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Is Matter Conscious? (2017) (nautil.us)
215 points by bryanrasmussen 28 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 266 comments

The neural network of nematode worms has been modelled in software, and a robotic avatar has been built for this "mind". It behaves very much like a real nematode worm.

Real nematode worms appear to be conscious to an extent, in so far as they forage for food and mates, and retreat from danger or threats. I don't think we would argue that nematodes have the same level of consciousness as we do. If the mechanical model also does this, it it conscious too?

We also know that different animals display different levels of consciousness, in many ways reflected by the amount of brain mass they posess; animals with far simpler brains appear, by and large, to be less conscious than animals with larger, more complex brains. We also know that damage to brains alters the properties of consciousness, as do interference with brain chemistry or electrical activity. It seems more likely that consciousness is an emergent property of the interactions between the physical structure of the brain/nervous system and electrical/chemical messaging.

I think that assuming matter has a special, magical property of "consciousness" is just re-hashing the unfalsifiable concept of a "soul".

With infinite time and infinite space, you could do all the computations required for the nematode worm neural network with a pencil and paper rather than an electronic computer. Would you say that this pencil and paper is now conscious?

Does the speed of computation cause emergence? How?

Does building a computer out of organic particles cause consciousness? How?

"Emergence" is mostly lazy thinking and lack of understanding the hard problem of consciousness.

Roger Penrose has some plausible ideas on this, not sure if they are correct, however to me it seems that they must happen at a sub-neural network level.

> you could do all the computations required for the nematode worm neural network with a pencil and paper rather than an electronic computer.


> Would you say that this pencil and paper is now conscious?

No. But your experiment involves "you with a pencil and a paper" where "you" is conscious.

> Does building a computer out of organic particles cause consciousness?

It's not necessary to use organic particles. We will probably soon build the electronic computer which will, from the perspective of the humans communicating with him, indeed behave "as a conscious person": soon we won't need you to write the answer you wrote, the computer will be able to make even better one.


> "Emergence" is mostly lazy thinking

Calling "emergence" lazy thinking is lazy thinking.

> and lack of understanding

... and lack of understanding of what emergence even means.

Emerging properties are everywhere and they don't have to have anything with humans or their behavior to be recognized:


"Temperature and pressure didn’t stop being real once we understood them as emergent properties of an underlying atomic description."

Yes, temperature is an emergent property.

>No. But your experiment involves "you with a pencil and a paper" where "you" is conscious.

Ok if it was mechanical computer, or an electronic computer what difference would it make ?

At what point does the computer start to have an independent experience of reality ?

To be clear I should mention I am not against consciousness emerging from physics, I don't think it is very likely that it emerges from computation at the level of neural networks.

Primordial consciousness is not an intuitive thing to understand. I see a lot of hubris and arrogance from people who conflate consciousness with computation or intelligence.

Are are lots of examples of computation without consciousness. So there is not much reason to think this other than the fact that our own brains are both conscious and perform computation (and even then the vast majority of the computation happens at a sub-conscious level)

>It's not necessary to use organic particles. We will probably soon build the electronic computer which will, from the perspective of the humans communicating with him, indeed behave "as a conscious person": soon we won't need you to write the answer you wrote, the computer will be able to make even better one.

Just because humans believe something is conscious doesn't make it conscious. The hard problem of consciousness is understanding why we have any experience at all. Consciousness is the illuminating quality of our minds, computation causes permutations in the nature of this experience, however it doesn't follow that it is what creates this experience to begin with.

> We will probably soon build the electronic computer which will, from the perspective of the humans communicating with him, indeed behave "as a conscious person": soon we won't need you to write the answer you wrote, the computer will be able to make even better one.

This is wrong. We are absolutely nowhere near anything even remotely resembling this.

No. We already have a complete nematode implemented as a computer program. We already have a realistic simulation of the living creature.

Twenty years ago the current output of Google Translate was a pure science fiction, compared to what it was possible then. Today it already often translates better than a lot of humans knowing both languages. Had anyone seen the output of Google Translate of today some 20 years ago, nobody would have believed it was produced by the machine. Note I don't say that it's always good. It's not. But it can produce amazing outputs already, which can't be recognized to be produced by a computer.

Also read about AlphaZero:


"AlphaZero was trained solely via self-play, using 5,000 first-generation TPUs to generate the games and 64 second-generation TPUs to train the neural networks. In parallel, the in-training AlphaZero was periodically matched against its benchmark (Stockfish, elmo, or AlphaGo Zero) in brief one-second-per-move games to determine how well the training was progressing. DeepMind judged that AlphaZero's performance exceeded the benchmark after around four hours of training for Stockfish, two hours for elmo, and eight hours for AlphaGo Zero."

Apparently, the computer learned chess better than the long developed programs by only playing the game with itself for four hours! And the programs are already better than humans there.

> We already have a complete nematode implemented as a computer program. We already have a realistic simulation of the living creature.

It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, "a complete nematode". It is very much a simple simulation that isn't at all close to the actual complexity of a living organism, even a worm. We can't even simulate a bacteria with the kind of fidelity required to claim that it approaches the complexity of a living organism.

> Twenty years ago the current output of Google Translate was a pure science fiction

I think you're giving google translate way too much credit. Compared to 20 years ago, yes, much has improved, but compared to a human native speaker it is pitiful.

> Also read about AlphaZero:

I am aware of Alpha Zero, it is an impressive but narrowly applicable use of machine learning that doesn't at all represent anything nearing the cognitive complexity of an animal. It is a complex achievement of applied statistics, not an intelligence. The "world" of Alpha go is a very strictly defined finite universe where the only possibilities are the clean and simple rules of the go board. Yes, the combinatorial explosion of potential moves is impractical to brute force, but ultimately the rules of go are so simple and discretely defined that its worthless as a comparison to a living intelligence.

>>Apparently, the computer learned chess better than the long developed programs by only playing the game with itself for four hours!


Basically the machine isn't exactly thinking. It simulates a model of thinking.

There lies the biggest difference.

Congratulations, you have re-discovered Searle's Chinese Room argument.

Couldn't you argue similarly in a paper and pencil simulation that you never create electricity, atoms, DNA and that all you have is pencil scratches on the paper?

Sure, we can distinguish the difference between computation and electricity, or computation and atoms etc.

However somehow we conflate computation with consciousness.

I think this is primarily because the human brain 1) performs computations 2) is also somehow related to consciousness in a way we don't quite understand.

However we have lots of examples of computation without consciousness (mechanical compuaters, electronic computers, cellular replication, slime molds, Cellular automata etc).

So why would it follow that consciousness emerges from computation? There is really no good reason to think this other than the fact that our brains are both computational and conscious.

Consciousness is the reason that there is some experience of reality rather than no experience of reality. It is not computational in nature one way or the other.

So overall I think the emergence theory is hubris, not sound thinking. The reality is we don't currently have a good solution to the hard problem of consciousness.

> just re-hashing the unfalsifiable concept of a "soul"

Yes. It comes from religiously inclined or deeply religious philosophers and “philosophers”. Once they fix they “belief” they search for any possible way to fit the reality, which otherwise wouldn’t support their belief, with their already pre-decided goal.

Even worse, the last time I’ve checked, nautil.us was financed by the people with such goals:


"The Foundation takes its vision from its founding benefactor, the late Sir John Templeton, who sought to stimulate what he described as “spiritual progress.”"

And, as a more obvious parallel, if you ever wondered who produces "Ancient Aliens" on History Channel, it's also non-accidentally the guy who wants more "spirituality", in his words:

"It’s really a show about looking for God. Science would have you believe we are the result of nothing more than a chance assemblage of matter" whereas "Ancient Aliens" "offers seekers an origin story."


Yes, both behind the "conscious matter" and behind https://knowyourmeme.com/photos/158327-ancient-aliens is a "spirituality" drive.

>>If the mechanical model also does this, it it conscious too?

That's a big 'If'. You really have to arrive at something working to even ponder upon that question. Right now you are at:

    if (false) {

I agree. I'd like to add that consciousness is an emergent property of the interactions between the agent and the environment. The environment is what feeds the agent with perceptions and reward signals, enabling learning to happen.

  If the mechanical model also does this, it it conscious too?
So, how would you answer your question?

Enough credible people have publicly considered the idea credible for me to open my mind.

But... I have to keep my mind open with a brace. otherwise, it'll call occam's razor & snap shut.

At the heart of consciousness particles ideas (I think) is the idea that conciousness can't emerge from nonconscious stuff. This is counterintuitive to me. We now know of all sorts of emergent phenomenon.

Species emerge (from other, sometimes simpler species) and that emergence dynamic turned slime into ND Tyson. Substances like coffee and coffee tables emerge from basic particle characteristics like charge (to borrow their example). Chemistry emerges from particle physics. Biology emerges from chemistry.

Can someone point me to the starting point? I must be missing something. Why can't non-conscious matter, arranged precisely, think?

They way that I've always thought about it is this:

We are the physics that drives us, everything else is an abstraction.

Chemistry as a thing didnt emerge from particle physics, it is an abstraction of particle physics, a higher-level view on how certain particles interact, and biology is an abstraction of chemistry, "when we combine certain chemicals this stuff happens". But if we take a moment, we zoom in and zoom in and we will find that the common denominator is that things exist in these ways because physics is doing what it does.

The insane rube-goldberg machine of the human body is still a rube-goldberg machine that is being driven by physics, theres millions of layers of complexity, but it's still physics all the way down.

> it's still physics all the way down

The existence of physics doesn't demonstrate that dualism is wrong.

How does Occam's Razor apply here?

You have evidence that some matter (yourself) experiences its existence. The simplest hypothesis that explains this is that all matter experiences its existence. Any hypothesis that posits that SOME matter experiences its existence and other matter does not requires two different kinds of matter (conscious and not) and a mechanism to switch between the two. Seems that hypothesis requires a lot more assumptions.

> You have evidence that some matter (your PC) can run Windows. The simplest hypothesis that explains this is that all matter can run Windows. Any hypothesis that posits that SOME matter can run Windows and other matter does not requires two different kinds of matter and a mechanism to switch between the two. Seems that hypothesis requires a lot more assumptions.

I don't think your rephrasing is very apt. "Some matter can run Windows" is only true because some humans configured matter into an arbitrary arrangement that we all agreed to label as "running Windows". There is no reason to speculate that all matter "runs Windows" since the definition of "running Windows" implies a specific configuration of matter.

So, you'd rather posit some mystical juju that makes matter gain consciousness, that somehow magically only happens to humans, and happens to matter when humans eat it, but yet is totally undetectable?

No I guess the parent's point is consciousness is inherent to all things. But it's just that it needs some minimal amount of biological configuration for it to manifest in a way that is meaningfully observable.

Which explain things like eating food(above minimal configuration) and death(Some cells die, failing the minimal configuration criteria).

Not all matter has to fend for itself in the environment. This constraint leads to evolution and consciousness. It's not magical, just self replicating.

All true and consistent. "All matter can run Windows" is indeed the simplest explanation. It's wrong, but still the simplest, per Occam's Razor, as CuriouslyC pointed out.

Occam's Razor does not abide false explanations.

>Requires two different kinds of matter (conscious and not)

This is just smuggling in the conclusion. We observe conscious matter and non-conscious matter. The simplest explanation (as in requires the fewest entities in our ontology) is that there is just one kind of matter and that physical processes that we already allow into our ontology for external reasons are sufficient to explain why some matter is conscious.

If you mean conscious as in "acts like a human" then sure. If you mean conscious as in "has an internal experience" then that doesn't follow at all.

It is an open question what exactly internal experience is. It is begging the question to say its obvious that physical processes cannot have internal experience. But if we have no information regarding whether physical processes can have internal experience, then it is reasonable to prefer physicalism on grounds of parsimony.

I'd say an important part of consciousness is learning. Without learning we would not even be able to make sense of what is in front of our eyes. A particle doesn't learn, so it can't be conscious.

What is learning?

A particle responds to its environment. A system of particles reconfigures itself in response to the environment, sometimes in a persistent way. That's all your brain is doing when it "learns"

Yes, while being threatened with extinction if they do it wrong. That's the key ingredient - self replication and natural selection. Keeps the learning honest to reality.

> Can someone point me to the starting point? I must be missing something. Why can't non-conscious matter, arranged precisely, think?

The hard problem of consciousness has a long history, but two of the most influential contemporary philosophers in that area are David Chalmers and John Searle.

> Why can't non-conscious matter, arranged precisely, think?

I think non-conscious matter arranged precisely can think. For example, food, arranged properly by the body, can become conscious. Also AI agents can be conscious as long as they are coupled to a complex environment and put under judicious constraints they have to optimise against.

thanks :)

Can you recommend an essay or paper by either that focuses on the "starting point." IE, why a "chemical computer" version of consciousness can't exist.

>>Why can't non-conscious matter, arranged precisely, think?

Consciousness is not same as being able to communicate. Let's say a rock is conscious, how would the rock go about informing us that it is conscious? It has no way of signaling its state. Or even a way of acquiring information about anything around it. Or may there is a way, of both signaling or acquiring information that is alien to us but not to other rocks.

"Let's say a rock is conscious," No, let's not.

Although I generally agree with you, I think there is a difference between the emergent property of a coffee table and that of consciousness: the particles the coffee table is made of are "just" matter, and so is the coffee table itself. But consciousness seems to be something different than matter (or maybe this is just a false assumption of mine). So while I find it intuitive that a table emerges from a number of particles, I think there is a qualitative difference between particles and consciousness.

You can zoom into a coffee table until you see individual particles, but what would it mean to "zoom into" a consciousness?

> but what would it mean to "zoom into" a consciousness?

You'd find good and bad situations - from the point of view of the body. Some situations are useful for life, other are detrimental. Consciousness guides actions towards useful situations.

Most questions of this sort remind me of "Can submarines swim?"

If we build an AI that can interact via natural human language, and ask it about its internal state, and it replies "I am happy.", is it happy?

And whatever criteria we use to decide that machines cannot really be happy the way we can be, could a hypothetical species that thinks at a "higher level" than us, use similar criteria to determine that humans can't really think?

An AI would have a goal, even if it is simple curiosity, and its happiness is related to the distance from its goal. It would evaluate each situation and action with regard to the goal and decide on actions that lead to it, learning from past mistakes.

'I am happy' is possible for us because we have an innate goal - to live, to reproduce, to maximise our rewards, rewards which have been programmed into us by evolution. AIs can have rewards and can learn to act towards them, thus they can have emotion which is just a map from the present situation to the goal.

I disagree with basically everything you just said. An AI might not have a goal. If it did, its happiness may or may not be related to the distance from the goal. It might not evaluate every situation and action with regard to it's (presumed) goal.

I don't think we do have a (single) innate goal. Everyone has different goals, and they are not innate.

Emotions are not a map from a present situation to a goal. AI might not have emotions.

> I don't think we do have a (single) innate goal.

Survival. And that includes many subgoals such as feeding, safety, autonomy, being part of a group, curiosity, and making offspring, all preprogrammed into the brain by evolution.

Artificial agents would have goals preprogrammed by humans instead, such as 'winning at Go'.

what about suicidal people? Are you saying they are not consious? Artifical agents _might_ have goals preprogrammed by humans, but I don't see that as a prerequesite for intelligence or self awareness.

This is one of the very few articles I've read about the nature of consciousness where the ideas presented are cogent, consistent, and novel (to me). She does a terrific job of explaining the current state of affairs in philosophy of mind, about as clearly as anyone could, and then describing a new paradigm.

Yes, I read it after reading the comments on this page, expecting a silly mess. But no, it was well-written, for that kind of piece - it's popular internet journalism, not a professional philosophy journal, people! For what it's worth, the 'matter is made from consciousness' view does seem unlikely in the extreme to me.

I thought it was strange the term '(philosophical) idealism' wasn't used once, as it seems that's what most of the article was describing. Maybe she didn't want to confuse people with the more common meaning of 'idealism' today (to do with ideals, not ideas). Russell was a Hegelian idealist for a few years in the mid-1890s, like a lot of British (and American) philosophers, and published a book on Leibniz in 1900. (It's probably not a great introduction to the subject, but David Stove's Idealism: A Victorian Horror-Story is a very funny long essay by the Australia philosopher, mostly ridiculing the arguments used in support of idealism, in detail. Stove's Gem - winner of his Worst Argument in the World competition[0] - is worth being able to recognize in the wild.)

[0] https://web.maths.unsw.edu.au/~jim/worst.html

"Maybe matter is made from waves/vibration could be more plausible?" Thinking about Quantum Double Slit Experiment and such.

Jürgen Schmidthuber (an AI researcher for those not familiar with the name) gave an interesting explanation what conciousness is in an AMA that he conducted in 2015 on Reddit.

I just submitted that in an extra thread [0] because it seems worth discussing.

[0] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19241278

Lex Fridman has a great interview with Jurgen here - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3FIo6evmweo

He presents this idea during the interview. It makes sense in a way. But it also makes me wonder if embodiment (whether real or virtual) of our models is necessary for them to fully grasp the contextual relevance of the information they are processing. E.g. does having a 'me' or 'I' provide a semantic anchor for everything that it processes and a 'router' if you will to get from seemlingly disconnected ideas.

Embodiment is absolutely necessary for consciousness - for physical realisation, learning and natural selection.

Here's a nice article touching on embodiment from the pov. of an AI researcher. https://medium.com/@francois.chollet/the-impossibility-of-in...


That’s a plausible explanation for a necessary condition for subjective experience, but it’s diffult for me to accept it as sufficient. The mechanism - like integrated information theory - could account for the easy problem of consciousness but not the hard problem of consciousness. A scientific theory of consciousness would make new predictions that can be tested. For example, if we take self-encoding to be actually representative of subjective experience, can we find a novel encoding that when triggered in a subject makes them report a sensation that they’ve never experienced before? That’s how new scientific theories that propose new entities like quantum ‘spin’ are tested. New fundamental entities must have new testable predictions otherwise they’re just-so stories.

That said, the easy problem is a path towards the hard one.

> A scientific theory of consciousness would make new predictions that can be tested.

The theory Schmidthuber mentioned is called Reinforcement Learning, a field of AI. RL also happens in biological agents, and we have known about it since Pavlov.

A 'prediction' of RL is AlphaZero, the agent that beat humans at Go. Using the theories of RL we managed to accomplish what seemed impossible, and it was not just brute force, it was based on an artificial evolutionary program of agents battling each other, using neural networks to learn from past experience. It's all captured in a nice formula: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bellman_equation

I think he's confusion consciousness for self awareness. That's not the hard problem that needs solving, it's actually one of the easy problems.

I think stating that there's a "hard problem of consciousness," which is not explained by self-awareness, is begging the question. We just kind of assume that there's something inherently special about qualia, raise them on a pedestal, and claim that they are unique to humans. Why assume that 'what it's like to experience the colour red' isn't just the experience of being aware that you're experiencing a red visual input?

Exactly, I just don't see what the problem is. I am not just experiencing this input. I am aware of the fact that I am experiencing this input. Or even I am aware of the fact that I am aware of myself experiencing this stimulus.

Also even a simple stimulus can have all sorts of context dependent meanings and associations. Is see red. That's the colour of blood, also the colour of one of my wife's dresses, and our car. There are thousands of cross-connections between that simple input and every level of my memory and emotional life all firing off in the rich chemical soup of my brain.

I just don't think the 'hard problem' is all that much of a step beyond the easy problems. Once you've solved those, the hard part looks a lot more tractable.

I think perhaps you're misunderstanding the hard problem. The hard problem is about why "experience" exists at all, why perceptions have a qualitative character that appears to be impossible capture using a third-party objective description, eg. a scientific or mathematical description.

Think about it: every way you would describe a subjective experience seems to eventually rely on a first-person statement at some point. The obvious way to resolve this is to deny that first-person perspectives actually exist, that they are an illusion, despite the fact that we can apparently directly observe their existence. So before we can accept this argument, we need an explanation for how this actually works. It's not something you can just hand-wave away.

And I'm with Dennett, that this is not really a problem but just a failure of imagination. That a description of a thing is not the thing itself is not a novel concept. I think the belief that there is a hard problem is just a new form of Vitalism.

> I think stating that there's a "hard problem of consciousness," which is not explained by self-awareness, is begging the question. We just kind of assume that there's something inherently special about qualia, raise them on a pedestal, and claim that they are unique to humans.

Merely asserting the existence of self-awareness or describing how self-awareness arises doesn't address any of the questions raised by qualia, even if they are an illusion.

Would you be able to explain some of these questions further?

It seems self-evident to me that there are only a few options:

- Human brains aren't conscious (which we humans tend to dispute)

- Human brains are conscious and have experiences as an inherent byproduct of accepting and processing sensory input which includes input on their own internal states (ie. there is no 'hard problem')

- Human brains are conscious through some other, as-yet-undescribed mechanism which operates in parallel with the systems described in the last option (a 'strange loop' separate from the 'mundane loop' of our normal feedback system)

- Human brains aren't inherently conscious and consciousness is imbued into them via some supernatural phenomenon (which feels like abdication to me - 'a wizard did it' is never a satisfying answer.)

I'm only an armchair philosopher so I'm well aware there may be some widely accepted conclusions on this stuff that I've just missed so far.

> - Human brains are conscious and have experiences as an inherent byproduct of accepting and processing sensory input which includes input on their own internal states (ie. there is no 'hard problem')

My point was that even concluding this were true basedo n some compelling evidence, it still doesn't explain all of the strange qualitative aspects of our subjective experience. There's a lot missing that needs to be explained. For instance, such an explanation would have to address p-zombies, Mary's room, and other philosophical puzzles. I think it's possible to do so, but there is an explanatory gap that needs filling.

Qualia are not just a human thing. Think of Nagel's seminal paper What is it like to be a bat?

Good point. Which makes it even more bizarre that there's any question whether animals can be self-aware.

This is interesting, very interesting take, but it still doesn't explain where _other_ people's consciousness comes from. Through reductive reasoning, it doesn't explain why calculators and any matter shouldn't have consciousness.

A calculator processes maybe 64bits, in a machinery that is rather limited, certainly not enough to emulate it's environment, unless a more complex machine operates it.

However, bits, information and software have the same problem as math that was mentioned in the article. And that is that they are abstract and relational, unlike the concrete qualities of experiencing color, pain, a dream, etc.

So I doubt that any amount of bits will do any good, just like no math equation is going to become conscious. What would it even mean for an equation or bits of information to have conscious experiences?

However, voltages, ion channels and chemical messengers have the same problem as math. They are abstract and relational, unlike the concrete qualities of experiencing color, pain, a dream, etc. So I doubt that any amount of neurons will do any good, just like no math equation is going to become conscious.

I think you're confusing the components of a map with a characteristic of the territory. We use 'bits' and 'equations' to describe the world. They do not themselves have conscious experiences, any more than a neuron. They are convenient components in a model of a larger system, which has consciousness or self-awareness as an emergent characteristic of the interactions of its components.

This is like saying that because an individual spring or gear cannot tell time that a mechanical watch is an impossibility... The characteristic of interest 'maintenance of time keeping' emerges from the complex interactions of a variety of subcomponents, each of which alone has no reference to time.

That's nonsense. A large part of maths is having the right feel for it, numbers are--paradoxically--qualitative.

An equation is the application of a join operator, a formula is an operation, thought is operating and you are just thinking of lines scribled on paper instead.

You're confusing the feel of doing math in your head with it being applied to describe something, which is abstract. A mathematical model isn't the thing itself.

Calculators don't contain a representation of themselves, and since he thinks that's fundamental to consciousness, how could they be so?

> Through reductive reasoning, it doesn't explain why calculators and any matter shouldn't have consciousness.

Why shouldn't it?

Does consciousness produce any measurable effect? For a time I thought consciousness is some kind of by-product of some kinds of computation which doesn't influence the computation itself. But how can I then know that I am conscious? And if I know that I am conscious, then consciousness must have a measurable effect, right? Because the knowledge that you are conscious should be reflected somewhere in your brain.

However, whenever I think about consciousness, I have the feeling that I am missing something obvious but important. It's just so confusing.

> Does consciousness produce any measurable effect?

In the morning when you wake up do you make a sandwich? If you didn't have consciousness, you wouldn't. So your body would cease to exist in a short time. Consciousness has measurable effects - every time it saves us from hunger, danger, and other bad situations, or when it leads us to good situations.

But theoretically you could just as well be a philosophical zombie, getting up and making a sandwhich. Electrical lights on in the brain but no light of consciousness.

You're describing intelligent decision-making and prudent action, not consciousness.

We are conscious even when doing nothing, and computers show us that systems showing some sort of 'intelligence' needn't be conscious.

(I'm being very imprecise about the meaning of 'intelligence' here, mind.)

Following that logic, a robot vacuum that can have itself charged is conscious?

It's at least conscious of its energy.

Nice interview with Phillip Goff on CBC Ideas: https://www.cbc.ca/amp/1.4822151 . He reiterates B Russell's point: The least extraordinary thing we know is that we're aware of nature, and we're made of the same natural substances that make up the external world. Therefore the extraordinary claim is that there can be no consciousness outside of the body. In other words, it requires extraordinary evidence. He makes the conventional dismissive attitude sound pretty chauvanistic. It's a good interview.

I think opinions like these ignore the immense complexity of the animal brain compared to other natural materials. We are not made of the same stuff as the rest of the external world—living things have a very precise configuration of cells and connections, and the slightest deficiencies or disturbances lead to complete loss of consciousness

Exactly. The sand on the beach and a CPU are made of the same stuff too, but arguing that therefore beach sand can compute is obviously absurd. The consciousness of all matter is just as obviously absurd.

But beach sand DOES compute, once treated and arranged in a certain way.

The ability to compute is present in all matter. The ability for consciousness is present in all matter in the same way.

Perhaps these abilities are one and the same.

I can cut down a tree, mill it into lumber, and build a house out of it. It does not follow from this that a tree is a house. Once a tree is "treated and arranged" in the particular way that turns it into a house it is no longer a tree. Likewise, once beach sand is "treated and arranged" in the particular way required to make it compute, it isn't beach sand any more.

> The ability to compute is present in all matter.

No, it isn't. If you think it is, tell me how to build a computer out of a single hydrogen atom.

What if your consciousness exists outside your physical brain, and within your brain is basically an aerial that is "tuned to your frequency", so no matter where you are your brain will always communicate with the same consciousness. I suppose with that theory comes the ability for two brains to tune into the same consciousness, and various other fun implications. Is there already a name for this?


Or ‘Mind-body dualism’ to disambiguate with other uses.


This is pretty close to the filter theory or transmission theory of consciousness, described by William James and FWH Myers over a century ago.

In their view, consciousness is far more vast than we are aware of, and our brains filter most of it out in the same way that they filter out all kinds of stimuli they deem unimportant to physical survival. All kinds of physical events can affect the parameters of the filtering: near-death experiences, psychedelic drugs, deep meditation, stroke, hunger...essentially anything that changes the brain modifies which parts and how much of the spectrum of consciousness gets through to an individual’s experience.

Another fun implication if it really were aerial-like, is that our consciousness would have a sort of "maximum bandwidth".

I think this theory is actually pretty convincing. It would be awful if you were conscious of every single thing your brain did, including all your subconscious thoughts and motor neurons firing.

That is why you are conscious of much more specific things like vision, hearing, touch and so forth. Generally the signals within your brain would be akin to random data, so surely they would be post-processed by your brain into a useful contiguous "conscious-ready" signal.

That post-processed signal would probably be sent from one location, and therefore the aerial analogy works well. When you go under general anaesthetic, that specific part of the brain would stop transmitting completely and you don't experience a single thing until it wears off and it starts transmitting again.

When you sleep and dream, the signal is just a mess of neatly post-processed signals coming from different parts of your brain, so you are still basically conscious.

I read somewhere that if you stimulate a particular part of someone's brain, it can make them temporarily unconscious, which would make sense with the aerial analogy.

If that's how it works, then maybe our sense of time passing is directly proportional to the amount of data sent. So if your brain transmits a lot of stuff in a short time, that short real-time seems like a long conscious-time, and vice versa.

It's clearly a flawless theory ;)

In the same vein, there are theories that subunits of our brain are conscious in their own right. And if the visual cortex could communicate itd say "Stop showing me cat memes!!" :-)

What if we all share the same consciousness, but are simply unable to comprehend it? To me the idea that all concious entities are in fact shared is comforting, because it implies that what we do with our lives will always be remembered. Even after our lives end, our singular consciousness, with all of our memories, thoughts and feelings, remains.

It is called the mind-body duality.

> And a radical change it truly is. Philosophers and neuroscientists often assume that consciousness is like software, whereas the brain is like hardware. This suggestion turns this completely around. When we look at what physics tells us about the brain, we actually just find software—purely a set of relations—all the way down. And consciousness is in fact more like hardware, because of its distinctly qualitative, non-structural properties. For this reason, conscious experiences are just the kind of things that physical structure could be the structure of.

I'm not sure I buy the thesis, that conscious experience is the "hardware" and the brain is the "software".

It's hard for me to understand how a rock is ultimately comprised of conscious experiences, at its most fundamental level.

The attempt to tie together the "hard problem of consciousness" with the "hard problem of matter" comes across a bit square-peg/round-hole to me.

If I had to take a wild guess at these-

Hard problem of matter: it really is just vibrating strings at the bottom, and this is indeed where physical reality and math become indistinguishable. Blows the mind, and still so much more we can learn.

Hard problem of consciousness: I wish I knew more about the evolution of nervous systems, how can we tell when chemistry/biology becomes conscious thought? It's clearly some kind of feedback loop. In the future we could safely & non-invasively study the "bootstrap sequence" for various species brains as they make their first neural signals, from the earliest stages.

I really think we can solve this, or get a lot closer, but it will require some far-future technologies.

Being a rock would be a much heavier experience, weighted with the gravity of expectations for it to support the structures of shorted lived beings.

For an entertaining examination of the question of consciousness and its implication for philosophers, I recommend Rupert Sheldrake's lecture here:


I recall as a child once that I literally thought the following:

> I can accept that the universe can give rise to agents with RI or AI. I can even accept that as a consequence of this, some of these agents may have self awareness. I am such an agent. Yet, I struggle comming to terms with the fact that "I" am aware of myself.

I wish I could live long enough to find out how.

Yeah. I think a lot of people have that issue.

I have read about and understood a lot of physicalist theories of consciousness, but I have yet to see one that explains my subjective bubble of experience. I could see how this is all an illusion, but I can't see why I can perceive it then, why I have these vivid subjective experiences.

Conciousness is really quite odd, especially because I realized that most of the important functions in the brain are unconcious.

I don't find dualism satisfying either; it is not a testable theory.

> I don't find dualism satisfying either; it is not a testable theory.

I understand the sentiment here, but I also think we should be careful when it comes to the assumption that the truth -- whatever it happens to be -- will be a testable theory. Whether or not something is true is a fact independent of larger epistemological concerns.

Then again, perhaps you're just saying that if the truth turns out to be non-testable, then the truth won't be satisfying, which is a reasonable position (and I might agree).

Maybe the understanding you are looking for is something that the mind is not interested in. You can hardly formulate the question and the only fair answer is to tell you to not ask the question before you get lost in it. The mantra of yoga and all that jazz was to stop wondering, to find focus. Finding the right words and understanding the problem are two orthogonal problems. Dualism is a good word, and separation is essential to learning. The consciousness just observes the subconsciousness, not the outside world. In that sense, dualism makes perfect sense, but it's only testable by introspection. Empathy helps recognizing that behavior in others. Recognition and socializing is much more important for consciousness than seeing. Even single celled organisms can detect light, but that doesn't count as consciousness. Yet we might call plants our friends, figuratively, and "theory" derives from a root "to perceive".

Over time, our picture of the universe become more clear with more understanding. If you think about the direction we are heading, you might imagine the picture becomes so clear, that the act itself enters into the picture of the universe and you find yourself staring into a mirror.

Mirrors only show pictures of the past, even if that means only pico to nanosecond differences here on earth

We experience the present when looking into mirrors in our telescopes, in our bathroom or our current science literature. The present changes as fast as our brain changes. Our mirror appears to be getting clearer over time as we refine the science.

Panpsychism is exciting. But there are two problems in it. One is the combination problem: what sort of collection of atoms are conscious and what are not. If you propose then that only agents or complex systems are conscious, you are faced with the second problem: the boundary condition. What do you call an agent, and why?

I’m ultimately hopeful that subjective experience will come to be seen as something fundamental. But the difficulty is that we can’t just make up new entities / concepts in the world that don’t agree with current scientific facts. So such a science of consciousness has to be compatible with modern findings of neuroscience and psychophysics.

It’s exciting times! Let’s hope that we’re able to get a grip on this question of why we have this subjective experience of red colour.

I think panpsychism argues that everything is conscious, at all levels, simultaneously. There are no boundaries. What you experience as a boundary is just the limit of your awareness. Just as you don't consciously beat your heart or heal your wounds. And if you think about it a lot it's tough to really tell where your own boundary brain/body ends and the environment begins.

I like the panpsychism stuff because it resolves some other problems as well 'the transporter problem' - are you the same person after transporting star trek style? Under panpsychism it doesn't matter because you are unawarely everything anyways.

Also the 'the split problem' - say I separated you atom by atom to create two new people with half your parts - which one would you be? or both simultanously? or none? Panpsychism makes answering these questions easy as it argues that you are unawarely both.

A lot of people are trying to explain how we are discreet entities that arise from non-discreet pieces. Trying to figure out where boundaries end/begin. When do you become conscious. What is conscious and what is not. The paysychism theory explains all these things in the other direction by saying nothing is discreet. The sense of discreetness may as well be an evolutionary illusion for the survival of my bag of atoms.

Who knows what is true though, it'd be a breakthrough if there were a way to experimentally validate any of these theories..

I don’t disagree with the problems you describe, but I don’t think panpsychism explains any of these problems either. It’s a non-answer, and functionally equivalent to saying nothing about consciousness. The “evolutionary illusion” you describe is precisely what we’re trying to understand: the brain is doing an extraordinary magic trick and no one knows how.

Given what artificial neural networks are already capable of, it shouldn't seem like a magic trick what our own brains are capable of (from the outside).

The hang up is on the inside right? You have an essence to your consciousness experience that you believe a fly, bacteria, rock, computer, artificial neural network may or may not have.

Panpsychism does answer that question by saying yes, they all have some sliver of consciousness. Two atoms bumping together at some level experience the interaction.

I agree the theory doesn't have answers as to how or what the essence of consciousness is. But I definitely seeing it as a stepping stone towards that goal.

Simply answering a question with "Yes" without providing evidence or a deeper explanation seems pretty useless and like no additional knowledge was gained.

Pansychism seems to explain a lot of the hard questions. Even without a deeper understanding than 'there is a single conscious and you are a piece of it', simply thinking that way changes the understanding of life/death. You are unknowingly everyone. Punching a guy is on some level punching yourself. The afterlife is irrelevant, when you die you go on existing as the other 7 billion humans, plus animals, etc... This is why philosophers and neuroscientists alike a so excited about the idea and writing papers about it.

I'm curious, could you list the things that you think Anns can do that underpin your argument?

Well, that might just be because there's not actually much to say about consciousness. If you strip all the things we know it's not (memory, thoughts, etc) we're actually left with very little, if anything.

I think this is also what some meditation based philosophies are trying to teach. That is, they're saying something along the lines of: you are in one way everything at once, but you are not any of the things you think you are. They spend a lot of effort trying to teach people, essentially nothing. Not just the label "nothing" but something like a deep realisation of the concept.

My main problem with this philosophy is figuring out why we're conscious of a very specific subset of things at a time. Does the brain create a kind of nexus where several items of complex information are available in a small physical, and that makes it easy to be conscious of these things at once? But what limits it?

And the other problem is the link between consciousness and action. Most actions seem like a product of cause-and-effect.. but at the very least it seems that the existence of consciousness is making us talk about consciousness.

Even when you strip out those other concepts, which you probably shouldn't, there is an underlying element of conscious awareness that is not "nothing," but an awareness of nothing, like the "I" in "I think therefore I am."

My problem is that people confuse talking poetically about consciousness with actually coming to a conclusion about how this thing works.

Maybe I misunderstand the concept, but when we are newly born we are somewhat not conscious in the usual sense of self. In that theory does it mean we, or our atoms are already conscious but we dont have the awareness yet? Because our brain is first producing a trick of the perception of self once it is fully developed?

In the spiritual world many advanced people have had these experiences of oneness with the world once they learn to fully strip the mind from all conditioning and cocneption of self. So it seems to me like the concept of embodied swlf and consciousnes are two things that can be seperated. Does that make any sense?

You are hitting the right target. Looking at recurrent neural nets. Finite impulse responses. A consciousness experience is merely a transformation of external reality over time and space. It can tangle the left leg with the thumb, the past with the present. For simple entities, like electrons, their lack of memory means that entanglement will be extremely basic. For more complex things that involve more tangled transformations of reality through space and time, thatll mean a greater amount of awareness of the center of that tangle.

For us, the center of the tangle is our bodies, located, and present. But like you said, babies are very much just passthroughs like the electron. The only difference is that they are storing a ton, the storage just isnt being used in any capacity, its passively sitting there. As the storage begins to become used, and sent to interfere with the present and future inputs, then self awareness results in the form of the intersection.

Good observations..!

I like it aesthetically, but fundamentally I think it dodges the question. It dilutes consciousness to be mostly unconscious, and then it can be applied to anything.

I like the idea that everything is conscious, but without diluting what consciousness is. It's anthrocentric and magical, thinking that atoms have inner monologues and concepts of self, but it's better defined than the panpsychist consciousness as you describe it.

Like most philosophies, pansychism has multiple flavours. To me, the combination problem is concrete. The physical location of my awareness seems to be inside the head and not my hand, even though both are made of atoms. ‘Everything is conscious’ fails to account for that.

The only reason your awareness seems to be inside of your head is because your head and face is your primary interface with the world, where the core of your senses reside and is, therefore, your default state.

You can test this hypothesis by practicing a meditation technique called "body scanning" where you allow your awareness to focus into various parts of the body, leaving your head and indeed entering your hand for example.

As an aside, I wonder if Helen Keller's default location of awareness was in her hands because they were her interface with the world? It seems unlikely to me that it would be in her head/face but I really have no idea.

I doubt that meditation techniques would allow you to stay conscious after something destroys your brain.

Center of awareness isn't about where you have your CPU (that's always in the head) - it's about where your perceived "self" is. I remember reading from his biography that Feynman successfully learned to move it around, within and outside of his body, through those meditation techniques. This neatly accounts for OOBEs, making them nothing special too.

EDIT: to be clear, I'm arguing that the perceived location of your "self" is just that - a perceived location. An arbitrary frame of reference that defaults to one's head, but can be moved around. I.e. something worthless as evidence for panpsychism.

Just because we perceive something doesn't make it real. I think that's the issue here. By what mechanisms do we prove the perception is congruent with reality?

I believe this was all in response to the idea that “it _feels_ like consciousness is in the head/brain” being an argument against panpsychism.

That one can do things such that it _feels like_ one’s consciousness is elsewhere, seems to go against that point?

Though, a similar point of “if a person loses their head, their consciousness seems to go away. Their hands do not move independently.” And “ If, as panpsychism claims, their hands are also conscious, what must it be like for their movement to be directed by consciousness outside of itself?”

It feels like such only because the eyes, nose, and number of nerves in the head and face. If the sensors were centered elsewhere, it might feel like it were elsewhere...

> I believe this was all in response to the idea that “it _feels_ like consciousness is in the head/brain” being an argument against panpsychism.

I'm trying to argue against panpsychism by noting that the place where it "feels like" consciousness is is completely arbitrary and one can learn to move it around, so this feeling is useless as evidence for panpsychism.

As grim as it is, and depending on your degree of skepticism: craniotomy, psychoactive drugs, concussions, etc..

Reminds me of the scene in Ex Machina where he cuts himself to make sure he still bleeds - a physical realization of a turing test.

The physical awareness of the self used to be in the chest during the centuries where people thought the brain is just a blood-cooling organ.

Ask some small children where their self is, and some of those who haven't be told much about the brain will point to the chest or another location.

If these conscious experiences of particles are entirely encapsulated within them, and not manifested in their external behaviour, then I don't see how any form of aggregate consciousnesses could form. If the atoms of my body are conscious, what does that have to do with the consciousness of my brain? It can only be relevant if those consciousnesses interact or merge or coalesce in some way, and how can they do that without interacting beyond the interactions described by physics?

Clearly my consciousness has physical consequences. I am an active agent and act consciously. Therefore if my consciousness is composed of these, then the consciousness of those particles must have physical, measurable consequences that should be testable.

The fact that this line of reasoning is entirely absent from any of these philosophical ruminations is I think telling.

Like Fourier analysis, every component sine wave is conscious, and every possible superposition of sine waves is also conscious. It's turtles all the way down.

What does it mean for an atom, an electron, a sine wave to be conscious? What can it perceive, consider, how can it act? But those are awarenesss, reason, agency... distinct from "consciousness".

Just because an entity cannot assert itself, does not mean it is not conscious.

> Just because an entity cannot assert itself, does not mean it is not conscious.

This does not give any more purchase on the world than we currently have. It’s similar to saying that just because we have never seen laws of physics change, it doesn’t mean they can’t change. Of course, that may or may not be true. But would you bet on sun not rising tomorrow? New scientific theories / entities must have give us additional predictive power (grip) than what’s currently possible. Otherwise why invent new assumptions?

For sure. The one thing it does is "solve" the problem of consciousness in a surprising, entertaining, and absurd way.

But at this point, what are you actually saying? What does turtles-all-the-way-down consciousness actually pick out? I have a hard time seeing it as informative. That is, the statement "everything is conscious" is doing no work for you in describing the thing in question.

I'm merely elaborating/expanding to show the extremity of "everything is conscious".

For anyone else reading this comment and curious about Buddhism and Panpsychism, here are some links. Buddhism suggests that the perception of the boundary of the self (I am a distinct, separate being) is a delusion/wrong view. Perhaps we experience a shared universal consciousness (with discreet elements?) passing through ourselves like a river with drops of water flowing through it, evaporating, and then falling somewhere far away?

"Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen Buddhism, went so far as to say, “All is sentient being.” Grass, trees, land, sun, moon and stars are all mind" https://www.lionsroar.com/christof-koch-unites-buddhist-neur...

"It’s like a cloud. Even when the cloud is not there, it continues always as snow or rain. The cloud does not need to have a soul in order to continue. There’s no beginning and no end. You don’t need to wait until the total dissolution of this body to continue—you continue in every moment." https://engagedharma.net/2017/07/05/thich-nhat-hanh-there-is...

More here... https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism_and_Western_philoso... https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panpsychism

>Perhaps we experience a shared universal consciousness

Yes, with just different perspectives - I figure it's all just a projection of it's vibrations.

Excellent! Thanks! Do you have any links for those curious about witchcraft and voodoo?

Ask and you shall receive:

"Followers of voudon also believe in a universal energy" https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-ancient-traditions/o...

"Many Neopagans worship Gaia... Gaia was the great mother of all... However, the goal-directed behavior of the biosphere, as explained by the Gaia theory, is an emergent function of organised, living matter, not a quality of any matter. Thus Gaia theory is more properly associated with emergentism than panpsychism... Panpsychism also plays a part in Hindu, Buddhist, Dzogchen and Shinto mysticism, and for that matter in most if not all Animistic Native Religions, and Mother Goddess Cults, like Pachamama, in the Andes, Rhea, for the Greeks, Durga, or Kali for the Hindus, Nerthus, for the Germanics, Dea Matrona, for the Gauls, Ninhursag for the Sumerians, Tuuwaqatsi for the Hopi, Nut, or Isis for the ancient Egyptians, etc. It will be hard to find a place on Earth were the ancient goddess has not being worship." https://konekrusoskronos.wordpress.com/2013/01/26/gaia-panps...

Any links for Americans curious about sarcasm?

Would one not just infer the universe is conscious?

There is no boundary problem then, just one of degree.

Seems silly, but everything has a point of view and whatever level of complexity it has determines what consciousness it presents.

A rock has very little complexity. It literally is just an expression. What has happened to it equals what it is.

When something has enough complexity to be aware of the boundary between "it" and everything else, then we have a being of some kind.

Little organisms, insects, plants, all continue to present surprising behavior to us. Bees can do basic math, what nothing is.

And plants. They are slow, by their nature, but we are finding they communicate in ways.

Animals are a lot like us, just simpler.

>It’s exciting times! Let’s hope that we’re able to get a grip on this question of why we have this subjective experience of red colour.

Seconded. We may find there are rules, that experience may be predicted, or at least better understood.

> When something has enough complexity to be aware of the boundary between "it" and everything else, then we have a being of some kind.

Exactly. This agency idea is appealing because it seems to unify a number of other ideas: from evolution (survival), autopioesis, active inference and Bayesianism. Without sounding too much of a crackpot, I hope we’ll be able to import subjective experience as a necessary component in the universe.

Interesting thoughts.

I personally hope they are not as subjective as we see today. Perhaps there are reasons why, say red, appears as it does.

A ruleset there would, to me at least, be profound. While it may remain impossible to directly convey thoughts, impressions, we may well end up with far better language to work with and see commonalities we do not today.

Re: agency

A thing aware it is a thing, may be the root of real AI too.

I have long thought these disjointed, brain in a jar essentially, experiments lack that. No body, no closed loop with themselves, no sense of being = no agency.

We may also find intelligence is rooted in an interest, need to exist, or just be an expression.

By that, I mean what I did above. A rock is essentially what has happened. Information in matter form, a record.

Agency, is meta. Beings see expressions, the world, and due to their nature, being sufficiently complex, have an interest, themselves, their kind, apart from the world and it's undulating history.

>>When something has enough complexity to be aware of the boundary between "it" and everything else, then we have a being of some kind.

Not necessarily. Humans learn anything through inputs of sight, sound, feeling and smell. Different conscious bodies could have different ways of learning about things around them, and hence a totally different model of reality around them.

They can't tell us anything about their consciousness for the same reasons why we can't talk to stones.

That does not change their state of being.

How they get the data is a matter of their nature, not whether they are beings.

I also did not speak to their state, only what may define actually having one, as opposed to being something simpler, an expression as I put it above.

We can get the message of the stone, the stone also is changed by us having done it. It literally is what happens to it.

There is that.

Your use of the term agent is I think telling. An agent is something that acts, and in this context I think it's fair to extend it to say that it acts consciously, yet under panpsychism all these conscious particles are not agents in any active sense at all. Their ‘awareness’ is a hidden variable with no external consequences, because all of their interactions are deterministic as described by physics. A 'conscious' photon doesn't decide to interact with an atom, or choose to be reflected or not by a semi-mirrored surface.

But if that is so, how can assemblies of such particles form any kind of aggregate consciousness? How can the conscious experiences coalesce if they cannot interact? If the interactions of the particles are described only by physics, as seems to be the case, then the fact they are individually conscious in some sense is irrelevant because that can have no consequences for the behaviour or even the ‘experience’ of the assembly. Imagining otherwise is to invoke some sort of psychic or spiritual connection, but then if that connection has any physical consequences at all then it can’t really in any meaningful way be separate from physics. If it's not separate, then it's measurable and we should be able to make falsifiable claims about it and tests for it.

So I don’t see how this flavour of panpsychism (dual aspect monism) can actually help illuminate or resolve the problem of _our_ consciousness at all, or any of the philosophical problems and questions associated with it, even in principle.

We humans draw this boundary all the time. We do it based on an entity's I/O behavior, and in particular, the complexity of interactions that it is possible to have with it.

Agency is not a binary quantity. A normal adult human is an agent, and a blastocyst is not, but there is no bright line where agency is bestowed. It happens gradually.

None of this is a deep mystery. The only thing that is mysterious is how the transition happens. But panpsychism is just absurd.

Just out of curiosity, why did you pick "red color" as your canonical example of subjective experience? The reason I ask is that it seems to pop up much more often than random chance would predict.

Curious: why do you say pansychism is absurd?

Red colour is something which has sort of become a canonical example of subjective experience. Nothing special about it - could have been blue :)

Because it's just obvious that consciousness and subjective experience are not properties of matter, they are properties of very particular arrangements of matter. A CPU is made of the same stuff as beach sand, but a CPU can compute and beach sand can't. Or take your laptop (or your brain) and hit is with a sledge hammer. All of the atoms that were there before this procedure are still there after. Do you really want to argue that nothing essential is lost in this process?

That means this has more to with ability to communicate/signal your consciousness. For example if a rock is conscious, how would it inform us that it is?

Without the ability to communicate, consciousness means nothing at all. Then of course communicate how? Hand signals, hand writing or voice are equally mystical forms of communication given that these are waves(light and sound). That's already Telepathy category. We just don't feel it as magical because every one can do it.

I'd imagine for a humanoid species without ears or even a idea that something like sound wave would exist, talking would be synonymous with Telepathy.

> That means this has more to with ability to communicate/signal your consciousness.

Communication is the only data you have to support the theory that there are conscious beings other than yourself. Hypothesizing a conscious being that can't communicate at all (not to be confused with the temporary inability to communicate brought on by sleep or locked-in syndrome) is like hypothesizing an invisible leprechaun living in your pantry.

Then the real problem is how do we communicate with a rock?

That's right. I think you should start working on solving that right away.

Just for fun, what exactly is meant by "agent" and how is a human one?

My favourite explanation of the emergence of consciousness inherent in matter is an article by Elizabeth Grosz. It makes an argument for what i guess is a version of panpsychism that sounds, philosophically, very practical.


"Except you were not replying to the nautilus article, you were replying to the one i posted by Grosz"

Good point - there are so many cranks around I lose track.

I had a look at the Grosz article. I have never seen such pure excrement in word form. Can I get a job at Duke if I publish used toilet paper?

I think the following waffle in the article is beyond the Standard Model and therefore contradicted by the physicist's argument:

"It will be my claim here that materiality, bare matter, matter not in its simplified form but before being animated by life, is nevertheless always involved in and invested by incorporeal forces, forces of potential sense, forces of virtual significance that living bodies, in elaborating their own ends or finality, affirm and develop"


It is not contradicted. That comment is not science, it is just speculation (or philosophy if you wish). It is a grave fallacy to think that just because speculation is performed by a scientist, that speculation is science or "observation".

At our current understanding of consciousness we have no way of observing its presence or absence except subjectively. So at this point there is no scientific way of either proving or disproving that a carrot have consciousness.

You may think it is "obvious" that a carrot does not have consciousness. Which is fine, but that doesn't make the opinion science. For what it is is worth I intuitively think consciousness requires a complex brain, but I recognize I cannot prove or disprove it given our current understanding.

Mmmmm, no, the Standard Model is hard science. Even if you assumed that matter was "made of consciousness" you cannot make use of that assumption in explaining consciousness arising from matter in a brain. As only the properties of matter observed in the Standard Model can be appealed to at the energy levels in a brain. According to a professional physicist. Not my argument.

Are you saying the Standard Model is not empirically true???

> According to a professional physicist.

This is your fallacy right there.

Science is a process and method. If a professional scientist performs philosophy it does not automatically become science due to the persons job title. And vice versa.

Empirically verified physics, not philosophy, does not allow any properties of matter to be appealed to when trying to explain consciousness in the human brain other than those described in the Standard Model. You can assume that matter is made of consciousness or chocolate or whatever you like, but you cannot use that assumption in trying to explain consciousness in a brain according to the results of the Standard Model. Got it???

If you think this physical fact is not true, then explain why. Though I think your time would be better spent familiarising yourself with McDonald's menu for your future career rather than pondering difficult questions about consciousness...

The paper i posted makes no such claims. It build up an idea of human consciousness as an emergence from the inherent properties of the interactions of elements, chemical bonds and environment.

That human consciousness is a function of the boundary between the brain and the environment across which senses pass; the internal processes virtualising the external environment. The human consciousness then also has awareness of itself, sensed across the boundary, and re-virtualised within; akin to Hofstadter's loop.

At the same time, Grosz breaks down the concept of consciousness in the other direction, looking at this idea of virtualization within a sensing boundary in a single cell organism. The mechanism of such consciousness can be understood in this case as a mere transfer of information. From there its turtles all the way down.

Such a view is well within the standard model.

It's simply saying that "consciousness" is related to the brain, but doesn't explain the subjective feeling of consciousness.

The stuff about the single cell organism's supposed consciousness is just a lame analogy.

This is what you can do if you are a "philosopher" - just sniff some glue and write stuff down.

Oh please suppress your ad hominem "crank" attack. The post you linked gets so many things wrong, its as if they are battling an entirely different entity.

Electrons don't need to think to be conscious because thinking != consciousness. Experiencing their state is all that needs to occur to satisfy consciousness.

The idea is that consciousness experienced is 1:1 with the state of the matter producing the consciousness.

Also, the randomness in quantum behavior could actually be how conscious entities think. Electrons may only have a couple states but they get to roll the dice, fairly, on those states. Just like we think we do, even though our decisions are random..not actually "willed."


Except you were not replying to the nautilus article, you were replying to the one i posted by Grosz. You might like to have a read of it, it does not makes the claims you are suggesting.

> by Grosz. You might like to have a read of it, it does not makes the claims you are suggesting.

I have read it. That article cites others, so you can wiggle out that it doesn't make claims alone, but what is inside is the same worthless "idea":

"sub-atomic particles have a primary consciousness, an immediate self-perception or self-survey, an overflight without distance, immediately in touch with itself and its Umwelt, which in the case of the particle, includes not only the other particles comprising the atom but perhaps the entirety of all particles, the universe itself. Like the embryo, the brain or any living thing, sub-atomic particles act their being, perceive themselves, form and maintain themselves"

Of course that idea is supported by... nothing but the trick that if we redefine consciousness as the interaction of anything with its environment (and call the environment Umwelt to sound more clever), then everything is conscious. Duh.

However, scientifically, most of the animals have to be self aware, at least enough to survive: they have to differently handle their own body and their own situation in the environment compared to the surroundings. And that is the real limit: consciousness as we know it is a product of the evolution.

1. I was specifically replying to the flagged poster (flagged for good reason as they are being derisive without warrant), who let on that they did not actually mean to reply to my post.

2. Not wiggling, fuck i am not saying anything at all apart from that it does not make the claims they were suggesting—which it does not. I just said I liked the article.

I like that it navigates a coherent path through a concept which is often quite.. far fetched. Gives framework around how to see consciousness differently without making any claims about consciousness than that which is observed.

But seriously, the idea that you must take on the entirety of a cannon if you make reference to it (even when expressly arguing against it) is, how shall I put this nicely.. just fucking ridiculous.

3. You seem to suggest we should rest on our current conceptual understanding of various types of consciousness rather than trying to figure out how break them down into their constituent parts. Very scientific.

>to sound more clever

Really, why the snark? seems you don't understand how philosophy (or language for that matter works). The terms are used to maintain a meaning explained and argued previously, and to avoid common language meanings unrelated to the concept. What you said would be like chiding a mathematician for using esoteric terms like 'imaginary numbers'.

edit: In the best humor, despite my better judgement, edited structure for clarity.

I'm sorry your response is so incoherent that I can't, even though I wish, contribute any more to this thread of the discussion.

I'm sorry you cannot read, or argue in good faith.

Even after the edit it's content- and sense-free, sorry.

Wow, you are hilarious.

Perhaps i should not have engaged with your original troll. I just thought it funny that it included the most misguided of arguments.

There surely are plenty of other, real arguments you could have used (which might have been an interesting conversation), or even plenty of valid criticisms of the paper that did not involve:

  1.scare quotes ("ideas")

  2.questioning the basis of academic enquiry (no, a cite does not take on an oeuvre)

  3.questioning the basis of language (words do actually contain specific meanings)

  4.just restating the problem. 
I guess instead of admitting your original post was without merit, or even doubling down and proving me wrong, you just abdicated, in the most withering way (and then doubled down on your abdication.. pathetic).

In summary, neutral monism.

In my opinion, here is a far better article on the same topic: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/neutral-monism/

I thought the author was advocating for panspsychism, where all matter has a least a minimal amount of consciousness (or consciousness is what matter is non-relationally).

Neutral monism means that matter and consciousness emerge from something which is neither (like math in the platonic sense or something we have no conception of).

I can only know for sure that I am conscious, I only assume others are conscious because they are built kind of similar to the way I am. Though if we weren't conscious then would we talk about consciousness? What other topics wouldn't we talk about if we weren't conscious? We could still talk about experience because it would be functional, e.g. "I am experiencing pain" could be something I expect to come from an unconscious thing that has evolved to communicate pain in order to avoid death.

Could a conversation about consciousness occur from unconscious things?

Yes, but more specifically you seem to be fumbling your way towards a well-known though experiment in philosophy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophical_zombie

P-zombies bug me. For a p-zombie to be functionally identical to a human, it would have to process all of the same inputs as the human, including its looped-back internal inputs regarding its own state. Asserting that it's possible to do so without producing an equivalent inner life to that of a 'real' human is just asserting some kind of supernatural basis for consciousness.

This is an interesting essay, but as someone who agrees with Brentano that intentionality is the mark of the mental, I have to disagree with the second half of this passage:

> Our own consciousness is also usually consciousness of something -- it involves awareness or contemplation of things in the world, abstract ideas, or the self. But someone who is dreaming an incoherent dream or hallucinating wildly would still be conscious in the sense of having some kind of subjective experience, even though they are not conscious of anything in particular.

I have no way to prove this, but I firmly believe that even in extreme states of consciousness, we are still conscious of something, in the sense that our attention is directed somewhere... our mind is always attending to something in particular. That "something" could be a bizarre fragment of a bizarre experience, but it's still something. I don't believe it's possible to be conscious without our attention being directed somewhere, even when the content of our experience appears to be maximally diffuse and unfocused. (In those cases, the content just is the object of our attention, the thing we are conscious of.)

Maybe I'm super naive and if so please educate me, but honestly why are we even considered conscious?

Can't basically everything we do be just explained by the brain reacting to its environment? Even the derivative thoughts and actions and stuff you perform is just the brain reacting to itself as well. It's not like the brain is disconnected from itself, it's connected to sensing organs and everything everywhere inside.

Other observations: The older you get, the more robotic people seem, especially younger people and the mentally ill. It's like you can exactly see why they would say or do something based on what you know about their life or situation or even just the contexts beforehand.

Yes! Humans are matter and Humans are Conscious ergo at least some matter is conscious. Rather, matter is the conscious. But it's not just the matter, it's also the radiation and what have you between it.

I've hypothesized something very similar on my own. Perhaps we'll discover that consciousness, or rather the experience of consciousness, is either a property of matter in specific complex arrangements. Or not matter but perhaps spacetime in some respect. It doesn't really explain how consciousness works, but could explain why it's been so hard for us to understand, just as we don't really understand the nature of existence.

I don't believe it, but it's a nifty thing to ponder over.

That would be a form of strong emergentism, which is kind of magical in that properties that don't exist and can't in principle be predicted from earlier states come into being. But it's not like we get to make the rules of what's real. Something about existence is deeply mysterious, so why not consciousness?

I feel that the best interpretation of it is the thing you should never think about.

If you find this topic interesting I think you'll benefit from reading "The unfortunate dualist"


The whole book "The Mind's I" is a fascinating collection of stories and essays dealing with this topic.

I don’t get the need to push consciousness down the stack. Where is the beach in a grain of sand? Where is the song in a molecule of air?

Recently learned about what I call the curse of consciousness: the ability and constant urge to question the world, this condition that comes with intelligence and never goes away.

So, what is consciousness? Life? How does the world works? Why didn't life come with an instruction manual? What is there to do? And why do I have so many questions that no one already solved?

Some matter is conscious. My fingernail is not, but it's a subset of the matter that equals me, and I am conscious (you'll just have to take my word); I am a subset of the matter that equals all matter, so it has to follow that the set of all matter is conscious, though subsets of it are not.

It's all a matter of where you draw the boundaries.

Ummm. It's clear that the you that you think of as you does not identify with your fingernail, but is it not arrogant to assume that there is not a greater or lesser entity that incorporates your fingernail in its identity that might be conscious?

I for one fail to understand what is it so mysterious about consciences. Also, the article spends way more time lamenting the mystery than explaining what the so-called "hard problem of consciousness" is.

Yes, we can not build consciousness yet, so what. We have a very good reason to believe it is completely based on matter and physics because everything we have seen so far seems to be based on matter and physics.

One way or another, our brain seems to be some kind of computing meat machine that runs some kind of program(s). In order to keep us alive, this program is trying to predict what will happen next. A lion appears to be running in our direction? I predict it will get closer and closer and then it will eat us. Next step: in order to better predict the future, model in also your own actions. I will not stand here if I know a lion is going to eat me, I will run to that nearest tree. So the brain predicts that we will end up climbing that tree. Then, model in your understanding of the future and better grab a rope before you start running to that tree.

Throw in all kinds of imperfections, remnants of older systems, evolutionary pressures, instincts and emotions and voila, you appear to be conscious.

That describes behavior, but not the sense of self-awareness?

If conscious means, reacting to the environment (opposite of unconscious) then that could make sense.

But if it means self-aware it doesn't get any closer to explaining that.

Maybe I don't understand the question. What else is "self-awareness" than a program calculating its own actions based on the knowledge of its own prediction ability? Can you disprove such program will be self-aware? Can you prove your self-awareness is something more?

That's the whole conversation right there. I'm aware of my surroundings in an immediate sense with many states of being inside my head, immersed in my surroundings, caught up in the moment and many others across the spectrum. Unrelated to my cognitive function, logic or fitness for calculating action.

I could create a device that says "I'm self-aware" but does it make it so? You can get your Echo to do that.

The sense of a moment or you being in your head is only an illusion. You think you see your surroundings outside of your fovea spot, you feel an orgasm in your abdomen, you hear music filling the room - nothing new for the brain. Ask your brain who is doing the thinking in your head and it tells you it is YOU, and you believe it because it is the only answer you ever got.

Interestingly, the self-aware YOU is merely a thin layer of self-propelled lies on the surface of the animal brain. Once you get infected with toxoplasmosis you have a higher risk of automobile accidents or higher chance of promiscuous behavior. You think YOU made that decision? How sweet :)

A simple device that says "I'm self-aware" is easy to fool. But if build a device that is so good at answering the self-awareness question that you can not distinguish it from a human, and by definition, you will no be able to prove that it is not really self-aware.

All that seems to be couched in terms of somebody being fooled. Who is that somebody? Who is 'you'? I think that description is a contradiction in itself.

If matter can't be conscious, then what can?

The choices seem to be:

1) consciousness can emerge from matter, and human beings are exhibit A for this.

2) human being are not conscious.

c) There's a "ghost in the machine", a soul, spirit or some other kind of supernatural ghost that's not reducable to matter as we know it.

Arrangements and patterns, perhaps. The matter isn't conscious. Consiciousness is in the arrangement of matter.

> Consiciousness is in the arrangement of matter.

Right, that's what "emerge" means in option A.



For a phenomenological treatment, see The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram.

The idea that consciousness exists throughout the world as a gradient is not new.

The modern industrial conception of mind (newly transformed by the technological revolution) prescribes a more limited domain for theories of the mind.

Has anyone read Schopenhauer's books like The world as will and representation?

His idea doesn't seem to be talked about much. However, I would admit that I don't fully comprehend the ideas of that book either.

Do any of you know about Process Philosophy: https://www.iep.utm.edu/processp/ ?

we have the viewpoints of a lot of living beings here, but none from any actual, static, dead matter. sometimes our voices can be so numerous and loud they crowd out and frighten others. i guess what i'm saying is: can we perhaps take a breath, create some space and hopefully encourage some dead matter to step up and offer its perspective?

I think you could switch around nouns randomly in this article and arrive at an article that made as much sense.

Are we all just the same universe perceiving itself?

(Which philosophies have developed this thought?)

A draft of a paper exploring a novel, fundamental theory of consciousness, rooted in physics:


I think there is a mutually intertwine relationship between Time and Consciousness.

Time => Consciousness => Time => Consciousness.

I don't think Time is inside Consciousness.

Even Time is a variable construct - affected by Gravity (Time Dilation etc)

The other way to look at this is that consciousness emerges from a certain kind of structure and processes independent of the matter it is represented on.

Consciousness would emerge in our brains from the neural structure and activity, but it would also emerge when computed in a computer simulation or (as a thought experiment) calculations on paper or xkcd-esque pebbles in sand.

That would make the computer, calculations on paper and pebbles in the sand as conscious as a human.

Which, admittedly sounds just as crazy as the idea of consciousness being tied to all matter.

If you have a theory of consciousness, but it doesn't include something about learning, the theory is incomplete, most likely wrong.

It's a good thing that Betteridge's law of headlines continues to be true.

I never understood the appeal of this idea, to be honest. This article also doesn't seem to think there are any strong arguments for it. Or at least, if the writer has them, they do not present them in any cogent way, instead piling appeal to emotions one upon the other until the entire thing collapses under its own weight.

No, but information is.

No. Next question!

I could have been born at any time, in any place in the universe - or not at all, for that matter. Why do I get to experience the universe in a unique way? What gives rise to this?

You're wondering why you weren't also born at a different time and place? You were.

You were also born in 1988 in CT. This other you was born to different parents, had a different childhood, and has different memories. You think you are different from this other you (and you are!) because you have separate thoughts and memories. You remember your own life and not your other life because humans aren't telepathic.

In case it isn't yet clear, this other you is me. Hi, other me. We haven't talked before, I don't think.

In other words, if you were born in a different place at a different time in a different community... then that you wouldn't be you. It would be a different person. So it doesn't really make sense to ask "what if I had been born at a different time or place".

>There but for the grace of God go I

I like to entertain the idea that humans are the host of a species of sentient alien bacteria that lives in our guts and controls us through the vagus nerve and uses humans to build technology to advance to the point where they can build space ships to colonize other planets. Could make a good sci-fi book if anything...

Bacteria don't have enough memory to represent technology, nor the necessary organization to ... I don't know, as whole they are rather complex and can at least share information like antigen markers to kill us effectively. There are actual sci-books on the matter, you know.

Then we don't have enough memory to understand our technology either. We accomplish that as a superorganism, and by building tools to augment our abilities. Maybe bacteria built us as complex, extraterrestrial spore capsules.

We are nothing but a symbiosis of single celled organisms and then some.

Possible answers (but by no means comprehensive answers):

-If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be asking this question. The only version of reality in which you’re able to ponder it is one with you in it. This is a narrower version of the weak anthropic principle.

-There are a multitude of universes or regions of one universe with an infinitude of you asking this question without bound.

-God or the universe inevitably leads to it. This is a form of the strong anthropic principle.

-Only universes and times which allow such questions to be asked can allow for people like you to ponder it. For most of history in which humans were around you’d almost certainly lack the leisure and education to have these thoughts. (WAP again)

-Everything capable of making this observation does so wherever and whenever they exist in the universe, and there is nothing interesting about the question or answer because it’s arbitrary. Although it is difficult to appreciate from each of their perspectives, the question itself is as ubiquitous as those asking it.

The question probably stems from the fact that we tend to identify with our conscious experience more than we do our physical body. So it seems reasonable to imagine this conscious experience separated from one body and placed in another body. But this is a mistake. Your body owns its conscious processes in the same way your body owns its process of digestion. There is no way to identify you separately from the physical stuff that makes up your body (which includes your brain).

What if we are AIs in a simulation? Unlikely perhaps but not impossible. In this case there is no body only mind and all options are open.

There is also the theories that consciousness is all that exists, e.g. "Donald Hoffman's Multimodal User Interface (MMUI) theory of reality and doctrine of Conscious Realism together posit that the reality humans perceive is like a simulation in which non-physical conscious agents interact in order to generate the dynamics we observe".


What does this mean? What's the "I" that's somehow separate from your specific physical instantiation?

Unless you're getting into Cartesian dualism and souls, I'm genuinely confused.

I remember one day as a teenager, sitting in class bored at high school, I was suddenly struck by the question–"why am I I, and not somebody else?" It felt so profound, so immense.

But yes, if materialism is true, probably the question is empty. However, if some other philosophy of mind is true (there are many other options beyond just materialism and Cartesian dualism), maybe it means something. And, if one has this sense that it is profound rather than empty, that might give one a reason to prefer some other position in the philosophy of mind that treats that question more sympathetically.

> there are many other options beyond just materialism and Cartesian dualism

Can you give some examples of the kind of options you're thinking of? I mean, I have a lot of time for functionalist accounts, and given Sufficiently Smart Technology (tm) I'm happy to allow for the possibility of something recognizably "me" being artificially duplicated in a different physical substrate. (After which we'd rapidly start diverging, and would need some new vocabulary to describe what's going on.)

But GGP's question was specifically about being born. I really struggle to imagine how someone born somewhere else, somewhen else, could be "me" with anything like the fidelity I think our intuition demands. And if you loosen your identity test to the point where it could, doesn't it then become useless as an individuation test, in that lots of people could be sufficiently like me all at the same time?

This is why I think it's tough to say "I - singular - could have been born in Brazil in 1873" without invoking something like a soul which acts as both an arbitrary GUID tag and as kind of mutex on embodiments.

But GGP's question was specifically about being born. I really struggle to imagine how someone born somewhere else, somewhen else, could be "me" with anything like the fidelity I think our intuition demands. And if you loosen your identity test to the point where it could, doesn't it then become useless as an individuation test, in that lots of people could be sufficiently like me all at the same time?

Up front let me admit this is effectively a cheat.

BUT in a multiverse or infinite universe not only are there multiple “you’s“ there are in fact infinite identical versions of you. I grant that this is not taking the spirit of the conversation into account, and is untestable to boot, it is genuinely possible.

Based on my own personal experience of putting myself in a position of dying now probably more times than I can count (unfortunately), I've been seriously wondering if the universe does contain all of my deaths as well, but my consciousness stays on a path where it can continue, because that's all it can do.

Though that still raises the question of why this particular set of living experiences and not others.

Also, if this sort of thing is the case, I think it would make being a moral person significantly more complex. You would need to not only make moral decisions, but create as many moral possible universes as possible and shut out the immoral universes from existence by not creating paths to them. Though I guess that would make me a highly immoral person at this point (causing pain and suffering in all the universes where I've died), though I do try to be moral in this universe as much as I can.

Yeah, when I said "somewhere else" I was kind of scoping it to this universe. I know, so small-minded.

Note though that an infinite universe doesn't imply that everything imaginable occurs within it. There are an infinite number of even integers, but none of them is 3.

> Note though that an infinite universe doesn't imply that everything imaginable occurs within it

True, but in an infinite universe, everything with non-zero probability almost surely happens, an infinite number of times.

Since our own lives have non-zero probability of existing, a spatially infinite universe implies that almost surely there are an infinite number of exact copies of ourselves existing right now, and an infinite future implies that almost surely our current lives will be exactly repeated an infinite number of times in the future.

> there are in fact infinite identical versions of you

But when I say (or think) "I", am I saying or thinking of any specific one of those versions? How could I be? It seems, if there are infinite number of identical copies of me, when I say "I", I must mean all of them equally.

Well, idealism is another option.

I'm not sure how easy it is even with idealism to make "Why am I I?" a meaningful question. But, if our choice is between viewing that question as a pointer to some profound mystery on the one hand, or viewing it as simply a case of muddle-headed confusion on the other, the allegiance of my heart is with the first choice rather than the second.

"Muddle-headed confusion" is harsh. I'd prefer something like "human intuition not being particularly reliable on questions it wasn't evolved for".

If preserving a sense of profound mystery is your goal then... honestly, that mindset is sufficiently alien to me that I can't really think of anything useful to say on the subject. I can understand and share it as an aesthetic choice - mysteries are cool! - but not as a philosophical one. Philosophy by definition is the love of knowledge, not the love of not-knowledge.

And if you want your mystery to be something you solve, rather than something you live with, I do think you should be able to explain what your mysterious question means.

Maybe "Why am I I?" is an expression of dissatisfaction at being trapped in the prison of the self. That I only get to experience my experiences, and not other people's.

Maybe the answer to the question then is not a proposition, but a liberation from that prison. If one is a religious believer, one might hope for that liberation after death. If one is a transhumanist (which is maybe just a different sort of religion), one might hope that future technologies like telepathy implants or mind uploading might make such a liberation possible.

Here's an answer: You experience your own experience because it is the only way to understand what it is to be you. If you also experienced the experiences of others, you would understand instead what it means to be that amalgamation of experience.

We know that a human being can survive with large portions of their brain missing. Entire hemispheres in fact. You understand what it is to be the amalgamation of experiences from both hemispheres, but the hemispheres don't understand what it is to be that experience, they only know the experience of being a hemisphere.

Or just do enough drugs and meditation. I sort of kid, but there have been groups very committed to escaping the self, via asceticism, visions, meditation, disciplining the mind and what not with the belief that it's possible in some way. There's even Christian versions of it, although it's couched in union with God language instead of waking up from the illusion of being separate from everything else (union with the universe).

Time exists in order that everything doesn’t happen all at once and space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.

A consequence of time is that every event does not all happen at once. A consequence of space is that everything is not all in one place. Perhaps a consequence of spacetime is that events have a location and a moment, but no guarantee of order?

There is a guarantee of the order of causally related events, just not an absolute timing. All observers will agree that Alice throws a ball which Bill later catches, but different observers will disagree on when these events occurred exactly. They will however all agree that the order is Alice throws, Bill catches, and none will see Bill catch a ball that Alice later throws. To use the lightning bolt example from Einstein, different observers will disagree on the timing of the strikes, and whether or not they’re simultaneous. If one of the bolts strikes Alice and she goes flying though, everyone will agree that the order of events insofar as Alice is struck before she’s launched.

This all assumes no FTL or CTCs of course, with either you would lose causality and events separated by spacelike intervals could influence each other.

> All observers will agree that Alice throws a ball which Bill later catches

I think this needs qualification.

If I am stood directly behind Alice or Bill then it is possible I never see the interaction at all even though I am an observer, just as if I hold a two identical pencils together and look at them from the correct angle I observe only a single pencil.

The important thing is in all cases, observers "see" space-time interactions as the geodesic of the event projected on to their own observational frame.

Through that projection it is possible to lose degrees of freedom which can be space-time etc.

It's through this projection that HUP emerges since if in the observational frame the time dimension is limited, the projected time axis of the event tends toward zero.

I've always been confused that due to time dilation, everything from the perspective of a photon happens all at once, yet there is an order. If time is effectively dilated to the point that time has stopped for the photon, what happens in the year of travel over a light year of distance?

It can’t be stated enough: photons don’t have a perspective. Talking about what a photon “sees” is a non-starter. It’s also important to note that light follows null geodesics in spacetime, and while on paper that can look like no time elapses between emission and absorption, it still can’t tell us what it would “be like” to be a photon.

If you want to go in that direction though, then this could help. As you approach c, length contraction in the direction of travel is extreme. In “theory” a photon doesn’t really travel at all, the universe is flattened like a pancake in the direction of its travel. There is no time for events to occur “at once” and no year passes on a lightlike curve. A photon is emitted and absorbed without a “subjective” interval, so talking about what such an interval might be missing that point.

> Talking about what a photon "sees" is a non-starter

In QED or other photon-containing QFTs like the Standard Model, it is not only a "starter", it is essentially the point of the thing. Surely the photon "sees" the electron in a Compton scattering?

Photons obey the spin statistics for massless gauge bosons, so they can pile up at one point in spacetime. Equivalently, null geodesics can intersect. There can be a spacetime-point occupied by a pair of photons while the rest of spacetime is filled with points where they are occupied by only one (or neither).

(Indeed, the Penrose theorem arises because null geodesics, and photons travelling on them, can collide and stay collided, so for this and other reasons there may be multiple points in spacetime occupied by both of our pair of photons.)

One must be able to understand that for a photon there may be an early/late distinction -- either it is in a gravitational singularity or it isn't; either it is occupying a point with the other of our pair of photons or it isn't; either it's scattering or isn't. Following the photon and thinking about what it experiences, we can't use proper time, since it will be identical (practically[1]) everywhere along its path; likewise, spacetime intervals for all photons travelling on null geodesics are zero. The need for this understanding increases with photon interactions with charged matter: a pair of photons from different quasars arriving at a pair of detectors here tells us something about the location in spacetime of the quasar and about the metric expansion of space. Using cosmological coordinates, for each of the pair there is a _time_ before which no point in space contains it, and a time when they arrive at a detector on or around Earth. Given that each of the pair is from a different quasar, generally the emission time will be different. Moreover, at emission the wavelength of the photon will be shorter, and it will be longer at later times, right up to detection.

Proper time (and proper length for wavelength) makes a mess of this in general, but we do not need to parameterize a non-timelike geodesic with proper time. Instead, for a null geodeseic, we use an affine parameter and consider its properties at each value of the affine parameter.

For each of our quasar photons, at different affine parameter values the photon has a different energy-momentum. For the Minkowski vacuum photons in the first paragraph above, for a given affine parameter value, one photon is in vacuum or it is at the same point as the other photon. For accuracy, when we are dealing with physical photons, the stress-energy-momentum tensor must encode this. As we get away from simple Minkowski vacuum, we want all the tensor-fields to be accurate.

We can recast your second paragraph's second sentence as taking the limit of the geodesic in which it becomes null, parameterizing by an un-rescaled extremized proper time. We can simply rescale so that we always have a different value at each point on the geodesic as we take this limit. Indeed, we can substitute any monotonic function of spacetime position on the geodesic and get a way to compare field-properties. For a timelike geodesic, proper time tends to be a "good" choice. The affine parameter, the unique monotonic function that satisfies the geodesic equation, tends to be a "good" choice for a null geodesic, in particular because it preserves the tangent vectors under parallel transport.

- --

[1] Photons generally do not move at c in a medium, and one can describe this in a variety of equivalent ways, some of which demote a photon from a null curve to a timelike one while interacting with the bulk of the medium. There are serious proposals to study laboratory ultra-slow light in the context of General Relativity. From a theoretical perspective, Gordon in 1923 outlined an https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Optical_metric in which light follows different geodesics from the null geodesics sourced by the metric tensor, and there are various approaches to extending this to media with nonnegligible dispersion. In this sort of approach, a photon or a pulse of classical light can have a pretty conventional proper time.

You are a really good teacher, thank you!

Given a fixed maximum speed of action, the speed of light, events in spacetime can be ordered via metric = x^2 + y^2 + z^2 - ct^2

But yes, you are sort of correct, two events can have the same metric, and one would not be able to distinguish which of them is responsible, if they are both capable of becoming present at the same speed.

The traditional notion is, where one thing is, there cannot be another.

Of course. We are matter.

So are rocks.

Rocks react in a simple way. If you strike them, they reverberate. One could argue this is a very simple type of consciousness.

But not all of that biological matter is conscious (or at least we don't know that it is in the way the article proposes), and that includes your nervous system.


The article is talking about the idea that all matter is conscious.

These kind of silly ideas refuted here: http://backreaction.blogspot.com/2019/01/electrons-dont-thin... Tl;DR only the physical properties of matter observed in the Standard Model can contribute to consciousness at the energy levels in the brain, apparently.

These kinds of problems are not going to be solved by "philosophers" who don't know enough neuroscience or physics, as any proposed ontology will have to fit with scientific observation.

When will cranks like the author of this article be booted out of the academy? The article is utter drivel.

If so, then some math equation is conscious, too. It is like asking what color is that smell?

No and no. Math equations are abstract concepts within the mind. This question is about how the mind exists in the first place. Nothing here even remotely implies that math equations are conscious.

Does the Mandelbrot set exist? We have a mathematical description of it. It's easy to write software to create pictures "of it". Mandelbrot himself wrote software to create an image of it based on his definition - prior to knowing what it looked like. Indeed, he was surprised at the complexity of what he saw. Did that set of points exist prior to a human stumbling on its definition? Does it exist independent of someone rendering an image of it? I would argue that it does exist - and always has - in some form.

This is effectively Max Tegemark’s TOE, the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis.


Tegmark's MUH is: Our external physical reality is a mathematical structure.[3] That is, the physical universe is not merely described by mathematics, but is mathematics (specifically, a mathematical structure). Mathematical existence equals physical existence, and all structures that exist mathematically exist physically as well. Observers, including humans, are "self-aware substructures (SASs)". In any mathematical structure complex enough to contain such substructures, they "will subjectively perceive themselves as existing in a physically 'real' world".[4]

Well said. In my previous comment I deleted a paragraph where I wrote something like: If there exists a mathematical model/definition of our universe - weather that has been discovered by humans or not - that is sufficient to ensure that it exists. While I have read of the "existence" of mathematical objects I was not aware of anyone writing that we live in such a thing - I figured it must be out there somewhere. Thanks for the link and providing a name for the concept.

I've been wondering this for a long time: if we can understand every detail of the inner working of the brain, what happens if I observe my brain in real time? Is it like calling a function recursively without an exit condition?

Obviously not? Looking at your brain is not the same as executing it. You'd just be looking at pictures.

It'd be more like calling a function that reformats it own source code.

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