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.

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.


Metaphysical Foundations (Pt4)

Click here for part one of this series.

Part three in this series sketched-out an idea for a fundamental ontological division in the Universe. It suggested a sub-Planckian base to reality (coined the Potentiat), and a super-Planckian extension to that base which we observe as the emergent macro properties and phenomena of physics (coined the Instantiat).

This division is not one of substance. The only substance proposed is the content of the Potentiat, and when that content obtains certain states, the additional macro-scale contents of the Instantiat with which we are familiar through observation emerge: spacetime, all its contents, and further emergent levels of properties and phenomena.

So by referring to the content of the Potentiat as “substance” we are not saying that it is physical, and by referring to the content of the Instantiat as “physical” we are not saying that is is substance. Substance here is that which fundamentally exists in non-emergent terms, and physical is the bottom layer of that which emerges. Insofar as the the emergent content and workings of the Instantiat (which are the targets of all science bar Quantum Gravity), we assume a physicalist position. Only then do we extend our ontological commitments, and this is only in response to physicalisms failure to account for the phenomena of quantum mechanics, experiential consciousness and libertarian free will.

As before it is important to note that the ideas presented here do not claim to be anything more than metaphysical speculation. They are guided by my understanding of mainstream scientific models and philosophical arguments, but they are not facts, nor personal beliefs.

What I’ve coined the Potentiat is the Universe below the Planck scale, or more accurately the pre-scale Universe, since the Potentiat is non-spatial. It was previously suggested an approach to the nature of the Potentiat called panprotoexperientialism.

The idea of consciousness as fundamental has a long history in the form of the philosophical position of panpsychism, and panprotoexperientialism is a variation on that. Panpsychist positions are usually regarded as an anti-realist position, not only granting our conscious experience metaphysical primacy, but also denying the existence of the objective world (not only does the tree make so sound when it falls, but with no-one to observe it, the tree ceases to exist at all).

The version of panprotoexperientialism suggested here is not anti-realist, or more accurately, it’s target means it’s not, because that target is not the Instantiat but the Potentiat.

In the Potentiat we have a metaphysical base that is both proto-experiential (because individual experiencing agents form within it), and proto-physical (because the Instantiat emerges from it). Nothing in the Instantiat on the other hand need be experiential (or even dual-aspect experiential) to accommodate consciousness. Rather the Potentiat should fulfill this role in addition to its role of being the source of the Instantiat.

So here we have a metaphysical monism, where from the single source of the Potentiat emerges both the Instantiat and also what we will call Consicats: individual bound instances of consciousness.

We’ve also previously discussed the Potentiat in terms of a geometric and topological object. The Potentiat consists of the overlaid uninstatiated shapes that the object could take according to the rules that govern it. The Instantiat is the particular shape that obtains, and the temporal unfolding of the Instantiat consists in a sequence of those shapes.

In common with theories like Loop Quantum Gravity and metaphysical ideas like the simple Game of Life and Gregg Rosenberg’s Theory of Natural Individuals, causation here is rooted in the structure and relations of this object’s nodes, each with a differing configuration and number of connections to its neighbours.

The specific rules that govern the scheme are a matter for the various models that posit them, but we might conjecture features that could be explanatory under the system proposed here, or at least that might serve as examples of the kind of features that would do that. If we go beyond a two dimensional visualization of the Potentiat until we have not just the geometry and shape of the object in mind but the topology as well, then we might imagine some interesting features.

Presumably there will be parts of the whole that are topological simple with minimal connections between nodes, and others that are exceedingly complex with tangles and loops. The properties of these structures will relate to whether and what they Instantiate both at the bottom layer (waves, particles) and in subsequent emergent layers. However, we should also note that causation might work in both directions, with the emergent layers influencing further development of the Potentiat’s structures from the top down, and creating more complexity there. This means the suggestions here need not be fully reductionist in outlook..

Judging complexity is itself a thorny issue, but by most measures the brain is a highly complex object and so would presumably be supported by an equally complex structure in the Potentiat. Perhaps experiential consciousness might be associated with a peculiarity of that proto-experiential base structure?

We might imagine features like closed loops to fulfill this role. Nodes might become isolated from the rest of the system, making only a one-way flow of information possible and corresponding to the same features of subjective experience.

Similarly, the closed structure might contain enough internal nodes to form other structures within. These might have differing properties to each other, but be bound by their mutual containment, and perhaps reinforced by their constant association. This might provide potential solutions to the Binding or Combination Problem that is common to all panpsychist theories.

Turning to libertarian free will, if we assume that it can only be initiated by Consciats, then it also seems reasonable to suggest that devoid of them the Universe would see the Instantiat sequence unfold from the myriad Potentiat possibilities in a very particular way.

This is not to say that the unfolding of the Potentiat would be a deterministic process. The first emergent level of the Instantiat remains quantumly indeterministic in its effects, but without Consciats and the free will process amplifying and directing those indeterminacies, the perturbations of the system would be small and non-cumulative. This means the Instantiat sequence would always quickly and easily settle back to the path through the Potentiat possibilities that conforms to the Principle of Least Action, which is already generally regarded as a fundamental property of the Universe.

This is just akin to saying that without consciousness and free will, the Universe is practically deterministic, but with them it is not, and that free agents influence the path that the Instantiat sequence treads through the Potentiat.

An analogy for this is an old-fashioned Choose Your Own Adventure book. The book is undoubtedly deterministic because it has already been written before it’s opened by the player, but the free choices of the player shape which entries in the story occur in that particular reading. The book as a whole represents the Potentiat, and the particular story told the non-determined Instantiat. The reader represents a Consciat.

To embrace the fact that there are multiple Consciats in the real world, we might update our Choose Your Own Adventure book to a Multi-User Dungeon on a computer, and to represent Universe before consciousness arose, we might image an automated demo mode running through the story, but each time taking the first option displayed because it expends less energy that way.

As with all analogies, ours has to stretch and fail somewhere, and an immediate thought is that here the player or players are outside the system, whereas Consciats are very much embedded in it.

There is more to say here, on how and why consciousness and free will might have evolved, and on how that process could be driven by the protoexperiential nature of the Potentiat, It might also be useful to look at some of the details of the various theories of quantum gravity and philosophical ideas on causation to compare their features. Further we need to look at possible processes of data transfer between Instantiat, Consciats and Potentiat involved in the proposed processes of experience, cognition (yet to be addressed) and free will.

However, this series was only meant to be a single post and has gone on long enough! I’ll turn to these topics in new individual posts.

I hope you’ve enjoyed coming with me on a speculative journey, and that even if you disagree fundamentally with my suggestions, that I might have illustrated how modern scientific ideas actually open-up these issues, rather than close them as some physicalists would have you believe.

Metaphysical Foundations (Pt3)

Click here for part one of this series.

Part two of this series was mostly concerned with physicalist assumptions in the free will debate. This third part will return to the wider metaphysical speculation.

Note that the descriptions here are merely the musings of an armchair blogger. They are not beliefs, they are suspicions. With that in mind, if you’re still interested, read on.

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First let’s zoom right out and taking a look at what current scientific understanding might suggest in regards to the metaphysics and ontology of the Universe.

We’ll start with the idea that quantum mechanics suggests a fundamental ontological division: there is that which is physically instantiated and that which is mere potential. Yet at the same time it suggests that in both cases events therein have active roles in the world.

While considering these two parts of reality, it’s important to keep in mind that this division is illusory in respect to location and substance. There is only one Universe (the capital U denoting that I am including any possible multiverse theories under this heading), and the differences I’ll be suggesting are in scale, not in temporospatial location or primitive (i.e. non-emergent) substance.

The first ontological category I want to consider consists of all everyday objects ranging from galaxies, planets, chairs and bacteria, all the way down to molecules, atoms, protons, and quarks. These are all things that are instantiated above the Planck scale in emergent spacetime and are therefore measurable and interpreted as objectively “real” in a physical sense. For that reason I’m going to refer to this macroworld as the Intantiat. It also consists of things that are less familiar as we move downward in scale toward that boundary, like briefly-instantiated virtual particles.

Within the Instantiat, both upward (reductive) processes, and downward (non-reductive) processes determine the unfolding of events, and that unfolding is probabilistic in accordance with most interpretations quantum mechanics. Therefore I am very much holding that ultimately determinism is false. the Universe is fundamentally indeterministic in nature. What we observe in the macroworld is a faux-determinism; the observed averaging-out of the enormous amount of interactions involved in macro events.

The second category consists of that which is not instantiated: potential counterfactuals, or – from the point of view of the Instantiat – things that might have been or might be. This realm I’ll refer to as the Potentiat. This is the Universe as considered at the sub-Plankian scale, and is best visualized holistically, each component of the whole a node in a single object: the all-possibilities-present block Universe.

The Potentiat has neither spatial nor temporal position. In physics terms it is background independent. Its “properties” are only its internal topological & geometric relations. This is in accordance with certain approaches to quantum gravity, like Loop Quantum Gravity. Both space and time emerge from the Potentiat in the same way that other fields and their particles do.

Now imagine looking down at this sub-Planckian microworld from the macroworld above with a bird’s eye view. From this high vantage point one can visualize the Potentiat below as a fuzzy sea of possibilities. The surface of the sea is an overlaid surface of fundamental physical fields at their zero point energy level, and thus fizzing with quantum fluctuations. It appears as a foam. And towering from this foamy surface are the soaring spines of the instantiated macroworld excitations in the fields that we call point particles. And indeed from our bird’s eye view, the peak of each wave excitation does indeed appear as a dimensionless point. Collections of these spiny structures swarm as they interact with each other, forming the skeletal structure of the things we perceive as macro objects.

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The Potentiat is also where objects like photons and electrons seemingly “disappear to” when they are not interacting with each other. So when we say that a photon takes “every path” from emitter to detector in the famous double-slit experiment, it is in the Potentiat that all those paths consist. In terms of the mathematics of quantum mechanics, the Potentiat is modeled by the imaginary axis on the complex number plane (see here for my brief attempt at an explanation).

If one now imagines moving down to the nodes of sub-Planckian microworld, and then outwards to an external god’s eye view, one can now imagine the related geometric nodes of the Potentiat allowing for potential shapes that the Potentiat as a whole could obtain.

So the Instantiat can be seen as a single obtained state from the myriad possible Potentiat states. Its state is no more “real” than the Potentiat states, but it differs in that it has super-Planckian scale and the emergent spaciotemporal physicality that comes with that status.

Each possible shape that the Instantiat could take maps to a bitmap snapshot of a potential physical Universe state. In quantum mechanical terms each shape is a possible Universal Wavefunction. the Instantiat is the measurable universe we experience, and the Potentiat consists of all the counterfactual universes of a Many-Worlds-like Interpretation of quantum mechanics (MWI is normally considered a deterministic theory, but I will come to that later).

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As the Instantiat shifts from state to state, each shift is a quantized moment of emergent Planck-time mapping to a different Universal wavefunction.

One can also imagine an overall shape for the Potentiat, which is an overlaid combination of all its possible shapes.

The relationship between the Potentiat, Instantiat and an evolving worldline might be illustrated with an analogy. Imagine a computer monitor. The Instantiat is a still image on the screen: a contingent configuration space of active and inactive pixels.

A worldline is an ordered sequence of these Instantiat pixel maps evolving according to a set of laws determined by the geometry of the Instantiat within the Potentiat (i.e. how individual shapes can and cannot transform within the Potentiat shape viewed as a whole). So in the analogy a worldline is a like a movie playing out on the screen.

The Potentiat on the other hand is a non-contingent configuration space of each and every possible configuration of pixels that could be displayed on the screen, all displayed simultaneously: a white noise.

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So how does experiential consciousness and libertarian free will fit into this picture? Firstly let’s define libertarian free will in the context I’ve given:

“Libertarian free will consists in the possibility of non-random interventions in the otherwise faux-deterministic unfolding of the Instantiat

As previously suggested, a possible mechanism for free will may be something like a class of mainstream theorized phenomena that occur at the Planck scale boundary and result in seemingly ex nihilo particle creation. Under the picture described here, that boundary is the interface between the Potentiat and the Instantiat.

Is it possible that such a phenomenon might be exploited by the brain to tip the balance of probabilities against faux-determinism? We already know that evolutionary processes exploit Planck-scale quantum effects  for their own ends, and I’d argue that it would be surprising if a system as complex as the brain does not do the same to some extent or other. For the purpose of speculation, let’s assume here that such a phenomenon exists and can be exploited by the brain.

Opponents might say that such physical effects are too small in scope to make a difference to events at the macro scale. This worry might be addressed by positing some process of amplification in the brain, much like the amplification of macro systems seen in the butterfly effect (although it would have to also be directed rather than chaotic).

2013 08 03 Comma in the Back Garden

There is a more worrisome problem still. While the unfolding of events in the Instantiat is completely determined, the influence that the Potentiat has on that unfolding via particle creation is by contrast completely random, and a random influence is not sufficient for free will.

However, note that we have not said the the Potentiat itself is random in its nature, only that the direct (i.e. non-emergent) influence it has on the Instantiat is random. Of the intrinsic nature of the Potentiat itself we know little or nothing.

So if free will consists in the directed and amplified ex-nihilo creation of matter with source Potentiat and destination Instantiat, then perhaps experiential consciousness consists either at the border between the Instantiat and Potentiat, or in the Potentiat itself.


If so, and if conscious deliberation is an aspect of experiential consciousness, then it would be the workings of the Potentiat itself that afford the definitions “free” (non-random and non-determined) and “will” (interventions) as defined above.

Of course, the definition is “non-random and non-determined” is a tricky one. Are the two concepts not a binary affair with an excluded middle? Again, locating the experiential consciousness and its free will in (or partially within) the Potentiat may help here. Although the Potential’s nature remains a completely open question, if we look at its effects like superposition, along with its nature as painted here, there is a suggestion that some logical principles like the excluded middle may not apply in the way that we are familiar with when observing the world at the scale of the Instantiat. Perhaps the dichotomy of determinacy and indeterminacy is – for a Potentiat-based will – a false one.

As for experiential consciousness itself, here we might turn to theories of consciousness outside the scientific mainstream but still metaphysically conceivable. Traditions like Panpsychism and the related Panprotoexperientialism (or Panprotopsychism) become attractive.

These theories place abstractions and imagination not only at the heart of conscious experience, but also at the foundational level of reality, although there are also formidable issues to overcome, like the combination or binding problem.

Next time I’ll turn to speculation on consciousness and the workings of the Potentiat in more detail.

For Part 4 Click Here.

Metaphysical Foundations (Pt2)

In the first part of this article I laid down some foundational principles to guide me as I move from philosophical beliefs and metaphysical suspicions to more speculative ideas on consciousness and free will.

Here, as I approach the tricky subject of phenomenal conscious experience (or as I’m about to call it from here on out, just plain consciousness), I carry with me two central beliefs. Firstly that the Universe is amenable to explanation by science (a weak form of positivism), and secondly that whatever we find at the smallest scale of reality should inform us about what will emerge at the larger scales (a weak form of reductionism).

A third uncontroversial belief is that our scientific understanding of foundational physics is incomplete.

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Additionally, I adhere to three speculative but mainstream scientific ideas about how the Universe works.

Firstly, that our current best-fit theories of general relativity and quantum mechanics will eventually be superseded by a better-fit theory of quantum gravity. Secondly that space and time will be shown to be emergent properties of an underlying sub-Planckian realm. And thirdly, that this entails that reality at the most fundamental level consists in a non-spaciotemporal all-possibilities-present block universe of some sort.

Whatever wild and wacky ideas I have in regards to consciousness, they must at least adhere to these principle beliefs and fit with the theories described that I suspect have merit. They’ll be no god-smuggling or wizardry here, despite how it may appear  to some.

I say this because some physicalists appear to regard any deviation from the that position to be veering inexorably towards belief in the supernatural, and I’ll start this discussion with a negative thesis defending non-physicalist accounts of both consciousness and free will from that accusation.

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The physicalists I’m talking about are not the likes of “A-Team captainDan Dennett or his fellow philosophers with similar opinions. Despite any metaphysical preference, all of them are all no doubt well aware of the problems with each position.

Rather I’m mostly referring to various science popularisers (many of whom are scientists themselves) who have an anti-theist agenda. They would appear to want to stamp on any ideas of consciousness being anything but a part of our current physical ontology, or free will being anything but an illusion in a “deterministic” universe, because they believe those concepts to be central to theistic belief.

(I put determinism in scare quotes because the framing of the free will debate in terms of determinism is actually a good hundred years out of date. Since quantum mechanics came on the scene, the likelihood of any truly deterministic system is increasingly small, although the random element introduced doesn’t automatically help those on my side of the argument.)

Although I sympathise with the motives of these individuals, I am highly dubious that theistic belief plays any necessary role in either consciousness or free will. Both are metaphysical concepts that reach far wider than that, and neither appear to say anything about the existence or otherwise of any god or gods, or the supernatural generally.

This is because unlike those concepts, neither consciousness nor free will make any claim to be immune to the laws of physics. One may will to fly unaided, but not even theistic accounts deny that gravity will have the last laugh. The only theistic claim on consciousness and free will is that they are divinely granted, and that the latter is uniquely granted to humans.

And here lies the true problem I think. Theism is seen as inexorably linked to anthropocentrism, and free will (and thus by association non-epiphenomenal consciousness) is seen as part of that discredited tradition. Yet in truth there are all sorts of abilities and traits that have uniquely evolved in humans, yet are not seen in the same light. One might as well blindly deny the existence of complex language because that uniquely human adaption is portrayed as divinely granted in the Biblical tradition.

Just because we now know we have an insignificant place in the cosmos, doesn’t mean that we are not contextually ‘special’. On this planet at least, we are indeed so, as evidenced by you’re reading and comprehending this article, whereas no other creature nor system can. That’s not anthropocentrism, it’s just the facts.

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Although some of these science popularisers might understand the philosophical arguments that show that physicalism is far from certain, I doubt many of the people who follow them do, because it’s something rarely discussed outside of philosophical literature. This gives the general impression to the thinking person that science has closed the door on these issues, which is certainly not the case. To claim otherwise – whatever the merit of the motivation – is nothing more than unscientific presumption.

So while some expect that free will can be explained using our current physical ontology alone, others like me suspect that we need to understand reality at the sub-Planckian scale before we get a grip on these concepts. However, there is actually no good evidence either way, and various problems for both options.

The evidence offered by most physicalists – that provided by neuroscience – is unsatisfactory in the extreme, because as worthwhile and useful as that venture is, it completely misses the target of this discussion. Neuroscience investigates the neural correlates of consciousness, but not phenomenal consciousness itself. In layman’s terms it investigates the brain, not the mind, and to claim the two are the same is simply begging the question.

If our subjective experience is somehow illusory, then neuroscience misses the target because the target is not there and physicalism is true. If on the other hand our subjective experience is non-illusory, then it misses the target because mind and brain are not identical.

Neuroscience is as far away from explaining subjective conscious experience as the computing field of artificial intelligence is away from creating it, and of course, the two problems are probably related. What seemingly magic ingredient do we need to add to make our computers ‘spark into life’ as it were? What clock speed, instructions per second, number of transistors, or logical connections will be required before a computer wakes up and says “who am I?”?

To move on to a positive thesis regarding consciousness and free will I will now need to make the assumption that they are not illusory. Of course, this in no way prejudices the debate as to whether that is actually the case, but it is necessary if one is to try to find a place for them in the natural order, and is justified by virtue of both being – at first sight at least – universally experienced phenomena.

I have already written a short piece on what I consider to be the most promising class of mainstream theoretical phenomena in physics and cosmology for finding a physical basis for non-epiphenomenal consciousness and free will. The particular examples I gave were seemingly ex nihilo particle creation at black hole event horizons in the form of Hawking radiation, and the same result in accelerated reference frames via the Unruh effect. Although the former seems completely off the table insofar as occurring within the brain, the latter might not be (although I am speaking from ignorance here rather than insight!). And more importantly (since the latter remains unlikely) the very existence of such a class of what I’ll call boundary phenomena suggest that there might be more examples to be found in the future.

Non-epiphenomenal consciousness is dependent on (phenomenal) consciousness, and free will is dependent both of those and also on cognition, so it might seem odd to start with an idea on free will rather than for example, qualia. But it seems best to start my search here, since if boundary phenomena is free will’s hook into the otherwise deterministic/random super-Planckian realm, then that would provide a clear signpost as to where we should look for the other phenomena on which it depends.

This is not a case of simply picking those phenomena to begin the search because it conveniently leads to areas I already found ripe for picking at consciousness itself. Rather, I know of no other mainstream process could account for the ‘uncaused causes’ required to sustain the notion of non-epiphenomenal consciousness and free will.

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Additionally, situating some aspects of consciousness at this scale is no longer prohibited by quantum effects being too fragile and fleeting for use by warm wet macro-biological systems. As I’ve touched on elsewhere, the field of quantum biology is blossoming, both in areas already supported by experimental evidence like photosynthesis and bird navigation, and more speculatively with ideas on DNA mutation. If there is evolutionary advantage to be had by the brain utilizing the sub-Planckian realm via quantum effects, then there’s a good chance nature will have done so. I will explore ideas on what such an advantage might be later.

So the next step for me in this series of posts is to try to integrate, or find suitable locations (really just scales, but I will say more on this, also later) for the two sets of fundamental phenomena we take as constituting reality. The first are those identified by objective scientific data; i.e. the properties of fundamental particles, their fields, and their relata or governing laws. The second are those identified by the evidence of the subjects who directly experience them, with their virtue being assessed by their universality, i.e. cognition, phenomenal consciousness, and free will.

In the next part, I’ll begin to tentatively make suggestions for the above project. I’ll try to find any aspects of the phenomena I’ve identified that might provide constraints and clues as to where they might reside and how they might function and interact. At the same time I’ll be sure not to resort to using any theory or phenomenon outside of mainstream speculative science.

Wish me luck, I’ll need it!

For Part 3 Click Here.

[last updated 14 September 2013)

Metaphysical Foundations (Pt1)

In this post and the next I’m going to lay down some of the few metaphysical beliefs, suspicions and desires that I have, for the sake of clarity in my statements elsewhere, my own introspection, and an attempt to explain why so many of my other views are ever-shifting and non-committal.

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It should be noted that not a single one of my beliefs, either presented here or elsewhere, are non-contingent, or true articles of faith. I don’t even believe one hundred percent that either the objective universe or my subjective experience is real, so from here on in, any non-qualified statement about belief translates to some extremely high, but non-certain probability.

I’m not going to get this done in one sitting, so I’ll begin with some of the basics before moving to the more interesting stuff next time. These are the foundations on which any metaphysical positioning on my part needs to be based.

First off, I think it’s fair to say that I take a weakly positivist view. In other words, I think that most phenomena (certainly consciousness and free will if they exist) in the Universe (and I use the term here in the largest sense, inclusive of multiple universes, extra dimensions etc.) are in principle, and almost certainly in practice, functionally explicable by science. This includes phenomenal consciousness and (if they exist) qualia, non-epiphenomenal consciousness and incompatibilist free will. This is not to say that science is the only relevant sense in which phenomena can be understood, but it should at least be one way.

(As I have explained elsewhere, I take anything that is posited to exist outside of the universe (like the god of Abrahamic religions) to be beyond the scope of scientific investigation. I consider any speculation regarding such things to be futile, and any claimed knowledge of them, either objective via divine books (lol) or subjective through personal divine experience, to be misguided. On ideas where god is the Universe, or nature in some sense, I remain skeptical but open.)

Second is a belief that’s flipped over the years, as my own take on what it means has changed, but I think it’s fair to say in at least a weak sense that I’m a reductionist.

It’s not that I believe every property of every system at every scale of the universe is explicable by referring to the workings of the lowest level alone. So for instance, I have no problem with ideas of top-down causation. Rather I believe that ultimately, the foundations of the ‘reality’ we perceive and measure should inform us how and why the properties of that ‘reality’ emerge at all.

Thirdly, I believe that our scientific understanding of the world is incomplete. This is, of course, an uncontroversial statement, but the key element is that our foundational understanding is incomplete. We have no proper understanding of the underpinnings of the rest of our theories, because we have no proper understanding of how the universe works, or of what it consists, at  scales smaller than the Planck length.

In other words, in all likelihood, our current best theories – quantum mechanics and general relativity – are wrong. Not wrong in the logical sense that two plus two doesn’t equal five, but wrong in the sense of being only approximations of at least one deeper theory, in the same way that classical Newtonian gravity is only an approximation of Einstein’s General Relativity.

This fact strongly colours the other beliefs and ideas that follow, because we know that quantum mechanics and its unintuitive effects arise from energy fields that are grounded at a scale below the Planck length.

When combined with even quite weak reductionism, it should be obvious that we cannot sensibly commit to any metaphysical position with anything even approaching certainty. In fact, I’d argue that any weighting at all amounts to little beyond personal preference. All metaphysical positions remain highly speculative, including the dominant one, physicalism.

So, given the above, how should we approach forming metaphysical opinions that aren’t simply biased reflections of our personal preferences and wider views?

Again I’d suggest it should be obvious that we start at the places of closest approximation to the target. Here the target is currently physics at the Planckian and sub-Planckian scales, so our closest approximations are quantum mechanics and general relativity, and to have an informed metaphysical opinion, one needs to think hard about what the observed phenomena associated with these theories might suggest.

With that in mind I’ll now move from my “beliefs” to mainstream foundational scientific theories and ideas that I strongly suspect are true.

When we talk of a theory of quantum gravity that will succeed both quantum mechanics and general relativity, what we are effectively talking about are the laws that govern, and the ontology that consists in, the universe at the scale of the Planck length and below.

One thing considered a requirement of a fully-fledged theory of quantum gravity is that it be  background independent. This is because general relativity will need to be derived from it, and general relativity (unlike quantum mechanics) is itself background independent. All this means is that like general relativity with its spacetime manifold, the equations of quantum gravity need to completely capture the evolution of the systems they describe without reference to a coordinate system of an ontological unit outside of the theory.

With Loop Quantum Gravity, background independence naturally falls out of the theory, but it is also achievable with string theory via the holographic principle in the form of AdS/CFT correspondence.

The upshot of this is that space and time are almost certainly emergent phenomena. At scales smaller than the Planck scale, they are expected to dissolve. Therefore we can say that at its foundations, the universe is both non-local and non-temporal, and of course, this is borne out in effects at larger scales above where we see both special and temporal separation being no barrier in the strong correlation of entangled particles in quantum mechanics.

This opens up interesting and counterintuitive possibilities for the notion of causation in the world when we consider again (and we should never forget!) that we are talking about fundamental truths at the bottom of reality. For instance, Loop Quantum Gravity is based on spin foam (itself based on the topological causation intrinsic in Penrose‘s spin networks), and alternative notions of causation have been posited by the likes of Gregg Rosenberg in his Theory of Natural Individuals as an essential base for understanding how consciousness may fit into the natural world.

Considering a non-temporal source for the temporally-ordered macroscopic phenomena that emerge from that base also holds the possibility of accommodating multiverse predictions that come from the likes of the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics, or the vast number of possible Calabi-Yau manifolds in String Theory. This is because without time, one can think of the sub-Planckian realm as an Eternalist block universe, with all possible pasts and futures present simultaneously.

As Rosenberg has indicated, once one conceives of this, the most basic question we can ask of the Universe – why is there something rather than nothing – morphs into “why is there something rather than everything”

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So, to summarize, I believe in the following:

– a weak form of positivism in regards to consciousness and free will
– a weak form of reductionism
– foundational scientific incompleteness

And I strongly suspect the following are true:

– a background independent theory of quantum gravity will replace QM and GR
– space and time are emergent phenomena
– the Universe is a non-spaciotemporal all-possibilities-present block universe

Ultimately, in examining our closest approximations to foundational truths,  one is rendered powerless to deny that all we think we ‘know’ is challenged. This applies not only to our current physical ontology, but also the notion of causation itself. With that in mind, I find it quite flabbergasting when otherwise rational and articulate thinkers declare that the basics of our theories are in some sense complete. In fact, the basics are the very thing we are missing.

That’s all for now folks, but next time out I’m going to get more speculative, as armed with the foundational beliefs and suspicions above, I approach the seeming conundrum of consciousness.

For Part 2 click here.

[last updated 14 September 2013)

Problems with physicalism.

[NOTE – this is re-post from the original incarnation of this blog.]

Having recently written about panprotoexperientialism as an alternative metaphysics, I’m now going to say a few words as to why one might want to look for alternatives in the first place.

On first sight our current scientific understanding of the universe seems consistent with a physicalist viewpoint, so what’s the problem? Why introduce novel ideas without any objective evidence to warrant such a move?

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Well, science doesn’t just collect evidence. The whole endeavour starts by observing phenomena in the world that require explanation, and then asking relevant questions. Only then do we formulate a hypothesis and devise experiments to collect evidence.

The phenomena to be explained here are those of the mind; specifically qualia, or the qualitative nature of experience. This covers sensory experience, (for example, what it is like to see the colour red), and can arguably be extended to include cognitive phenomenology, or what it is like have thoughts, beliefs, desires or anything else.

Imagine trying to explain why one person likes broccoli and another does not. We might talk about the physical mechanics of taste and differences in sensitivity. That’s a useful answer for many reasons, but is it really telling us about the subjective contents of the mind?

We might have discerned how and why the subject is experiencing an unpleasant taste, but that’s simply because we are able to liken their experience to those of our own (for example, we might imagine what it’s like to taste something that’s too bitter).

We still have no idea how the broccoli tastes to them if we like it ourselves, because the experience in question isn’t tractable by analogy, just like we would not be able to explain the qualitative experience of sight to a blind person or hearing to the deaf.

This is related to what philosophers call the explanatory gap, and in itself it presents a potential problem for physicalism. Just how do you explain how objective physical causes, like the firing of neurons in the brain, give rise to subjective personal experience?

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Physicalist responses include reductive ideas like eliminativism where conscious phenomena are entirely imaginary (mind states simply are brain states and nothing more), and non-reductive ones like emergentism, where conscious phenomena emerge as novel things in the world from lower-level physical facts (much like the wetness of water emerges from molecules of H2O).

However, most non-reductive versions of physicalism are epiphenomenal in nature, meaning that consciousness is an unnecessary by-product of physical activity in the brain. This view is consistent with physicalist ideas about the non-existence of free will, because although brain states cause mind-states, mind states cannot cause brain states in return, but it raises questions regarding how and why consciousness evolved in the first place.

Another argument against materialism, and one that seeks to counter eliminativism and epiphenomenalism, is the knowledge argument, also known as Mary’s room.

Imagine a great scientist called Mary who has lived her whole life in a black and white room with only black and white objects (ignore the practical difficulties of the scenario, this is a thought experiment!). Mary has access to all the scientific knowledge of an advanced civilization, so she knows absolutely everything there is to know about colours vision.

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Now imagine that Mary is allowed to leave the room, and sees the colour red for the first time. The argument says that despite knowing everything about the physical world – all it’s properties and laws – Mary has still learnt a new fact about the world, that being what it’s like to see red. According to the argument, this shows that qualia are both real and non-physical.

I would also argue that this thought experiment suggests that consciousness is causally efficacious, as Mary could be instructed to perform an action based on whether she knows what it’s like to see red. (Note however that this does not count as evidence for free will).

Again in response, physicalists might say that Mary hasn’t actually learnt any new facts about the world, but just learnt a new skill. Others might argue that a truly comprehensive understanding of the physical world would include such knowledge in the first place, although this opens physicalism up to alternative monistic approaches such as the various flavours of panpsychism.

There are other arguments against physicalism that I won’t go into here, such as David Chalmers‘ interesting conceivability argument involving philosophical zombies, and arguments revolving around inverted spectrums of colour vision.

My main point is that these issues are not resolved, and that the physicalist position is far from set in stone. It may be the dominant view, but it is not the only one. And given the huge gaps in our scientific understanding at the most fundamental level of microphysics, it’s not even the most likely. The odds are even because it’s an entirely open question.

Next up, maybe I’ll write some words on what I think are sometimes unspoken motivations in the physicalist viewpoint, and how and why it has become the dominant position amongst scientists and intellectuals. On the other hand I might go into the science itself to illustrate just where those gaps in our understanding are widest and deepest.

I’ll sign off with a related quote from Brian Davies in his book Why Beliefs Matter:

“Scientists… often do not realize that their ‘common sense realism’ is a philosophical position, and that resolving a variety of serious criticisms of it is no small task”

Some words on panprotoexperientialism.

[NOTE – this is re-post from the original incarnation of this blog.]

Panprotoexperientialism is a long word. Type it, and your spell-checker is going to take exception, even if you spell it right.

It may or may not be found with hyphenation between the pan (meaning everywhere) and the proto (meaning potential), or the proto and the experientialism (meaning the subjective qualitative experience of consciousness, or qualia).

But hyphenation or not, it basically conveys the metaphysical idea that all fundamental constituents of the universe (strings, loops, processes or whatever they may be) carry properties that pertain to their ability – when bound within a complex system like the brain of a conscious being – to subjectively experience the objective universe.

In dividing the world into two using terms like subjective and objective, a duality comes to mind, perhaps of the type imagined by Descartes. His was a substance dualism, where the stuff of matter and the stuff of mind are two entirely different sorts of stuff. Body and soul, and all that stuff. And although panprotoexperiential ideas can be read that way, many modern philosophers prefer to talk of a monism – a oneness – where matter and mind are made of the same stuff, but where that same stuff has dual-aspects that carry two different types of properties: material and experiential.

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For this reason, these versions of panprotoexperientialism are often referred to as dual-aspect monistic theories, or property dualism as opposed to Descarte’s substance dualism. One might think of the two types of properties in one substance as the two sides of a coin.

What panprotoexperientialism is not, is the assertion that rocks feel pain or thermometers think. Hence the proto. (even the stronger version – panpsychism – doesn’t necessarily assert those things, although it comes closer to it and may suggest that those things do just that, although in immeasurably diminished quantity and quality to living beings).

Exactly how this scheme works, and explanations of why science has thus far failed to find this aspect of matter in it’s probing of the microphysical are sketchy at best, but no-one would claim the idea as a well-grounded theory. This is philosophy and this is metaphysics. The point is to look at unexplained or unclear phenomena – like consciousness, free will or the details of microphysical substance and causality – and suggest logically consistent ideas that fit the gaps. Note the emphasis: this is what distinguishes metaphysics from pseudo-scientific quackery. These are philosophical ideas, not scientific theories, and for most people who think about such things, nor are they beliefs.

Personally, panprotoexperientialism is one area I like to consider and research, because in relation to various problems posed for physicalism (such as the hard problem of consciousness) the idea has explanatory potential.

I hope to write some more regarding physicalism next time.

One final thing. Please note that I am not a philosopher, nor am I a scientist. I am a lazing dropout (seconded). I’ve been interested in philosophy for a few years and science for a few years longer and just like to read a lot. So please do not take my views as fact or amuse yourself too deeply when you spot my mistakes and misunderstanding. I would prefer a simple correcting from those who know better!