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Why Time Might Not Be an Illusion
Einstein’s relativity pushes physicists towards a picture of the universe as a block, in which the past, present, and future all exist on the same footing; but maybe that shift in thinking has gone too far.

The Complexity Conundrum
Resolving the black hole firewall paradox—by calculating what a real astronaut would compute at the black hole's edge.

Quantum Dream Time
Defining a ‘quantum clock’ and a 'quantum ruler' could help those attempting to unify physics—and solve the mystery of vanishing time.

Our Place in the Multiverse
Calculating the odds that intelligent observers arise in parallel universes—and working out what they might see.

Sounding the Drums to Listen for Gravity’s Effect on Quantum Phenomena
A bench-top experiment could test the notion that gravity breaks delicate quantum superpositions.

March 18, 2018

CATEGORY: Blog [back]
TOPIC: Debating Consciousness and its Measurability [refresh]
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Blogger Ian Durham wrote on Sep. 1, 2016 @ 01:29 GMT
One of the many highlights of the recent FQXi conference on the Physics of the Observer was the session on consciousness. Consciousness is quite possibly the most enigmatic aspect of human existence. It is at the core of who we are as individuals (and, some argue, as a species) and yet we don’t really know quite what it is, let alone whether or not it has a physical basis.

This fall I am teaching a course on the nature of time (based partly on the 2011 FQXi conference in Bergen and Copenhagen) and early on I introduce the notion of a system. For the purposes of the class, I begin very simply: a system is anything that has measurable properties or characteristics. Properties and characteristics are used to help distinguish two systems from one another or one system in a certain state from that same system in another state (where a state is any configuration of properties and characteristics). For the moment I’ll just say that they are anything that can be measured for the purposes of distinguishing states. I will also refrain from defining the concept of measurement since that could be an entire blog post unto itself.

At any rate, this raises the important question: is consciousness a system? The human body is a system; an automobile is a system; the galaxy is a system. Even language is a system which means systems can be abstract concepts as long as they have measurable properties and characteristics. Finding measurable properties and characteristics of consciousness is one of the goals of Giulio Tononi who, more than a decade ago, first introduced Integrated Information Theory (IIT) as a means of tackling these deep problems of consciousness.

I first met Tononi at the 2014 FQXi conference in Vieques which featured several terrific talks on IIT (and consciousness in general) from the likes of Tononi, Larissa Albantakis, Christoph Koch, and Chris Adami. One of the scheduled conference excursions was a kayak outing on a bioluminescent bay. The road out to the kayak launch was bone-jarringly rough (and was not helped by our guide’s penchant for speed and the old van’s completely useful shocks and struts). By the time we arrived I was on the verge of losing what little food I had eaten that day. Tononi drew the short straw and ended up as my kayaking companion. Ever gracious, he did much of the paddling and allowed me some time to recoup on the relatively still waters of the bay. We had a wide-ranging conversation about consciousness and, in particular, some of the disorders he had encountered as a psychiatrist over the years. It was a singularly memorable experience.

David Chalmers (who was also at the conference this year) has argued that any attempt to define consciousness in purely physical terms will eventually run into the so-called hard problem which is the problem of explaining how and why we have phenomenon-based experiences, i.e. how sensations, for example, can acquire properties such as taste. IIT, by contrast, begins simply by assuming consciousness exists, i.e. it takes it as an axiomatic truth. Questioning its existence isn’t going to get us anywhere. In other words, I could assume that my entire life is nothing but a dream, but that won’t stop the IRS from trying to collect my taxes every year. So IIT takes consciousness as being self-evident.

In truth this is how most of science works. We have to start somewhere when developing theories to explain the world and so we create hypotheses, propose axioms, and develop propositions which are then tested and analyzed. We may find that some are correct and we may find that some are not correct. But, again, we have to start somewhere.

Tononi starts with experience. He thinks of consciousness as having an experience. That’s what defines it. As he noted in his talk at this year’s conference, you can’t “squeeze” consciousness out of the brain. In this sense, his approach would seem to circumvent Chalmers’ argument that purely physical definitions will ultimately lead to the hard problem by starting with an axiom rather than a physically measurable phenomenon (as a note, Chalmers appears to be personally agnostic concerning IIT).

Of course any discussion of consciousness is bound to have a strong overlap with any discussion about existence, i.e. “what exists.” Tononi seems to think there are gradations to the concept of existence. In other words, existence isn’t binary. Existence is based on causal power. Anything with maximal causal power definitively exists. Consider the following example which is one I routinely have used when thinking about the nature of information. A painter locks himself (or herself) in a room and paints an absolute masterpiece. Just as the painting is finished, a fire engulfs the building, burning it to the ground, taking the painter and the painting with it. Did the painting exist?

I originally came up with this scenario in order to ask about the nature of the information contained in the painting and, in particular, in the aesthetic appreciation of the painting. The painting itself adds information to the world and burning it simply rearranges that information. But the aesthetic appreciation of that painting also adds information to the world. What happens to that information when the painting is burned if it (the information) is not conveyed to anyone else?

From the standpoint of IIT, this is akin to asking if the painting ever existed in the first place. As Masafumi Oizumi pointed out in his talk, IIT basically says that it is necessary (though not sufficient) for a system to produce information in order to produce consciousness. All of the raw materials of the painting were already in the building when it burned. Creating the painting had no lasting effect; it had no causal power. By the standards of IIT it never existed. As Tononi pointed out, functionally equivalent systems are not necessarily phenomenally equivalent systems and vice-versa. If we were to consider two equivalent rooms in the burned building, both with the same art supplies and each containing an artist, but assume that only one of the artists painted a masterpiece before the building burned to the ground, the two rooms are phenomenally equivalent in the record they left in the world and yet, since the artists each took different actions prior to the fire, the two rooms are not functionally equivalent.

At any rate, Tononi says that if consciousness does exist then its existence must be based on its maximal causal power. This, of course, raises all sorts of interesting sociological and psychological questions about people who go unnoticed by society, but the reason Tononi makes this assertion is because it provides a means by which the theory can be measured—integrated information,

the details of which are beyond this blog post. Suffice it to say that the panel discussion at the conference was lively and interesting. But as FQXi’s fearless leader Max Tegmark pointed out, while IIT may or may not be correct, it is at least testable. As such, Christoph Koch of the Allen Brain Institute (who was at the 2014 conference but not at this year’s) has said it is “the only really promising fundamental theory of consciousness.”[1] That seems reason enough to study it.

[1] Carl Zimmer, "Sizing Up Consciousness by its Bits", New York Times, September 20, 2010.

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James A Putnam wrote on Sep. 1, 2016 @ 02:21 GMT
Dear Ian,

"David Chalmers (who was also at the conference this year) has argued that any attempt to define consciousness in purely physical terms will eventually run into the so-called hard problem which is the problem of explaining how and why we have phenomenon-based experiences, i.e. how sensations, for example, can acquire properties such as taste."

I think the hard question arises before results of consciousness are debated. The hard question is: What does physics have to do with analyzing intelligence? It doesn't predict nor explain it. In other words, what does mechanics have to do with explaining anything above the level of mechanical effects? If it is assumed that intelligence arose from dumbness, i.e. effects resulting from pushing and pulling, then I think the hard problem has been bypassed. Introduce consciousness ad hoc and one is off and running with it.

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Georgina Woodward wrote on Sep. 1, 2016 @ 05:08 GMT
There is, surely, something seriously amiss with the notion that destroying evidence by which something can be known,the source of its appreciation,makes it never have existed. That is like a criminal wiping away clues to his crime and claiming that it never happened. Present accessible information is not the prerequisite for something having existed. It is only the prerequisite for knowledge of it. Existence (now or previously) is not the same as knowledge of existence. Using my own terminology I would say the existence prior to destruction was Object reality. Whether or not there is formation of an Image reality,by which it can now be known has no affect on the Object reality that was. That had independent existence. Subjectively, I find " if you can't prove it it didn't happen" a disturbing attitude.

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Georgina Woodward replied on Sep. 1, 2016 @ 05:38 GMT
If the information to fabricate an output that is consciously perceived as the painting has been disorganized, the perception of the unspoiled painting never comes into being. 'Existence' in a person's consciousness is not the same as independent existence in the external World (Now or previously). A thought or sight of an object is not the object thought about, or the source object.

I would like to hear more about the notion of maximal causal power. It seems that some consciousness is fleeting, and of no lasting consequence and other consciousness leads to further thoughts experiences or actions yet both are still consciousness. Why maximal?

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Georgina Woodward replied on Sep. 1, 2016 @ 21:27 GMT
"IIT basically says that it is necessary (though not sufficient) for a system to produce information in order to produce consciousness."Ian Durham. That seems so for sensory perception of an externally existing system. Observer awareness of it is limited and 'fixed' by the information obtained. So the model will reflect the bias of the observer due to his/her consciousness having been informed by limited information. This is relevant to the concept of truth. An honest observer can be unaware of something that has not become a part of his conscious awareness without that something being or having been non existent or untruthful. The (Object) universe is not limited by what we know.

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Georgina Woodward wrote on Sep. 1, 2016 @ 06:09 GMT
I think the terms 'phenomenally' and 'functionally' are a little confusing here. I'm thinking 'phenomenally' as you have written it refers to knowledge of the phenomena that occurred.The perception of the phenomena not what has actually happened. Yet I would, in other contexts, think of a phenomenon as being something that actually happens over time. 'Functionally' as you have written it seems to be that they have had different histories. Not to do with current state or function,use or what it can do now. I would be inclined to use the two words the other way around. So do the words have particular mathematical or physics meanings -maybe someone can explain why they are used in that particular way.

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Domenico Oricchio wrote on Sep. 1, 2016 @ 11:26 GMT
I think that consciousness and life are the same concept, different words for the same state.

The people define the mass, the tree, the stone, the water without the notion of measure; It should be strange to define a fundamental term with a measure (unless it is not a magnitude), in a vocabulary.

That is, if I cannot explain to a child the true concept of consciousness, then I have not the definition of consciousness.

A true definition of consciousness will enable us to build conscious machines, the first artificial intelligence, and this is the experimental evidence of the true definition.

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Georgina Woodward wrote on Sep. 1, 2016 @ 21:44 GMT
Hi Domenico, sensitivity to the external environment is a characteristic of living things but only one characteristic and one shared by certain devices and materials. Not sufficient to define something as living.

I'm a bit worried by the idea of coming up with a definition of consciousness that is very precise but very limited and then testing it, potentially finding some correspondence and then saying because we found that that is what consciousness is.

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Domenico Oricchio replied on Sep. 1, 2016 @ 23:29 GMT
Hi Giorgina.

I think that a possible (in the future) perfect simulation of a Caenorhabditis elegans (OpenWorm), in a simulated environment, have the same cellular behavior, the same elementary brain behavior, the same interactions, but it is a computer simulation! If the simulation is perfect, then it is the simulation life? I think yes.

It is the simulation conscious? I think yes, for the simulated environment.

I think that the life is not simple self-replication (the mule is life), I think that life is ever conscious (and there are levels of life and consciousness, like coma, sleep, cyst) even for brainless organisms.

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Georgina Woodward replied on Sep. 2, 2016 @ 00:15 GMT
"At any rate, Tononi says that if consciousness does exist then its existence must be based on its maximal causal power." Ian Durham

The maximally causal 'base' seems odd to me. From a biological point of view,conscious awareness provides a survival (/reproductive success) benefit over fully automatic responses. It seems that it must be beneficial even if the life-form decides that inaction, no response, is the best strategy. Should we assume that causing inaction also counts as maximally causal? Potentially significant changes in stimuli or new stimuli are brought to attention. Yet there is also superfluous information within consciousness and missing information as the subconscious, does not know precisely what information is most significant and potentially causal. Only a proportion of the awareness will directly lead to action (or inaction). Can we know that each moment of, or object of, consciousness is maximally causal? I don't think so. More significant information may have been filtered as its significance was unknown at the time, and had it not been there might have been a greater effect resulting. What if the unseen Gorilla in the room had an unnoticed machine gun? (Referring to result of a psychological experiment)

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Georgina Woodward replied on Sep. 2, 2016 @ 00:34 GMT
Hi Domenico,

Yes -the simulated prefix is important because it isn't life unless the knowledge/ recognition of what 'life' means is altered.I have corresponded on this site with a scientist who is working on redefining life. However I think the characteristics of all Earth-life are important for delineating between the similarity of all life of the Earth-life Kingdoms and other things that share some of those characteristics but are not living in the same sense of the word. Robots with photo-cell receptors have rudimentary awareness of the environment that might be compared to that of simple organisms with photo-receptor cells but that does not mean both are life-forms. You have also raised the matter of different levels of consciousness. I think the broad term 'consciousness' is ambiguous as it can refer to perception in full wakefulness but also other kinds of awareness. I'm assuming the article is referring to perception when being maximally causal is mentioned.

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Steve Agnew wrote on Sep. 2, 2016 @ 04:39 GMT
It is always confusing when a discourse begins with the redefinition of a simple word like system.

"... a system is anything that has measurable properties or characteristics. Properties and characteristics are used to help distinguish two systems from one another or one system in a certain state from that same system in another state (where a state is any configuration of properties and...

view entire post

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James A Putnam replied on Sep. 2, 2016 @ 05:39 GMT
Hi Steve,

You define consciousness in this manner? - SA: "Consciousness is really simply defined by how people act like other conscious people who then act like other conscious people act as well. So there is recursion or feedback in consciousness, but there are always other people involved as well."

JP: In other words 'consciousness is defined by its effects'?

SA: "Consciousness certainly does simply exist ... '

JP: Do I correctly understand your meaning of 'simply exists', i.e., is a given property? I am asking because I see no definition provided. Ian said it well " ... we don’t really know quite what it is, let alone whether or not it has a physical basis." Although I think the word 'quite' has too much of a softening effect on the statement. I didn't find anything approaching a definition in your post. A definition would link consciousness to previously existing properties.

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Georgina Woodward replied on Sep. 2, 2016 @ 06:18 GMT
Hi Steve,

your definition'of consciousness is very unusual. You seem to be describing social behaviour and possibly self consciousness. A feeling of vulnerability leading people to conform to the social norm to fit in and be accepted by the group (and no doubt imitated by those who do not have such an experience within their emotional repertoire.) That's something different from consciousness of an individual alone, experiencing perception of the outside world or internal conditions, (or in the case of dreams internally generated imagery). No other is required for that. I think that individual consciousness is closer to the idea that the physics model discussed in the article attempts to model.

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Georgina Woodward replied on Sep. 2, 2016 @ 07:00 GMT
Steve, you make a good point about brain activity. Different kinds of detectable brain waves are correlated to different kinds of consciousness. Which seems to be evidence that consciousness is the result of or synonymous with some of the brain activity. It seems to me that the difference between brain and mind is that the brain is the architecture and the mind is the activity within it. So consciousness is (probably)not something extract-able from the architecture necessary for its being. The conscious experience will depend not just on the input information but on; the architecture that allows its processing, and the functioning of the organism. Allowing the necessary brain activity within that architecture and growth of the architecture providing learning and memory. Just connecting information may not be enough to give consciousness. I think how it is connected and what happens then, such as cascades of impulse and their thresholds, is important.

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Georgina Woodward wrote on Sep. 2, 2016 @ 21:25 GMT
In regard to the question of whether consciousness exists: No doubt consciousness happens. I think a distinction can be made between things that are , and can be said to exist in an instant of time and other things that happen and only have existence over time. A snap shot of all of the positions of all of the biochemistry of the brain would not constitute consciousness. It is the flux and change that enables the emergence of consciousness from the biochemistry, it seems to me. It is similar to the way in that a particle can be said to exist at a position at a moment of time. However its wave motion could not be said to exist in that moment but is revealed over time.I would not categorize consciousness as an (Object like) actualization but something else. For want of a better description a flux generated phenomenon. Therefore it is, to my mind, better to not regard matter as being conscious (of itself, that is- just to do with structure) but being able to host the flux generated phenomenon.

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Georgina Woodward replied on Sep. 3, 2016 @ 08:30 GMT
Re"is consciousness a system?" Ian. An ice skater, skates and costume might comprise a system in the sense of a collection of coordinated parts, with the function of skating. But a triple pike manoeuver isn't a system in that sense, but might be akin to a conscious thought or experience in being a happening over time, dependent upon the system for its becoming, and part of its function.

But if the ice skating performance is regarded as a system in the sense of being the execution of a method, then brain activity might possibly be regarded as a system in that sense and production of consciousness as one of its sub systems.Though I think it is more haphazard than certain and methodical, Some impulses fading , others reinforcing and surpassing thresholds for transmission across synapses, yet there is coordination of activities in different brain regions.

I can't help feeling there is a subtle difference between execution of the method by the skater and the output of that- the performance -Like the execution of certain activities in the brain and the output experience. The output isn't exactly the method of its production. If I have to choose yes or no I'd say consciousness itself is a product not a system, but its production might be.

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Joe Fisher wrote on Sep. 6, 2016 @ 14:48 GMT
I am CERTAIN that the real Universe must be of the simplest construction. I contend that the real Universe am one eternal unified visible infinite surface that am always illuminated by infinite non-surface light. I have notified over forty Physics Professors of my contention and not one of them has ever answered any of my emails or telephone calls.

All the Professors of Physics have had to offer is “DOUBT’ After spending years insisting that there was an invisible black hole in invisible space, Stephen Hawking hinted that perhaps there was not. No physical proof of the existence of any black hole has ever been chronicled. No physical evidence of any invisible big bang explosion has ever been found, and to guess if the supposedly ever expanding universe was nine billion light years old, or thirteen and three quarters of a billion light years old is to admit to being preposterously ignorant. Infinite visible surface cannot consist of finite invisible atomic extent. Infinite visible surface cannot temporarily occur for a finite space/time duration.

As all of the physicists have been wrong about the real visible Universe, it follows that they are just as wrong about invisible abstract human consciousness.

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Jade Boyle wrote on Sep. 6, 2016 @ 14:51 GMT

just wow.

I want more articles like this one on our great resource!

in this time the only thing I can do is to use online essay helper to write at least something to my college =/

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Steve Dufourny wrote on Sep. 6, 2016 @ 15:53 GMT
Perhaps we must differenciate still the gravitation and the lectromagnetism.Why we are conscious ? how to mesurate this conscious.Why some people does not crush a bee, why others yes? Is it due to education and psychology? what about the faith also ? How a dog is conscious ? why a dog is conscious ? we must really differenciate this gravitational conscious with the electromagnetic conscious perhaps....Of course it is a big universal question ? why we are and what are we ? if we consider that we die electromagneticaly only ,so the souls evolve.If the souls have been created , so have we all the same age ?It is very intriguing.I beleive that we are eternal gravitationaly speaking.The death and life are just electromagnetic it seems to me humbly.We are babies in evolution encoding electom. informations and of gravitation.In this line of reasoning , we cannot create an artificial conscious gravitationaly speaking.We can mimate that said with a kind of artificial intelligence with binar informations and codes.The automata is a rational method in fact by logic and dtermiistic superimposings.Our brains and our adn are so complex gravitationaly speaking.....

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Steve Dufourny replied on Sep. 6, 2016 @ 17:34 GMT
When we analyse the biological évolutions since the first cells and even before when we had on this earth a primitve soap with methan,water..H20 CH4 NH3 H2C2 HCN.....We can see easily that all our evolution is based on these 4 atoms mainly HCNO.If we consider still these gravitational codes,it is fascinating to see the complexification of créations.We are a result of polarisation in fact ,evolutif.I am not going to develop the classment of all our animals and vegetals on the line time but we can see also that in the brain fro example the glutamic acid is composed by these atoms.The relevance is to analyse the gravitational codes above our standard model.That said we can also analyse the nervous systems and the travel of informations for the artificial intelligence.We have several different parts in our brain,motions,memory,this and that, each part has its electromagetic rules.But I am doubting that we can class this gravitational conscious.Our gravitational soul is more than these elecromagneticparametrs.That said ,these electromagnetic informations can complete the gravitational codes,but it is an other where we must insert the sorting of informations;Perhaps we encode deterministic informations gravitationaly speaking,time is seen differently in a pure philosophical point of vue,eternal like this gravitation and entropy....

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Lee Bloomquist wrote on Sep. 23, 2016 @ 21:56 GMT

Here is an idea about measuring when "self" begins, and ceases, to exist:

It turns out to be quite practical-- even political.

But you would need to fund a very good neuro-imaging lab-- one who knows how to work with lab animals.

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sridattadev kancharla wrote on Sep. 23, 2016 @ 23:42 GMT
Dear All,

To answer the question what is an observer? we need to first answer the question what is not an observer? We will soon realize that everything is observing everything else, only the scale and magnitude of observation varies. Observation is not a one way process, it is a two way process. What is being observed is indeed observing what observes it. We as human sentient beings often consider the act of observation from uni directional perspective and share this information with other fellow humans to confirm our observations. What if we took the perspective of what is being observed and imagine how that entity is participating in the act of observation, would we fully understand what is going on. There definitely seems to be levels of empowerment in the acts of observation, as some observers can cause others to behave in the way they want to. An act of observation causes a quantum fluctuation in the unified field and results in the collapse of the infinitely probabilistic wave function and material manifestation of what the observer wishes to exist. What this implies is that the world we live in is a manifestation of our own wishful thinking. But to just answer the fundamental question what is an observer? let us try to find what is not an observer and we will have our answer. Please visit Any Body Can Derive Everything From Geometry.

Universal i brings forth thyself in to being with

M ind

A t

T rue

H igh

zero = i = infinity = square root (e power (i * pi))


Sridattadev Kancharla.

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Shaikh Raisuddin wrote on Mar. 3, 2017 @ 17:57 GMT
Dear Ian Durham,

My comments on your post are as follows:

The property that distinguishes two systems is inertia which in turn is funcion of internal organization of system.

Consciousness is functionality of system.

The measurable property of consciousness is "entropy" as each conscious event is an entropic event.

Defining consciousness is the starting point without which all destination lead to confusion. My definition is, "Consciousness is an ability to respond to stimuli".

Tononi's definition exclude subconscious experiences.

Hard Problem is a myth.

MOST IMPORTANT: Only structurally equivalent systems are functionally equivalent. A 3D-Printed structure of an individual will have identical experience/consciousness with that of the individual. Hint: A 3D-printed organ implant is not rejected by human body as foreign body.

I have the answers of the explanatory gap and of allied issues of consciousness.

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