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My definition of consciousness - non recursive!

  1. Apr 2, 2009 #1
    After watching Smolin’s video yesterday about the “Evolving laws” (thanks Fra) I was not convinced by Smolin, but I found something interesting in his reasoning about the role of “NOW”. I decided to use it in the definition of consciousness. So,

    Consciousness is an entity which breaks:
    1. Time symmetry into NOW, BEFORE and AFTER
    2. Space symmetry into “ME” and “NOT ME”

    I really like my definition for the following reasons:
    • It does not use other high-level concepts like “being self-aware”, “perceive”, “feel” etc.
    • It has no biological background whatsoever
    • It defines consciousness based on more fundamental physical notions
    • So far physics can not explain that breaking (I agree with that Smolin’s idea), as all laws, for example, do not have any preferred “NOW-moment”. So we know nothing fundamental about this mysterious object so far, but it gives an idea where to look.
    If you think that the #2 because “ME” is too fuzzy, then I can replace it with:
    2. makes an asymmetric decomposition of all systems into “CURRENT” and “ALL OTHERS”

    Of course, it is still fuzzy like all philosophical stuff, but at least it is not deadly recursive
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 2, 2009 #2


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    Dmitry, I'm glad you enjoyed some parts of the Smolin video. (I will admit that I do not like everything he says either)

    I think you could discuss alot of things there. Not sure where to start.

    First, I would like to clarify the motive for asking the question on howto define conscioussness. About your desire to get rid of biological references, suggest that you are after something deeper and not just something having todo with the human brain?

    If so, the motive I see is that people often confuse a consciouss biological observer with an "observer" in QM, in particular when kicking on the copenhagen interpretation.

    I think all my past posts should make my opinon clear that an observer in QM, does NOT refer to a human obserer, or not even necessarily a biological observer.

    Then, perhaps you are probing for a deeper abstraction, what is an observer? How
    do you characterize and observer, in that context?

    If you have no idea on that, and then assume that observer means a scientist watching an instrument pack, then I would also pick on that abstraction.

    If that's what you are fishing for, when asking for a non-biological def on conscioussness etc, then I think your suggesting is a reasonable starting point and I can see your way of reasoning.

    But I have some further suggestions, but I'll await your comments to see if I understand your motive so far.

  4. Apr 2, 2009 #3
    There are several points.
    Consciousness is one of the things which avoid any research. I dont see any progress in that area. Zero. Nada. None. And even no idea where to begin.

    I am talking specifically about the "Hard problem of consciousness": http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hard_problem_of_consciousness

    Humankind will face this problem in few centuries when it will have to leave biological bodies behind and move into new (eternal) bodies which allow travelling to stars, which never age - without new bodies we are locked on Earth.

    So, you created a new body, how do you transfer your consciousness there? How can you verify that it is not a p-zombie? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophical_zombie

    So I tried to demonstrate that we have here some analog of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loschmidt's_paradox : if all processes, physics laws and systems do not have a 'special' moment of time called NOW and for our consciousness the symmetry between NOW and NOT NOW is broken, then consciousness can not be explained materialistically.
  5. Apr 2, 2009 #4
    If scientists are able to fight apoptosis(programmed cell death), our human bodies may become nearly eternal.
  6. Apr 2, 2009 #5


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    Do you think that this will be the future if we were capable of doing such things? Perhaps I'm being too much of a consequentialist, but can't help but think of the negative aspects of this. It's an interesting topic though.
  7. Apr 2, 2009 #6
    How is a clock not conscious?
  8. Apr 2, 2009 #7


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    What is correct in Dmitry67's approach is the understanding that consciousness needs to be accounted for in more general terms. He calls it physical to avoid the biological. But really it is about moving from the specific to the general view.

    The problem with much of consciousness studies is the conviction that the mind is a special and unique kind of thing - hence the hard problem. If you believe this, then the specific cannot be generalised in the normal way of science - to biology or physics.

    But if you instead can see past this mental roadblock, this legacy of Platonism, Christianity and Descartean dualism, then really it is not a big deal. There is plenty of good theory around.

    The most successful approach is to treat the mind as a complex adaptive system. So for example, Stephen Grossberg's ART networks which are a mathematical generalisation of how brains function.

    It is not about reducing minds to either biology or physics, but to something more general - mathematics. The kind of mathematics coming out of systems science and hierarchy theory.

    Biology is already being reduced to systems models. And mind can be assimilated to the same models. What interests me these days is that even physics may assimilate to these deep models.

    I would also note that symmetry breaking is fundamental to the system maths I am referring to. So you would be on the right track there too.

    If you check out Grossberg for example, you will see it is based on essential dichotomies like stability and plasticity. There is a time asymmetry in the anticipated and the not-anticipated. There is a division into attention and habits - what colloquially we would call the conscious and subconscious.

    These are all broken symmetries.
  9. Apr 2, 2009 #8


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    Hmm I think again our differences is reflected also here. From my current perspective the problem of the hard consciusness doesn't seem like a constructive question. In short, I wouldn't choose to ask it.

    If by definition, the p-zombie is indistinguishable from a human, then the question is not constructive, because the questioner is indifferent to the specific answer.

    Regarding philosophy I am more focused on the philsophy of science, and I think these questions are starting to get out of my field of vision :)

    I was going to suggest another direction of this quest, which is to question "what is an observer", and how that answers to how an observer acts and responds. At best, I could interpret the consiusness as how - to use your words - the ME of the observer imples the ME's response to feedback from the nonME, and how this results in an evolution of the ME, and that this evolution has a DIRECTION.

    To me, the ME, is the information the observer has. The perception of ME vs nonME would then be the KNOWN vs the unknown. But the point that makes the difference, would then be how this picture, due to the preferred direction of CHANGE, imples an evolution of the ME.

    Then again, it's somewhat recursive after all.

  10. Apr 2, 2009 #9


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    MAYBE you could associate "information", or the STATE of the observer (in Zurek's sense that the observer ~ what the observer knows) IS this p-consciousness.

    If so, I would still insist that the hard problem is not well posed. One answer would the the evolutinaty perspective, or another answer would be that the hard problem itself is a true self-reference, like asking for the conditional probabiltiy of Y, given Y.

  11. Apr 2, 2009 #10
    Dmitry, there is some effort going on in experimentally distinguishing various theories of consciousness. See Benjamin Libet's work - particularly Mind Time. He proposes a very impractical experiment to validate or falsify his field theory of consciousness.

    Also see Johnjoe McFadden's work on an electromagnetic field theory of consciousness, in his book Quantum Evolution and a couple of papers in the Journal of Consciousness Studies.

    And, turning away from experiment toward philosophy and pure reason, I highly recommend David Ray Griffin's Unsnarling the World-Knot, an explicitly Whiteheadian approach to the hard problem, which makes a strong and convincing case for panexperientialism (the view that all matter has some modicum of experience/consciousness).
    Last edited: Apr 2, 2009
  12. Apr 2, 2009 #11
    Fra, you've hit the nail on the head in my view: I believe that information is consciousness is information. I'm working out the implications of a dual aspect theory of consciousness in which there is a physical world and an information space (ether), akin to Chalmer's view in The Conscious Mind. The key difference is that Chalmers only flirted with panpsychism/panexperientialism and I explicitly embrace this view in my in-progress book. Email if you'd like to read my chapter on consciousness.

    In my work in progress, the physical world of "things" interacts with the information world through the motion of matter. As matter "moves," it is translated in each moment through the information space/ether, which is the substrate for matter itself. I put "moves" in quotes because nothing actually moves because there is no constant thing from moment to moment. Rather, the pattern of information that constitutes each apparent thing in the physical world is translated through the underlying information space - with an accompanying subjective experience.

    Some tantalizing possibilities arise when we consider Bohm's ontological interpretation of QM (also known as the pilot wave or causal interpretation). For Bohm, every particle has a wave and a particle. In my theory of consciousness, every particle also has a wave that underlies it, and both particle and wave are the product of an underlying ether that is essentially an information space. Different, but related rules apply to the physical world and the information space/ether.
    Last edited: Apr 2, 2009
  13. Apr 3, 2009 #12


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    Sad to say Tam your approach is doomed. But never mind.

    Fra, the problem with the notion of an observer is that it should not be passive. One of the fundamental mistakes of consciousness theorising is to think of "minding" as a passive state of contemplation. The classic beginner's mistake. Minding is an active relationship with a world (an attempt to anticipate and gain control).

    And observerdom can be thought of active in two distinct senses. It can construct. Or it can constrain.

    QM observation (as best modelled by decoherence approaches) is about global contexts that constrain - that collapses a wavefunction so that it fits with some average least action path.

    Individual human (or animal) observer-hood is more of the local constructive type. The additive and sequential choice of atomistic actions.

    The notion of observer-hood attracts people because it seems to be talking about consciousness, about minding. But that in itself, as I say, is based on some faulty thinking about consciousness.
  14. Apr 3, 2009 #13


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    How were you able to interpret my comments in that way? I must have been unclear.

    The observer is not passive. It is indeed highly interacting with it's enviroment. That's the whole point with action and reaction from the environment. This is why it evolves/changes. The observers is an "actor".

    I thought we reach a reasonble synchronization on that in the other thread. Aperion, I think that loosely speaking, we agree on a large part of the abstraction. What remains that none of us can answer is how this is going to be implemented in a quantitative predictive model that can be of utility.

  15. Apr 3, 2009 #14
    Good point
    Something else is missing in my definition... I need to think about it.
  16. Apr 3, 2009 #15
    You deny the existence of the Hard problem, it is a common position.

    It is indistinguishable only from the outside.
    Let me explain: if you're right then there is no difference for you between crying from real pain and being a good actor playing it so good that all around would think that you are crying from a real pain.
  17. Apr 3, 2009 #16


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    Apologies Fra. What you wrote I agree with. And in my haste, I was reacting to Tam's (mis)interpretation.....

    "Fra, you've hit the nail on the head in my view: I believe that information is consciousness is information"
  18. Apr 3, 2009 #17


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    We seem to agree that the choice of observer here is important, which is one of my key points.

    I argue that from the point of the outside observer, then yes, there is no difference.
    Here we agree.

    The only point of view (the inside however), from which is does make a difference, the "problem of it" goes away. Or simply that the problem implies to question yourself, given yourself. Ie. the only way of posing the question in a way that makes it meningful,
    becomes "trivial".

    So while I don't mean to trivialize this topic, I think the problem posed is strange. I don't see the point of asking it. If you can explain to me, how this disucssion in it's extension would lead to something that makes a difference, then maybe I would understand what you're asking.

    This is what I meant in the beginning when wondering why you asked these questions and wanted this definition. I think I hinted already that I see version of the question, that I would prefer, which I see as possibly constructive. But I wouldn't equal that to what I understand the hard problem to be.

    This somehow indirectly relates to the quote on the wiki entry on consciousness :)

    "The question of whether a computer can think is no more interesting than the question of whether a submarine can swim."

    OTOH, if you consider the phenomenal consciousness to simply be the state of information, and then ask "does an observer really have information about it's environment" or does it just act AS IF it did?

    Then, I think there are two independent views, here. the inside view and the outside view. But the point is that the outside view, is still contained in an inside view of some other observer. So all we have is a mess of interacting observers, and noone KNOWS what the others know. All they can do is guess, and this game of guessing, results in strange interactions that would not take place if they did have the same information.

    It's in this sense, I think this can be a constructive question. Because it could imply a suggestion of howto construct a general model of interacting observers. And ultimately this should lead to predictions for how physics evolves and how physical law is constructed.

    But at each point, the question of your speculated view of the inside structure of other observers is correct in some realist sense, is a ill posed question.

    I could misinterpret you, so forgive me, but I have a feeling that your view here is somewhat coloured by a realist view again. It's somehow this idea that things to which you are indifferent, still makes a difference in some birds view. That view is to me flawed.

    I can't prove you wrong of course, neithre can I prove myself right, I can only say that I don't think the outlined reasoning is the best choice.

  19. Apr 3, 2009 #18
    I think you've captured the general notion of consciousness. I happen to think that it's a nonsense word--or a word that once invented, promps a neverending search for a defintion that doesn't exist outside of our imaginations. But if you can think of some way to distingushish this thing from a clock, say, you might get somewhere.
  20. Apr 3, 2009 #19


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    My thoughts on this theme, for what they're worth...

    Consciousness only exists “from inside” – from its own subjective point of view. The physical aspect of this involves being at a certain place, in an ongoing “present moment” of time.

    If we think of the physical world objectively, as we nearly always do – i.e. from no point of view in particular, as just being whatever it is “in itself” – then there doesn’t seem to be any place in it for consciousness. The question of the physical / biological basis for consciousness can’t even be well articulated from this standpoint. Neither is there any “here” or “now” to be reckoned with, because we’re taking up a theoretical viewpoint on the world, as if we could see it “from outside”.

    So I think the “definition of consciousness” in the OP certainly gets at something essential to consciousness, but not the aspect that’s specific to human beings. It’s the aspect that corresponds to Fra’s “observer” in some purely physical sense yet to be clarified.

    I agree with Fra that it might be important to develop a view of the physical world “from inside” – to learn to describe physics from a here-in-the-moment standpoint. Not as a substitute for the objective view, which works extremely well for the most part, but as another approach that seems to be required when we think about foundations. This is not at all the same as bringing consciousness into physics.

    The problem with “panpsychism/panexperientialism” is that it confuses consciousness with an objective property of certain things, and then wants to impute that property of “being conscious” or “having experience” to, say, an atom. I think maybe what we need to do is almost the opposite – that is, to take the well-established objective facts about atoms and their interactions, and reconceive what’s going on there from the atom’s “point of view” – purely in the physical sense of being located in a “here and now” within the web of physical interaction.

    That is, there’s no need to imagine that atoms have minds or “experience”. We know all about what atoms do have – complex nuclei, electron-shells – and we know how they store information and transfer information back and forth with the rest of the world. Usually we describe all this objectively as the exchange of particles that have certain objective properties like momentum, spin, charge. To me the interesting question is, what would this picture look like “from inside”, without adding any new hypotheses about what atoms do? And I think Aperion’s point is important, that this is not a matter of the atom just “observing” in a passive sense, but of its ongoing real-time interchange with its informational environment.

    As to the kind of consciousness that’s specifically human, I would say, we’re conscious in that sense because we’re born into an environment of communication with other human beings, and in the course of learning to how talk with them, we also learn to talk to ourselves. We become humanly conscious of the world gradually, in the context of these ongoing conversations. I imagine that if a human grew up outside this context of contact with other human beings, he would never become “conscious” except in the same sense other animals are. So this is “recursive” in some sense, though not the mathematical one.

  21. Apr 3, 2009 #20
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. While I am thinking about what is missing, just one another duality with physics.

    Time and consciousness are non conjugate variables. It is perfectly valid to say that 'last hour I was conscious', or 'last minute'. But was I conscious today between 1:00Am 00.000 sec during the next 1 microsecond? It does not make sense. To be conscious you need to understand who you are, your identity, and the 'bigger' (in informational sense) you are the more time it takes.

    On 0.1-0.5s scale there are some automatisms. In car crashes you even dont have time to feel frightened, you get frightened post factum.

    Conscious appear on the seconds scale. So an analog of a 'plank constant' is 1. More primitive beings can react in interval of milliseconds, but their consciousness is very limited.
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