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Consciousness as a State of Matter (2015) (arxiv.org)
49 points by headalgorithm 23 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 73 comments

From my really ignorant, but introspective, point of view, this notion that life and consciousness somewhat escape from the physical rules that govern rocks, air and the rest of the universe seems like holding onto the theist idea of soul after the decline of religion.

I think the universe doesn't care about us, we are just the natural result of the fundamental interactions of matter, the same interactions that burn stars. We are complex automatons.

In Tegmark's case, his hypothesis doesn't necessarily imply that consciousness escapes the laws of physics in any sense, even somewhat. He's simply arguing that consciousness is a state of matter, like liquid, solid or gas, and its properties emerge from lower-level physical laws, just like the other states of matter. Kind of a wild claim, but still compatible with strict materialism.

Tegmark's theory is an expanded version of Tononi's Integrated Information Theory, which has gotten a lot of interest in mainstream cognitive science. IIT also stays well within the laws of physics.

Non-materialist philosophers of mind tend to like these theories since they make consciousness correspond with fairly low-level processes, and that looks a lot more plausible than consciousness being something that only pops up in animal brains for some mystical reason. But neither IIT nor Tegmark's approach actually require any kind of escaping from the laws of physics. In fact Tononi sounds to me mostly like a materialist, although he's pretty slippery about it. Not as sure about Tegmark.

Also, important to note that almost no one believes in vitalism (the idea that life itself requires special extra-physical "secret sauce" to exist) anymore. It is only consciousness that is up for debate in mainstream philosophy.

The way that non-dualists (those that see a single consciousness of which our own awareness is an aspect <-- not a great definition) approach this is from the basis that consciousness is primary and the physical manifestations that exist around that flow from consciousness. So, from that perspective, physical rules that govern rocks are actually subordinate to consciousness.

Non-dualism doesn't make any sense to the rational mind, non-dual realization usually arises in someone that has explored the realm of their own personal consciousness very deeply (meditation, contemplation, psychedelics, hypnosis, lucid dreaming, etc).

I would claim a materialist perspective that views the mind and consciousness as arising out of material processes is also a non-dualistic (monist) perspective just as much as an "everything flows from consciousnes" (idealist monist) perspective.


Quote: "Because common sense tells us that there are physical bodies, and because there is intellectual pressure towards producing a unified view of the world, one could say that materialist monism is the ‘default option’."

I think the non-dualists in the parent comment here would agree, saying something vaguely Alan Watts-y along the lines of "consciousness and matter are merely two sides of the same coin and imply each other mutually."

Come to think of it, "does consciousness arise from matter, or does matter arise from consciousness" is a modern Koan par excellence. FWIW, the last time I grooved on that for a while while on a psychedelic, the answer I came up was...decidedly spiritual. Caveat lector ;)

OP:"Non-dualism doesn't make any sense to the rational mind"

Well, someone seeing consciousness arising from matter (materialist monism/non-dual) isn't impelled to say anything like that. I mean, I'd view the forms of consciousness the OP describes (acid, meditation, hypnosis) as a being experiences where immediate language-generating mediation is suspended, "direct experience" but one shouldn't confuse those sort of sensations with an experience being beyond relation analysis. There are lots experiences where you can't think about what you're doing at the point you are doing it but you can certainly think before and after.

Agreed. I'd have to dive in more on what "relation analysis" is (you probably mean "relational analysis"?). I guess what I'm saying is that you're unlikely to get push-back from the monist crowd on the materialist front, and we're also unlikely to get "experience" (direct or otherwise) into our scientific crosshairs anytime soon. But we should certainly keep trying!

I meant "rational analysis" - looking at a situation with the tools of logic, science and related approaches. It's past edit time on my original post, unfortunately.

Same :)

From no perspective, consciousness is subordinate to the rocks that govern physical rules /(tongue-in-cheek non-dualist "nonsense")

Oh I don't know, there have been some rather well-respected philosophers who made rational arguments for idealism.

The material universe doesn't care about us, but we do, and we are not separate from the universe.

Consciousness is the important thing, why it all matters, why bad things are really actually bad. Pain may be expressed, but as all other consciousness itself or qualia, the experience itself cannot be measured, but is very real.

What do you mean that consciousness cannot be measured? We can perceive it and talk about it, can't we? Chamlers says that the reason we talk about having qualia has nothing to do, causally, with our experience of qualia but I think we can dismiss that idea out of hand. So by asking people questions about their experiences and getting large enough sample sizes we have a means to conduct a quantitative and scientific investigation of consciousness.


Think about it like this: What actually is the color green?

sure, a wavelength of around 532nm coming into your eye causes it to happen, but thats just information. Then its processed in your brain and at some point recognized as green. Somewhere in this, you see green, but you seeing it cannot be measured. Maybe the activations of your neurons could be, and maybe that could even be fully reverse engineered to understand how the conclusion of seeing green is reached. And yet, the actual stuff in your conscious experience still isn't there, just a bunch of logic is.

Now maybe we could discover some dynamics of consciousness though. If we create conscious AI or some way to inject new logic into our brain that is directly witnessed, we could probe for what configurations produce what kind of consciousness. So at least we could understand the behavior of it. But the actual stuff of it is not measurable by anything but itself.

Very few things in science can be directly experienced. I can't see an electron with my eyes, I have to rely on the reports of machines and infer the electron. And even the reports of my eyes aren't, ultimately, direct experience. That our investigation of consciousness has to take place indirectly is in no way novelty for scientific inquiry.

This is different, its the opposite in fact. Experience is ONLY directly experienced is what I'm saying. It cannot be measured. Well, it can, but only from within itself

It can express this measurement in a representational form however, so we can study consciousness's behavior or the behavior of qualia.

You say consciousness can only be experienced indirectly and not indirectly. But I showed in my first post here how to experience it indirectly: just ask other people about their experiences and listen to what they tell you. Do that and you can start doing paradigmatic science on it, as the book I linked to lays out.

I think you may be begging the question when you assume that there must be "actual stuff" that is forever beyond physical explanation.

I suspect that one is more likely to understand "green" by realizing that it is a word (originally, a sound) that you have come to associate with memories of visual experiences. To say something is green is to do a comparison between an aspect of the experience of it, and aspects of some of those memories of prior experiences.

I don't assume that the stuff is forever beyond physical explaination, and like I said we can perform science on the behavior of it. But ultimately the scientific method will always conclude that its ultimately an illusion and that there is only the word green, or the recognition of 532nm light. A word doesn't even need be assigned to it, its witnessed either way.

I use color as an example because its very distant and theoretically could be many different ways (e.g. your experience of green may not be made of the same stuff my green is). However geometry seems far less arbitrary. Visualizing a square is more specific, the way the lines relate to space in the 2D plane if misrepresented will be wrong. I doubt we visualize such things with 100% accuracy, but we must visualize them to a certain common accuracy, and thats important, common. Basically, as far as experiencing the visual concept of a square, we all experience roughly the same object in our conscious experience. Thats where things can be studied a bit, because the behavior of consciousness given certain logic is likely absolute.

I think the difficult part of all this is that "experience" has been irreducible so far and extremely difficult to isolate as some kind of physical substance or variable. We can analyze the "actual stuff" in every dimension we know how, and still come no closer to explaining why it feels like something to experience green (borrowing from Thomas Nagel here). A starcraft-playing neural net can make a comparison between some of its earlier "memories" and what it's seeing now, but that says nothing about its Awareness.

Any more than it is begging the question to assume that there cannot be anything that is beyond physical explanation?

Yes, words are symbols. But when we're talking about consciousness, we're talking about the experience itself, not the association between the word and the experience. And we have no understanding of why or how the experience exists in us.

A willingness to search for physical explanations should not be mistaken for claiming that there is one simply because there must be one, which would be as fallacious as claiming that there isn't one simply because there can not be one. This is a distinct fallacy from the one of claiming that there isn't one because I can't imagine that there could be one, or that it can't be done because it hasn't been done so far.

As for having an opinion, on the other hand, that usually depends on which remarkable circumstance one thinks is less implausible.

> How odd I can have all this inside me and to you it’s just words.

-- David Foster Wallace

It's not at all odd when you consider the bandwidths of the various channels involved.

even with infinite bandwidth, you cannot reduce all qualia to bits. especially feelings.

Subjectively, I don't feel like I can distinguish shades of joy or anger with infinite precision. I can't properly express my feelings the same way I can't properly express exactly where between blue and green a certain turquoise I'm looking at is. But I know a scientific instrument can give a number for the later and I don't feel I have any basis for ruling out the idea that some future scientific instrument can quantify the former.

> I know a scientific instrument can give a number for the later

For how a color looks to you, or just for the wavelength of light something emits?

I would have hoped that it was obvious from context I was talking about the later.

> They developed writing, as did we. But their writing soon began to no longer just mean what it said. For them, the writing was what it said and their words were what they meant. The flow of the language froze and they began to stack individual concepts one onto the other like stones. Their language lost its spirit. They were still very clever, but without spirit. They built the tower of their words higher and higher and converted everything magical, which they feared, into dead material, and filled it with new, spiritless life. But they completely control this undead material.

-- Albion ( https://i.imgur.com/8GHPl6S.png )

> Among the many forms of alienation, the most frequent one is alienation in language. If I express a feeling with a word, let us say, if I say "I love you," the word is meant to be an indication of the reality which exists within myself, the power of my loving. The word "love" is meant to be a symbol of the fact love, but as soon as it is spoken it tends to assume a life of its own, it becomes a reality. I am under the illusion that the saying of the word is the equivalent of the experience, and soon I say the word and feel nothing, except the thought of love which the word expresses. The alienation of language shows the whole complexity of alienation. Language is one of the most precious human achievements; to avoid alienation by not speaking would be foolish -- yet one must be always aware of the danger of the spoken word, that it threatens to substitute itself for the living experience.

-- Erich Fromm ( https://www.marxists.org/archive/fromm/works/1961/man/ )

What makes you think so?

I think he meant that consciousness is currently irreducible. Consider this:

1. Someone figures out in a lab all possible causes of fear via the surveying method. Fear seems solved.

2. New people appear that claim to experience fear when someone taps their left feet.

3. You have to redo 1. Therefore fear wasn't solved in the first place.

Replace "tapping left feet" with something more obscure, or fear with pain, to continue.

Underlying problem: you cannot compute the "preimage" of fear.

If I am following your line of argument, it would seem to apply to biology in general, which is not complete, yet which is effective at explaining lots of things, as well as able to assimilate new discoveries.

> why bad things are really actually bad.

In a material universe there is no objective good or bad.

In a material universe there is no objective good or bad.

I'm willing to bet that there's a sadist out there who, if they had you under their control, could eventually convince you there is definite objective bad.

And yet for every one of these sadists, a Viktor Frankl pops up to say "“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

I'd pull a nihilist into my lifeboat. I wouldn't be happy about it, though. If I had to choose Viktor Frankl or a nihilist, I'd choose Viktor Frankl. I wouldn't be happy about that either.

Pain is objectively bad. Even if in a greater moral system pain is necessary to balance things and so is "good" in that sense, even then it would be a necessary evil. (keyword evil) If there were a way without it, that would be better.

Pain is just a way that animals experience strong motivation. People born without the ability to feel pain have serious problems, because they don't make enough effort to avoid damage.

Regardless of any of that, it sure is interesting to be alive and human. We feel emotions, can talk to one another...it's all very, very wonderful and strange.

Would you then agree that the interactions that burn stars also produce a form of consciousness?

Yes, Consciousness is the result of the fundamental laws of the universe.

It's also an abstraction, a way to understand complex arrangements of matter, in the same way that a table is an abstraction: the matter in a table isn't made of table molecules, it's just that the way in which those molecules are arranged and stuck together makes them a table.

Could those stars then potentially have thoughts or actions?

It doesn't seem likely to me, since they aren't the kinds of physical processes that generate thoughts, so far as we understand it. The idea that composite objects like tables don't actually exist is called mereological nihilism.

I think your first paragraph is spot on. And why do people do that?

I also agree that your second paragraph is the logical conclusion of a materialist starting point - that is, the physical universe is all there is. There is really no other conclusion from that starting point.

But that leaves us with no free will (automatons don't decide anything).

It leaves us without love. (Real love is choosing to do what's best for the other person, and we can't choose. And even what we feel as love is just neurons and biochemicals doing canned mechanistic responses.)

It leaves is with no morals. (When a rock falls off a cliff, you don't say that it should have fallen differently, or not fallen at all. We don't think morals apply to mere material objects that are merely obeying the laws of physics, no matter how complex they are.)

It leaves us with no truth. (Our brains evolved to get a good enough answer fast enough, not to discover truth in any absolute, platonic sense. And when we "think", we're just letting those neurons do what they're wired to do, without knowing all the bugs in the hardware.)

But we also have years of experience of what it means to live as a human being. We experience choosing, loving, knowing that some things are right and others are wrong, and discovering truth. We know, via first-hand experience of living, that "complex automatons" does not adequately describe human life.

It's kind of like putting on a t-shirt backwards. It covers all the places that need covering, but it just doesn't fit. And no matter how you try to move it around and re-arrange it, it still doesn't fit. In the same way, the logical conclusions of the materialist starting point don't fit our experience of what it is to live as human beings.

This leaves us with two possible responses. The first is that, out of random chance, the universe has created complex automatons that have the experience of being (and the desire to be) more than automatons - to be genuinely personal, rather than just the impersonal plus complexity. Those perceptions are wrong, and those desires will forever be unfulfilled. It would be cruel, except that the universe doesn't have motivations, and to to call it cruel is a category error.

The second possibility is that the materialist starting point is mistaken - that there is more than merely matter and the laws of physics. This is what I believe. More strongly, I believe that our experience of living as humans is evidence that the materialist starting point is mistaken.

When the Bible says that God made man in His own image, it is saying something about this 21st-century argument. It is saying that there was a first there was personal, not impersonal, and that God (someone, not just something) created humans to also be someone, not just something. And therefore, our experience of being personal rather than impersonal is in line with what has always been.

You're confusing consciousness with free will.

There's indeed no free will (basic physics tells us that, can be also experienced directly via LSD or meditation), but to see if there's consciousness just inflict pain onto yourself.

All this being said it's pretty clear why would humans, or any other apes, or any other species, have morals - to reduce the pain/suffering that them and others receive.

Many would disagree with you about free will.


If we cannot trust our experience of free will then we cannot trust our experience of anything and there is no such thing as "basic physics". After all, basic physics requires that there be a physical world we can observe in such a way as to make true statements about it. If we cannot trust interior observations about choosing freely between alternatives then we certainly cannot trust exterior observations that are mediated through imperfect senses.

Furthermore, if there is no free will there is no morality, since all things are determined and you cannot do otherwise than what you do. (There is no morality involved in the bouncing of a cue ball off of a pool table wall).

> After all, basic physics requires that there be a physical world we can observe in such a way as to make true statements about it.

But that's the point of confusing free will with consciousness. You can experience something (that's the hot stove argument), and inference is perfectly possible for even today's computer algorithms to do (which are certainly not free). Even something as common as a virtual memory system deciding which pages to swap makes predictions/inference based on what it has seen in the past.

Morality is still a thing, much like there are worse and better paging algorithms. Think of it as mental models of how things work, much like the rest of science. In this view morality is a study of how things/consciousnesses feel.

Edit: another way to look at morality as a science is like this: assume most people genuinely don't want to cause suffering of others, and especially of themselves. But they can still cause harm by being simply wrong.


I highly recommend Sam Harris's "Free Will" and "The moral landscape"

how does basic physics tells us there is no free will? That is generally an argument about hard determinism which could be argued is invalidated by The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

Randomness does not yield freedom. A robot connected to a truly random source (like a decaying radioactive substance) is no more free than a fully deterministic x86 chip.

no but the fact that something is not deterministic would preclude the idea that 'basic physics says there is no free will'

Sorry but that is exactly what I meant: the world is a) either deterministic or b) partially deterministic and partially random (for example quantum), and in either of these cases there's no way you can construct free will agents.

Arguably the b) version is not simple physics, but that's what I meant.

I don't think it's a given that love, truth, and morals can't exist on top of a materialistic universe. When I download a cat picture from the internet I know it's just a lot of electrical impulses interacting, but this doesn't stop me from seeing the cat.

Try reading The Selfish Gene. Altruism is not always how it seems.

>I think the universe doesn't care about us

Aren't statements like this holding on to the idea of a higher power after the decline of religion? You're ascribing the capability of feeling to the universe.

That doesn’t follow at all. Rocks don’t care about us, and the reason that’s true is that rocks aren’t capable of feeling any way at all.

Moreover, even if the universe could properly be said to have feelings, that doesn’t entail anything about the existence of a “higher power”. Humans feel things, but that by itself is not proof or disproof of the existence of a “higher power”

I don't see how saying that it doesn't exhibit a feeling implies that it exhibits feelings.

Take the sentence - he doesn't like dogs. This implies that he has preferences and those preferences do not contain dogs. It is one thing to say the universe lacks consciousness, or that it is incapable of care because it is inanimate. It is another to give it a preference, saying it does not care about us.

Honestly, I think you're reading too far into the phrasing. Very few would infer that the author thinks there are things the universe does care about.

Isn't it explicitly refusing to ascribe a particular feeling (caring) to the universe?

Interesting questions. It makes me think of some things I read about how the brain integrates different sensory information into a seamless experience. I don't have a source for this, but the idea I remember is that nerve impulses from different sense organs arrive at different times due to the physical mechanism of propagation of the nerve signals. So the brain has to do a fair bit of post-processing to make our conscious experience seem fully integrated. That's why the sensation of touching our own finger and seeing ourselves touch the finger seem to correlate with the same moment in time. If our brains didn't do this, then things would seem all disjointed or perhaps entirely incoherent.

That got me thinking: if our brain constructs that portion of reality, perhaps it actually constructs the entire conscious experience of reality down to the minutest detail. So we're never "directly" experiencing reality but only our brain's constructed (and evolved) representation of it. Perhaps that is the explanation for why the universe appears to have four dimensions in our day to day experience: because that's the most advantageous representation of reality by some evolutionary metric. So the process of biological evolution has crafted the brain and the brain crafts the experience of reality which includes all the rules of logic, laws of physics, and perceived physical phenomena.

You could go out on a limb and perhaps even say that this explains how advances in pure mathematics often turn out to have some use in physics and vice versa; because mathematics (logic) and perceived physical processes are both rooted in the structure of the brain and are therefore rather intertwined even though the physical world appears to be separate from the mental world.

These ideas seem remotely similar on some level to what Dr. Tegmark is proposing: that the observer (or, the evolved observer as I'm saying) plays a much more significant role in the structure of the universe than anyone has admitted up to this point.

Welcome to the world of Immanuel Kant and George Berkeley. Yo have exceptional intuition to arrive at these conclusions independently.

Current natural science is practiced abhorrently in that it ignores such philosophical understandings of human knowledge which is over two centuries old and presupposes the subject has a 1:1 correspondence with the object - this a century after the double slit experiment!

I’m a bit more downstream and conceive of conscious activity more mathematically formally as a power-limited digital filter of sensory motion, which includes the discrete-time sampling of its action (“motion”) upon the body. Consciousness then is the quantization of the motion perceived.

Offtopic, but I really hate arXiv's page layout. Nowhere else is the link to primary content sequestered off to a sidebar. The abstract isn't that important and web pages aren't modern index cards with limited space. Horrible ergonomics with this site.

When I see a title with possibly overblown philosophical implications, I get cautious. When I see "Max Tegmark", it is a sign to close a tab.

While science, in general, suffers from overblowing implications (as in promising that given research revolutionizes everything, etc - to get credit and the next grant), he is an ace of that.

To contrast it with "YOLOv3: An Incremental Improvement" https://arxiv.org/abs/1804.02767 in which the author goes to the other extreme, being bluntly honest.

A computer running pre-programmed processes wouldn't be said to have consciousness. But what if one of the pre-programmed processes was for the computer to monitor all its own sub-processes, and dynamically re-direct them as necessary relative to pre-programmed higher level goals? Couldn't that machine be described as conscious?

Maybe, but imo there's an infinitely-recursive (up until hardware or wetware limits) nature of introspection to consciousness. I can reflect on reflecting on reflecting on reflecting etc etc, until I stack overflow. But on each level of reflection, I can do something useful wrt adjusting the processes that I am reflecting on.

I'm not sure how you could program this recursive nature unless you generalized what it means to be introspective. But by definition, introspection defines itself. The process of introspection has to also be aware of itself in order to "break out" to the higher level.

Maybe, but imo there's an infinitely-recursive (up until hardware or wetware limits) nature of introspection to consciousness. I can reflect on reflecting on reflecting on reflecting etc etc, until I stack overflow. But on each level of reflection, I can do something useful wrt adjusting the processes that I am reflecting on.

I don't see why one couldn't write program to do something - a subroutine that called-itself and analyzed some of the contents on up the stack in some vaguely useful way. One can pretty easily write a program that approximating satisfies most vague descriptions of consciousness. It doesn't "feel" like "real consciousness" but that brings up other questions.

Exactly. But to your last point, what are feelings if not data? For example, if the system was programmed to interpret feedback threatening its higher level goals as negative data (anxiety, fear) and feedback supporting its goals as positive data (happiness, joy), then feelings can very much be represented in the model.

"So, what about consciousness? As defined above, it is in fact the most certain knowledge there is. Pure awareness is not even possible to deny, since the very act of denial takes place in and as an activity of awareness. You can not escape or avoid it. Thoughts can of course imagine a brain that existed in the past without awareness, but that itself is a thought in awareness. One can doubt whether the thought refers to something true or real, but the awareness is unavoidable. This suggests that consciousness, not matter, is fundamentally real." -- Tom McFarlane, B.S. Physics, Stanford University

Ref: https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-basis-of-reality-matter-or...

Scott Aaronson has a good critique of s Giulio Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory. Very short version: https://youtu.be/cscRdv57oRQ?t=849

IIT is basically just hypothesis that defines consciousness by identifying it with certain information processing abilities that have lots of integration and can't be 'divided'.

When Aaronson points out some peculiar things having these abilities (like error correcting codes) Tegmark doubles down and says they are conscious and human intuition is wrong.

IIT explains very little, it just defines consciousness to be something.

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