Redefining consciousness in order to solve the Big Question

Consciousness is an emergent property of evolution. Like all things that resulted from evolution, we can gather evidence to come up with theories and explanations.

We should avoid (or postpone) the problem of subjective experience (qualia); we should intentionally remove the question of personal experience and switch to scientifically observable evidence.

This idea was proposed by Stanislas Dehaene, in his book Consciousness and the Brain.

(image from http://www.brainfacts.org/neuroscience-in-society/supporting-research/2014/book-review-consciousness-and-the-brain)

A variation/interpretation of this idea is to redefine consciousness to be a property of living things or complex adaptive systems in general where certain common behaviors are exhibited. In the case of a wildcat hunting a rodent, with the implications of recognition, focus, attention, and other factors, we might be able to collect a set of markers of this kind of consciousness. There would not be a single marker, and we would not expect these markers to be consistent in all species, because consciousness could come in varying degrees, kinds, and loci.

In terms of degree, a snake probably has “less consciousness” than a fox. And a fox probably has “less consciousness” than a human. And all of these animals have “more consciousness” than a carrot.

But it may not be a matter of degree – perhaps it is more a matter of kind. (Is it possible to map raccoon-like consciousness to dolphin-like consciousness?)

Or it could be more a matter of locus (if there is anything like consciousness among ants – can it be found in a single ant’s brain? Or is it more likely to be distributed among a swarm of ants?)

Brain imaging has become a powerful tool for using evidence-based science to get at the problem.

(image from https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/x4n4jcoDP7xh5LWLq/book-summary-consciousness-and-the-brain)

There’s an old gem of wisdom: if a Big Question defies the Big Answer, you might need to change the Question. Consciousness may need to be unshackled from subjectivity in order to be redefined using scientific evidence. As a consequence, there may be new and better ways to understand subjective experience.

Our subjective experience causes us to resist the act of defining consciousness based on evidence, because subjective experience is precious and tied to the self, which wants to be immortal.

When the answer to the Big Question comes, it might have two possible effects: (1) It might be unsavory and counterintuitive – similar to the way quantum physics is counterintuitive – but nonetheless indisputable and scientifically verified; or (2) It might unleash an orchestra of language, mental tools, metaphors, and intuitions, forming a major advance in human knowledge and understanding – not unlike the theory of natural selection itself.

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No Rafi. The brain is not a computer.

Rafi Letzter wrote an article called “If you think your brain is more than a computer, you must accept this fringe idea in physics“.

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The article states the view of computer scientist Scott Aaronson: “…because the brain exists inside the universe, and because computers can simulate the entire universe given enough power, your entire brain can be simulated in a computer.”

Who the fuck said computers can simulate the entire universe?

That is a huge assumption. It’s also wrong.

We need to always look close at the assumptions that people use to build theories. If it can be proven that computers can simulate the entire universe, then this theory will be slightly easier to swallow.

By the way, a computer cannot simulate the entire universe because it would have to simulate itself simulating itself simulating itself.

The human brain is capable of computation, and that’s why humans are able to invent computers.

The very question as to whether the brain “is a computer” is wrong-headed. Does the brain use computation? Of course it does (among other things). Is the brain a computer? Of course it isn’t.

Quantum Physics Has a Language Problem

31jk3zyLsiL._UX250_I have become interested in theories of mind and all the new thinking at the intersection of physics and consciousness. So when I set out to read The Self-Aware Universe by Amit Goswami, I hoped to get a better sense of how quantum physics relates to mind.

Didn’t happen.

Screen Shot 2015-05-24 at 1.00.25 AMI also didn’t get any major insights about “action at a distance“. And most of all, I did not get any deeper insights on the idea that the act of observation can change the physical world. I’ve known about quantum mechanics for a while – enough to have a casual conversation over beer – or more likely – over a joint. But I expected that Goswami would help me get to the next level of understanding. I read the words, I followed the logic…

…but nothing ever got much farther than a few centimeters into my brain. There was no gut feeling – no somatic resolution.

imagesNow, to be sure, I wasn’t expecting epiphanies to come tumbling out. After all, Richard Feynman famously said, “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”

So, I was appropriately prepared for the difficulty of the subject matter.

What the Hell is a “Quantum Object” Anyway?

Sean Carroll says that physical theories:

“…aren’t supposed to have ambiguities … the very first thing we ask about them is that they be clearly defined. Quantum mechanics, despite all its undeniable successes, isn’t there yet.”

The main problem with explanations of quantum physics is the choice of words.

The terms “observation”, and “measurement” have particular meanings in the physicist’s lab, where a scientist might be trying to gather data on the behavior of a single photon.

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Truly not something that most of us experience in daily life. Even the sight of a faint star in the night sky involves a hell of a lot of photons. And one second of this experience is actually a really long time.

But…a single photon?

I wonder if the scientist in the lab actually “experiences” a photon anyway. How does one “experience” a photon? And what does it mean to “measure” or “observe” something as fleeting and tiny as a subatomic particle?

Sean Carroll again:

“There is no consensus within the physics community about what really constitutes an observation (or “measurement”) in quantum mechanics, nor on what happens when an observation occurs.”

Another problematic term is “quantum object”. The word “object” is very familiar in classical physics. But it invites contradiction and cognitive dissonance when applied to phenomena on the quantum level.

niels-bohr-model-of-the-hydrogen-atomNiels Bohr said: “We must be clear that when it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry. The poet, too, is not nearly so concerned with describing facts as with creating images and establishing mental connections.”

While reading explanations on quantum physics, I become optimistic: I feel as if I am about to get a picture of why certain puzzling phenomena are true. Authors use familiar narratives and metaphors that I have direct experience with, but what they are illustrating are observations in a physics lab where fleeting subatomic particles exhibit paradoxical behaviors. These carefully-orchestrated observations that only happen in expensive laboratories are hardly the stuff of everyday experience.

And then they start talking about cats in boxes – right after telling us that cats and boxes are VERY DIFFERENT than subatomic particles.

Thanks!

By the way…apparently, it IS possible to experience the effects of quantum physics in your own home:

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I just love the fact that styrofoam cups were used in this experiment.

Can Quantum Physics Ever Really Be “Explained?”

Because our sense organs and brains are optimized to deal with things on a human scale, it’s difficult for us to think about things as small as atoms (where quantum physics really matters) or as big as galaxies (where relativity really matters).

As I set out to write this article, I did some searching and noticed right away that a lot of people have pointed out that quantum physics has a language problem. And so here is where I bow out, and let the real experts speak…

Is there a Language Problem with Quantum Physics?

The Copenhagen Interpretation 

So, You’re Not a Physicist…

Quantum Physics and Human Language

What If There’s a Way to Explain Quantum Physics Without the Probabilistic Weirdness?

Quantum Mechanics Made Easy

Maybe classical clockwork can explain quantum weirdness