Idle Contemplations on Consciousness
I’ve spent a great deal of the last year or so researching theories on the ultimate ontology of consciousness. The following is a summary of approximately what I have learnt in that period; it will appeal to anyone interested in the aforementioned, and touches on some rather eccentric conjectures such as quantum mind.
In the interests of clarity: consciousness in most uses refers to the very fact of experience itself and of what it is like to be; qualia refers to the array of ways in which experience presents itself; classical qualia include the redness of red, the tartness of wine, etc. Those are local examples; it can also refer to the global character of the experience, which may vary from ordinary waking consciousness to the most bizarre DMT trip. “Subject” and “subjectivity” will be used a lot as well, which are essentially synonyms of “experiencer” and “experience.” Materialism is the view that the world is composed of inert (non-conscious) matter. Physicalism is the view that the universe is exhaustively described by the equations of physics and their solutions; all materialists are physicalists, but not all physicalists are materialists. For example, some are panpsychists. Panpsychism, conventionally, is a form of property dualism wherein the simplest constituents of matter (whatever you think those are) contain both an objective aspect and a subjective, conscious or proto-conscious aspect.
There are three major problems in our understanding of consciousness: the “hard problem,” the combination problem (also known as binding problem), and the palette problem. The first of these is concerned with why consciousness exists at all, or, rephrased, why are we not philosophical zombies? P-zombies are theoretical entities that behave identically to humans but lack subjectivity; it is possible that we will one day create pseudo-conscious androids that fit this bill. There is an explanatory gap between the objective semantic knowledge of qualia and actually apprehending them subjectively, which is why it is impossible for a colour-blind person to ever know what “red” is as the rest of us can. The language of consciousness is qualitative, whereas physics deals in the quantitative, and since physics is causally closed and complete, there is no way to account for the emergence of consciousness from matter without radically reconstructing the standard model of physics.
The binding problem is about the unity of consciousness: why do we, as synchronically unitary selves or egos, observe a unitary perceptual field populated by dynamical objects, colours, textures, pheromones, apprehended as one and in (almost) real time, when all these modalities and feature-processors are scattered distributively about the brain? Many have puzzled over how to make sense of this in terms of classical mechanics. Few answers are forthcoming; there is no straightforward account as to why a billion neurons, merely because they exist in close proximity and fire electrical signals at each other, can give rise to such unity. This is what leads to the sentiment from a certain German philosopher of mind: “If materialism is true, then the United States is probably conscious.” One way to get a handle on the importance of binding is to look at syndromes in which it even partially breaks down, such as in florid schizophrenia. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “In some particularly severe forms of schizophrenia, the victim seems to lose the ability to have an integrated, interrelated experience of his or her world and self altogether. The person speaks in ‘word salads’ that never get anywhere, indeed sometimes never become complete sentences. The person is unable to put together perceptions, beliefs and motives into even simple plans of action or act on such plans if formed, even plans to obtain sustenance, tend to bodily needs, escape painful irritants, and so on.”
The palette problem is easier to formulate but consistently overlooked: why is it even possible to have something like a DMT trip to begin with, i.e. why are there so many different varieties of qualia? This is hard to reconcile with classical physics, on a particle ontology, because it only yields a few varieties of “stuff” – the 17 known elementary particles, and it is also not obvious what adaptive role such experiences could play – for their existence to be accounted for by natural selection.
Several solutions have been proposed to the first problem, the hard problem. Epiphenomenalism proposes that the brain somehow “generates” consciousness, but that consciousness itself lacks causal efficacy. This is impossible, because if it were true it would forbid its own articulation: consciousness obviously isn’t causally impotent, because it prompts us to have conversations about its existence. Another possibility is radical eliminativsm, which Dan Dennett comes close to – the idea the consciousness is in some sense illusory, but simply handwaving away qualia does not make them go away. Dennett even proposes that it is possible for the colour-blind to experience colour as long as we use precise enough language to convey the properties of e.g. red, but I doubt that anyone beides him takes this conjecture seriously. David Chalmers proposes a form of panpsychism to resolve the problem: a form of dual-aspect monism combined with monadic (see “monads”) lego-brick ontology wherein fundamental particles are said to have a subjective and objective aspect, a kind of “primordial consciousness” or “proto-consciousness” on which unitary subjects of experience are premised. But this still leaves you with the binding problem: it may well be the case that the universe is made of “mind-dust,” but we still have no idea why/how mind-dust can somehow sum to something more than its parts and cause unitary subjects of experience to switch on, and of course, you still have the palette problem.
The structural mismatch between the brain and the mind leads individuals such as David Pearce to endorse a version of quantum mind, which I have come to find increasingly plausible, and he contends that it is amenable to falsification by experiment. Simply put: the unity of experience is a result of encephalised quantum coherence, or “neuronal superpositions.” The same way that quantum mechanics allows for exotic Schroedinger’s cat states, simultaneously alive and dead, neuronal superpositions can allow the many facets and feature-processors of consciousness to stack on top of each other like panes of stained glass, adding coherent details with each layer, until a unitary picture is created in a way that is not allowed for by allegedly classical objects such as neurons. This is because, in quantum theory, the sum of all possible states of a quantum system is also a valid state. Thus, when one looks at a red car, the edge-detecting neurons and the red-encoding neurons act in superposition to create a unitary (non-schizophrenic) experiential field. The principal objection to this is that such quantum-coherent states would thermally decohere in the brain after mere picoseconds (at best), but considering that when you watch a film at 40 frames per second you do not see the individual frames, I do not think that per se is a problem with this theory: evolution has had billions of years to fine-tune the CNS to make optimal use of quantum dynamics, even if the superposed states are incredibly transient.
In addition to this, one might abandon classical lego-brick ontology and embrace quantum ontology – the “fields” of quantum field theory are, in fact, fields of decohered qualia, and thus consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. This is entirely plausible, because the intrinsic nature of the physical is very much up for grabs: physics gives you a picture of what atoms are, for example, in terms of their structural-dispositional properties: mass, charge, attraction, repulsion, etc, but it can’t actually tell you what IS mass or what IS charge. Stephen Hawking also remarked on this, that we have no idea what “breathes fire into the equations.” Indeed the wavefunction which describes the behaviour of electrons is purely a mathematical formalism; we have no idea what it actually is. This also dissolves the palette problem, because it is no longer necessary to explain qualia in terms of the scant few varieties of classical matter – rather, the diverse values of the solutions to quantum field theory encode the values of qualia.
This would imply that: p-zombies are impossible, we are not bags of inert mind-dust (Chalmersian panpsychism), i.e. micro-experiential zombies, because if we were, there would be a structural mismatch between the properties of the mind and the formalism of (quantum) physics. There is no problem of causal inefficacy, because all experience and only experience has any causal power, and the values of qualia are derivable directly from the mathematics of quantum field theory.
It looks as though most quantum physicists accept the many-worlds interpretation now: the world “branches” each time a quantum system in superposition becomes entangled with its environment (i.e. decoheres). In the double-slit experiment, observation yields the definite positions of classical mechanics instead of the classically nonsensical “both alive and dead” states because, although the latter is allowed by quantum mechanics, only certain states are resilient to decoherence. Thus, there is no true “collapse” of the wavefunction; only the unitary Schroedinger dynamics. Most criticism of “quantum mind” theories come from the fact of how easy it is to initiate decoherence, but it is still possible if the temporal resolutions of phenomenal binding (the unity of consciousness) are sufficiently finely grained. And thus, this theory would predict that there are coherent superpositions only between different regions of the brain as/when they give rise to conscious experience.
Of course, if the superpositions implicated areas of the brain that were uncorrelated with what was being observed, you’d get “mangled” world-simulations in your consciousness of the sort that people with florid schizophrenia apparently see, but obviously there has been intense natural selection against such superpositions and in favour of those with information-bearing capacity.
So, TL;DR: decoherence explains the behaviour of the classical world as we usually see it, but our brains have evolved to exploit fleeting quantum-coherent states (at the level of picoseconds or attoseconds) because of their computational power, with the end result being what we known as phenomenally “bound” unitary consciousness. And qualia values pre-exist the brain and life itself; the brain, again, is harvesting or “mining” subjective properties (qualia) which are already fundamental to the substratum of reality at the level of quantum particles.
And when you have a DMT trip, or whatever other altered state, you are tapping into those values which have simply never been recruited by evolution for any information-bearing purpose.
Our brains are basically world-simulation machines, “projectors” if you like, the adaptive use of which (i.e. ordinary waking consciousness) is what leads to naive realism, the idea that we have untarnished access to the real world. In reality we have no such access, but ordinary waking consciousness does strongly correlate with aspects of reality because it is what promotes survival and reproduction. Maladaptive world-simulators = schizophrenia, or rather, that’s one manifestation of it. But it’s also possible to get the projector to do things with no adaptive use but are nevertheless fun for humans, e.g. DMT trips. And of course, drugs are just one way to do it. You can literally stick an electrode into a certain region of the brain and cause the visual field to be tinted blue. And then there’s also the phenomenon of “impossible colours,” which aren’t actually impossible (some people have experienced them); they’re just qualia that happen not to have any information-signalling utility in our world. You can type “impossible colours” into YouTube for a primer on this. The way light is intercepted in the eyes does not allow for such colours as blue/yellow or red/green to be mixed into “bluish-yellow” or “reddish-green,” but since colour is a purely subjective experience and not an actual property of certain wavelengths of light, it is possible for some people to mix the inputs from the visual cortex and see so-called impossible colours.
And what is really trippy is that the complete set of all possible qualia is incomprehensibly big.
According to Andres G. Emilsson: “Even though we know all of the basic stable elements and many of their properties, we have only started mapping out the space of possible small molecules (e.g. there are ~10^60 bioactive drugs that have never been tested), and have yet to even begin the project in earnest of understanding what proteins can do. Or consider the number of options there are to make high-entropy alloys (alloys made with five or more metals). Or all the ways in which snowflakes of various materials can form, meaning that even when you are studying a single material it can form crystal structures of an incredibly varied nature. And then take into account the emergence of additional collective properties: physical systems can display a dazzling array of emergent exotic effects: superconductivity, etc. And this is the case in physics even though we know for a fact that there are only somewhat over a hundred possible building blocks (i.e. the elements).
In the province of the mind, we do not yet have even that level of understanding. When it comes to the state-space of consciousness we do not have a corresponding credible ‘periodic table of qualia.’ The range of possible experiences in normal everyday life is astronomical. Even so, the set of possible human sober experiences is a vanishing fraction of the set of possible DMT trips, which is itself a vanishing fraction of the set of possible DMT + LSD + ketamine + TMS + optogenetics + Generalized Wada Test + brain surgery experiences. Brace yourself for a state-space that grows supergeometrically with each variable you introduce.”
So a completed science of subjectivity, psychonautics, could take billions of years for all we know.