The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Saturday, February 1, 2014
Philosophy ... Science ... Spirituality ... Zen ...

Despite being distracted by the frustrating computer set-up problems discussed in my last post, I have tried to keep up with science news, especially from the scientists and philosophers who ponder the nature of the universe and the nature of human consciousness. Over the past few years the biggest concept in consciousness studies has been Gulio Tononi’s “highly cross-integrated information” theory of consciousness; but now a new theory seems to be emerging, one that possibly builds on Tononi’s insights. The latest buzz revolves around cosmologist Max Tegmark and his “state of matter” theory of consciousness. I.e., that the brain hosting consciousness is in a unique and identifiable “state” , comparable in some ways to the various states of water, i.e. steam, liquid and ice. (Recall that over the past 60 or 70 years, quantum physics researchers have found that matter is not bound to the classic three states of gas, liquid and solid; a whole range of exotic matter states have been discovered, even though most of them exist only under extreme conditions for short periods; so why not a unique “conscious state” for brain neurons and the chemicals and electrical charges that zap around in them.)

As with Tononi, this is more of a way to view things, a means of approaching the problem, and not a mathematically formalized theorem; although it could lead to equations and formal notions that help describe and distinguish the brain when in a conscious state. And thus keep researchers and PhD candidates busy with experiments and doctoral theses, as has happened with Tononi’s theories.

Despite these clever scientific paradigms, which help specify what the characteristics are of a brain that is hosting a conscious self-awareness, they still don’t pin down just what the actual experience of consciousness is, or is like, or what it breaks down to. The experience of being conscious (or “qualia“, as the philosophers call this) remains beyond scientific reduction; it cannot be broken down and seen to be composed of what we call the fundamental building blocks of reality, e.g. of interacting bosons and fermions. The boffins like to say that “consciousness just is matter and energy within the brain and body in a certain dynamic and partially chaotic state, one that is associated with what humans report as the subjective experience of consciousness”; end of story, no more to be said.

But any conscious being knows empirically that the experience of consciousness is NOT simply reducible to atoms and particles dancing in a certain way. There is a lot that is left out when looking at the components; for instance, can those equations specifying the “state space” of consciousness also specify what poetry, music and other art will spring forth from the existence of the conscious state? Do neuron molecules and neurotransmitter chemicals, in and of themselves, possess the “essence of consciousness”, just as a box made of steel possesses the strength and firmness of steel? Or as a bolt of lightening possesses the energy and magnetic field properties of any other flow of electrons? (I.e., there is not much “supervenience” between consciousness and the things that appear to make it happen).

You could definitely say that the phenomenon of consciousness “emerges” from certain complex types of bosonic and fermionic interactions over the time and space fields (i.e., the boson and fermion particles assemble into the atoms and molecules that make up the brain cells and fluids, and also the body that surrounds it). But you could also do a martial arts “flip” maneuver on that logic, and thus realize that bosons and fermions and everything else that we think of as “real” are actually “ghostly emergences” from the dynamics of conscious awareness. And in an age of quantum physics, it is becoming quite clear that “real” ain’t as “real” as you might think. The physical world and all its matter and energy might truly be nothing more than an “emergence” from information interacting in a hologram-like fashion with . . . well, take away matter and energy, and all that is left to interact with is consciousness!!

It comes down to a question of what the fundamental reality really is: is it bosons, fermions and their weird quantum relationships, along with what ever fields mold space and time (such as the proposed inflaton field) – or is it information itself, the information that weaves into the complex math formulas that are reflected by quantum physics and the Standard Particle Model and general relativity? Or is consciousness itself the fundamental reality? With regard to the middle option – pure information – ask yourself, is information “really real” without anything to “form” and “in-form”? The classic view is that information plays itself out in the natural world, and the natural world is made up of bosons, fermions, time and space. But some scientists – including Tegmark, as we will see – are now saying that this natural world is just an illusion powered by mathematically-related information.

(Tegmark also ponders whether our universe is a computer simulation program running amidst some super-intelligence. But that idea just kicks the can down the road; i.e., what then is the nature of this super-intelligence, where and how does it exist? Doesn’t it then also boil down to information?)

If it all ultimately and fundamentally amounts to information at work, then what is left for information to inform? The only remaining thing would be consciousness!! Tegmark says that within his mathematics / information grounded reality, everything (including consciousness) is explorable and ultimately explainable by mathematics, however complex those mathematics might be. The brain in a conscious state may well be explainable by math, but only up to a point; the human mind and its states are highly chaotic, and some recent research indicates that some of that chaos is amplified by quantum events.

If a conscious experience results partly from quantum states, then it slips into the realm of the random, beyond any true and ultimate mathematical exposition – as with all quantum phenomenon! Tegmark is professionally a cosmologist, and along with many other cosmologists and quantum-level theorists, is a big proponent of the multiverse concept. There are varieties of multiverse theories, some nothing much more than the common sense observation that the universe may be bigger than what could have been observed from Planet Earth during the reign of humankind. Tegmark goes way beyond this into the fantastic speculations that modern inflation theories and superstring paradigms imply. I.e. he embraces the various theories about parallel and sequential universes existing in numbers beyond comprehension, each with differing physical characteristics (or even worse — if there have existed an infinite number of universes over time or beyond time, then there have been, or will be, or just plain are an infinite number of universes like ours, along with infinite numbers of universes that are unlike ours).

No surprise then that Tegmark counts himself among the academic pantheon which concludes that the Universe no longer needs a divine author and creator, now that they (believe themselves to) understand all there is about all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be. (This pantheon includes Stephen Hawking, Steven Weinberg, Sean Carroll, Alan Guth, Peter Higgs, Lawrence Krauss, Lee Smolin, etc.)

Interestingly for someone who takes the reality of the observed Universe so seriously (along with the exclusion of any divine authorship behind this reality), and who thinks that consciousness can be reduced to just an alternate local state that exists within that real Universe, Tegmark has recently invested in the notion that the universe is just information, at bottom. He has a new book out called “Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest For The Ultimate Nature of Reality“, where he more-or-less says that in the end, what is “really real” is not quarks and neutrinos and gravitons and Higgs bosons, maybe not even time and space, but the math that we use to describe what they are and how they act and inter-act. And math is at bottom just a lot of . . . wait for it . . . INFORMATION !!

Just as blackholes and their quantum entropy limits suggest, what we know of as “reality” is therefore more like a hologram projected from some sort of information realm. Holograms, as we commonly know them, display a 3 or 4 dimensional reality (3 space dimensions plus time, if the hologram is dynamic and moving) from information on a two-dimensional surface. Perhaps the ultimate hologram of the Universe projects a 4 dimensional reality (or even a 9 or 11 dimensional manifold if string theory is to be believed) from information contained in a pure zero-dimensional point or some non-dimensional singularity . . . whatever that might be. (One objection might be that the speed of light limits information transmission such that at least one dimension, a line, would be needed to store and covey enough information to project a higher dimensional reality; but what if this information were conveyed through non-local quantum entanglement, which is not subject to the speed of light limit but is perhaps instantaneous? Points within the dimensional projection would still obey the speed of light limitation regarding information transfer between them; but the relationship between the dimension-less / completely entangled “mother point”, and its dimensional holographic projection, need not do so.)

But as I said, if the Universe, with all its space and time and galaxies and stars and planets and living beings and molecules and atoms and quarks and energy particles, is all just a side-effect (an “epi-phenomenon”) of some timeless information point, then . . . what else is left but consciousness to “actualize” and REAL-ize the information? What else is left for the information to form and in-form? What is there to interact with? If information is ultimately about relationships, what is there for it to relate to? Where or how, or in what, is information itself written or remembered, if there is nothing more than abstract information?

As such, I personally think there is a bit of a contradiction (to say the least!) between Tegmark’s views regarding a physically-defined consciousness, a universe composed ultimately of information, and a possibly eternal multiverse manifesting that information. I think that because of his wide-ranging interests and quests for an ultimate world-view, he runs into himself while pursuing the Godless roads being cut by the great physicists of modern times (more than any of the others, who mainly stick to one area). He does us a favor by inadvertently and unintentionally exposing these ultimate contradictions. But he dare not acknowledge these contradictions; that would get him cashiered from the ivy towered pantheon.

What do we have if we take the Tegmark book to its “ultima thule”? Well, we arguably have that point, that singularity, that thing or non-thing encompassing all information, but existing beyond time or space dimension. From that point, consciousness emerges, and in that consciousness then unfolds a realm of time, of space, of matter, of energy and of relationships, based on the information inherent in that point. And for whatever reason, that consciousness, as it comes to know itself, sees itself as bound and limited and fragmented (“localized”) within the time-space-matter-energy realm, which it holographically brings into being. It creates its own prison for each localized fragment (i.e., each human being, and whatever else might be intelligently conscious in this universe), which challenges it to seek its own freedom. Within it, death is experienced; but death is another holographic phenomenon of time, space, energy and matter, which as we are beginning to suspect, aren’t truly fundamental. If not, then is death ultimately real?

Hmmmm . . . could this “singularity point” of information and consciousness be akin to Chardin’s “Omega Point”? (I myself would prefer calling it the “Alpha Point”.) Could this point be . . . somehow . . . all that which we try to name, but ultimately have no real name for (as the better of the Jews and Buddhists along with the other true mystics seem to say)? I know that this all sounds like New Age fluff, but it appears to me to be where current trends and thinking in physics and cosmology are pointing to in their ontological speculations. Even if those doing the pointing say exactly the opposite!

One final point: after being a Zen enthusiast for over two decades and finally practicing it with a group for several years, I feel that I’m finally coming to realize what the Zen tradition is really all about, what the great ancient masters were really getting at. (And not so much the modern Zen masters, who mostly seem to be trying to fix the problems of psychology and their own broken minds, by twisting the words of the elders from the East as to fit their own narcissistic agendas.) I can finally make some sense of Zen and its practice by realizing that Zen is the consecration, maybe even the worship, of consciousness itself.

I never heard a quote from Bodhidharma, Hui-Neng, Dogen, Hakuin, D.T. Suzuki, or any of the other “Zen greats” quite saying this; but then again, I think that a lot gets lost in the translation between Eastern and Western minds. Besides, what they DO say often amounts to “mind what I do, and what you yourself do, more than what I may say or anyone else may say”. Once you soak yourself in Zen, you realize that it is not just another meditation routine, not just a relaxation technique or an appreciation of silence or a means to reach a tranquil state or a transcendent state or any other particular mental state. It’s a focus on the generic nature of any and all mental states, on pure consciousness itself.

So, the Zen masters perceive, in their great enlightenment, the holiness and sacredness of consciousness, consciousness pure and simple. And if I am right in what I have said above (along with Professor Tegmark, however unwillingly), then consciousness is truly close to to the ultimate essence of all being. It is but a step away, a finger pointing towards the moon. So the great Eastern masters are leading us to a signpost that is pointing toward the ultimate. Instead of giving us doctrines and canons and dogmas to seek the truest truths, as the classic Theistic religions do, they tell us to follow what exists right under our own noses (but is usually ignored during most of our waking lives).

Both paths are extremely difficult, and neither is inherently better than the other. But they both are ultimately straighter and truer paths than the twisty and circular roads that Professor Tegmark and his like now tread (despite being foggier and more subject to wrong turns and dead ends like radical fundamentalism, New Age shamanism, inflexible traditionalist institutions, psychological narcissism, etc.). And yet . . . without the great thought implications (and perhaps great mistakes) of what those like Stephen Hawking and Max Tegmark now pursue, we would be even less able to tread any great distance along those straighter and truer paths. As the scientists like to say, great mistakes are necessary to uncover the great truths!!!!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:12 pm      

  1. Jim, First a general comment, then more specific: I think you are definitely getting “someplace” in your wondering about consciousness. I like the progression of your tho’t that leads to your statement that “Zen is the consecration, maybe even the worship of consciousness itself.” That’s something I’ve never tho’t of before, but you may be on to something there. I also think that your idea that without great mistakes, one will never arrive at the truth.

    I don’t know what it is in all these kinds of discussions, but I always get to a point where I have no clue what the writer is talking about – whether the discussion be scientific or philosophic. Maybe it’s the fault of how my brain works: I like to be able to put into my own (simple) words what something means; if I can’t do that, I tend to take a dim view of the idea. Too often in these discussions I arrive at a point where I wonder what in the world the writer could be talking about.

    For instance: The discussion about the “physical world and all matter and energy might . . . be nothing more than ‘emergence’ from information . . .” sets me to wondering just what “information” is. Do these authors mean information is the ideas they propound? Do they mean only ideas that can be reduced to mathematical concepts (or constructs?) fit a definition of information? Or could they possibly mean that all the comments floating around the world on this or that topic constitutes and is included in information. I ask: Exactly *what* is included in “information”? Unless I’ve missed something (and maybe I have) that word has never been specified.

    Thus I find myself wondering: If the scientists who talk about “information” ultimately being God cannot define the word, what’s wrong with that picture. If they limit their definition of information to their own ideas, what hubris! If they limit the word to mathematics, does that leave out all the people like me who do not “speak” mathematics? (Non-speakers of mathematics need not try to understand?)

    And not to limit this discussion to scientists, I must also say I reach a point in reading de Chardin (as much as I am captivated by his writings) where I have no clue what he’s talking about – cannot put anything of what he says into my own simple words. It usually happens about the time Chardin reaches the place about the “Omega Point” where I eventually have no clue what he’s talking about and thus am unable to put anything into my own words. Then I find myself saying: What could he possibly be talking about?

    I like your discussion here as you have put this discussion into “your own words”, i.e., transferred the idea(s) into plain English that ordinary people like me can understand. But, I do wonder about your statement that the “human mind and its states are highly chaotic”. OK, I’m willing to concede I just don’t understand the math of chaos; but I find myself wondering if part of what is seen as “chaos” is not more a matter of certain mind states not “fitting into” the mathematical constructs (concepts?) involved. Then I’m back to: Why is an understanding of consciousness and/or God, according to these good people, limited only to “speakers” of mathematics?

    All in all tho, Jim, I think you may be getting somewhere in your search and thinking about consciousness and God and science, etc. Keep going. MCS

    Comment by Mary — February 2, 2014 @ 2:59 pm

  2. Thank you for this excellent article. It articulates the thoughts that I have been struggling with for a couple of years but could not have articulated in such a clear manner. At our current level of understanding, Max Tegmark’s work, as you say, seems to demand the factor of consciousness. Yet, as you note, just when he’s on the brink of having to admit it, he veers off into another direction.

    I am currently struggling to understand Hal Halvorson’s work. (“The Measure of All things: Quantum Mechanics and the Soul,” Ch. 6 of “The Soul Hypothesis” This chapter is findable as a pdf on the Internet, though the entire book looks very interesting.

    Dr. Halverson is a philosopher of physics at Princeton. In this chapter, he presents a dualist resolution of the Measurement Problem. It’s in non-mathematical terms for (almost) lay people. I don’t completely understand it. However, that means only that I need to do more research so that I can come back to it. I hold out hope that it will unlock considerable understanding of the Measurement Problem.

    I am working on an Internet encyclopedia of quantum physics (not yet posted), which I am building as I, like you, learn.

    Thank you again!

    [Thank you for a very lucid comment on my thoughts, and good luck with the encyclopedia; let us know when it’s up. Jim G]

    Comment by Alexandra Hopkins — October 10, 2016 @ 2:48 pm

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