The Emergent Cosmos and The Hard Problem of Consciousness

One of the many surprising ideas in modern physics is that of spacetime being an emergent phenomena. Despite emergence being a tricky concept to nail down, we are relatively familiar with the idea when contrasting features of the world around us at different scales. It explains, for example, how the liquidity of water emerges from the interactions of H2O molecules, and how heat emerges from the random motion of particles.

However, spacetime as described by Einstein’s theory of General Relativity is supposed to be the very fabric of the cosmos itself, and common sense may understandably lead us to wonder from what exactly it is supposed to emerge.

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But it gets worse for common sense.

Not only is spacetime theorized to be emergent, but its contents – mass and energy in the guise of the fields and particles described by quantum mechanics – are not immune to this reduction. Both leading contenders for a theory of quantum gravity, loop quantum gravity and string theory (together with the holographic principle), suggest that the cosmos in its entirety – the whole kit and caboodle one might say – could be emergent.

I am using the phrase “emergent cosmos” here rather than “emergent universe” to try to capture how if spacetime and all it’s contents (the “cosmos”) is emergent, then the Universe consists of more than just the cosmos. It is, at its foundations, something else.

As to what that something else is, our theories of quantum gravity are unclear. Here our everyday language fails us, because without space, time, matter and energy, even words like “it” and “is” lose their usual meaning. We are left only with the language of mathematics with which to imbue difference and relation, number and geometry. It is from this position that theories like Max Tegmark’s Mathematical Universe proceed.

All talk of an emergent cosmos is, of course, still controversial. But it is at least mainstream. When it comes to the Hard Problem of Consciousness however, things get murkier, and despite some movement from the likes of Tegmark in the direction of having science address the issue, it remains for the most part seen as a philosophical hangover of per-scientific thinking.

Within philosophical circles the issue is taken more seriously, as evidenced by the amount of words devoted to it by those who’d like to jettison the whole thing. But is still divisive, and the trend over the last fifty years or so seems (to my unprofessional eye at least) to be away from thinking its solution could revolutionize metaphysics, and towards being a obstacle to overcome.

Here, in the realm of the armchair blogosphere, we can safely diverge from that trend, contending that like an aspirin in a collection of interacting H2O molecules, the emergent cosmos may help dissolve the hard problem of consciousness.

However, as in my previous posts on the subject, this suggestion comes with a disclaimer. We have already had to accept the controversial idea of a an emergent cosmos to get here, and the divisive assertion that the hard problem is not illusory. Neither the water nor the aspirin may exist. And now we need to take the even more speculative turn of suggesting that the best place for the aspirin is in the water. But for those willing to entertain the idea that experiential consciousness may consist at the base, non-emergent, sub-Planckian scale (that we’ve previously termed the Potentiat), this does perhaps give us reason to be cheerful.

The hard problem is essentially the problem of explaining how experiential consciousness can arise from non-conscious mechanistic matter just by arranging that matter in a certain complex configuration such as those we describe as brains. Our usual conception of emergent properties seem to many to be inadequate to explain this. Unlike the liquidity of water, which seems like a reasonable end point of interacting H2O molecules when all their interactions are understood, interacting neurons, oscillating electrical waves, or even quantum objects, seem to give no hint that one of their end results will be subjective inner experience.

Traditional panpsychism and panprotopsychism seek to address the problem by granting all matter some amount of actual or potential consciousness respectively. But quite apart from any conceptual issues the schemes have, they are resisted by many for just that reason: they seem prima facie implausible based on our direct experience of the differences between conscious and unconscious systems.

We previous speculations we have instead ascribed panprotopsychism to the Potentiat alone, with subjective consciousness obtaining only in certain configurations of that non-emergent base.

By exclusively situating experiential consciousness in the Potentiat, we no longer need to explain how consciousness arises from matter. It is from certain configurations (number 3 below) of the already non-material Potentiat that consciousness obtains, and it simultaneously achieves this while also serving as the base from which the emergent matter of the relevant brain mechanism arises. And if one accepts downward causation from the emergent cosmos (what we have previously termed the Instantiat) to the Potentiat, it can even be the cause of the non-emergent configuration.

Emergent Phenomena

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Additionally,  non-consciousness-producing configurations obtain instantiation of emergent spacetime, matter, and energy (number 2 above). So in effect, the emergent Instantiat we are familiar with through super-Planckian physics and special sciences is a) entirely non-conscious b) exists (in emergent terms) objectively for all observers, and c) exists independently of any observers. In other words it is much as traditional physicalists would have it. And indeed, there may be no reason to place any brain function other than experiential consciousness beneath that super-Planckian level.

The ontological expansion we have made is just the non-spaciotemporal Potentiat base, in which consists (under some configurations) conscious subjects that are correlated with emergent brains because they share the same source.

We dissolve the hard problem because we no longer need to explain how consciousness arises from matter, but rather how it arises from that non-spaciotemporal base. We also need to explain how the cosmos arises from that base, but that question is already being addressed by physics.

Of course, explaining how consciousness arises in the Potentiat may be no easy task in itself, but the target, being non-material, at least seems prima facie more suitable for a panprotopsychist treatment. And I’d also suggest that it is aligned better with our own subjective sense of experiencing, remembering and imagining the world, which to me at least seems more abstract than concrete.

More to come another time, so thoughts on a postcard please.