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RECENT POSTS IN THIS TOPIC

John Merryman: on 1/19/14 at 1:20am UTC, wrote Lorraine, Lots of information is not useful, as we constantly distill the...

Lorraine Ford: on 1/19/14 at 0:18am UTC, wrote John, Although what we are both contending seems to be somewhat similar,...

John Merryman: on 1/18/14 at 3:55am UTC, wrote Lorraine, I see information as more fundamental than just subjective...

Lorraine Ford: on 1/18/14 at 2:36am UTC, wrote John, Re your post of Jan. 17, 2014 @ 00:09 GMT: I see energy and...

John Merryman: on 1/17/14 at 0:09am UTC, wrote Lorraine, The point is that what you are describing and feeling is...

Lorraine Ford: on 1/16/14 at 22:56pm UTC, wrote John, I think it is clear that at whatever level of reality energy...

John Merryman: on 1/16/14 at 21:11pm UTC, wrote Lorraine, "Dynamic information doesn't make much sense unless it is...

Lorraine Ford: on 1/16/14 at 20:24pm UTC, wrote John, I don't know where you get the idea that "information is inherently...


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FQXi BLOGS
August 23, 2019

CATEGORY: Blog [back]
TOPIC: Consciousness, Free Will--and Asking Siri Out on a Date [refresh]
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Blogger Ian Durham wrote on Jan. 14, 2014 @ 00:09 GMT
As I mentioned in my previous post, they keep us rather busy at this conference so I did not have the opportunity to put additional thoughts down on "paper" until just now as I sit in the Philly airport for the next few hours (it’s January and humid in Philly--something is wrong with this picture). (Zeeya's note: I took a while to post this on Ian's behalf, so fingers crossed he's not *still* sat at the airport, 24 hours later.)

Mind, Brain & Information panel
Wednesday’s first session dove into the seeming quagmire that is known as consciousness--what is it, where does it come from, can it be simulated, etc. There is one undeniable fact that has been known since the days of Descartes and that is that we know we are conscious. Certainly, as psychiatrist and neuroscientist Giulio Tononi pointed out, there are people who don’t necessarily believe that, but such people are rare. More importantly, perhaps, it would seem (at least to me) that this assumption--that we exist and are conscious--is a bare minimum requirement for making any kind of logical sense of the world.

The so-called "hard" problem, however, often attributed to David Chalmers, is how does the matter and energy--the "stuff" of which the universe is constructed--give rise to this thing we call consciousness? Very roughly there were two primary modes of thought on this topic (ignoring the distinct minority who either thought the problem is not solvable or that physicists shouldn’t be addressing it). The traditional view is that, though it is a hard problem, physics (as the most fundamental of the sciences) will eventually provide the answer. The second view is that there is very likely some new physics that will need to be discovered in order to finally crack the problem. This gets at the heart of some of the questions that were addressed in the break-out sessions on that first day such as whether information is more fundamental than matter/energy. If you read my post about that you may recall that the break-out group generally agreed that while information may not be more fundamental than matter/energy, something is (as a note, when the entire conference was polled on the subject, the results were more balanced). Is it consciousness? Max Tegmark seems to think that is a strong possibility.

In Max’s talk, he proposed a new "state" of matter (though some people felt the word "phase" might have been a more appropriate term). If this is so, then there ought to be ways to measure such things. As some of the other speakers noted, there actually are some generally agreed-upon methods for empirically determining consciousness, though these do not necessarily give us much of an indication as to what it is (then again, the same could be argued about energy--even Feynman claimed he had no idea what energy was). So the question then would be whether consciousness, if it is a state of matter or some other "new" physics, how could it be tied to our current body of physics? In science we, of course, seek repeatability and so it would help if everything we classify as "conscious" possessed some similar physical properties. Interestingly enough, the basic brain hardware of most mammals is essentially the same. This isn’t to say that only mammals are conscious. It just means that there’s a biophysical baseline for an enormous class of creatures that exhibit a wide range of "conscious" behavior, i.e. it clearly points to the fact that consciousness can’t be solely a function of this biophysical hardware.

Regarding the broader question, there are some very difficult calls regarding just what constitutes a conscious state. Christoph Koch gave a few examples including vegetative states, sleepwalking (which can involve the completion of incredibly complex tasks), and even Apple’s Siri (Seth Lloyd supposedly asked Siri if "she" wanted to get a beer to which "she" replied, "this is about you, Seth.") In fact, conscious and unconscious systems can be functionally equivalent.

One of the broader themes developed in this session was a new theory of consciousness based on information transfer and called Integrated Information Theory (IIT). Part of the basis for this theory is to develop axioms based on lived experience from which we can begin to formulate a clearer picture of just what is happening, but to nevertheless ensure that the rigorous principles of physics are satisfied. Certainly, there was a broad consensus that, whatever consciousness is, it is clearly macroscopic, emergent, and has "degrees" or "levels."

Free Will panel
Intimately related to consciousness is the question of free will, which was the theme of the afternoon session. (George Musser, who moderated that session has also blogged about this.) Unfortunately, FQXi member and somewhat famous free will denier Sabine Hossenfelder was unable to make it. Anyway, given the fact that we have a fairly robust description of consciousness, at least on the empirical level, the question of free will can be framed in terms of just how much the actions of these conscious entities is pre-determined. This gets at deeper questions about biology and biophysics and the session began with Paul Davies actually talking a bit about the origin of life which is still a bit of a mystery, at least in the sense of exactly how it developed from amino acids and other compounds and where it came from (Paul noted that he would actually quite like it if it turned out that panspermia was true). He essentially saw conscious life as akin to software while matter and energy were akin to hardware. If (and it is a big if) this is true, then it would seem to me that the problem of artificial intelligence would become much more tractable: in theory it would be a software problem! In this Paul was firmly on the side of saying that life is really about a pattern, i.e. about how information is organized, rather than about the "stuff" of which it is made. This does not mean, necessarily, that Max and Paul are at complete odds. It’s entirely possible for there to be new physics and yet for the ultimate problem to still be about the organization pattern. So, for example, it is possible that new physics will be found and yet we will still be unable to say we’ve cracked the riddle (this actually begs the question of how we will know if we do crack the riddle--synthesizing life and/or successful AI might fit the bill, but given the uncertainty of the state of things like Siri, it’s still not entirely clear).

In a somewhat provocative presentation, Anita Goel of Nanobiosym "defined" physical intelligence and proposed the very Wheelerian idea that everything really arose from information. Her talk was primarily focused on the work Nanobiosym has been doing in relation to error correction on individual genes (which is pretty cool) but she kept throwing out the word "decoherence" which is always a dangerous thing to do in a room full of physicists. There was at least one point on which I agreed with her: we need better definitions so that we can know, for instance, if we have reached a particular goal (e.g. how can we know if we understand the origin of life if we can’t agree on what life is?).

Susanne Still closed out the longer presentations by discussing her approach to addressing some of these questions. Her work is tied into the larger paradigm of thermodynamics and information and she posed the very valid question: what are the limits of physical information processing? The answer to this question is very likely to (in fact I’d say most certainly will) have a direct impact on the answers to the questions already discussed here. She, however, sees the problem as being related to thermodynamic issues, which makes sense given the fundamental relationship between thermodynamics and information.

In one of the shorter talks, Chris Adami felt that the hallmark of AI (and, perhaps intelligence/life/consciousness in general) is that it cannot be purpose-driven, so-to-speak. This reminded me of the debate over the nature of D-Wave’s chip: many people do not consider it a quantum computer because it is designed for a specific task (or type of task) which means it is not actually a universal quantum computer, i.e. you can’t just load any old "quantum software" onto it as (in theory) you can do with a classical computer (ignoring memory and CPU limitations and focusing solely on how the computations are physically performed).

One of the major take-away messages of this session is that, despite the fact that Paul Davies thought that, perhaps, free will was a necessary "illusion" for life, there’s been a lot of real progress made on free will, just not on the types of questions everyone thinks of when they think of free will.

At any rate, the more philosophical question seems to be, what problem do we tackle first: the origin of life, the origin of consciousness, or free will? I think implicit in that observation (which, by the way, is not mine) is that, given existing resources, tackling all three simultaneously may not be particularly fruitful. These are difficult problems. All of the types of problems FQXi tackles are difficult. Many of these problems will more than likely require intense creativity and coordination by large numbers of researchers with no guarantee of concrete results, at least in the sense understood by the usual funding agencies. Add to that the lack of well-qualified researchers who have the time, funding, and inclination to tackle these problems and we are left with an either-or scenario in which we have to prioritize these questions. And, of course, not everyone agrees on how to achieve this prioritization. It makes one wonder how much progress humanity might make if we put more money into truly fundamental research such as this and not as much into other areas. Of course, it requires serious long-term thinking which (as I will report in a different blog post) is not something we are particularly good at as a species.

--

Ian Durham is a quantum physicist and FQXi member based at Saint Anselm College, New Hampshire. You can visit his blog here.

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John Brodix Merryman wrote on Jan. 14, 2014 @ 03:23 GMT
Would it be helpful to distinguish between the element of awareness and its manifestation as thought?

If I may make the analogy, it's as though awareness is comparable to the projector light shining through the frames of a movie and thought is the image on the frame. Combined they create that illusion up on the screen.

This might help explain some of the various attributes of consciousness, such as how it seems beyond definition, yet intimately defined and discrete, both within individual thought processes and expressed by distinct individuals. One of the better ways to understand a process is when it malfunctions, rather than working smoothly and if we consider mental breakdown issues, it is as though the sense of awareness is still functioning, but the break down is in the lack of linearity or clarity of which it is processing. This serves to explain why the mental executive function seems isolated from an otherwise living biological organism. The sum awareness of the organism is dominated by its focus. Then the subconscious tendrils become lost in the shadows. When we get into groups, or around emotionally dominant people, their personalities tend to blend and focus the group sense of awareness and a executive focus emerges. This would help to explain why politics tends to dominate rational considerations, as that primal awareness overwhelms the forms of thought.

Any thoughts?

Regards,

John M

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Robert H McEachern replied on Jan. 14, 2014 @ 04:33 GMT
John,

It would indeed "be helpful to distinguish between the element of awareness and its manifestation"

Self awareness is not hard to explain. It is relatively easy to imagine how a machine might detect damage to itself (pain) or the frequency spectrum of light (color). What is difficult to explain is the particular way we EXPERIENCE that awareness. We do not experience it as a reductionist process; we do not experience the sensors or the processing, or the flow of information, just the end result - we experience the experience, so to speak.

Since science employs reductionist techniques to explain objective (able to be experienced by others) phenomenon, it has difficulty dealing with a subjective (unable to be experienced by others) phenomenon, with no clues as to how to "reduce" the experience into any component processes.

Rob McEachern

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John Brodix Merryman replied on Jan. 14, 2014 @ 11:04 GMT
Rob,

One observation would be this experiential awareness is elemental, a baseline axiom. To put it in theological terms, it's not an ideal from which we fell and seek to return, but the essence from which we rise and to which we fall.(Reset) The more applicable model isn't the God as old wise man, but as new born baby. Then the knowledge it acquires is a function of its interactions with a descriptive, physical reality and the feedback loops that build from there.

Regards,

John M

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Roger Granet wrote on Jan. 14, 2014 @ 03:41 GMT
While I'm not against good ideas coming from anywhere and anyone, and think all scientists should be open to ideas from anywhere, I'm of the opinion that biochemists, chemists and information scientists are much closer to the issue of consciousness and that that's where the solution will come from. After all, it seems that consciousness is in the brain, which is a biological substance. I know consciousness is a very new age, cool thing that physicists talk about, but I don't think physics has much to contribute, other than being at the base of all activities in the universe. As an analogy, if I'm interested in economics, I'd rather talk to an economist rather than wait for a physicist to work it out from first principles. But, you never know. And, it's good to keep an open mind.

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Robert H McEachern replied on Jan. 14, 2014 @ 04:16 GMT
"it's good to keep an open mind"... but not so open, that your brain falls out.

I too "don't think physics has much to contribute"

Rob McEachern

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John Brodix Merryman replied on Jan. 14, 2014 @ 11:08 GMT
Roger,

Given the state to which economics has been co-opted and bought and sold by economic and political forces, it would be nice to see some good old thermodynamic logic applied. Not to say physics doesn't have its own problems of over projecting, but treating money as a commodity in its own right, as opposed to the contract it most manifestly is, leads to some pretty delusional thinking.

Regards,

John M

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Roger Granet replied on Jan. 15, 2014 @ 06:31 GMT
John,

Hi. I was just using economics as a, perhaps poor, analogy of a subject that is not easily derivable from 1st principles of quantum physics, etc. While some economists that followed textbook economics made very accurate predictions over the last 5-7 years, many or most did not, so I understand peoples' mistrust of economists. Overall, I meant that consciousness is more of a biochemical and cognitive/information science type problem that, I think, would be much easier to solve with biochemical and cognitive/information science type thinking than to derive from 1st physics principles. So, while I would always listen with an open mind to ideas from all areas and all people, I don't think physicists will have much to contribute.

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Lorraine Ford wrote on Jan. 14, 2014 @ 15:14 GMT
Q: Where is consciousness?

A: Consciousness is seemingly not a single entity that encompasses the entire universe: consciousness is "located" at/associated with particular matter or configurations of matter. There must be countless individual consciousnesses in the universe, and presumably the information content of each of these consciousnesses relates in part to the relative location/situation that the matter finds itself in.

Q: What is consciousness for?

A: Consciousness is seemingly about the apprehension of raw and/or "processed" information that is available/relevant to that particular matter in that particular situation, so consciousness is subjective. The multifaceted conscious experience of these subjects is seemingly a compact way of representing/distinguishing/ handling many different categories of information.

Q: What does consciousness do?

A: Once raw information is "processed" into a more useful form, presumably the only thing that executive consciousness can do is to take action on the basis of the information. These actions might be considered to be the outcome of free will, or the outcome of deterministic processes.

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John Brodix Merryman replied on Jan. 14, 2014 @ 17:34 GMT
Lorraine,

Would you equate biology with some inherent sense of awareness?

From my perspective, it reduces two mysteries to one and explains much about biological behavior.

Regards,

John M

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Lorraine Ford replied on Jan. 15, 2014 @ 23:55 GMT
Hi John,

Re "Would you equate biology with some inherent sense of awareness?" Yes. Here's the reasoning:

Awareness/ subjective experience/consciousness of something is information about something. Only subjects apprehend information.

What is a subject? I think that there is something integrated and interconnected about the flow of information in a subject, so a subject could...

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John Brodix Merryman replied on Jan. 16, 2014 @ 01:17 GMT
Lorraine,

We seem pretty much on the same page. My view of the source of that awareness is a bit like the proverbial black hole. Its only definition is how it affects what surrounds it. So there is the tendency to focus on these details, but that overlooks the proverbial elephant in the room.

To quote Nietzsche, "I was staring into the abyss, when I realized it was staring back."

The problem I see with Zeilinger's statement is that information is inherently static, while reality is inherently dynamic. That's the problem with quantum behavior. We are trying to create a static model of a dynamic reality. Think for a moment about taking a picture of a moving car. If you want a clear picture of it, you use a very fast shutter speed and try freezing it at one moment and capturing it in action would require a sequence of such shots, because just taking in the action/leaving the shutter open would blur the information. So we can take all these static data points(particle or wave) and try to reconstruct the action from it, but miss much. The camera can only view one angle, limited focus, etc. "You can measure the position, or the momentum, but not both." Quantum computation presumes to capture much more information, but still wants the static data points to be the reality. We can only process those data points, because if it all blurs together....Much information is lost.

Regards,

John M

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Domenico Oricchio wrote on Jan. 15, 2014 @ 01:14 GMT
How to measure the consciousness?

There are some macroscopic values (like temperature, luminosity, pressure, spoken words, etc) and a sentient system that change the inner state with the external values.

But a phase change in a metal is not a conscious phase, because there is not a inner value that change the phase of the metal (cogito ergo sum); there is hysteresis, so that there is memory, in a melting metal; there is a collective behaviour, with different grain dimension interaction. It is necessary an inner energy to change the inner phases, and a melting metal have not this reservoir of energy: the macroscopic value transmit energy, and the inner value are changed by energy.

The same is true for a net of chemical reactions, but when the net is great, and there are exothermic reactions that are reservoir of energy, then the consciousness can happen: if there are molecules that react to external values, and trigger some reactions.

It is funny that the energy give information, and that they are measures, so that the inner phases are a measure of informations.

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Domenico Oricchio replied on Jan. 15, 2014 @ 09:16 GMT
I am thinking that the most elemental consciousness is the fire: it is a exothermic process, it have internal phases that change with the external condition (this reminds me the Howl's Moving Castle of Miyazaki or Backdraft with Robert De Niro) like oxygen level, humidity, temperature: have the stars consciousness?

It can be that there is consciousness without life, but it is possible that the life is consciousness; if it is so, then we must search life where there is exothermic processes (volcanoes, fires, chemical reactions) even in areas with very low temperatures (for example icy planets with volcanoes).

The life is like olympic flame, passed from one generation to another, and we burn chemical reaction during our whole life.

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John Brodix Merryman replied on Jan. 15, 2014 @ 16:04 GMT
Domenico,

A further analogy is that while the most elemental awareness is that radiant energy of light/fire, mass/structure/form are the thoughts it manifests. After awhile those forms become hard, cold and stiff, with very little fire remaining in them and they can't grow and expand, only stay the same until they crumble. The cycle of life and consciousness.

Regards,

John M

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Domenico Oricchio replied on Jan. 15, 2014 @ 19:18 GMT
Thank you John.

I thought, initially, that the ability of the transmission of the phases (message or radiant energy) in a conscious being could be the base of the consciousness: if there is a sharing of the inner phases, then there is consciousness.

I think that there is a problem with this: a melting metal (x-ray spectrography measure), and a brain of a mute-deaf-blind man (with a electroencephalography measure) have not difference, but this is not true.

There is a transmission of information, but there is not consciousness in a case.

It seem that the Descartes idea is the strongest that I have ever read.

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Lorraine Ford wrote on Jan. 18, 2014 @ 02:36 GMT
John,

Re your post of Jan. 17, 2014 @ 00:09 GMT: I see energy and information differently to you.

Q: What is information? A: In my view, information is subjective experience/consciousness/"qualia"/awareness.

"Qualia" is not a useless decoration, an unnecessary add-on to reality: subjective experience earns its keep, it is essential to the way reality works, it is seemingly essential for the apprehension/comprehension/differentiation/handling and manipulation of the complex informational aspects of reality.

I think that information is all about subjective points-of-view within the universe apprehending/keeping track of what's going on in the surrounding environment. And one of the things that a subject (e.g. a particle) needs to apprehend is energy information.

Sure energy might be one of the basic categories of information, the most basic building block of reality. But the universe can't keep track of it unless information is apprehended.

(By contrast, there is seemingly an unspoken assumption in any "Mathematical Universe" hypothesis that mathematics miraculously self-apprehends. But the issue of the apprehension of information can't be left out of any picture of the nature of reality.)

Cheers,

Lorraine

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John Brodix Merryman replied on Jan. 18, 2014 @ 03:55 GMT
Lorraine,

I see information as more fundamental than just subjective experience. The key here is the root, 'form.' I see matter as energy apprehending/connecting with other energy. Matter is energy in balance and a relatively stable form. If there is energy, there is information/form. We receive information by apprehending the energy manifesting it. The point though, is that the concept of form is of being stable and the concept of energy is of being dynamic.

Regards,

John M

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Lorraine Ford replied on Jan. 19, 2014 @ 00:18 GMT
John,

Although what we are both contending seems to be somewhat similar, in important ways we seem to be saying something different:

I contend that subjective experience IS fundamental because subjective experience is identical to information about reality/the universe. Information is not information unless it is apprehended by a subject. (What many people call "information" is really only physical squiggles and symbols that REPRESENT information to a subject.)

The CONTENT of all information has both dynamic (e.g. representable by a number) AND more stable aspects (e.g. representable as a category). For a particle, the content of information/experience includes fundamental categories of reality like energy; but for a human being, the content of information/experience is "processed"/executive-level information. For a living thing, fundamental-level information about energy, mass or momentum is not useful.

Cheers,

Lorraine

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John Brodix Merryman replied on Jan. 19, 2014 @ 01:20 GMT
Lorraine,

Lots of information is not useful, as we constantly distill the useful from the noise.

Yes, there is no such thing as objective experience. The only universal state is neutrality, the big flatline.

Consider how we apprehend information; As light entering our eyes, our fingers touching a surface, sound vibrations entering our ears, inhaling airborne molecules. All these require something physically energetic to contact us. It's the same for our testing devices, light in a telescope, photons hitting a detector, sound waves causing a microphone to vibrate, etc. then consider that all forms of matter are various component atoms contacting and trading electrons and within the atom, more relations between different forces/elements/particles. What would energy be in a void? If it had nothing to contact, react to, measure, etc. it would be as neutral as the void it's in.

It's that relating of energy that is information. Think of the energy being transferred between two objects, say a billiard ball striking another and if you graphed the spike of energy being transferred, it would peak at the moment they are most connected and in balance with one another. Consider how it is the spikes of energy we think of as bits of information. Information is connection. Energy is the action required for that connection.

Regards,

John M

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