Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Is Consciousness Simple or Complex?

  1. May 28, 2012 #1
    Consciousness is still a big mystery, and I've always wondered what causes it. I've decided that it is most likely one of two possibilities: that consciousness is "simple," or "complex."

    1) If consciousness is simple, then that means that it is simply an inherent property of the universe. Imagine your consciousness if you did not have a brain: you wouldn't be able to see, hear, or even think. You would be dead in all ways, however there would still be an "awareness" present, aware of the nothingness that it is experiencing.

    If consciousness is simple, then that "empty awareness" exists just as fundamentally as space, time, and particles. If an organ evolves that is capable of feeling any kind of sensation, then the empty awareness would "pick up" the senses. This would mean that even an organism with no brain can still feel, and have a subjective experience (although it obviously can't think). It would also mean that everything subconscious is still happening consciously, just not communicating with the consciousness of your brain. Your leg, while you are asleep, will still consciously feel the pain of being bitten by a mosquito. But since that information isn't communicated to your brain, "your" consciousness doesn't pick it up.

    2) The second way consciousness could operate would be through complexity. If this is the case, then consciousness is a sort of program running on your brain, just like all of the other "programs" that contain your information and behavior. This would mean that consciousness is 100% physical, which brings about some paradoxical thinking.

    Think of the "Star Trek teleporter" situation. A machine records exactly all of your physical information, destroys you, and reconstructs you. Is that "you?" If consciousness is complex and thus a result of physical matter, then an exact copy of you should be exactly "you." What happens if the original you isn't destroyed, and a copy is still made? Do you experience being in both of these vessels at the same time, but your two minds just can't communicate with each other? Some might argue that their brains would soon become different because they would have different experiences, and thus they would have different consciousnesses (since consciousness is a product of physical matter, if it is indeed complex). But wouldn't that mean that every time you have an experience, you die and are replaced by a new consciousness?

    This question can be asked another way. Suppose someone created an artificial organ that could feel pain, but with no brain attached to it. The organ receiving the pain would be structured exactly like any part of a human body that can feel pain. The question is, would there be something there to experience that pain, (although it wouldn't know that pain is "bad," having no brain) or would the subjective experience of pain not exist for that organ?

    Yet a simpler way of asking the question is to ask: is a brain required to have a subjective experience, or does anything that "feels" in any way automatically have a subjective experience??

    Hopefully I made this coherent enough to understand. It is hard for me to put these concepts into words. Please let me know if anything needs to be clarified.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: May 28, 2012
  2. jcsd
  3. May 28, 2012 #2

    Ryan_m_b

    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    "Simple consciousness" in the manner you describe it makes no sense. Consciousness is demonstrable a product of the brain, without a brain their is no consciousness. It does not continue to exist without perception.

    On the other hand "complex consciousness" in the manner you describe is a good description of consciousness as we currently understand it with the exception of the part where you speculate that if two identical copies were made they would share one consciousness; no, they would have two identical minds that with each passing moment are becoming different. Regarding changes in consciousness over time see the Ship of Theseus. Regarding an artificial organ that can feel pain with no brain see Philosophical Zombie.
     
  4. May 28, 2012 #3
    Make it simple and suppose the Star Trek teleporter works likes it's supposed to, destroys you and makes a copy 15 feet away. Is that still you? You said that two copies do not share a consciousness, so I imagine you think the copy would not be you. But if consciousness is complex and thus a result of your brain being in the physical state that it's in, what's the difference between you and your copy? There simply is none.

    How is it any different than if you had just walked that 15 feet rather than being destroyed and reconstructed?

    I just don't understand how two perfectly identical brains can have two different "subjective experiencers" if "subjective experience" is the result of the brain being a certain way.
     
  5. May 28, 2012 #4

    Ryan_m_b

    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    The problem here is the philosophy of identity. We don't have an everyday definition that can adequately cope with these situations. I would argue that a perfect copy of me is me in every way that matters, if the original copy isn't destroyed then there is simply two mes.
    Why not? Two identical computers can run two identical pieces of software but they aren't linked in any way are they?
     
  6. May 28, 2012 #5
    I think that consciousness in the brain is complex, because the brain is complex. And just like the brain has simpler predecessors, so does consciousness. So the answer to your question would be that consciousness can be very complex but also very simple.

    I do not think it makes sense to view consciousness only as complexity, because the very term complex implies there is a simpler version. Complexity without a simpler version is like hot temperatures without the possibility of cold temperatures.
     
  7. May 28, 2012 #6
    @Ryan: So if the machine doesn't destroy the original and there are two yous, in which one do you experience the continuation of your existence? In the original, right?

    But what if it DOES destroy the original? Then you experience the continuation of your existence in the copy? It can't be both ways.

    And that's why I earlier argued that you would experience your continuation in both vessels; although each would not be aware of the other's existence.

    It seems you've somewhat contradicted yourself because at first you said that two copies do not share a consciousness, but then say that two copies would be the same "you."

    And to be clear I'm not disagreeing with anything you're saying, I'm simply posing questions as they come to me.

    @pftest: I use the words "simple" and "complex" merely to describe how I view the two possibilities. What I call simple consciousness would be that it is inherent and basic (like empty space), whereas complex consciousness involves a bunch of specific neuroscientific processes that no one fully understands.
     
  8. May 28, 2012 #7

    Ryan_m_b

    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    All these points can be addressed with what I said above. The problem is a weak definition of identity that we use every day.

    Yes I would argue that a perfect copy is "me" in every way that matters and that there would be two "mes" who from the moment of construction would go on to be separate people. I haven't made a contradiction. Regarding continuity both of us would perceive it. If the original body steps into the copying machine then from his perspective he has entered a machine and then left it. Say the copy comes out of a machine on the other side of the room then from his perspective he has entered a machine and then instantly been teleported to another where he then exited.

    It really depends on if you think the first body has any intrinsic value of identity over the identical second.
     
  9. May 28, 2012 #8
    So if the machine destroys the original you AND makes TWO copies in different locations;

    You could say that, from your point of view, you have a 50% chance of waking up at at A and a 50% chance of waking up at B,

    Or you could say that you have a 100% chance of being placed at both A and B,

    And both of these would be correct? Because either of them would feel as though they were continuing the path of the original self.
     
  10. May 28, 2012 #9

    Ryan_m_b

    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    Yes to the first no to the second. Yes because from the point of view of stepping into the machine you know that you are either going to experience stepping out of the same one or the copier. No because after the copying there are two "you" so "you" don't have 100% chance of being in both.

    Incidentally you may want to look up the philosopher John Hicks' replica thought experiment. It deals with this very topic.
     
  11. May 28, 2012 #10
    Both mind and matter emerge from the brain(as far as we can tell at this point) and there is hardly any philosophical duality to their nature as they are just formal mental abstractions. Some people believe mind is less real than matter, while some believe mind is real and matter isn't real. IMO they both fail to embrace the abstract nature of the mental represenations generated by the brain that people refer to as 'world' or 'mind'. There is hardly ever going to be a winner in these debates, as they are talking about the same thing - a non-local, non-real but realistic looking mental abstraction.
    The big question is - what is existence?
     
  12. May 28, 2012 #11
    Why would you "wake up" in either location? If the machine destroys you then doesn't that end your consciousness? I think both of the copies will think they are you and have all your memories up to that point but I don't see how your consciousness would continue in either one.
     
  13. May 29, 2012 #12

    Pythagorean

    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    It's an interesting scenario. We can theoretically make as many copies as we like and start hundreds of "yous" off at your current point by arranging the same type of matter in the same type of ways, but there's seemingly no way to transfer actual you without destroying you, so each new "you" is now independent and stuck in their respective matter, just like you.

    It suggests that you are an information entity. And if the information is destroyed, the entity is destroyed; making a new "instance" of that information makes a completely new entity. It's reminiscent of classes vs. objects in object-oriented programming. The blueprint of the information is a class, but the actual implementation of that blueprint is the object, and each object is a unique and continuous instance of the blueprint. I.e. the list of geometric coordinates that describe the particles is not the same thing as the actual physical geometric arrangement of the particles.
     
  14. May 29, 2012 #13

    apeiron

    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    They would not even be replica consciousnesses because, being at different locations, they would be experiencing different views of the world.

    And presuming that one copy gets recreated in the same spot, the other ends up suddenly somewhere else, then the one that stayed in the same spot would have the most reason to think "nothing happened" and so that it was "the real one". The other would find itself suddenly somewhere else. And if it knew about transporter technology, might even have a strong suspicion that it was now just a duplicate.

    There is a big philosophical literature on the identity question. The same subject was raised just a few threads back - https://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=608199

    The Ship of Theseus is indeed very relevant to the discussion as neurons, like any other cells, are subject to molecular turnover and are constantly remaking themselves.

    The half-life of a basic building block molecule like tubulin is about 10 minutes. The actin filaments in dendrites are being replaced by the minute. So the brain you had yesterday is made of a substantially different collection of atoms than it was today. Though because the arrangement is relatively preserved, you are still "you".

    You go to sleep. You wake up. And critical elements of your neurons like the post synaptic densities will have been recycled maybe six or seven times. Nature already conducts this transporter experiment you could say.

    Because this points the finger at the information, at the arrangement of the brain rather than its substance, you can see why the case for "complex" is taken as read. Your brain has the complexity, your leg doesn't.
     
  15. May 29, 2012 #14

    Ryan_m_b

    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    I wouldn't go that far. Every part of the body is incredibly complex with multiple interacting tissue types.
     
  16. May 29, 2012 #15
    To play devil's advocate for a moment, by that logic a radio produces its own music. After all, without a [radio] there is no [music]. :wink:
     
  17. May 29, 2012 #16

    apeiron

    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    If you are in the mood to nit-pick, then perhaps you might supply some evidence that the complexity of the brain and the complexity of a limb are even in the same ball park.
     
  18. May 29, 2012 #17

    apeiron

    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    George Bernard Shaw joked about it a century ago....

     
  19. May 29, 2012 #18

    Ryan_m_b

    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    By what metric are you suggesting the brain is so much more complex?
     
  20. May 29, 2012 #19

    apeiron

    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    You are making an issue of it, so you supply the evidence.

    I never said that "life" was not complex. Just that "mind" is of another order of complexity.

    But if you are now struggling to back up your nit-picking, or worse still, now actually claiming that legs and brains are of the same order of complexity, then try the metric of negentropy.
     
  21. May 29, 2012 #20

    Ryan_m_b

    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    You and I have different definitions of issue. Apparently for you a pleasant query in a discussion means one is making an issue out of something.
    Apeiron: chill out. It's pretty hard to have an enjoyable discussion if you are going to act in a passive aggressive/insulting manner.

    I'm not claiming anything, I don't have a firm position. I was highlighting you claim that the brain is far more complex than a leg by suggesting that personally I wouldn't say that. Reason being the increased number and diversity of tissue types found in a limb over just the brain. I'm unaware of the MoN, perhaps you could explain it.
     
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thread via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook




Similar Discussions: Is Consciousness Simple or Complex?
  1. Consciousness? (Replies: 51)

  2. The Conscious! (Replies: 9)

  3. Conscious Thought? (Replies: 40)

  4. Is matter conscious? (Replies: 264)

Loading...