Why Physicists Are Saying Consciousness Is a State of Matter, Like a Solid, a Liquid or a Gas
A new way of thinking about consciousness is sweeping through science like wildfire. Now physicists are using it to formulate the problem of consciousness in concrete mathematical terms for the first time
There’s a quiet revolution underway in theoretical physics. For as long as the discipline has existed, physicists have been reluctant to discuss consciousness, considering it a topic for quacks and charlatans. Indeed, the mere mention of the ‘c’ word could ruin careers.
That’s finally beginning to change thanks to a fundamentally new way of thinking about consciousness that is spreading like wildfire through the theoretical physics community. And while the problem of consciousness is far from being solved, it is finally being formulated mathematically as a set of problems that researchers can understand, explore and discuss.
Today, Max Tegmark, a theoretical physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, sets out the fundamental problems that this new way of thinking raises. He shows how these problems can be formulated in terms of quantum mechanics and information theory. And he explains how thinking about consciousness in this way leads to precise questions about the nature of reality that the scientific process of experiment might help to tease apart.
Tegmark’s approach is to think of consciousness as a state of matter, like a solid, a liquid or a gas. “I conjecture that consciousness can be understood as yet another state of matter. Just as there are many types of liquids, there are many types of consciousness,” he says.
He goes on to show how the particular properties of consciousness might arise from the physical laws that govern our universe. And he explains how these properties allow physicists to reason about the conditions under which consciousness arises and how we might exploit it to better understand why the world around us appears as it does.
Interestingly, the new approach to consciousness has come from outside the physics community, principally from neuroscientists such as Giulio Tononi at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
In 2008, Tononi proposed that a system demonstrating consciousness must have two specific traits. First, the system must be able to store and process large amounts of information. In other words consciousness is essentially a phenomenon of information.
And second, this information must be integrated in a unified whole so that it is impossible to divide into independent parts. That reflects the experience that each instance of consciousness is a unified whole that cannot be decomposed into separate components.
Both of these traits can be specified mathematically allowing physicists like Tegmark to reason about them for the first time. He begins by outlining the basic properties that a conscious system must have.
Given that it is a phenomenon of information, a conscious system must be able to store in a memory and retrieve it efficiently.
It must also be able to to process this data, like a computer but one that is much more flexible and powerful than the silicon-based devices we are familiar with.
Tegmark borrows the term computronium to describe matter that can do this and cites other work showing that today’s computers underperform the theoretical limits of computing by some 38 orders of magnitude.
Clearly, there is so much room for improvement that allows for the performance of conscious systems.
Next, Tegmark discusses perceptronium, defined as the most general substance that feels subjectively self-aware. This substance should not only be able to store and process information but in a way that forms a unified, indivisible whole. That also requires a certain amount of independence in which the information dynamics is determined from within rather than externally.
Finally, Tegmark uses this new way of thinking about consciousness as a lens through which to study one of the fundamental problems of quantum mechanics known as the quantum factorisation problem.
This arises because quantum mechanics describes the entire universe using three mathematical entities: an object known as a Hamiltonian that describes the total energy of the system; a density matrix that describes the relationship between all the quantum states in the system; and Schrodinger’s equation which describes how these things change with time.
The problem is that when the entire universe is described in these terms, there are an infinite number of mathematical solutions that include all possible quantum mechanical outcomes and many other even more exotic possibilities.
So the problem is why we perceive the universe as the semi-classical, three dimensional world that is so familiar. When we look at a glass of iced water, we perceive the liquid and the solid ice cubes as independent things even though they are intimately linked as part of the same system. How does this happen? Out of all possible outcomes, why do we perceive this solution?
Tegmark does not have an answer. But what’s fascinating about his approach is that it is formulated using the language of quantum mechanics in a way that allows detailed scientific reasoning. And as a result it throws up all kinds of new problems that physicists will want to dissect in more detail.
Take for example, the idea that the information in a conscious system must be unified. That means the system must contain error-correcting codes that allow any subset of up to half the information to be reconstructed from the rest.
Tegmark points out that any information stored in a special network known as a Hopfield neural net automatically has this error-correcting facility. However, he calculates that a Hopfield net about the size of the human brain with 10^11 neurons, can only store 37 bits of integrated information.
“This leaves us with an integration paradox: why does the information content of our conscious experience appear to be vastly larger than 37 bits?” asks Tegmark.
That’s a question that many scientists might end up pondering in detail. For Tegmark, this paradox suggests that his mathematical formulation of consciousness is missing a vital ingredient. “This strongly implies that the integration principle must be supplemented by at least one additional principle,” he says. Suggestions please in the comments section!
And yet the power of this approach is in the assumption that consciousness does not lie beyond our ken; that there is no “secret sauce” without which it cannot be tamed.
At the beginning of the 20th century, a group of young physicists embarked on a quest to explain a few strange but seemingly small anomalies in our understanding of the universe. In deriving the new theories of relativity and quantum mechanics, they ended up changing the way we comprehend the cosmos. These physicists, at least some of them, are now household names.
Could it be that a similar revolution is currently underway at the beginning of the 21st century?
Mathematical Model of Consciousness Proves Human Experience Cannot Be Modelled On a Computer
A new mathematical model of consciousness implies that your PC will never be conscious in the way you are
One of the most profound advances in science in recent years is the way researchers from a variety of fields are beginning to think about consciousness. Until now, the c-word was been taboo for most scientists. Any suggestion that a researchers was interested in this area would be tantamount to professional suicide.
That has begun to change thanks to a new theory of consciousness developed in the last ten years or so by Giulio Tononi, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and others. Tononi’s key idea is that consciousness is a phenomenon in which information is integrated in the brain in a way that cannot be broken down.
So each instant of consciousness integrates the smells, sounds and sights of that moment of experience. And consciousness is simply the feeling of this integrated information experience.
What makes Tononi’s ideas different from other theories of consciousness is that it can be modelled mathematically using ideas from physics and information theory. That doesn’t mean this theory is correct. But it does mean that, for the first time, neuroscientists, biologists physicists and anybody else can all reason about consciousness using the universal language of science: mathematics.
This has led to an extraordinary blossoming of ideas about consciousness. A few months ago, for example, we looked at how physicists are beginning to formulate the problem consciousness in terms of quantum mechanics and information theory.
Today, Phil Maguire at the National University of Ireland and a few pals take this mathematical description even further. These guys make some reasonable assumptions about the way information can leak out of a consciousness system and show that this implies that consciousness is not computable. In other words, consciousness cannot be modelled on a computer.
Maguire and co begin with a couple of thought experiments that demonstrate the nature of integrated information in Tononi’s theory. They start by imagining the process of identifying chocolate by its smell. For a human, the conscious experience of smelling chocolate is unified with everything else that a person has smelled (or indeed seen, touched, heard and so on).
This is entirely different from the process of automatically identifying chocolate using an electronic nose, which measures many different smells and senses chocolate when it picks out the ones that match some predefined signature.
A key point here is that it would be straightforward to access the memory in an electronic nose and edit the information about its chocolate experience. You could delete this with the press of a button.
But ask a neuroscientist to do the same for your own experience of the smell of chocolate—to somehow delete this—and he or she would be faced with an impossible task since the experience is correlated with many different parts of the brain.
Indeed, the experience will be integrated with all kinds of other experiences. “According to Tononi, the information generated by such [an electronic nose] differs from that generated by a human insofar as it is not integrated,” say Maguire and co.
This process of integration is then crucial and Maguire and co focus on the mathematical properties it must have. For instance, they point out that the process of integrating information, of combining it with many other aspects of experience, can be thought of as a kind of information compression.
This compression allows the original experience to be constructed but does not keep all of the information it originally contained.
To better understand this, they give as an analogy the sequence of numbers: 4, 6, 8, 12, 14, 18, 20, 24…. This is an infinite series defined as: odd primes plus 1. This definition does not contain all the infinite numbers but it does allow it be reproduced. It is clearly a compression of the information in the original series.
The brain, say Maguire and co, must work like this when integrating information from a conscious experience. It must allow the reconstruction of the original experience but without storing all the parts.
That leads to a problem. This kind of compression inevitably discards information. And as more information is compressed, the loss becomes greater.
But if our memories were like that cannot be like that, they would be continually haemorrhaging meaningful content. “Memory functions must be vastly non-lossy, otherwise retrieving them repeatedly would cause them to gradually decay,” say Maguire and co.
The central part of their new work is to describe the mathematical properties of a system that can store integrated information in this way but without it leaking away. And this leads them to their central proof. “The implications of this proof are that we have to abandon either the idea that people enjoy genuinely [integrated] consciousness or that brain processes can be modelled computationally,” say Maguire and co.
Since Tononi’s main assumption is that consciousness is the experience of integrated information, it is the second idea that must be abandoned: brain processes cannot be modelled computationally.
They go on to discuss this in more detail. If a person’s behaviour cannot be analysed independently from the rest of their conscious experience, it implies that something is going on in their brain that is so complex it cannot feasibly be reversed, they say.
In other words, the difference between cognition and computation is that computation is reversible whereas cognition is not. And they say that is reflected in the inability of a neuroscientist to operate and remove a particular memory of the smell of chocolate.
That’s an interesting approach but it is one that is likely to be controversial. The laws of physics are computable, as far as we know. So critics might ask how the process of consciousness can take place at all if it is non-computable. Critics might even say this is akin to saying that consciousness is in some way supernatural, like magic.
But Maguire and go counter this by saying that their theory doesn’t imply that consciousness is objectively non-computable only subjectively so. In other words, a God-like observer with perfect knowledge of the brain would not consider it non-computable. But for humans, with their imperfect knowledge of the universe, it is effectively non-computable.
There is something of a card trick about this argument. In mathematics, the idea of non-computability is not observer-dependent so it seems something of a stretch to introduce it as an explanation.
What’s more, critics might point to other weaknesses in the formulation of this problem. For example, the proof that conscious experience is non-computable depends critically on the assumption that our memories are non-lossy.
But everyday experience is surely the opposite—our brains lose most of the information that we experience consciously. And the process of repeatedly accessing memories can cause them to change and degrade. Isn’t the experience of forgetting a face of a known person well documented?
Then again, critics of Maguire and co’s formulation of the problem of consciousness must not lose sight of the bigger picture—that the debate about consciousness can occur on a mathematical footing at all. That’s indicative of a sea change in this most controversial of fields.
Of course, there are important steps ahead. Perhaps the most critical is that the process of mathematical modelling must lead to hypotheses that can be experimentally tested. That’s the process by which science distinguishes between one theory and another. Without a testable hypothesis, a mathematical model is not very useful.
For example, Maguire and co could use their model to make predictions about the limits in the way information can leak from a conscious system. These limits might be testable in experiments focusing on the nature of working memory or long-term memory in humans.
That’s the next challenge for this brave new field of consciousness.
Ref:arxiv.org/abs/1401.1219: Consciousness as a State of Matter
Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1405.0126 : Is Consciousness Computable? Quantifying Integrated Information Using Algorithmic Information Theory
From The Physics ArXiv @ https://medium.com/the-physics-arxiv-blog
For more information about consciousness see http://nexusilluminati.blogspot.com/search/label/consciousness
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