Is God conscious? Is God aware?


"The Ancient of Days" by William Blake. Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty

"Deep in each man is the knowledge that something knows of his existence. Something knows, and cannot be fled nor hid from." ?Cormac McCarthy, "The Crossing"

I love that quote because it cuts right to heart of attention schema theory and how it relates to human consciousness and our belief in that cosmic entity known as "The Ancient of Days," the "Great Architect of the Universe" or simply "God."

As expounded by neuroscientist Michael Graziano (the theory's creator), attention schema theory suggests that "that consciousness is a schematic model of one's state of attention." As he explains in his essay "How Consciousness Works" for Aeon Magazine, animal nervous systems evolved to process incoming data more efficiently. But a LOT of data streams in, so the brain has to sort it all out and apply deeper processing to what really matters. We see this in insects. We see it in our ability to see-yet-not-see, hear-yet-not-hear the less important bits of sense data in our surroundings.

And so this focus, this attention and control of attention, Graziano argues, is key to our experience of consciousness. Our brains process all of this sense data as well as our knowledge of self in the world -- the "self" we're aware of like a game piece on a table. Consciousness is information.

The Mind of God

As Graziano explains in his book "Consciousness and the Social Brain," much of our magical thinking may might simply be "simplifications and shortcuts the brain takes when representing itself and its world."

As if the mystery of consciousness alone was not a contentious enough subject, we come now to the nature of God. And I invite you to set aside your biases for a second and entertain what attention schema theory suggests about the Ancient of Days.

In his book, Graziano is rather evenhanded about the issue of deities. He accepts that just because a natural theory (such as evolution) better explains something (the origin of life) than a supernatural one ("On the sixth day..."), it doesn't mean we have to throw all our supernatural ideas out the window. Fair enough. And since we don't have a working scientific theory of everything, there's room yet for gods in the gap.

But let's get back to consciousness. Our gods and goddesses are conscious entities. A cosmic intelligence is aware and consciously chooses to make things happen. Take that away from a god and you're left with something infinitely less -- a mere primordial force or a horrifying, mindless entity like Lovecraft's horrifying "boundless daemon sultan" Azathoth.

So what happens when we apply attention schema theory to consciousness divine? Well, Graziano identifies two types of consciousness:

Consciousness Type A: A brain beholds consciousness in itself.

Consciousness Type B: A brain beholds consciousness in others.

Type A is easy for us to fathom. "I think therefore I am." You are conscious of yourself and your thoughts and your existence in the universe right now. Type B is an equally everyday phenomenon: We attribute consciousness to our fellow humans, but we also go ahead and attribute it to other organisms, puppets, avatars, plants, symbols, inanimate objects and -- in the case of God -- the cosmos itself.

We simply can't help ourselves. We anthropomorphize everything.

"The universe is conscious in the same sense that it is beautiful," Graziano writes. "It is conscious because brains attribute consciousness to it, and that is the only way that anything is ever conscious."

Without a physical mechanism to construct Consciousness Type A, the only option left for God is Consciousness Type B -- the consciousness we attribute to the universe. But in either case, all consciousness (even our own) is a matter of attribution. We make the cosmos conscious in the same way we make it beautiful: in the brain of the beholder. This leaves God with a perceptual reality, if not a literal one -- at least as far as attention schema theory goes.

The Body of God

The question "Is there a God?" essentially becomes "Is the universe conscious?" And if you dissect that question, you're left with the equivalent of "Does the universe have nostrils?" Because both are products of a biological adaptation to process sense data on this little rock of ours.

Is God conscious? According to attention schema theory, the answer is "yes and no," and it's an answer that echos up through eons of neural evolution.


About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.