and not the tongue) we would understand each other’s Ideas and mental concepts. It is this universal understanding that is self-consistent regardless of what the physical tongue is communicating.

    BTW, if you have problems with Swedenborg’s theology I think you should take a second look at his science. It is still ahead of its time – in fact, it lawfully takes form and process beyond space and time!

    Spiritually yours,

  3. Anon says:

    I think I might be misunderstanding something about your train of thought. Are the demiparagraph I quoted from and the one preceding trying to demonstrate as false the idea that consciousness is rooted in the brain, or that humans derive categories for things around them in the world based on their experiences? I think they are both in there, but somewhat entangled.

    You are right that it has been a while, so maybe my memory is failing me, but I don’t remember having a very satisfying introduction to your idea of Swedenborg’s science. I’m aware of some his very time-appropriate and very silly ideas, e.g. spontaneous generation, humanoid aliens on the moon (and every other non-solar hunk of matter), and sex-determined inheritance of “racial” traits, as well as observation-driven ideas about anatomy, which, although eclipsed by now, certainly took plenty of careful inquiry (and speculation too). However, I don’t think this is at all what you’re talking about. I’m still as willing as ever to learn about how, very specifically how, an 18th century mystic’s collective writings contain an unambiguously superior version of physics, chemistry, psychology, whatever is subsumed under the contemporary “science” umbrella.

    Since the improbability of this is so massive on the face of it, it really makes no sense for me to devote energy to an investigation of my own. So at the risk of recapitulating old frustration, I can say, “you claim to have figured it out, so go ahead, convince me”. What are the failings of the current models (plural. “Science” is a broad term, though most people use it far less broadly than you)? How does the new model address these failings (the “surpassing” part), and what is the evidentiary support for the new claims (the “this might be worth paying attention to” part, along with internal consistency in argumentation)?

    If you claim evidentiary support for either an immaterial consciousness or immutable, universally implanted concepts in specific contrast to learnable categories, it might be good to start with clarification there. Even alone, those two ideas are sufficiently radical, in the sense of divergent from consensus, not in the the sense of being novel.

  4. thegodguy says:

    Dear Anon,

    My new book offers a rational approach to how human consciousness can be discussed as an immaterial process. Swedenborg claimed that natural processes in time and space are immaterially represented by change of states operating from another distinct realm. The non-material mind and its consciousness supervenes on the physical structures of the brain by causing these organic forms to change their states in a corresponding manner. In Swedenborg’s “Doctrine of Forms” he provides a lawful geometrical step ladder of how forms ascend in complexity whereby they become more adapted to take on additional changes of state until their activity removes itself from any involvement with time and space! No multi-level theory in physics even attempts such a thing.

    Swedenborg stated that in the deepest substrates of our neural activity, consisting of these superior forms, we had a connate knowledge of all things. This knowledge is evidenced by the involuntary Cerebellum as having a mastery of science in maintaining the myriad of organic functions in human body.

    The most cutting edge neuroscientists are now beginning to look at the brain and neuron as containing a sandwiching of cognitive structures with more abstract functioning – something Swedenborg explained centuries earlier. In physics, some pioneering scientists are beginning to suspect that the laws governing the universe emerge from a pre-geometrical reality beyond the spatio-temporal arena. My new book simply gives Swedenborg’s science a second look.

    Most Swedenborgians would side with YOU that contemporary science trumps Swedenborg’s science. Oh well . . .

    Spiritually yours,

  5. Anon says:

    OK, I’m not going to bother repeatedly asking for evidence of any of the claims, since if you thought that was worth addressing you would presumably have tried by now. If the point about the cerebellum was a direct reply, I’m sorry for

    I really, really want to know one thing though. Why are you comfortable with using the word “science” to mean something completely, utterly unrelated to what it is generally understood to mean, e.g, “…a mastery of science in maintaining the myriad of organic functions in human body.” The cerebellum does science? It formulates hypotheses based on observation, then engages in rigorous experimentation to test hypotheses individually and separate the highly probable from the improbable as clearly as possible? No, nothing like that? Then why call it that? You could call it “cooking” or “accounting”, equally unrelated to the unconscious, messy sensory information regulation carried out in the cerebellum, but less likely to mislead people into transferring the prestige and respect of “Science”, by simple association, to whatever you’re talking about.

    Ooooohhh, wait…I think I just got it.

  6. thegodguy says:

    Dear Anon,

    I separate science from “scientism.” If you believe science is based on observation and experiment, then why have most physicists jumped on the bandwagon of multi-dimensional string theory and the “many worlds” theory of quantum mechanics? Neither can be observed or proved. Sorry, but the Hadron Collider will not offer proof of these theories or locate the Higgs particle.

    Swedenborg was a true scientist. I think he (and his ideas) deserve some respect and prestige.

    I make my living writing books — not turning 5oo-word blogs into academic papers!

    (You seem to have no response to Swedenborg’s “Doctrine of Forms”. So why should I treat you seriously?)

    Spiritually yours,

  7. Anon says:

    What do you mean by “jumped on the bandwagon”? If you mean anything like “accept as established proof”, then you are offering a painfully inaccurate characterization of its status. As I’m reasonably confident I’ve tried to point out before, string theory is not treated this way. Everyone working in particle physics, seriously, everyone, is perfectly aware that the theory (theories really, as I’m sure you know) still require experimental confirmation to approach any status resembling “fact”. If, however, you mean something more like “continue to engage in research within these related frameworks”, then the characterization is more accurate, but the question is confusing. Why would they abandon a mathematically sound and internally consistent theoretical framework before they’ve either established through testing that it’s wrong, or it becomes clear that it is too energy-prohibitive to continue building bigger and bigger particle accelerators. There’s a vast difference between unproven unprovable.

    The “‘many worlds’ theory” issue is simple:
    It. Is. Not. A. Theory. It is an interpretation of quantum mechanics, which is the theory. Interpretations of quantum mechanics are attempts to reconcile the facts, as established by experimentation, with our limited human understanding of nature. They can be philosophically interesting, but they aren’t integral to the science, which is heavily mathematical and therefore immediately hard to grasp intuitively. Many scientists are humans too, and some will throw in with favorite interpretations to help feel saner.

    “Swedenborg was a true scientist. I think he (and his ideas) deserves some respect and prestige”
    This a declaration of admiration rather than any specific argument. You are certainly entitled to your warm feelings for him and his ideas.

    “I make my living writing books – not turning 5oo-word blogs into academic papers!”
    I am aware of this. Everyone has to make a living. Still, denying that you have a responsibility to make careful arguments in a public forum does not have the effect of strengthening whatever kind of argument you do produce.

    How do you expect me to respond to the part about “Doctrine of Forms”? Do you want me to somehow disprove it? For the moment, all I have is an assertion that someone came up with a superior framework a while back, but nobody noticed. It reads exactly like a believer’s historical introduction to the “science” of homeopathy. Even the “modern medicine is only just beginning to get a grasp of the homeopathic Law of Similars in their development of vaccines” -type gambit; If cutting-edge neuroscientists really are rediscovering some of the principles, why not get the jump on them? If they are succeeding, it would give lie to the claim that academia is too dogmatic and backward to agree to publishing, and you have insider information! Make a killing! If you’re not interested in that, but you aren’t too afraid of fame to publish books for a popular audience, then it becomes hard to avoid the conclusion that the ideas themselves are very weak and can only hope to compete in a much more gullible market.

  8. thegodguy says:

    Dear Anon,

    This past Spring my newest book “Proving God” won THREE awards. If you are not interested in purchasing a copy, then who are you to make demands as to what I must accomplish with my short blog posts. I can afford to lose a sale or two if my blog does not meet your, or anyone else’s, intellectual requirements.

    However, I respect your respect for inert matter.

    Spiritually yours,

  9. Anon says:

    And the cycle of argument is complete. Questioning these posts has yet to yield a clear answer. There’s just this crescendo of evasion that is ultimately settled by the fact that you wrote a book, and that’s a hard thing to do. Any claims made here are just bumper stickers on your marketing vehicle, and who can expect people to really stand up for their slogans when they have somewhere more important to be?

    Anyway, thanks for the exercise. Like you said, it’s been some time.

  10. thegodguy says:

    Dear Anon,

    What is your point – that I shouldn’t use this blog to promote my books? Hey, I have an idea that will save you some money. I believe Jeremy purchased a copy of the book. Why don’t you ask him if you could borrow it. Then we could have a real discussion.

    Spiritually yours,

  11. Jim Rigney says:

    This Blog is good for selling books.

  12. thegodguy says:

    Dear Jim,

    These days authors must play a larger role in selling their books. Luckily, I lived my former life as a creative director for an advertising agency. Then I went to seminary.

    Spiritually yours,

  13. Jim Rigney says:

    Dear thegodguy,

    I think you have a great blog here, and a great idea on how to market you books. Your topics are very interesting, and you have a very interesting audience.

    Sincerely yours
    Jim Rigney

  14. thegodguy says:

    Dear Jim,

    Thanks for your supportive words. This blog is an experiment in writing. One has to go out on a limb to get the fruit. It also helps that my book “Proving God” has won three awards (from non-Swedenborgian institutions).

    Spiritually yours,

  15. trudom22 says:

    Those who have no conscience do not know what conscience is. There are some who laugh at conscience when they hear what it is. Some believe that conscience is nothing; some that it is something natural that is sad and mournful, arising either from causes in the body or from causes in the world; some that it is something that the common people get from their religion.There is true conscience, spurious conscience, and false conscience. Pain of conscience is an anxiety of mind on account of what is unjust, insincere, or in any respect evil, which man believes to be against God and against the good of the neighbor. Those have conscience who are in love to God and in charity towards the neighbor, but those who are not so have no conscience.

    • thegodguy says:

      Thank you for contributing to this conversation. But it sounds like you are quoting Swedenborg (rather than speaking from from yourself). We have to make the personal effort to find new connections from Swedenborgs various theological ideas. An example of such a new thought-connection is that spiritual conscience represents the quality and development of one’s “remains”!

      Spiritually yours,

  16. trudom22 says:

    i am speaking from myself, cause i have a perception to what swedenborg is saying, he has a better form of expressing it in words, i dont have that gift, just the inner perception of knowing if it is true or not, to what hes saying, from my own personel experence. my connection is my perception, sometimes i will promote that perception with my own words or your words, to address the point of the matter. thats how i promote the lord,

  17. trudom22 says:

    the spirit of truth does not speak on his own account, only what he hears,to what is true.

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