We know that people are conscious because we can experience and feel things. However, scientists and great thinkers have been unable to explain what consciousness is, and they are equally confused about its source.
MSN Tech columnist David Crookes reports that mathematician and theoretical physicist Johannes Kleiner says that conscious experience – apparently – is part of reality. People have it, but without understanding how it relates to known physics, human understanding of the universe is incomplete.
Kleiner, who works at the Center for Mathematical Philosophy in Munich, Germany, hopes that mathematics will help him define consciousness precisely. He is collaborating with mathematician Sean Tull of Oxford University in England, and the two are driven in part by a philosophical perspective known as panpsychism.
Panpsychism asserts that even the tiniest of substances are born with consciousness – the idea that the fundamental components of reality are also experienced as conscious. Crucially, it implies that consciousness is ubiquitous throughout the universe.
Can the brain help us make sense of the universe?
If the researchers can answer how our brains produce subjective experiences, Kleiner and Tarr say, it is possible that their mathematical model could also be extended to inanimate matter.
If you develop a mathematical model for consciousness based on data obtained from the brain, you can apply that model to other systems (such as computers or) and see what it says about what they say about conscious experience,” Kleiner said in an interview via e-mail with the U.S. space magazine All Aabout Space. “
Some prominent thinkers have taken the panpsychist view seriously, and one of them was the famous Oxford physicist Sir Roger Penrose, who was one of the first scholars to suggest that we look beyond neuroscience when looking at consciousness.
He strongly suggested that we consider the role of quantum mechanics, and in his 1989 book The Emperor’s New Mind: On Computers, Thinking, and the Laws of Physics, he proposed that human consciousness is a product of quantum effects.
This idea evolved, in collaboration with anesthesiologist and psychologist Stuart Hameroff, into a hypothesis called Orchestrated Objective Reduction (Orch OR). ) hypothesis.
This hypothesis suggests that consciousness may arise from quantum vibrations in microtubules deep in the brain’s neurons, rather than the conventional view that consciousness is due to connections between neurons.
Importantly, however, “Orch OR suggests a connection between the biomolecular processes of the brain and the underlying structure of the universe.” Penrose and Hameroff describe this in their March 2014 paper “Consciousness in the Universe: A Review of the Orch OR Theory” in the journal Physics of Life Reviews.
It is on this basis that Kleiner and Tull have worked. They were also inspired by neuroscientist and psychiatrist Giulio Tononi, Distinguished Distinguished Professor of Consciousness Studies at the University of Wisconsin.
Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory (IIT), published in the journal BMC Neuroscience, is one of a small class of promising models of consciousness. “IIT is a very mathematical theory,” Kleiner said. Kleiner said.
IIT speaks of consciousness as a fundamental aspect of reality: that it exists and is structured, concrete, unified and explicit. One of the core ideas is that consciousness occurs when information moves between subsystems of the overall system: to be conscious, entities must be single and integrated, and must have a property called “phi” (symbolic representation: Φ), which depends on the interdependence of the subsystems.
In other words, you can have a pile of coins on your table, each with a pile of neurons on top. If the information propagated along these paths is crucial for these coins, then you have a high level of “phi” and therefore consciousness.
If these coins can function perfectly as subsystems without information flowing to and from other coins, then there is no “phi” and no consciousness. The greater the interdependence between subsystems, the more conscious something becomes.
Kleiner said, “Integrated information is an abstract quantity that you can calculate if you have a good detailed description of the system.” The system is not necessarily biological, he added.
“The result is a number, expressed as “phi,” so if you have an apple machine, you can ask how much integrated information is in it, just like you can ask how much energy is in it. You can talk about how much integrated information is in a computer, just like you can talk about entropy.”
According to IIT, this theory largely supports pan-centrism because even a proton can have “phi. Just as an apple can have an air conditioner and a computer, your chair and table can have all kinds of other matter in the universe.
“When it comes to the experimental evidence aspect, there are several independent studies that point to a correlation between integrated information and consciousness,” Kleiner said.
So do subsystems have conscious experiences? No; are all systems conscious? No.
Kleiner talks about “the theory consists of a very sophisticated algorithm that, when applied to a detailed mathematical description of a physical system, provides information about whether the system is conscious and what it is conscious of.”
“The mathematics is such that if something is conscious according to the theory, then the components that make up the system cannot themselves have a conscious experience of their own. Only the whole has a conscious experience, not the parts. Applied to your brain, this means that some of your cerebral cortex may be conscious, but the particles that make up the cerebral cortex themselves are not consciously aware.”
What does this mean for the universe?
“Suppose there’s a pair of isolated particles floating somewhere in space, and if they interact in the right way, they have some rudimentary form of consciousness.” Kleiner said.
So, according to IIT, the universe is indeed full of consciousness. But does it have any significance for the physical part of the universe? The theory’s math says it doesn’t. A physical system will operate independently, whether it is experienced as conscious or not.
Kleiner gives the example of a computer. He said the math of IIT suggests it may be conscious, but that doesn’t change the way it works.
“This runs counter to the metaphysical basis of the theory, which is actually strongly materialistic in character.” Kleiner said. “It puts consciousness first and materiality second. We may see some changes in the mathematics at some point to take that foundation more properly into account.”
That’s what his and Tull’s research is trying to address. The emergentist theory of consciousness tends to claim that materiality is all there is.
The modern physics issues associated with it
Kleiner says, “They would deny that consciousness is independent of matter or more primary than entities, and they would say that consciousness is nothing more than a specific physical phenomenon that arises from the interaction of fundamental physical quantities under specific conditions.”
On the other hand, his and Tull’s mathematical version of IIT is intended to be a so-called “fundamental theory of consciousness. Says Kleiner, “It tries to weave consciousness into the basic structure of reality, albeit in a very particular way.” What if it suggests that the universe is conscious? What about the after-effects?
“There may be a moral dimension to it. Now for systems that don’t have conscious experience, we tend to treat systems that do have conscious experience differently.” Kleiner says.
However, if it turns out that consciousness plays a causal role in the universe, it will have a huge impact on the scientific view of the world. “It could spark a scientific revolution comparable to the one Galileo started,” he says.
And that’s really something to keep in mind.