Wrap your mind around this

Scientific American recently published a special edition titled The Hidden Mind. While a few of the articles were disappointing, the magazine finished with a true gem written by David J. Chalmers. It attempts to address the difficult problem of consciousness; not the problem of how to achieve it on a Monday morning, but the even tougher problem of how to explain it. It’s titled The Puzzle of Conscious Experience, and I recommend that you go read it.

One of the things I’ve often wondered about is why we are conscious and self-aware. I say “we” because I assume other people are conscious too, based on their observed behavior. Cats also behave as if they have consciousness and self-awareness; it’s pretty clear that they have pride, which to me requires that they have some concept of self-image.

Looking at living creatures, it seems pretty clear to me that there’s a spectrum of consciousness. At one end, you have organisms like yeast and ants, which basically behave like blobs of chemicals or little automata. Further along the scale you find birds, mice, and other animals that rely largely on instinct. Then you reach the otters, cats, dogs, and other creatures that appear to experience emotions, solve complex problems, play with things for fun, and communicate with each other.

The most likely hypothesis to my mind is that consciousness is some kind of emergent property of brains of sufficient complexity, which are structured in an appropriate way. Could a machine become conscious? I see no reason why not, though it might require a machine very unlike a regular computer.

All this gets me no closer to being able to say what consciousness is, though. I can’t explain it in terms of electric fields in a network, or quantum patterns of electrons in the brain, and nobody else seems to be able to either.

Chalmers proposes a radical hypothesis: What if consciousness is actually a fundamental feature of the universe, like gravity or electromagnetism? What if it isn’t reducible to other things?

I’ve been pondering this idea, and I think it makes a lot of sense. For starters, it offers a neat way to sidestep the awkward question of what an observer is in the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. Perhaps an observer is simply a sufficient quantity or density of consciousness that has become entangled with the quantum events in question. Maybe physicists will one day be able to come up with equations specifying exactly how much consciousness it takes to collapse the wave function.

To go back to consciousness-as-emergent-property, perhaps consciousness is a kind of stuff that arises when certain kinds of information processing neural networks get sufficiently complex—just like gravitational fields arise when enough particles with mass group together in physical space.

Chalmers points out that the idea of consciousness as a fundamental property is very compatible with some of the recent theories from people like John A. Wheeler and Stephen Wolfram, who have suggested that perhaps information is fundamental to the physics of the universe.

There’s still another reason why I like Wheeler’s proposal, and it’s even less politically correct (from a scientific point of view) than Stephen Wolfram’s ego. See, it seems to me that consciousness being a fundamental property of the universe is remarkably compatible with Buddhist (and, for that matter, Hindu) cosmology.

Buddhism and Hinduism talk of a universal‘field’ of consciousness which pervades all things. Our individual consciousnesses are described as being like waves on an ocean. When we die, the waves collapse, and new waves are formed. (A common misconception is that Buddhism believes in reincarnation of the Shirley McLaine sort, where the intact soul travels from body to body.) I thought about waves of consciousness coalescing around complex neural networks, and it suddenly struck me how much the whole thing sounded like the Higgs field, and gravitational forces arising near massive objects.

Can I prove any of this? Of course not. But it’s the best working hypothesis I’ve got so far.

A New Kind Of Science

OK, I admit it—I’ve been suckered in by the hype. I’m eagerly awaiting the publication of Stephen Wolfram’s new book A New Kind of Science. I’ve been waiting since I heard about it last year, in fact. I console myself with the thought that even if it doesn’t turn the entire scientific world upside-down, it should at least be interesting.

I’ve read some other articles about the idea of modelling the universe as a computational process, but I can’t offhand remember where. Anyone got any pointers?