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Universe & consciousness

  1. May 26, 2007 #1
    I was wondering, seeing as the genome contains all the code that is necessary to building a three-dimensional structure (our brain) and consciousness emerges when a certain critical limit is reached (the complexity of matter), doesn't that mean that the the property of consciousness is intrinsic to the universe itself and every particular instantiation of it at birth (all of us here) is disposable just like every human being, embryo or not, is disposable to life which can produce billions more at it's whim (obviously it encompassed every other living form of matter other than humans)?

    I adhere to the panpsychist camp (something along the lines of David Chalmers) and I see no other explanation to that -consciousness is a process that has an infinite potential at this very moment (and always had) but it is only activated after a certain threshold is crossed (sort of what the emergent materialists are saying) when the embryo becomes conscious (here it is a duly time to add that there are different levels of consciousness in animals, insects, bacteria, etc with our type of consciousness being the most developed) and if we try to trace it back in every human embryo, we inevitably hit a brick wall because it literally appeared out of nothing and before that lingered as a potential of being instantiated in living matter after it reaches different plateaus (which determines the level of consciousness it is). No afterlife and no God play any role here. It's all neurological but at the same time completely inherent in the structure of the universe.

    Any comments appreciated. Thanks\

    Obviously functionalism is not foreign to it, so consciousness can emerge naturally out of every form of matter arranged in an appropriate manner (silicon robots, etc).
  2. jcsd
  3. May 26, 2007 #2
    By conciousness do you mean "the state of having thoughts"? Or do you mean 'being aware of self'?
  4. May 27, 2007 #3
    Isn't foot odour is just as 'intrinsic to the universe' on this basis? If you view the universe as completely deterministic then everything is intrinsic. The universe after all is just another process, on a grand scale.

    I think you are anthropomorphizing the universe, and using 'life' and 'consciousness' in vague ways, not that this sort of thing is uncommon.

    Unless a godbeing of some sort, some ultimate consciousness, exists (validating the specialness of consciousness), then 'human consciousness' is mostly just a side effect of an unusual adaptation of the cerebral cortex.

    A god with a long flowing white beard soothes a fragile human ego, in the face of the awesome unknowable universe and humankind's relatively insignificant place in it. Idealizing human consciousness is really no different. Ants do quite well without much at all, and rocks aren't complaining for lack of any. Why is consciousness so special?

    While I have no problem with the idea of differing levels of consciousness, the only barrier that I see to consciousness in this context is the existence of some sort of life process (what constitutes life is still up for debate, with things such as viruses etc...) which you seem to be conflating with consciousness. I also think you're abusing the word 'potential' here. Humans value consciousness because its a vital part of our identity and allows us to even understand the concept, but in the wider universe, its quite unimportant, as far as we know.
    Last edited: May 27, 2007
  5. May 27, 2007 #4
    I understand your concern, but what other alternative explanation can you give for the emerge of consciousness literally out of nothing in every human being? You're also saying that it is unimportant in the grand scale of things, but how then is it capable of, as you said, emerging out of nowhere in particular and suddenly be aware of our universe teeming with infinities, paradoxes and what not?
  6. May 27, 2007 #5
    No offense intended, but this strikes me as the sort of logic 'creationists' like to use when talking about eyeballs, not that I'm accusing you of creationism, but its the same sort of logic, in my opinion. You're implying that consciousness is somehow special because we don't really understand it, then implying that something so special couldn't just appear 'out of nothing'.

    Consciousness doesn't come from nothing... it exists within life, within matter and time, our known universe, and developed over time, just like any other complex physical process. It evolved. You've even noted that there differing levels. As to where it came from originally, we can see with viruses that even a solid definition of what is and isn't life, how life began, is somewhat murky. We know what life is and isn't generally, but not the in-between.... And as far as we know, it may not exist anywhere else in the universe.

    Consciousness is inextricably linked to 'what life is', so its likely just as murky. But that doesn't mean it has some special kind of existence or relevance to the universe. It could, but with the exception of my own egotism, I don't see any reason to think so.

    Unless you believe in a godbeing of some sort, we only really know that its important to us.

    Self awareness is a fascinating discussion, but one could extend the idea of a biologically based recursive algorithm and come up with something similar. Is that all consciousness is? I don't know, but so far I haven't seen anything to indicate its more than a complex version of that. Going beyond that, you're getting into soul or spirit territory, which has no scientific basis.

    Being in awe of the universe, and having a lack of understanding of its nature, is something all humans share, but you seem to be trying to graft a human, biological, quality onto the universe as a whole. Metaphorically it can work, but quite frankly I don't see any justification beyond the literary, again unless one believes in gods... universal consciousness is the supernatural... a 'god of the gaps' type deal. We don't know, so god did it.
  7. May 27, 2007 #6
    What we call consciousness did not emerge out of nothing. About eighty thousand years ago the fox2 gene mutated in humanity and complex language was born. Over night we went from primative stone tools and fire to complex tools, art, religion, agraculture, etc. Since then a further refinement of the fox2 gene has emerged as humanity continues to evolve towards higher consciousness.

    Words only have demonstrable meaning according to their function in a given context. This includes not least of all such fuzzy terms as consciousness. From my own point of view, what panpsychism referes to as consciousness might better be defined as awareness or the attitude of acceptance required for awareness.
  8. May 28, 2007 #7
    Thanks for your reply.
    Firstly, I don't believe in any God or the afterlife. I'm a transhumanist. I believe that consciounsess is ultimately irreducible but can definitely be simulated on non-biological substrates (so in this regard i'm a functionalist). But without muddling things up with all sorts of Gods and afterlives which are preposterous, I'd like to have a approximate idea of how consciousness emerges even though I know that ultimately the quest to reduce it to inanimate matter operations is futile (the "hard problem of consciousness").

    I stand in awe of the universe indeed, but I also stand in awe of my utterly disposable self which can ponder all of that and travel through it (at least in my thoughts), etc. Every individual human life is expendable for biology and can be produced by any two people with an intention of procreation; think about it, this incredibly mysterious phenomenon as consciounsess which the philosophers had been battling with in the form of the mind-body problems for centuries is something that is perpetuated on a daily basis by couples around the world!!! It's truly incredible when you come to think of something that is so widespread and natural and yet so little understood.

    You see what I mean?
  9. May 29, 2007 #8
    Doesn't seem like such a hard problem to me, especially in the age of computers (hardware/software) and virtual reality. Abstraction level thinking is simply an extension of memory, even DNA (RNA) is memory(that interacts with itself on a physical level), both memory of external stimuli and subjective reaction to that. As memory increases and actions/stimuli occur, feedback leading to adaptation, contigencies and courses of successful action result. Then its just a matter of increasing complexity.

    The big shift in computers is from circuit level interaction, to ROM, to a program saved to disk and and then loaded as a running program (simulation), this virtual 'action' is the natural extension of memory interacting with itself.

    So life and consciousness are fragile? Not sure I see a problem. They are complex systems with dependencies. You seem to be shocked by the idea that these things are fragile, expecting that biology would be more careful with them, as if biology was a person or godthing.

    I don't see life as expendable for biology. Again I think you're athropomorphizing. Biology just is, it doesn't have the ability to care, it can't be negligent.

    Well sex may seem mundane on the level that we experience it, but its the process of life, so its a pretty mysterious phenomena itself, when you get down to the details. I'm not sure I would characterize it as less mysterious than consciousness. You're placing a value on consciousness, above even life itself, which you can certainly do, but I'm not seeing much of a justification for it. Biological processes aren't very well understood, we're learning slowly, but it maybe that we simply need a better level of understanding in order to place consciousness properly in its place.
  10. May 29, 2007 #9
    I think you're simplifying the problem ala the "biological naturalism" of John Searle which is elegant enough, but overly simplistic... I am more than positive that machines would be conscious even if we don't find out all the nitty-gritty of the brains inner workings (functionalism) though...

    I agree, biology is just is and doesn't care and that's precisely what I'm getting at! I'll quote you an excerpt that demonstrates my point:

    "Which is cheaper to create human life or an ounce of gold? Gold can actually be synthesized in a cyclotron but the cost is astronomical, however human life or any life can be created virtually for free. Planet Earth is infested with perpetual self-replicators but the amount of platinum for example is finite. This self-righteous confidence manifests itself as an unlimited capacity for egoistic narcissism and self-magnification. Human arrogance conveniently assumes itself the apex of evolution yet in reality the corporal being is merely a disposable vehicle for the reproduction of genetic material, not the other way around!"

    Well, but biology finds itself in many different species other than humans, and yet, we don't approach their consciousness with the same level of awe.. now, that might be the self-magnification I quoted earlier, but our consciousness is still the most abstractly sophisticated of known species (in terms of being aware of the universe, etc). Now, there has been a lot of philosophical remarks that consciousness is the dagger in the flesh and it's only good for the comprehension of our utterly nonexistent status within the universe... what possible advantage did it confer to evolution to pass that trait on to future generations (i'm assuming that consciousness is the best survival method it found, because being self-aware of the threatening elements in our earlier surroundings was advantagerous for survival and coped better with the task that all the other methods)?
    Last edited: May 29, 2007
  11. May 30, 2007 #10
    Chinese rooms and zombies are interesting thought experiments, but I don't think either represents reality. Gaining selfawareness, biologically or as an AI, is a slow process, one we all go through as children mind you. Its not a switch you turn on, which I think is where we differ, since you keep talking about consciousness coming from nothing. Consciousness has a number of elements and levels. I think self-aware computers are possible, but in order to create a human style consciousness the computers involved would have to be more closely modelled on the human brain... including integration with some sort of externally interacting body. An conscious AI 'in a box' simply won't work in my opinion, and even virtual reality would create a different type of consciousness. In order to understand 'self', babies need to interact physically over time with multiple senses.

    Now who is oversimplifying? Comparing a complex system to an element on the periodic table?? Sorry but this strikes me as empty rhetoric. Comparing a computer to a human brain at least admits some level of similarity. Also, individual humans may be 'easy' to reproduce, but you're ignoring the million or so years of evolution needed to get to even one. Platinum as far as I know, doesn't even require a biosphere that can support life.

    And, I don't think anyone who understands evolution would claim we are the apex, its nonsensical, evolution simply doesn't work that way. Its about adaptation to a given enviroment. We are however quite well adapted to life on earth as it currently exists, more so than quite a few others.

    But we do put value on the things they do well that we do poorly. We marvel at a birds ability to fly, a fishes ability to breathe water... etc...
    Self-awareness is the thing we do well. I see nothing wrong with acknowledging our strength.

    We're not at the top of the food chain because we are the toughest or the strongest or the fastest... we're at the top of the food chain because we learned to use tools better than any others, among other things... and most of that human advantage was a gift of consciousness.

    Navel gazing may not be a survival mechanism, but thats not all we use our self awareness for.
  12. May 30, 2007 #11

    I believe that this is true.

    But does this have to be the only explanation ?

    Could it be other ways of doing this "thinking" ?

    If one call this cind of thinking "technical thinking", how to manipulate the nature and the earth and outsmart other creatures including your neigbour, could it then be some other ways of doing the thinking as well ?

    Could thinking exist with some other qualities or some other content, as well, than just stright forward logical or "technical thinking" ?

    Could it be some other "gifts" as well ?
    Last edited: May 30, 2007
  13. May 31, 2007 #12
    Sure. Could be.
  14. Jun 15, 2007 #13
    it seems that everyone assumes that brains generate consciousness, yet the ONLY facts we have are these-- we ARE conscious, we have NEVER KNOW a moment when we did not exist and never can... everything we do know is within our own mind, apparently invented by our own mind...and there is no way to know with 100% certainty that anything we experience is more than a dream.... and dont give me that solipsism garbage... because we did not create ourself/ves and so do not know if we ever had a choice in what we experience or can expeirence.
  15. Jun 23, 2007 #14
    One can distinguish in philosophy between ontology and epistemology.

    Solipsism *is* garbage if one is talking about ontology, the study of being. Its simply not a good theory of what exists.

    However, in epistemology, the study of knowledge, or what can be known, its a very useful thought experiment, as it strips away what can be thought of as 'knowledge derived from other knowledge', as opposed to the more basic 'self-evident' or primary type of knowledge.

    There are quite a few good examples in philosophy of thought experiments gone wrong when people start trying to use them incorrectly. Its similar to what happens when people try and over-apply QM principles.
  16. Jul 5, 2007 #15
    Consciousness creates the image of the brain, and if you look at it that way everything starts to make sense. When you think that the brain creates consciousness your sending yourself in an inevitably loop of mystery and defiance. One universal consciousness is God, not a man in the sky, he really does transcend space and time, or dwindles in it rather. Physical objects cease to exist outside of the mind as well, in my opinion.
  17. Jul 13, 2007 #16
    Knowledge - is absolute truth or what one believes in or 'first party' reality and is without a need of explaination;
    Understanding - is 'second party' expression or virtues of truth i.e., morality, behaviors or changes in attitude
    Observation is 'third party' or physical measurement, history/records for a body of mathematical reason. This answers to logical means of reproducible subjects or verification in environment of contemporary common understanding
  18. Jul 13, 2007 #17


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    Knowledge: what one assumes one knows until proven otherwise

    Understanding: what one assumes one understands until proven otherwise

    Observation: what one assumes one has perceived until proven otherwise.

    Concsiousness is a word frought with emotion that is continually refered to in mysticism, mythology, religion and psychology. There is no set definition for the word. It's definition has become a completely subjective endevour that cannot be used universally by everyone to mean the same thing. Its like the word "god" which has a different meaning for every person that uses the word.

    Awareness, as I have pointed out elsewhere, has become the neurologist's standard term used when expressing the biological and functional mechanism of the billions of neurons (brain) that, some claim, sets humans apart from the cognitions of other animals and machines.

    Even the word awareness has been hijacked by religions and cultists to express some imagined metaphysical state like "higher awareness". But in the end awareness is the emergent result of evolutionary functions that allow for the survival of any species. So that when someone says "higher awareness" we can diminish the importance of "higher" by quantifying what the word describes and say that it refers to a slightly more abundant, complex and synergistic arrangement of neurons that has developed and proven useful in the survival of certain mammals.

    Awareness and self awareness in a machine will not be the result of natural selection but a deliberate attempt to replicate what nature has already developed and demonstrated over several billion years. In this instance, if artificial awareness is achieved, it will be an inadequate, fragile and dependent shadow of the real thing.

    Whether life and awareness "appeared out of nothing" or not is left up to the imagination because proving either idea is either impossible or a long way off.
    Last edited: Jul 13, 2007
  19. Jul 13, 2007 #18
    This seems like a waste of time, but fine I can play too.

    Knowledge is data, or information, connected by context.
    Observation is the subjective experience of one of our senses.
    Understanding is knowledge of something that corresponds to external reality, either someone else's knowledge or an observation.
    Consciousness is thinking, which is the dynamic process mind.
  20. Jul 22, 2007 #19
    My goodness this is all I was asking....

    Does energy have intelligence? Is anyone familiar with the book "the Science of God"?? Where he discusses an experiment that is based off an 1803 light experiment done by Thomas Young that seemingly proves that an atom can "choose"???

    And if energy does have intelligence.... how does it know what the next step is? If it does not from where or how does consciousness begin?

    Last edited: Jul 22, 2007
  21. Jul 22, 2007 #20
    Not sure why anyone would think this implies energy has intelligence.
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