Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Consciousness Is Not Mystical

There’s been a growing popularity in the discussion of consciousness, as it relates to things like religion and physics. Theists tell us that consciousness survives death and is eternal. The new age set assigns a mystical quality to human consciousness, to the point where, in books like The Secret, we are told that we can alter the course of objective events, with our minds alone. A fringe element in the physics community proposes an interpretation of quantum mechanics loosely called “consciousness causes collapse,” where the presence of consciousness in some unspecified way triggers potential quantum events to become actual events. Even Robert Lanza, the brilliant originator of one of my all-time favorite theories, the biocentric universe, has teamed up with Deepak Chopra and speaks of the foundational consciousness of the universe and how one’s own personal consciousness can never die, etc.

Whatever. It’s all hooey. There is nothing mystical, or even mysterious, about consciousness. Consciousness is amazing, like the diversity of life on Earth or like the entire universe — but as I have written, just because something is astonishing does not mean it is mystical or in any way supernatural. Merely because the human mind is limited in its ability to comprehend complex things, that does not mean the universe had to be designed by an intelligent God, or that biological evolution could not proceed on its own without a guiding hand, or that we humans, singled out as a species, have been given some unique gift to appreciate beauty and grandeur by the Creator that made it all happen.

Consciousness is a giant, tangled web of biological observations and self-observations, a system of information exchange and storage that goes on within an individual organism. That is all it is. Since all biological beings observe and respond to their external environment as well as their internal state (in the process called homeostasis), we can say that every living thing experiences consciousness, to some degree. Bacteria and blades of grass are conscious — not conscious like us, but conscious nonetheless. If you disagree with this statement, I’d say it’s because you buy into the ancient Western assumption that there’s something unique about human consciousness, that we exceed some kind of “consciousness threshold,” while other animals, and certainly plants, are deficient and inadequate in this regard. I find this opinion arrogant to the extreme.

The premise is that humans, with our language and our science, see the world the way it “really is,” while a dog or a deer does not. We appreciate the beauty of flowers and waterfalls and contemplate the order of things, while dogs, lacking these abilities, look for fire hydrants to pee on. They’re lovable but dumb. It’s not too surprising that the Bible instructs us — God’s chosen species — to act as the masters of the rest of the living and nonliving world; again, an arrogant position to take. We would not be here if the “lower” animals weren’t adapted to responding, with full adequacy, to their dynamic environments.

It’s certainly true that humans have an advanced consciousness, with our long, detailed memories of the past and profound visions of the future. But consciousness in the animal world is a continuum; there is no dividing line between conscious and non-conscious animals. People often say that humans are the only species that contemplate the future and their own mortality, but that isn’t completely true. When a mammal is faced with a choice, or is in a perilous situation, it is able (however crudely) to create mental images of various choices at once, along with their expected outcomes, and act accordingly. This cognitive ability offers a clear survival advantage, and generally the higher you go up the evolutionary tree, this more adept this ability becomes. Animals communicate and exchange information all the time; it may not qualify as intellectual discourse, but it is communication all the same. Among the more advanced functions, animals play and dream and experience emotion and seek out pleasure. There are, in fact, very few things that people do with their consciousness that other animals (at least other mammals) do not also do, in some crude form.

Earlier this year, on the TV show Jeopardy!, the IBM computer Watson crushed former champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in a three-day competition. A critical part of Watson’s software design involved determining the confidence level for each potential response; if the confidence exceeded a certain threshold, Watson would “ring in” and answer. In other words, in addition to interacting with the external environment, it was monitoring its own potential reactions and weighing their positive/negative consequences. Folks, this is consciousness! By machine standards, a highly advanced form, in fact. True, during the taping Watson probably wasn’t contemplating an escape from Sony Pictures Studios, but it was juggling external observations and internal self-observations in order to make choices regarding how to act and thus impact the outside world. I don’t see how this is any different from, say, a lab rat deciding whether to press the lever for the electric shock or the food pellet. Or, to use a lower-intelligence example, whether a person selects Donald Trump or Sarah Palin in the GOP straw poll.

Watson the computer is incredibly complex, but still nowhere near the complexity of the human brain. However, we can make an analogy. Consider a desk calculator, able to turn inputted information into physical action (numbers displayed on the screen). It uses the same digital format of one-or-zero, yes-and-no questions and answers to do its thing that Watson uses, only on a far simpler scale. The same can be said of the relationship between an amoeba and a human: Both rely on cascading electrochemical reactions to convey internal information from here to there. Watson has features that the calculator lacks (such as hard drives); likewise, humans have memory-storing neuronal synapses not found in one-celled animals. But all of the above rely on information from the external physical world to create actions that impact the physical world in turn. Regardless of the degree of complexity, in my book that means they’re all “conscious.”

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Case For Metaphysics

In addition to my work as a comedian and musician, I’ve collaborated on several YouTube videos exploring the theory of the biocentric universe. This is the radical proposition that the activity of our evolving biological superorganism produces the universe that we see — that a pre-existing universe of nonliving matter did not create the first living thing through chance, some ten billion years after a real and actual event we call the Big Bang. Instead, the theory says, the universe is effectively only as old as life itself. Some find this concept so outrageous, they think it must be a part of my satire, but it isn’t. I’m fascinated by this revolutionary, spectacularly godless cosmological view, in which the universe began as nothing in particular, the echoes of the Big Bang are the now-observed physical back-story for that beginning, and quasars undergo retrocausality through decoherence across billions of light years.

The basic idea is that nothing in the universe comes predefined; by default, the entire thing is but a swarm of probability, just like the “electron cloud” of an atom. We know that electrons are not little dots of electron-stuff that whizz around the atomic nucleus like tiny planets. Physics in the 20th century revealed that such electrons can be described only in terms of probability — the probability that a person, machine, etc., will find an actual electron at a specific location, if that location is checked. This is a well-known principle of quantum mechanics.

That principle of probability-by-default may extend to the entire universe; for a half-century, physicists have entertained that the whole thing is a quantum system. But for the purposes of this discussion, it comes down to the following question: Are the physical properties of all particles of matter independently predefined and absolute, possessed intrinsically by each individual particle? Or, are these properties relevant only with regard to the particle’s interaction with other things, such as other particles or living observers? Is there, for example, a specific beta-radiation particle with a specific momentum and charge traveling from the far side of the Alpha Centauri star system, right now?

Most science enthusiasts would answer yes without hesitation, because that’s the view of the universe we live with. In Western scientific tradition, we assume that the workings of the physical world occur on their own in the background, regardless of whether we happen to be there to watch or know anything. Observation and measurement are merely the process of discovering what’s already in predefined existence, we believe. But are we sure this is entirely true? To paraphrase the classic zen question: If a particle is emitted by Alpha Centauri and no one is around to see it, is it really there?

For those averse to anything philosophical-like, this is where the hackles go up. When we speak of the existence or nonexistence of an unobserved object, we’re making a distinction that’s metaphysical — we’re dealing with the fundamental nature of being, something that’s outside the realm of ordinary observation and measurement. Such a conjecture seems to offer no scientific value, because it can’t be directly tested in the laboratory. As a result, there seems to be a pervasive attitude that ideas involving metaphysics have no real value to the modern world at all. On the biocentric videos, many comments can be summarized thus: “This is just philosophy. You can say all you want that things don’t exist if we aren’t around to perceive them, but that’s bullshit. You’re only changing the definition of the word ‘exist.’ Things exist whether we’re there to perceive them or not.”

This is a naive argument. One cannot dismiss a metaphysical position on the grounds that it is “just philosophy,” because whichever side of the issue you come down on, there is no escaping metaphysics. To assert that an object does possess absolute properties — qualities that exist independently of its interactions with other things — is to take a metaphysical position as well. Chew on that idea awhile. The assumption of an absolute defined particle somewhere off in the galaxy is equally “just philosophy,” and equally “bullshit,” as the idea that it’s only potentially there, not actually there. Having been brought up in the tradition of Western thought, we all carry around this assumption of absolute physical characteristics, possessed intrinsically and independently by every last microscopic object in the universe, as if assigned on the day of Creation by an omnipotent God. In physics, this assumed principle is known as realism. But the brute fact remains, there is no evidence whatsoever supporting absolute realism. None! If you’re a thinking person, you should seriously ask yourself: How scientific is it to base an entire physical worldview on a metaphysical position, a possibly flawed fundamental assumption for which there is no supporting empirical evidence?

Now, here’s where it gets really interesting. Quantum mechanics has been baffling physicists and lay people alike for 80-odd years. The findings of decades of experiments, such as delayed choice and quantum eraser, are extremely difficult to square with the traditional metaphysical foundation of absolute, pre-existing properties of matter. This is partly why there are so many quantum-mechanics interpretations; those that try the hardest to accommodate absolute realism, such as Bohmian mechanics and the transactional interpretation, are complex, bizarre, and highly controversial. But, believe it or not, every finding from every quantum mechanics experiment ever performed is consistent with the alternative metaphysical framework, where the physical properties of matter are relevant only in relation to systems capable of measuring them somehow. This concept follows quite simply from a broad generalization of Einstein’s special relativity, which showed that velocity and simultaneity are never absolute and can be described only in relation to an observer’s frame of reference. (See our video titled It’s All Relative.)

The great physicist Richard Feynman once said that philosophy is as useful to physicists as ornithology is to birds. This is the “shut up and calculate” view, in which physics is employed only to predict the behavior of physical systems — the purely empirical approach that shuns any discussion of meaning or the “true” fundamental nature of things. But are numbers and calculations all we want to get out of science? After all, the Ptolemaic model of astronomy was surprisingly accurate at predicting eclipses and other events — but the reason we adopted the later Copernican model wasn’t only to improve the accuracy of astronomical calculations. Turns out, it’s quite useful to know that the planets really do orbit the Sun, and do not orbit the Earth while moving on an intricate system of invisible circles or “epicycles,” as was once believed. The Sun-centered model provides the basis for a more fundamental and elegant explanation of what’s really going on in the relationships between the Sun, planets, and Earth.

A fundamental explanation is exactly what some physicists are seeking from the increasingly legitimate theories of observer-centered realism, which profess that observation is an active and intrinsic element in the unfolding of reality. (The biocentric universe is one such theory. Here’s another.) Experiments may soon unlock numerous mysteries that have come on the heels of both quantum mechanics and cosmology. For example, why did the initial conditions of the Big Bang produce a universe that appears to be fine-tuned for life? To answer this question under the standard metaphysics, we either need to appeal to an intelligent God, or invoke multiple universes combined with the anthropic principle, a conjecture that I find unsatisfactory. Neither proposition is testable, so we’re back to basing our explanations on unsupportable assertions — which, I regret to say, is not a scientific endeavor, no matter how many shows about the multiverse are broadcast on the Science Channel. (Paul Davies has chimed in on this. For an exhaustive look at how contemporary science is becoming increasingly “faith-based,” read Lee Smolin’s The Trouble With Physics.)

I know what you’re thinking: Like the multiverse, a metaphysical position cannot be directly tested in the lab, so how can it ever be a part of science? Some theories do prevail despite not being directly testable. Evolution theory, for example, is accepted primarily because a huge amount of evidence, from multiple disciplines, is fully consistent with the theory, to the point where unforeseen details like the genetic code were predicted to exist, and subsequently confirmed. This is basically why multiverse theories are accepted as well: because the conjecture of multiple universes is consistent with the real observation of a seemingly fine-tuned universe. However, quantum mechanics is far more consistent with the metaphysical position of observer-centered realism, compared to the opposing metaphysical view of absolute realism. So if the entire universe is a quantum system, we need to think about what that means for cosmology and the universe’s initial conditions, which we have long assumed to be absolute. Indeed, Stephen Hawking theorizes that the universe may not have had a unique beginning — that its initial conditions existed in quantum superposition, just like the electrons of an atom’s electron cloud. In other words, the initial conditions were not fixed and singular, assigned either by God or by chance. Instead, they are relevant only in relation to today’s universe, in which physicists calculate them from the “top down,” i.e., working backward from the present conditions that we do observe. No intelligent God, or multiverse, necessary.

Personally, I believe that observer-centered realism will be confirmed, albeit indirectly. Just within the past month it was found that molecules of DNA are able to interact with quantum systems in ways that ordinary, non-biological molecules do not. Perhaps this is the first of many discoveries pointing to the fundamental role that biology plays in physics, which will then lead to a revolution in technology and medicine. But that will never happen unless we entertain alternative metaphysical viewpoints about our place in the world as observers. If we take that leap, someday soon we might see the real benefits of interpreting empirical science through a metaphysical lens — which at last will prove that metaphysics isn’t “just philosophy” after all.