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

The physics of consciousness

  1. Nov 4, 2004 #1
    If everything happening around us can be explained scientifically, then surely, the way we behave need also to be explained. Do we understand the physics behind consciousness.
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 5, 2004 #2
    The short answer is no. As yet it is not clear that there is such a thing as a 'physics of consciousness'.
  4. Nov 5, 2004 #3
    Physics explains the fundamental workability of things. Consciousness is surely something that works. For some reason not many, want to tackle this problem. For years we have understood the strange way, reality really is. What might be the "Philosophical Reason"?
  5. Nov 5, 2004 #4


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Sure, and cognitive science, neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, etc. are doing a good job of that-- explaining the way we behave, why we behave that way, the physical mechanisms that underpin behavior, etc. The account is by no means complete, since the human brain is so complex and the study of it is still very young. But good progress is being made, and in principle there is nothing barring us from coming to a complete understanding of human behavior.

    Ah, now this is a different question entirely. Consciousness is a mongrel concept. By that, I mean that the word 'consciousness' picks out many different phenomena. Depending on which of these phenomena you mean when you ask this question, you will get different answers.

    Some of the aspects of what we call consciousness are amenable to scientific research and explanation (for example, being awake as opposed to sleeping, rational thought processes, 'global' access to sensory information, etc.) These aspects of consciousness are defined more or less functionally, that is, in terms of what they do. Ned Block calls this 'access consciousness,' David Chalmers calls it 'the easy problem(s) of consciousness,' and headway is being made to study and describe it scientifically (e.g. Bernard Baars's Globeal Workspace Theory and its variants).

    But there is more to 'consciousness' than just that. There is also what is varyingly called phenomenal consciousness, subjective experience, qualia, raw feels, etc. Phenomenal consciousness refers (loosely) to the way things appear to us-- the redness of red, the sensation of feeling of sand on the feet, the particular kind of feeling that one calls sadness, etc. Philosophers say that a being has phenomenal consciousness if it is like something to be that being. The problem of why being a human is like anything is a vexing one and apparently beyond scientific scrutiny. (Why should the neural activity of my visual cortex be accompanied by this? Why isn't it that my brain should do everything that it does and still leave me 'dark' inside?) Strong arguments have been made that phenomenal consciousness cannot be explained by science, even in principle. David Chalmers calls this 'the hard problem of consciousness.'
  6. Nov 5, 2004 #5
    Head and Heart

    Physicist Victor Mansfield wrote a book called "Head and Heart". In one chapter he talks about the difficulty science (and physics) has trying to explain the the phenomena of consciousness. Even if a theory of everything were to tie the 4 known forces of nature together, the theory would probably fall short in explaining the nature of the mind.
  7. Nov 5, 2004 #6
    Roger Penrose has said that he believes that there will be no theory of unified forces in physics until consciousness is explained too.This is my belief and has been for ten years or more.Physicists are struggling to explain many phenomena now,at a time when the dissemination and availability of information and number of people thinking about the information is far greater than ever before in history.Few physicists are prepared to think about consciousness and nobody has properly defined what consciousness actually is.If and when we have a full understanding of consciousness,
    this will be the greatest achievement of the human mind - we will probably not face a more insoluble problem.
  8. Nov 5, 2004 #7
    Physicists do not explain the forces, they just state that they exist and try to make predictions about the world assuming that they exist, if these predictions are successful we take it for granted that the assumed forces exist, until someone comes with other "things" (that he hypothesizes do exist) that can predict better.

    The fundamental things (i.e. forces, particles, etc.) are not explained they are taken to exist in order to make it easier to understand, and make predictions about, how the world around us behaves. Thus they aim at explaining the things we are aware (conscious) of. Now in order to explain consciousness one first needs to be aware of consciousness, which is a whole different matter than being aware of the physical world...
  9. Nov 5, 2004 #8


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    RAD4921 wrote "Even if a theory of everything were to tie the 4 known forces of nature together, the theory would probably fall short in explaining the nature of the mind." I hope you can see that that is a far different claim from the one you are making here.
  10. Nov 7, 2004 #9
    Penrose's ideas on consciousness seem to me to be far more sophisticated than those of most other scientific thinkers, raising questions about the true nature of mass, energy, time etc. His view that C is a scientific phenomenon, explicable within a physicalist worldview, is no more than a temperamental conjecture (as yet) but the rest of his ideas seem to make a lot of sense.

    In the end though C is a subjective phenomenon, and as such it can only be investigated or understood properly by introspection. (Which may be why the prophet Mohammed said "An hours contemplation is worth a year's worship)

    Of course the explanations of it given by all those millions of people who have spent their lives investigating consciousness by introspection are ignored by scientists (with a few notable exceptions). I wonder how much longer they can be ignored, given the ongoing failure of third-person methods of investigation to make any headway. It seems to be forgotten that the 'problem of consciousness' is a scientific and 'western' philosophical problem. It's not a problem for everybody.
  11. Nov 7, 2004 #10
    I agree with the views of Roger Penrose. I also have a feeling that a better understanding of consciousness will come from the Hindu philosophy. Recently I came across an article in an Indian newspaper which I found quite interesting. I think, the contributors to this thread may like to read.

    Check this site: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/902912.cms
    Last edited: Nov 7, 2004
  12. Nov 7, 2004 #11


    User Avatar
    Homework Helper

    That article makes a number of bold claims that I personally disagree with. For one thing, it takes something that I can only call a "law of conservation of consciousness" as a scientific fact, which it isnt. One immediate problem with this law is that it seems obvious there is more consciousness present now than, say, 10 billion years ago. Then he seems to imply that in addition to consciousness, another property of the world which cannot be explained in physical terms is desire. I disagree, and I feel that desire is something completely accounted for by the physical structure of the brain, even if consciousness isn't. That the desires of people who die cannot simply disappear and that children are born with desires that cant be accounted for in any normal scientific way are both, in my opinion, absurd ideas, and he doesnt pretend to support them. Personally, I don't beleive in reincarnation, but I am open to a persuasive argument. This was not.
  13. Nov 12, 2004 #12
    I believe in reincarnation.The only way we can explain why we exist now and why now
    is not a special time in the history of the universe, is if we have been born an infinite numberof times in the past, and if we will be born again an infinite number of times in the future.Also,in an oscillating universe where mass is neither created or destroyed ,
    the particles have to adopt different configurations as time goes on, but a finite number of particles can only be put in a finite number of configurations,so eventually
    the configuration we are now in,has to be repeated.Our lives happen again exactly the same way.Time after time after time.This is a chilling scenario if you are someone who
    has suffered a great deal in your life.However, if we have a soul that is material, and gets passed,sometimes, into other bodies,there may be
    times of joy for those who are currently experiencing hell.
    Last edited: Nov 13, 2004
  14. Nov 13, 2004 #13
    How many known forces of nature

    Including the psychological g factor, aren't there at least five known forces of nature?
  15. Nov 13, 2004 #14


    User Avatar
    Homework Helper

    whatever the g factor is, it is far from a recognized "fifth force of nature" and needs no explaining. if a certain theory contains it, that's fine, but irrelevant to other theories.
  16. Nov 13, 2004 #15
    The g factor is not a force of nature? Is it fundamentally different from the recognized four forces of nature?
  17. Nov 13, 2004 #16


    User Avatar
    Homework Helper

    I don't know anything about it. I'm just pointing out it is not recognized as a fifth force of nature, in the sense that it is as fundamental as gravity, EM, and the weak and strong forces, and you can't say that a theory has to explain it to be complete.
    Last edited: Nov 13, 2004
  18. Nov 14, 2004 #17
    Consistency in classification of forces

    If a theory were to explain gravity, EM, and the weak and strong forces, then those forces could not be completely fundamental. If those forces are not completely fundamental, and other non-completely-fundamental forces seem to also exist, requiring only that a given candidate theory explain them and them alone would seem to be inconsistent.
    Last edited: Nov 14, 2004
  19. Nov 14, 2004 #18


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Gold Member
    Dearly Missed

    I don't think that your conclusion follows. If a TOE explained the four forces as aspects of one truly fundamental unified force (which would seem to be what physicists are trying for), then there would be no more warrant for speculating about other forces than there is now.
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thread via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook

Have something to add?

Similar Discussions: The physics of consciousness
  1. Consciousness? (Replies: 51)

  2. The Conscious! (Replies: 9)