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Ines Samengo: on 6/4/17 at 16:59pm UTC, wrote Hi, Conrad, thanks a lot! This and the previous answer are truly...

Conrad Johnson: on 5/31/17 at 17:47pm UTC, wrote Inés – again after many delays, I‘m responding to your note above. ...

Conrad Johnson: on 5/27/17 at 15:45pm UTC, wrote Hi Inés, sorry for the long delay… I’ll respond to your second...

Conrad Johnson: on 5/12/17 at 12:27pm UTC, wrote Ines - I was very glad to see your posts, and will respond as soon as I...

Ines Samengo: on 5/12/17 at 0:47am UTC, wrote Hi, Conrad, sorry, it’s me again. I just wanted to add a small comment....

Ines Samengo: on 5/8/17 at 0:51am UTC, wrote Hi, Conrad, little by little I am trying to catch up with the ongoing...

Conrad Johnson: on 4/10/17 at 14:23pm UTC, wrote Marc – your comment is more than adequate to fulfill my hope for a...

Marc Séguin: on 4/10/17 at 3:42am UTC, wrote Dear Conrad, Finally (!), here are the specific comments on your essay. ...


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October 1, 2022

CATEGORY: Wandering Towards a Goal Essay Contest (2016-2017) [back]
TOPIC: Three Technologies: On the Accidental Origins of Meaning by Conrad Dale Johnson [refresh]
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Author Conrad Dale Johnson wrote on Feb. 27, 2017 @ 17:15 GMT
Essay Abstract

To rephrase the question more broadly: How did there get to be so much meaningful information in the world? There are three distinct dimensions of meaning in everything we experience – human, biological and physical. Each can be seen as a recursive system that repeatedly generates contexts in which things and events can make a meaningful difference, by contributing to new situations where further possibilities can arise. Currently only one of these three natural technologies is well understood – since Darwin, we’ve had deep insight into the world of living things and how they evolve, though we still struggle with exactly what it means to be “alive”. But we have no such clarity about the underlying structure of the physical world, or about the functioning of our own conscious minds. My effort here is to address this lack by emphasizing the recursive functionality of meaning as the common element in human communication, biological reproduction and quantum measurement. Though these processes operate in very different ways with very different results, they’re all able to develop finely-tuned complexity for the same reason – through natural selection, they generate meaningful information by accident.

Author Bio

I’ve lived mainly in the US, currently in Providence, Rhode Island. I have a long-standing interest in the foundations of physics, biology and humanity, going back to my graduate work many decades ago in the History of Consciousness at UC Santa Cruz, where I focused on the evolution of Western philosophy and science. I’ve contributed essays to the FQXi contests since 2012.

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Branko L Zivlak wrote on Feb. 28, 2017 @ 00:19 GMT
Dear Mr. Johnson

Your essay has been excellent. Part of physics is in domain of my interests. You say: any two molecules of the same type are identical. I'm not sure that even the two protons are identical. The reason is that in physics we are dealing with irrational numbers. The physical constants are all somehow related to the mathematical constants e, pi. So it is better to say that the...

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Mark Pharoah replied on Feb. 28, 2017 @ 22:24 GMT
The sentiments of Branko here echo my own - Mark Pharoah

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Mar. 4, 2017 @ 13:52 GMT
Branko - I appreciate the comment. Looking at your essay on physical constants gives me an idea why you might suppose atomic particles are not identical, but of course that's far from mainstream science.

Thanks - Conrad

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Satyavarapu Naga Parameswara Gupta wrote on Feb. 28, 2017 @ 05:01 GMT
Dear Johnson,

Thank you for the nice essay on “understanding meaning "

You are observations are excellent, like…

…There are three stages ” human communication, biological reproduction, and quantum measurement ….. In each of these processes, something that would otherwise be nearly impossible can happen over and over again, all the time. For example, ideas pass...

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Mar. 4, 2017 @ 14:09 GMT
Mr. Gupta - thank you, I wish you luck with your Model.

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Mark Pharoah wrote on Feb. 28, 2017 @ 22:28 GMT
I have enjoyed your writing before and believe your ideas share parallels with mine, which is always pleasing. This passage:

"Even gigantic molecular structures can last indefinitely, if before the molecule gets broken down by its environment, copies of it get made. But the copies must also get copied before they break, and this has to keep on happening. If somehow that can be done, the rules of the game are radically changed; complexity can increase almost without limit."

in particular has relevance to my writing.

However, while I understand much of what you say, I think that you do not really tackle the meat of the question which concerns the derivation of goal-driven agents that possess purpose and intention. What mindless physical law tells us that creatures must evolve with subjective experiences and actions driven by purpose and what might such goals be leading to in the grand scheme of the universe and its evolution?

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Mar. 4, 2017 @ 14:24 GMT
Hi Mark - surely no physical law says that any living creatures must exist. And I don't think being "goal-driven" is really what's fundamental in human evolution. I'll have to look at your essay to see what you mean by "the grand scheme of the universe." But my goal here is only to make it understandable that physics, biology and humanity operate very differently, and to show how each of these realms of operation can have arisen by accident. The result is certainly very grand, but it's not the result of any plan.

Thanks -- Conrad

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Andrew R. Scott wrote on Mar. 2, 2017 @ 15:13 GMT
A clearer conclusion, even if just a restatement of mysteries, would have helped (or would have helped me, at least).

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Mar. 4, 2017 @ 14:30 GMT
Andrew, you're right. I was pressed for time, and as usual tried to get too much into the essay. I hoped that restating the main idea many times in various contexts would work, but I should have left space for a better summary at the end. Thanks.

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Edwin Eugene Klingman wrote on Mar. 2, 2017 @ 20:39 GMT
Dale Conrad Johnson,

Congratulations on a first-class essay. You speak well, you explain well, and you integrate concepts. Most significantly, you qualify your statements, pointing out in several places that equations can only be solved approximately, and that aspects of the problem are too hard to define. Thus, logical proof being impossible in this situation, you weave a narrative, and...

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Mar. 4, 2017 @ 14:48 GMT
Mr. Klingman, thank you very much - I look forward to reading your essay.

I'm very far from mastery of molecular biology, but it surely is impressive that all the finely-tuned machinery of the cell can function in a "storm" of random encounters among molecules. And I think very few biologists doubt that this all came about through natural selection operating on mutations, which is to say, by accident. The fact that the process has evolved amazingly tight and complex controls does not imply that these constraints were somehow imposed by an external agency... rather, by circumstances that themselves evolved.

To me, the notion of a "primordial consciousness field" implies an extremely vague notion of "consciousness" that's hardly explanatory. I prefer to consider what's unique about human consciousness, since this is really the only context in which the term has a meaning we can explore.

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Rick Searle wrote on Mar. 4, 2017 @ 00:45 GMT
Dear Conrad Dale Johnson,

I want to thank you for your wonderful essay. I found much of your essay resonated with thoughts I’ve been kicking around in my own head for quite some time, though I doubt I could have articulated them quite as well as you have.

Parts that particularly struck me:

The distinction you made between living and nonliving systems:

“The thing is, there’s almost no way to do this, in physics. Though we sometimes hear that our universe is finely-tuned to support the existence of life, in fact almost nothing in the non-living world ever makes copies of anything, let alone of itself. “

The gap between the physical world and our mathematical models:

“Each nanosecond in each atomic nucleus in the universe, incredibly complex interactions go on that we can barely begin to approximate. “

The difference between brains and computers:

“So brain software is nothing like computer software, that gets installed just by copying it to another machine. Rather, the human mind has to get itself reinvented itself in every baby’s brain. Each new version of this software is unique, and will never be repeated.”

The uniqueness of each human person:

“Each human consciousness evolves its own universe. The world as seen with your eyes and imagined in your brain is a world no one else will ever see."

The observation that constraints are the source of possibility:

“Pure unconstrained possibility – as in the deep quantum vacuum – provides no context in which anything can make a meaningful difference.”

I have judged your essay in accordance with its excellent merits. Please be kind enough to check out my own essay in the contest entitled “From Athena to AI” when you get the chance.

Best of luck,

Rick Searle

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Mar. 4, 2017 @ 14:54 GMT
Rick - Your essay is high on my list to read, since I remember the excellent piece on Utopias you wrote for the 2014 contest. Many thanks for your comments.


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Don Limuti wrote on Mar. 6, 2017 @ 06:12 GMT
Hi Conrad,

I read your essay with interest.

In particular I liked "That’s how the software gets itself reseeded in each new brain, through daily emotional contact with others whose software is already highly evolved." This resonates with me. I have the notion that emotion is a key to intention and meaning.

Thanks for your essay,

Don Limuti

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Mar. 6, 2017 @ 12:26 GMT
Don - thanks for your interest! I was very impressed by the writings of Colwyn Trevarthen who studies infant development... he says emotional connection is basic to sharing perspectives and intentions with others. Seems obvious, yet is rarely emphasized.

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Ines Samengo wrote on Mar. 9, 2017 @ 22:14 GMT
Hi, Conrad, thanks for the good read! In the context of your essay, the comments you made about mine acquire even more meaning. Which, by the way, is a good way to stress that I truly valued your idea that context is crucial for meaning. Among the many interesting topics that you touched, one that has really captured me (biased by the ideas of my own essay) is to try to find a meaning (or should I say a context?) in which to understand the difference between replication and noise. Following you, and Dawkins, and Dennet and many others, I agree that self-replication plays a central role, and that so do copying mistakes. But the distinction between the two (between self replication and mistakes) requires a context. What do we mean by self replication? Specially when talking for example of ideas. What is a perfect copy of an idea? And a copy with Variations? Surely if you change too little, there is no mistake at all, otherwise nothing would be a copy. Even when DNA replicates the issue arises, though less dramatically. For example, we say there is a copying error when one base is mistaken, but not when one atom inside one base is replaced by an isotope. So before distinguishing what is a mistake and what is a perfect copy, we need a notion of equality, which is, in a sense, a context. And the context is defined not by what has happened so far, but by what is to happen next, right?

Ok, not truly sure of what I am saying, but by all means, your thoughts (replicated in my head with or without variations) are very useful to me. Thanks!


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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Mar. 10, 2017 @ 15:34 GMT
Yes… but the key distinction made in the context of “what happens next” is not between a perfect copy and a mistake. The organism’s offspring just get whatever genes they get, which may include “mistakes” and will definitely include recombinations. The distinction is whether or not this new version works to make more copies. Accurate transcription is important, but also the mistakes.

When it comes to ideas, we’re even further away from perfect copying. If my essay succeeds really well, for you, it’s not because you have an accurate copy of what I think in your head. Ultimately there’s no way to compare what some set of words means to two different people... unless we're talking in a well-defined and restricted context. So if I succeed here, it’s because fortuitously I manage to set off something that makes sense for you, in the creative context of your own ideas. Instead of comparing, we can discuss. Which, by the way, is for me a rare pleasure… so I really appreciate your taking time for this.


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Ines Samengo replied on Mar. 11, 2017 @ 15:47 GMT
> The distinction is whether or not this new version works to make more copies.

Sure, but in order to decide whether something succeeded or not in producing copies, I need a notion of equality, or similarity.. don't you?

> So if I succeed here, it’s because fortuitously I manage to set off something that makes sense for you

Sure, but again, I need the notion of similarity. Imagine I read your essay, so I get delayed, miss my normal bus, and take the next one. And there I happen to find an old school friend I had not seen for many years. Your essay will have set off something that makes sense to me, but not in the way we are intending it here. Any other thing dealying me would have had the same effect. There is still a causal link between me getting caught by your ideas and me meeting my friend. But the two events are too different from one another to state that one gives meaning to the other, are they not?

So this is the issue I am still trying to work out in my head. You have a recursive definition of meaning. But when I try to make it work, I always fall back on the need to try to define "copy" and "mistake", otherwise the recursive definition seems to dilute away in "something affecting something else", which is no more than to say that in the whole universe, all particles interact with all others. I truly like the your idea that something has meaning if it can produce more meaning. But I cannot separate it from "produce more meaning *of the same kind*".

am I missing something?

Note: In spite of my example of the bus above, I think that I do carry some copy of your ideas, modified to a sufficiently modest extent as to still be recognizable as daughter ideas - at least by me!



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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Mar. 12, 2017 @ 14:57 GMT

> in order to decide whether something succeeded or not in producing copies, I need a notion of equality, or similarity.. don't you?

Well, I recall there are complex error-correcting mechanisms that check on RNA and repair mistakes, as well as splicing out introns, etc. But at a basic level, in biology, I think that success means ongoing reproductive success, and accurate copying only serves that end. After all, in sexually reproducing species, offspring are not genetic copies of the parents. Most of the genes need to be exact copies for the offspring to survive and reproduce, but ultimately it’s their reproductive success that “decides” whether any member of a species is a good enough copy… so far as future evolution is concerned.

> I always fall back on the need to try to define "copy" and "mistake", otherwise the recursive definition seems to dilute away in "something affecting something else".

In biology, the key thing that has to get reproduced is the ability to reproduce. With us humans, the key thing that needs to be communicated is the ability to communicate. The latter is much more complicated, because only in special cases (like learning a math formula or relaying news) does it come down to accurate copying. Even then, the meaning of the news or the formula depends on what we do with it in future.

Your bus example is good… it shows how meaning ramifies out into the world to have all kinds of effects. Likewise in biology, the successful reproduction of an organism can cause many different effects in the world. But the key effect is to make more reproduction possible. With communication, the key function is to keep the conversation going, whether with yourself or with another person… to keep making new things seem fun or important to talk and think about. You’re right that “sameness” is a crucial element, though less clearly defined than in biology. If you and I had very different notions, we would just be talking past each other. But again, while accurately grasping each other’s thoughts is important, it serves a deeper purpose – for me anyway, it makes me feel much more connected and hopeful, maybe better able to listen and express myself clearly in future.

In short, “meaning” does indeed dilute out into the world of interaction... I think that’s why it can seem impossible to define except as a feeling we have about things. Meaning does more than set up the possibility for more meaning, but that’s the key thing it succeeds or fails at.

Hope that clarifies things a little… and thanks again for your helpful responses.


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James Lee Hoover wrote on Mar. 11, 2017 @ 22:10 GMT

I like the clear classification of the studied dimensions of meaning. Your changing context sounds somewhat like Aristotle’s perception of human goals. Recursive functionality of meaning as common element for the three categories. I noted the comments on differences in molecules, but you said "In biology, finely-tuned systems of complex molecules make near-exact copies of themselves," which I thought accurate, not saying that bonding is the same.

I like the way you separate your dimensions of meaning: in everything we experience – human, biological and physical, and compare the recursive functionality, the brain sw installed and reinstalled not like computer sw.

You clearly distinguish the varied elements of the universe but perhaps focus less on the specific function of so-called mindless laws while I emphasize the broader universal scope of such laws, especially entropy.

Well done. I would like to hear your ideas on my essay.

Jim Hoover

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Mar. 12, 2017 @ 15:06 GMT
Jim -- I'll certainly take a look at your essay. Yes, my main goal was just to clarify the basic differences between the three dimensions of our existence, to try to explain why they work in such different ways. But concepts like entropy are relevant at all levels.

Thanks for reading and commenting! -- Conrad

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Anonymous wrote on Mar. 12, 2017 @ 18:56 GMT
Hi Conrad,

I read your paper and yes, I do see the similarity between your use of ‘contextual meaning’ and my construct of the traveler with in a certain terrain. Interesting how that works within an iterative frame. There is also kindred thinking between your idea of ‘meaningful difference’ and Gregory Bateson’s definition of information as, “a difference that makes a difference,” or something like that.

I appreciated your section on the difficulties of creating a universe ex nihlo; that is fertile ground. How does it begin? If one thing exists only in relation to another, what is the first declarative step?

It felt like we were covering much of the same ground, simply on different paths.

Regards, Don

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Mar. 13, 2017 @ 16:16 GMT
The note above was posted by Don Foster, whose most entertaining essay I highly recommend.


Yes, I had Bateson in mind… having been fortunate enough to take a seminar with him many years back. And I’m glad you picked up on my creation fantasy… something that occurred to me a mere 20 years ago. Finally got a chance to use it.

As to your question, how does it begin? My thought is to start with a more radical version of the quantum vacuum of “virtual events” where there are no rules at all, and anything can happen. As in the creation scenario, the problem is that there’s no given context to define what happens. So the only kind of structure that can exist is one that’s able to define all its own rules and parameters, without referring to anything outside itself.

Now our universe is able to do that – as evidenced by the fact that we’re able to define all the known laws of physics, etc. on the basis of empirical observation. All these various kinds of information evidently have contexts that make them meaningful. So can we find simpler patterns within this very complex structure, that might represent more primitive self-determining systems, from which our universe emerged?

In an earlier FQXi essay (page 6), I suggested the electromagnetic field might be such a “fossil” system. This also discusses how emergence might work here. I also sketched the basic idea in a Physics Forums post – that was back in 2009, when they still allowed posting such stuff.

Thanks for asking! – Conrad

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Vladimir Nikolaevich Fedorov wrote on Mar. 13, 2017 @ 11:00 GMT
Dear Conrad,

I estimate you essay exelent. Excellently written.

You are one of the few who directly answers the question put by the contest.

Perhaps my essay will complement your understanding of the causality of quantum processes. Your essay allowed to consider us like-minded.

Kind regards,


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Stefan Keppeler wrote on Mar. 14, 2017 @ 15:32 GMT
Dear Dale, thanks for your remarks on my essay. You rightly point out the importance of being able to repeat things in an almost but not exactly identical fashion, both in biological evolution and in human social interactions. I'm not sure I'm convinced that this also applies to quantum mechanics. You also rightly stress that meaning and intention depend on emerged context. Cheers, Stefan

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Stefan Keppeler replied on Mar. 14, 2017 @ 15:37 GMT
Ops, sorry! Conrad, of course.

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Mar. 14, 2017 @ 15:52 GMT

Yes, what gets repeated in quantum measurement is not generally something "almost identical", as it is in biology. Of course it's possible to make repeated measurements on a system and get the same result... but in general, the result of one measurement event will contribute to contexts in which entirely different types of measurements become possible.

The same is true of human communication, though. We can of course repeat ourselves, but in general, if what I say has meaning to you, your response will be entirely different from what I've said... though hopefully not unrelated!

Where the recursive process in biological evolution is essentially about reproducing information, both in quantum physics and human connection the primary process is that of creating contexts in which information has meaning. That is, information gets defined and communicated rather than just copied. That's essentially why these process are so much harder to clarify than the biological one.

Thanks for commenting! -- Conrad

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Anonymous wrote on Mar. 21, 2017 @ 19:25 GMT
Hi Conrad,

Thanks for your nice remarks on my essay, and I must say I enjoy your writing style, which is nice and clear.

I am picking up some points of concern in your argument though, particularly with respect to QM:

While these choices are random, they’re correlated with other random choices in ways that aren’t yet explained.

I'm not sure what you are talking about here - do you mean entanglement? If so, I think this is explained at a mathematical level by the operator of QM, and at the level of intuition in many-worlds and similar interpretations of QM.

any two molecules of the same type are identical, always interacting with other molecules in just the same way.

Wouldn't you agree that there is randomness in the way molecules interact - especially for example in DNA?

Best regards,

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Mar. 22, 2017 @ 16:08 GMT
The above comment is from George Ellis, whose excellent essay is here.

George – thanks very much for responding. As to the two points you mention –

1) I did have entanglement in mind, and the puzzling question of non-locality. But much more generally, what’s “unexplained” about QM is that measurement results can be individually random, and yet result in statistically precise patterns. Or in short, that indeterminacy can support a higher-level determinism. This looks like a prime example of your “top-down realization.”

But while it’s true that a great deal about this is understood mathematically, that doesn’t seem to me an explanation of how or why this occurs. Maybe such basic facts about nature aren’t explainable, of course... but I suspect there’s much more to be understood about the ability of our universe to make essentially all its information physically determinable.

2) Yes, there’s plenty of randomness at the molecular level, as well described in your essay, so my statement was not well worded. But it’s also important that atomic interaction is so precisely reliable. If there were even slight differences in the behavior of any two atoms of the same type (in the same state), there would be larger differences between two simple molecules of the same type… and there would be no possibility of replicable behavior at the level of huge biomolecules.

Hope that makes sense – Conrad

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Christopher D. Fiorillo wrote on Mar. 24, 2017 @ 05:43 GMT
Dear Conrad,

I enjoyed your essay, and I agree with much of it. Also, I have now responded to your post on my essay (The Making of the Mind: What is Intrinsic to Matter and What Emerges with Complexity?).

Your essay focused especially on “reproduction” as the key factor that distinguishes animate from inanimate objects. I fully agree that it is a very important difference between animate from inanimate objects (I am a biologist). I argue in my essay that reproduction does not form the basis of a dichotomy that distinguishes a “thing” with “knowledge and intention” from a thing with “no knowledge or intention.” You seem to imply that reproduction is the basis of a dichotomy. If you do believe that, I would like to see a more precise definition of “reproduction.” Gravity and the strong force enable growth, allowing smaller things to come together to make bigger things that are larger and more stable. It is not difficult to conceive of a chemical that directly or indirectly catalyzes synthesis of ‘copies’ of itself (positive feedback). Neither of these is “biological,” but both involve growth and “natural selection” that promote survival. I am not denying that biological reproduction exceeds these processes, only that the distinction is not a dichotomy.

Best wishes,


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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Mar. 24, 2017 @ 12:41 GMT
Hi Christopher – thanks very much for reading the essay, and your comment. I’ll respond at more length in the thread to your excellent essay.

As to defining reproduction – like the other basic terms I explore (meaning, measurement, communication), it’s defined recursively. “To reproduce successfully is not to make perfect copies, but to have offspring that also have offspring, on and on.” What it means and what it takes to reproduce is different for each species; it involves many complex functions that have all changed over time. What’s essential is just that the process keep itself going.

Early in the emergence of life, the top priority would have been the accuracy of replication, along with improving the metabolic process needed to sustain this. But as the evolutionary process itself evolved, reproduction became more oriented toward promoting variation (e.g. recombination) and managing mutation (e.g. sex). But as a biologist, you’re better acquainted with all this than I am. The point is to define reproduction functionally rather than formally – this relates to my discussion with Inés above.

Where you want to emphasize the overall continuity from particles to people, I’m trying to describe the basic discontinuities and show how they could happen. Apart from that emphasis, I do think our views have a lot in common.

Thanks again – Conrad

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Christopher D. Fiorillo replied on Mar. 31, 2017 @ 08:24 GMT
Hi Conrad,

I don’t think there are any important differences in the way you and I would define ‘reproduction.’ I would define it pragmatically (to make it a distinct and useful word), and I would say that it is a property of animate but not inanimate things. However, my main point here is that I don’t think that the distinction between a reproducing and non-reproducing thing corresponds to a dichotomy in which the former has intentions and the latter has none.

Surely there is a very important distinction in the nature of the intentions of animate versus inanimate things. If only animate things reproduce, by definition, then I would naturally say ‘only animate things have the intention to reproduce.’ I fully agree that reproduction is a key step in the emergence of higher intelligence and intentionality. In common language I would agree to call it a ‘discontinuity,’ but I probably would not call it that with respect to math.

I have just now responded to your second round of comments on my essay.

Best wishes,


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Robert Groess wrote on Mar. 29, 2017 @ 04:40 GMT
Dear Conrad Johnson,

Thank you for your fanscinating and wide ranging essay. I enjoyed reading it and have also in the meantime rated it too. Your essay did give me a new perspective on this topic which I have been thinking about ever since. In particular, what do we mean by an accident? If you consider a person with a driver's license, it would not be very politically correct to say "there's an accident looking for a place to happen". But in truth if you place a million of such people in a large city then the rate of car accidents can be predicted so accurately that companies can make a profit off that distribution. So in a way, the phenomenon of auto insurance is realized by a large sample of individuals, though we have no idea who will get into a car accident next. So the scope of my musing was, if the "accidental" origin of meaning of which you speak were very ubiquitous, what emergent structure would be realized from that?

Thanks again for the read. Good luck for the contest.



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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Mar. 31, 2017 @ 15:00 GMT
Robert -- thanks very much for reading and commenting! I enjoyed your essay as well, and left a note in that thread.

I'm glad you found a new perspective here. Though I'm sure I made my point about recursive systems and natural selection, since I repeated it a lot, I don't think I did a good job explaining why that perspective is important. To me the possibility of coming to understand physics and human consciousness as clearly as we understand biology seemed very striking, but I may not have sold that idea very well.

To your comment -- no doubt accident is ubiquitous... but circumstances that enable random events to connect in meaningful ways are not. Or rather, they are ubiquitous in our universe, but only through the three recursive technologies I describe, which continually regenerate such circumstances.

Thanks again -- Conrad

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Peter Jackson wrote on Apr. 4, 2017 @ 16:15 GMT

An interesting and well written essay reminding us of and identifying some important points. I think the three 'layers' (I found techologies an interesting word choice! - but I like that) you chose were valid, (if perhaps only representative of a more deeply stratified reality of upward emergence?).

I don't feel I came away with any conclusions or decision on the topic question (though did it really deserve one!?) but that didn't really detract.

I agree with your comments, consistent with my own work, that; "the human mind has to get itself reinvented itself in every baby’s brain. Each new version of this software is unique, and will never be repeated. and then also of QM;

" quantum physics, things are interconnected in more complicated ways". ..and ...we haven’t had any clear notion of what a measurement is. which I raise because I further address that this year (wearing last years red & green socks) with what 'should be' the last component deriving it all mechanistically, so removing all 'spookyness'! You do have a handle on QM so I hope you may look and tell me if you follow the mechanism (4 out of 5 barmaids could!)

Very well done for yours. I do like your writing style. Your essays cover much good ground like mine (I deal with macro levels too!) but I feel mine have to be more 'compressed'. (when you get time watch the video too). A complementary score now being applied.

Very best


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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Apr. 7, 2017 @ 13:05 GMT
Peter - Thanks very much.

I meant "technology" to be provocative, but I don't think I got the point across very effectively - that physics is a highly functional system, directly comparable to the functionalities of life and language. A more direct statement of a "conclusion" would certainly have helped. After 5 years I'm still trying to get the hang of this essay format!


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Member Marc Séguin wrote on Apr. 5, 2017 @ 06:25 GMT
Dear Conrad,

As I said in a recent post on my thread, I'm really spending too much time this year exploring the ideas and the references I find in people's essays instead of responding and leaving comments! I started the evening intending to write up my comments on your essay, but as they relate to your previous work (that I am quite a fan of, having stumbled upon your "Physics Forum" and "The World from Inside" pieces while researching this year's essay), I started by re-looking at them. I also read the posts above in your thread, got intrigued by the comment you left to Don Foster about electromagnetism as a "fossil", read your "It from Bit" FQXi essay... Wow! I'm really impressed... and saddened it didn't get the recognition it deserved. It is nfortunate that I had read all your previous FQXi essays EXCEPT this one: in my essay this year, I almost put some your work in my references, but if I had read this essay before, I would have done so for sure. As your comments on my essay make it clear, there are many apparent incompatibilities in our frameworks, but I think they are due in great part to the fact that we define "abstraction" and "mathematical" in different ways. I am also willing to admit that my usage of these terms is not optimal. I may "evolve" towards the use of "informational" and "relational" instead...

It's getting late, so I will be getting back to you with more detailed comments and questions about your essay. (There are a few other essays I must leave comments on before Friday, so it may take a few days.) In the meantime, I just scored your current essay (which I really liked, by the way), with the hope this will increase its "visibility" in the rankings and encourage more people to read it, comment on it and rate it.


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Member Marc Séguin replied on Apr. 10, 2017 @ 03:42 GMT
Dear Conrad,

Finally (!), here are the specific comments on your essay.

I think you did a nice job overall, although this year's question, related to aims and intentions, was so wide that it was easy to get lost by trying to deal simultaneously with too many subjects! I think that's why, for a lot of us, our essays this time were less focussed than last time --- good examples, I think, are essays by Cristinel Stoica, Philip Gibbs... and me! You also covered a lot of ground in your essay, and you deflected the question from aims and intentions to meaning.

You made interesting parallels between your three "technologies", but I found your ideas in section 3 (On Being Physical) to be the most interesting and provocative, starting with your assertion that physics is where biology was before Darwin. Usually, we say that physics is the most advanced science, and that biology has a lot of catching up to do. But if you really ask the deepest questions about physics, as you do, and consider it as a functional system (instead of as a given set of laws that are to be taken as axioms and not discussed further), then, of course, there is still a lot that is still very mysterious.

For instance, you point out that physics "is not crunching numbers" and does not conform to "mathematical patterns". It is true that it is hopeless to simulate perfectly physics with our current computers. On the other hand, numbers are such a generic form of abstraction, anything that operates on anything can be said, I think, to operate on some sort of "number". And if the patterns of physics are not mathematical, what are they? Isn't mathematics supposed to be the general study of structure? Is there even such a thing as a non-mathematical structure? Theses questions are not easy, I agree!

In the middle of page 5, I found your challenge of creating a universe ex nihilo to be fascinating! As you point out, how do you even start? The meaning of anything is always defined relative to other meaningful things... of course, these are exactly the type of questions that lead me to consider some sort of co-emerging scheme...

I agree with you that "we're spoiled by living in a world where these problems are already solved". Maybe if, in the future, we are able to construct simulated worlds in our computers, we will better understand what it takes to start with nothing and build up a self-referential recursive logical system that makes sense.

I think your emphasis on physics as a construction based on the recursive functionality of measuring is a very interesting way to address the problem. You write: "Each successful measurement records a fact, adding to the fixed structure of historical fact that’s needed to support further measurement. While outcomes are unpredictable, they’re always selected to maintain consistency with all the other relevant facts produced by other measurements, always reconfirming the same unchanging laws, the same spacetime structure." I believe that something like that can be used to explain the regularity and lawfulness of our universe without taking it simply as granted.

Your most provocative claim, by far, is that "the complex structure of physics probably also emerged in stages, from simpler self-defining systems". You elaborated more on this idea in other works --- we'll have to discuss this further someday!

That's all for now. In the past month, I've spent so much time reading essays (and other related content suggested by them) that it will take some time before I get my life back on track -- I am almost 2 months late in grading my students' lab reports, and they are getting restless. But I'll still be thinking regularly about these issues! This contest made me realize that thermodynamics and information theory have a lot of deep, incredibly relevant content about the fundamental nature of reality --- and that I do not master these concepts as well as I would like. So I'll keep on learning, keep on elaborating my ideas... and I'll keep in touch!


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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Apr. 10, 2017 @ 14:23 GMT
Marc – your comment is more than adequate to fulfill my hope for a substantive response to my essays; it means the world to me that somebody connects with these ideas. Sorry to have kept you from your lab reports – I had a difficult 30 years trying to fit these pursuits into real life, but am now thankfully in “retirement”.

You’re right that many of the best essays here lost focus, given the breadth of the theme – which I somewhat perversely broadened further. My hope was to put the approach of my previous physical essays in a wider context. Ironically, though I repeated the idea of recursive selection many times in this essay, I didn’t do a very good job bringing out its meaning! – in particular, its potential to make physics more meaningful. So I’m very thankful you saw what I’m after. Along with a few of the other essays and comments, yours will definitely help me push further.

On your comment – “numbers are such a generic form of abstraction, anything that operates on anything can be said to operate on some sort of ‘number’. And if the patterns of physics are not mathematical, what are they? Isn't mathematics the general study of structure?”

Yes… and it may be there’s a kind of math that describes the contextual structure of meaning. I suspect the math of quantum physics and relativity already take us a long way toward that. Though even if there’s a way to express this kind of relationship mathematically, I don’t think it will be the abstract structure of relations that explains how and why this system works.

What’s so cool and impressive about math is that just beginning with some simple ideas, you get marvelously complex abstract patterns… some of which are even indispensable in physics. And this is all intellectually “under control,” so to speak – it all works by necessity, and we can see exactly how it works, very satisfying. On top of that, there are these strange connections between seemingly unrelated fields of mathematics, tantalizingly mysterious.

So I easily see why people want to take math as the basis of everything – as our intellectual ancestors did 2,500 years ago. The problem is that you have to begin by “positing” some kinds of basic elements and relations to derive everything from. This would be a very small price to pay if you could actually get the derivation! But if you end up having to posit some remarkably subtle and complex structure, and still need “symmetry breaking” to get the two dozen or so empirical parameters in the Standard Model, you have to wonder if nature is cooperating.

The point for me is that many mathematical structures are empirically meaningful. That means there’s a context for them; they’re not just “posited” in the abstract. Numbers are meaningful because there are so many kinds of things to count in the world… though at the level of quantum field theory, even counting gets complicated and ambiguous. So I lean toward making the empirical structures more basic than the abstract.

If we take “meaning” or “observing” as in some way fundamental, then just as you say, this leads to some kind of “co-emergence” – since structures can only be observable in the context of other observable structures. So even if we can summarize this mutual contextuality in equations, it may not be abstract structures that are “doing the work.” To me that clearly seems to be the case in biology, based on actual interactions between particular molecules. The math is crucial for understanding how populations evolve, but doesn’t actually do the evolving.

As for my “most provocative claim” that the physics of our universe emerged from simpler self-defining systems… apparently not everyone gets provoked by that, so I’m more than a little thrilled by your comment. I have some further ideas about this that I find quite difficult to express clearly, but which you will certainly hear about at some point. Meanwhile I’ll be very happy to learn about your ongoing self-education.

Best of luck getting life on track, and with many thanks,


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Lorraine Ford wrote on Apr. 6, 2017 @ 13:30 GMT

I really like your essay, and it is beautifully written and so easy to understand.

In many ways, your essay and my essay are saying the same or similar things, only your essay is far better written and far better explained.

Your idea that meaning is based upon already existing meaning is, to me, essentially the same as my contention that conscious concepts are categories of information that are based upon other categories of information, and this goes all the way down.

You end your essay by saying “These things could only have come about by accident, through the emergence of contexts where selected outcomes can have meaning, by setting up new contexts.” I think my essay has more a sense that this selection is free will/conscious creativity on the part of the inhabitants of the universe.

Best wishes,


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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Apr. 6, 2017 @ 14:53 GMT
Lorraine, thank you very much. I agree that our essays are closely related. I really enjoyed reading yours, and I found it impressively clear and vividly expressed.

Yes, it's important to emphasize that active creativity is going on here, and maybe "accident" sounds too passive. But I didn't mean it that way. Certainly the notion that things happen accidentally doesn't make them meaningless; in fact I personally think of accident and divine providence as indistinguishable. And I'm glad that we're in tune on the idea that rules and freedom are not contradictory.

Best wishes for you and your cat, et al.


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Ines Samengo wrote on May. 8, 2017 @ 00:51 GMT
Hi, Conrad, little by little I am trying to catch up with the ongoing dialogues, now with a more relaxed timeline. I copy here the comment I left on Marc's forum, only so that you notice (I also answered you on mine, some time ago).


ok, and now I reply to Conrad's comment (which I'll replicate in his forum, so that he notices it).

> But random events are only "selection" if there's something useful to select. The “collapse” of the wave function can only support a macroscopic world because it’s selecting from a set of possibilities that are somehow highly structured – evolved? – to help other measurements happen, in the macroscopic environment.

Let me try to rephrase this idea, adding more redundancy, so you can assess whether I get you correctly - or not. I am trying to parallel this sentence made in the realm of physics to some analogous statement that could be done in biological evolution. In biology, a mutation progresses only if it gives rise to an organism that is at least as fit as its parent. Out of the many branches of the wavefunction, the ones that progress are the ones that give rise to a world that can still progress. Or, if we want to link it with Marc's idea, to a world that still contains the observer that was observing the universe an instant before.

If this is what you meant... it makes full sense to me. We should, however, make an effort to try to derive why the permanence of observers requires the laws of quantum mechanics to be the way they are. Because as you well say: quantum mechanics is not just blurriness, it's blurriness with a very specific structure. If we manage to derive some property of the physical world out of the hypothesis of co-emergence, the hypothesis becomes plausible in an Occam's razor context. That is, the world with the co-emergence hypothesis is simpler to understand than without it. Until we manage that feat, it is just an interesting idea, right?

> And I think simplest explanation for the Born rule – why probabilities are squared, in computing the outcome of a measurement – is that at bottom, every “collapse” is a mutual selection between a thing and its context, so the same outcome has to be randomly chosen from each side of the interaction.

Wow, this is truly interesting. I do understand the part that the outcome of the random choice has to be compatible for both sides of the system. That's what entanglement is about, right? Once an interaction develops, subsystems become coupled. Now, how do you derive Born's rule from here? I always thought it was a starting point, not something to be derived. Can you point me to some textbook to follow this idea?

So nice to keep thinking of the ideas triggered by the two of you. And I still have a lot to read in my agenda. By the way, forgot to mention. I have now read "Theory of nothing", excellent book! The style is a bit messy, which I guess is natural if it emerged from a discussion list. But still, there's a lot of good original stuff in there, providing raw material to start thinking from a new perspective. I guess this combination (messy, and yet still providing good input) is valid for "The user illusion", which seemed to interest you both. Moreover, "Theory of nothing" helped me to put a context to Marc's co-emergence.



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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on May. 31, 2017 @ 17:47 GMT
Inés – again after many delays, I‘m responding to your note above.

>> Out of the many branches of the wavefunction, the ones that progress are the ones that give rise to a world that can still progress. Or, if we want to link it with Marc's idea, to a world that still contains the observer that was observing the universe an instant before.

That’s an interesting way of putting it, and does capture the point I wanted to make. I developed the analogy with biological evolution a bit further in a previous essay. I certainly agree that for these ideas to be useful, we need to show that they entail many of the specific features of quantum mechanics. We evidently live in a world where each observer’s viewpoint and local context keeps getting carried forward very reliably, from moment to moment, always with small changes reflecting its interaction with other viewpoints. Ideally we could demonstrate that to do this, the universe needs to have the kind of complex and finely-tuned physics that our world in fact has, at the quantum level.

>> I do understand the part that the outcome of the random choice has to be compatible for both sides of the system. That's what entanglement is about, right? Once an interaction develops, subsystems become coupled. Now, how do you derive Born's rule from here? I always thought it was a starting point, not something to be derived.

Entanglement means that when two systems interact, their quantum states become coupled, so that a subsequent measurement made on one of them constrains the results of a measurement made on the other. Such interactions don’t “collapse” the wave function of either system. In fact, the big mystery of QM is how this “collapse” happens at all. Every interaction described by the theory just entangles things, so it’s very unclear under what circumstances what we call a “measurement” can take place.

Born’s rule is usually presented as a basic postulate of QM, as you say. But apparently it’s possible to describe QM mathematically in different ways, and Born’s rule is sometimes derived from other axioms. For example, you could look at this paper and this one. But these arguments are way over my head – you’re much better equipped to follow them than I am.

Here’s what I think I understand about this, though. Ordinary statistics assigns probabilities to various outcomes that together sum to 1. Quantum statistics are different, in that the various outcomes have “probability amplitudes” that sum to 1. No one really knows what that means, but to get the actual probability of an outcome when a measurement is made, you basically square the amplitude.

Now the thought I offered so cryptically in my comment in Marc’s thread is that this squared amplitude is just the probability that (a) the measured system selects a particular outcome at random, and (b) the observing system also happens to select that same outcome at random.

In effect, the results of a measurement in QM are “doubly random” – that is, a measurement only happens when both the object and the observer accidentally make the same choice.

In classical physics, by contrast, when we measure something, the observed information was already there to begin with. The measured object had definite properties all along, and this information just gets copied over to the observer. But in QM the information only comes to exist in the course of the measurement, through a kind of accidental agreement between object and observer. I'm trying to understand this as a kind of natural selection.

There is an interpretation of QM that explains the Born rule just this way, called the “Transactional Interpretation”. Ruth Kastner has done a remarkable job developing it – she has an interesting website and a couple of books – the more recent one is a popularization (that I haven't read), the earlier one a more technical treatment. This treats every interaction as a mutual agreement between an “emitter” and an “absorber”, through a theory involving time-reversed action. It’s a fairly well-accepted interpretation, though largely ignored in the physics community, though I don’t know why time-reversed action should be considered any less reasonable than the more popular many-worlds interpretation, for example.

My own feeling is that the somewhat cumbersome mechanics of this theory isn’t really needed. Kastner is a self-described “realist”, and her work is useful to me mainly as confirmation that my thoughts about the Born rule work out at a technical level. But in the conversation with you and Marc, we’re imagining reality as somehow “co-emerging” in processes that evolve meaningful information between “agents” and “observers”, and I’m not sure the underpinnings of Ruth’s theory are relevant here.

I’ve been trying to work out my intuitions about all this through several FQXi essays, hoping to pull it all together into some more coherent presentation. But that’s as much clarification as I can manage at the moment!

With thanks and best wishes -- Conrad

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Ines Samengo wrote on May. 12, 2017 @ 00:47 GMT
Hi, Conrad, sorry, it’s me again. I just wanted to add a small comment. Ever since I read your essay, I had the impression it triggered a certain undefined question in me, but I could not pin it down. But fortunately yesterday I had a (mild) headache, and it all rained down on me. I finally sized it.

You claim that things only make sense within a context. My question is whether you believe this applies for qualia as well. My headache seemed to have a meaning in itself. Something was happening to me, the sensation certainly had a meaning (uh, this is not good..) and it felt independent of any context. Is this an illusion? Do you believe qualia to acquire their meaning only in certain contexts? They are experienced as something primary, that may provide the context for other meanings, but do not depend on other contexts themselves. Is this only apparent in your view? Or moving one step back, is this question correctly posed?

The main stream in neuroscience (to whom I mainly adhere) claims all events in our inner life (the events that we access through introspection) are no more than patterns of neural activity. If we consider one such pattern, it seems to be a dry form, something that in itself has no meaning at all. Just some neurons firing. But we kind of believe that within a context, such activity acquires a meaning. It is triggered by certain events, and in turn, it triggers other patterns, which are not arbitrary patterns, but are somehow associated to the initial pattern. And a (hopefully) sensible orchestra of neurons fire in a way that drive the behavior of the subject in some meaningful way, at least, inasmuch as the subject often survives (if he/she does not, end of that branch of the story, some other subject will make it better).

The tricky point of this scenario is that if we describe the process at the level of neurons, we miss the sensation altogether. We can explain the phenomenon, but not the feeling. I understand that when looking at a strawberry, some of my neurons fire in a specific pattern, Yet, I still experience “red”, and even the raw sensation has a meaning to me (I actually like the red color a lot). I can believe the idea that my sensation of red is nothing more than a concept that arises from the association with all the experiences that I keep in my conscious or mainly unconscious memory of all the events that involved red things, such as strawberries, blood, sunsets, roses and so forth. If a student asks me “Why do I experience the sensation of redness? Why is that sensation meaningful to me?” I reply “Because all the red things you have seen in your life have a certain common denominator. Your nervous system has learned to associate the activity of the red cones of your retina with the neural pattern corresponding to that common denominator”. I give this reply because it sounds sensible to me. But honestly speaking, I fear I am still not quite answering the question.

Any thoughts? Does this question have any meaning? Or to be more precise: can you grasp a context in which this question has a meaning?

best! inés.

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on May. 12, 2017 @ 12:27 GMT
Ines - I was very glad to see your posts, and will respond as soon as I have time to think a little. We were away at a conference, and have now my 2-yr old granddaughter as guest for a few days, precluding anything but fond mutual babble. Thanks!

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on May. 27, 2017 @ 15:45 GMT
Hi Inés, sorry for the long delay… I’ll respond to your second “small comment” first, since it poses such a big and interesting question.

>> You claim that things only make sense within a context. My question is whether you believe this applies for qualia as well. My headache seemed to have a meaning in itself… it felt independent of any context. Is this an illusion?

Yes, I do think context is still important here. The headache feeling is in contrast to the experience of feeling fine, or of aching in some other part of my body… and how it affects me depends on whether I can rest now or have difficult work to do, etc. A color appears the way it does in the context of other colors. I think the concept of basic "qualia” derives from the mistaken attempt in the 18th century to break experience down into irreducible atoms of sensation.

On the other hand, it’s a remarkable feature of the human kind of consciousness that we can isolate certain parts of our experience and feel them as primary, unique in themselves. The User Illusion explains this to an extent – if it’s true that consciousness can’t handle more than 50 bits/second, then to be conscious of something requires us to “discard” and keep unconscious the vast amount of sensory data and thought-processing that provides a background context for what we perceive.

Rather than think of this as an “illusion” though, it seems to me a great achievement, even something we can cultivate through art and poetry – the ability to set up mental contexts in which we can pay attention to a certain color or feeling and appreciate it just for what it is, in itself. Though I guess this ability has its downside too, if there’s a headache or other kinds of trouble.

>> The tricky point of this scenario is that if we describe the process at the level of neurons, we miss the sensation altogether. We can explain the phenomenon, but not the feeling.

That’s right. Different things make sense at different levels. If we describe the process at the level of molecular interaction, for example, we get a lot of understanding of how neurons work, but we miss what makes this system alive. We only understand that at the level of organisms and all their interdependent subsystems. Then it turns out that the very existence of neurons and the complex molecules they’re made of depends on the evolution of these self-replicating beings.

Likewise we need neurobiology to understand how our visual systems work, but what we see as a certain shade of red only exists at a higher level. I think our ability to appreciate these specific aspects of our experience depends on being able to give them names, “red” in contrast to “blue” and “green” – even though the names are only pointers into the much richer detail of actual awareness.

There is something here that seems truly inexplicable, though. What actually appears, when the right kind of context gets set up, is so unique. Why does red look that way, to me? As you suggest, there’s something there that goes beyond my past experiences with red things. The question is especially poignant for me, because my son Felix inherited a gene that doesn’t let him distinguish red from green. So we know different people see colors very differently, and we can understand the neurobiology. But the sensation itself, so distinct for each one of us? Probably the most we can hope to explain is the context that makes it possible.

This makes a segue to your other question, about quantum mechanics, though my response to that will have to wait for another day. But I think there’s a real parallel. If we set up the right kind of experimental context, we get a certain value for the momentum of a particle, say. The equations give us the probability of any particular result – but what actually shows up is unpredictable, and in a way inexplicable. At the quantum level, no “collapse of the wave function” should be possible, due to the linearity of the equations. There is only the reality of a definite result in the higher-level context of the measuring apparatus.

Many thanks for your notes! and best regards,


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Ines Samengo replied on Jun. 4, 2017 @ 16:59 GMT
Hi, Conrad, thanks a lot! This and the previous answer are truly interesting. I will follow the links and books you pointed out to me, calmly, in the weeks to come. Your discussions make a whole lot of sense, I actually wish the judges of the contest can put these discussions also into their equations. I specifically will go through the references of quantum mechanics, Born’s rule, and so forth. And I will certainly think further about the idea that even if experiences may be perceived as primary and unique, they still do depend on context. It is not only a very interesting idea, it could have a whole lot of applications. Not only in the game industry, mind you, if we could really understand it, we could cure chronic pain by manipulating the context. Would that be a “sensation industry”? Or “perceived reality industry”? I guess these are not novel technologies, but.. how far could we get? Actually, this does connect to my present research, where I try to construct a metric (a notion of distance) between subjective experiences (color in particular, recently). I had just never thought about it in this way, it’s quite remarkable how discussing with other people clarifies what one does every day. Or should I say, “constructs” what one does every day? And… we are back again in the co-evolution paradigm, where your thoughts act as a measuring device in the network of linearly overlapped memes inside my head, sharpening and delineating the concepts that guide my daily research :D

Regarding Tor Nørretranders’ User Illusion, I believe I share some of your thoughts. I definitively like the first part best. I have the impression that the author did not go through the regular academic career, and maybe that has made me uncomfortable at times, both with the repetitions, and the messages passed (we scientist are rather limited, sometimes). But in any case, I do feel grateful to the author, because he gave me a whole lot of seeds that inspired interesting thoughts, and that is enough for me to truly like a book. That is what I am looking for when I read something (book or essay), and happily leave for somebody else the hard work of rational criticism (constructive or not).

A real pleasure… so thanks again!


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