PBS's Spacetime: The role of consciousness in quantum physics


It is no secret that one of my favorite shows online is PBS's Spacetime. They found a unique combination of rigor and accessibility, spicing the whole thing up with a certain 'coolness' factor that makes the show very enjoyable to watch. Only very rarely do they seem to make mistakes—a surprising achievement given the complexity of the subjects explored.

In this context, many of you brought to my attention a very recent episode of Spacetime—see video insert below—in which they discuss the role of consciousness in quantum physics. This is a topic very close to my heart, about which I have written extensively (for instance, on Scientific American). But some of you were quite critical, thinking that Spacetime weren't fair in their portrayal of the relationship between consciousness and quantum mechanics.


I did watch the episode in question only a couple of hours after it was released, so by the time your comments began streaming in, I already had an opinion. And, perhaps surprisingly to some of you, my opinion is... well, quite positive.

Granted, Spacetime were critical of the idea that quantum mechanics—through the notion that consciousness causes wave function collapse—somehow permits us to "manifest" our preferred reality by thinking it into existence. But insofar as the consciousness in question is understood to be our personal, egoic, introspectively accessible consciousness, neither do I think this is the case. Perhaps our subliminal mental attitudes—at a deeper, even transpersonal level, below the threshold of metacognitive introspection—do influence things in some yet-unsuspected way, but that doesn't entail or imply that we can personally and deliberately choose, "manifest" or "attract" things; otherwise there would be no consensus about our inhabiting the same world. Therefore, I don't think the skepticism shown by the Spacetime crew is unjustified or inappropriate.

Neither do I naively think that quantum mechanics hasn't been the target of abuse by non-physicists. Although I defend—in an upcoming paper in the Journal of Near-Death Studies—some statements about quantum mechanics made by non-experts in the fields of parapsychology and integrative medicine, I do acknowledge that extensive abuse has happened; also in those fields. For instance, not long ago, in my role as consulting publisher at Iff Books, I've had to review a manuscript that not only betrayed extraordinary ignorance of what quantum mechanics is or says, but also displayed an atrociously confident tone suggesting the contrary. It literally made me feel sick in my stomach. So abuse does happen and must be countered. That Spacetime decided to do this is, in principle, perfectly okay with me; even though I reserve judgment about some of the specific books they chose to name explicitly as instances of abuse.

As a matter of fact, I was very positively surprised by a number of statements made in the episode that not only admitted to a possible link between quantum physics and consciousness (the latter meant here in a transpersonal, naturalistic sense), but also persuasively explained the basic rationale for postulating such a link in the first place.

Indeed, Spacetime were clear (at just after the 12-minute mark) that their criticisms don't apply to what they called a "global consciousness." Significantly, they've also spent most of the episode thoroughly explaining 'von Neumann chains' and the 'Wigner's friend' thought experiment: two of the reasons to suspect a link between consciousness and quantum mechanics. Even more importantly, they did not attempt to refute the rationale behind either notion. In a strong sense, thus, they've actually made a persuasive case for the role of consciousness. At the 12:24-minute mark, they've even explicitly stated that "conscious observation may play a role" in the transition from quantum states to classical reality, although that role isn't compatible with the notion that we can personally and deliberately choose our own reality.

The only point about which I am mildly critical of the episode is this: Spacetime came through too strongly in favor of a completely objective external reality. Recent evidence shows that, at some level, this isn't true. That said, and as Spacetime illustrates with their modified version of the 'Wigner's friend' thought experiment at the 11:05-minute mark, we clearly seem to inhabit the same world, consistently experienced by each of us. So it cannot be the case that we are each creating our own reality independently of everybody else; at least not at all levels.

I also regret a bit that they too strongly associate the link between consciousness and quantum physics with mysticism, as opposed to a natural process. Consciousness, after all, is natural; it's an undeniable aspect of nature, the prime datum of existence. Having said that, insofar as what they mean by 'mysticism' is related to the notion that the executive ego can wish a preferred reality into existence, I am okay even with that.

What we have to guard against is the tempting but almost certainly false notion that, by granting a fundamental role to consciousness in the fabric of reality, we are granting our personal, individual, introspectively accessible consciousness magical powers. This is not, for instance, what analytic idealism entails or implies. When Wigner's characterized the role of consciousness in physics as a "solipsistic view," he was denying precisely this, not the hypothesis of a universal consciousness underlying physics.

All things considered, I salute Spacetime on another beautiful and fairly well balanced episode. May they keep on coming!
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Echoes and reflections


Echoes and reflections

The inscrutable mysteries we seek to understand,
are but the outer appearance of our effort to understand.
The baffling complexities we inquire into,
are but the inner structure of our inquiring.
Thus those who inquire simply,
suspect simple answers.
But those who inquire deeply,
may become lost in the labyrinth of their inquiry.

All mysteries are returning echoes of ourselves:
should we stop the effort to fathom,
nothing would be left to be fathomed.
For the universe is a mirror.
That which is familiar in awareness,
is close by in space.
But that which is alienated in awareness,
is far away.

Blackholes, quasars and supernovae at the edge of space:
returning echoes
of the impersonal within us;
reflected images
of the bizarre foundations of our true being;
remote whispers
from the most alienated parts of ourselves.

As our instruments of inquiry improve,
so the mystery recedes beyond the event horizon.
For there is but one thing to be grasped:
that which is trying to grasp.
If the mystery were solved,
existence would cease.
And thus, as Gödel hinted, there shall always be a mystery;
one mystery.

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Dim-witted biologist: consciousness is accidental

Daphnia (crustacean water flea).
It's finally Friday evening and my week's work is done. The past few days have been very productive at all levels, both in my day job in corporate strategy and my evening pursuits in philosophy and science. And so I feel entitled to indulge a bit in something utterly unnecessary but nonetheless fun: to comment on Jerry 'Berry' Coyne's latest attempt to criticize my work.

Indeed, Jerry Berry has found time to post about me not once, but twice in only a few days, in between his demanding, prolific and essential work commenting on the "best and worse Oscar dresses," "six pounds of steak in 13 minutes (not to mention salad, fries, and onion rings)," and the "words and phrases [he] hates." I feel honored to deserve so much attention from such a distinguished polymath, versed in so many distinct fields of scholarship.

The target of Jerry Berry's latest rant and rage has been an essay I wrote claiming that, under the premises of mainstream physicalism, phenomenal consciousness—that is, subjective, qualitative experience—cannot have been the result of Darwinian evolution. The gist of my argument is that, according to physicalism, only quantitative parameters such as mass, charge, momentum, etc., figure in our models of the world—think of the mathematical equations underlying all physics—which, in turn, are putatively causally-closed. Therefore, the qualities of experience cannot perform any function whatsoever. And properties that perform no function cannot have been favored by natural selection.


Jerry Coyne implicitly but unambiguously acknowledges my point that consciousness, under physicalism, doesn't perform any function.


Jerry Berry offers a number of alleged refutations of my claims. He starts by arguing that the qualitative, subjective experiences that accompany the cognitive data processing taking place in our brain may have been merely "byproducts ('spandrels') of other traits that were selected," or "they could have been 'neutral' traits that came to predominate by random genetic drift."

Let us take stock of what he is saying here. To begin with, he is implicitly but unambiguously acknowledging my point that consciousness, under physicalism, doesn't perform any function; it's useless (thank you for admitting to this, Jerry Berry, as this is the critical point). Then, he argues that consciousness could have evolved as a byproduct ("spandrel") of the complexity of the brain or even be a merely accidental feature.
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A materialism of qualities?


In a previous post, I suggested that some people who proclaim to adhere to the materialist metaphysics in fact misapprehend what materialism is. One example of misapprehension I mentioned was the implicit notion that, although the brain produces the felt qualities we call thoughts and emotions—that is, endogenous experiences—the qualities of perception, such as color, flavor, smell, etc., are thought to really exist out there in the world, not inside our skull. These people subliminally assume that the physical world is the qualities displayed on the screen of perception, which contradicts mainstream materialism.

Indeed, according to materialism all qualities, including those of perception, are somehow—materialists don't know how—generated by the brain inside our skull. The external world allegedly has no qualities at all—no color, no smell, no flavor—but is instead constituted by purely abstract quantities, such as mass, charge, spin, momentum, geometric relationships, frequencies, amplitudes, etc.

Triggered by my post, a long-time reader of mine, who also writes about philosophy, wondered if we could conceive of an alternative form of materialism precisely along the lines above. That is, can we devise a coherent 'qualitative materialism' according to which the qualities of perception are really out there in the external world—whether they constitute that world or are merely objective properties of it—while only non-perceptual experiences, such as thoughts and emotions, are generated by the brain? The answer is no, but if such a smart and well-informed reader felt tempted to entertain the thought, I think it is worthwhile to elaborate more here.

For starters, notice that the qualities of perception—color, smell, flavor, etc.—also appear in dreams, imagination, visions, hallucinations, etc. Many dreams and hallucinations are qualitatively indistinguishable from actual perceptions, something I have verified multiple times—to my own satisfaction—during lucid dreams and psychedelic trances. So if colors and other perceptual qualities are really out there in the external world, then somehow our inner mental imagery can also incorporate the exact same qualities independently of the external world.

This is problematic for qualitative materialism, for it entails postulating two fundamentally different grounds for the same qualities: in one case, the qualities are inherent to the matter out there in the world; in the other case, the exact same qualities are somehow generated by material arrangements in our brain, which themselves do not have those qualities.

For instance, the brain—that reddish object inside our skull—does not itself display the colors of the rainbow when we look at it on an operating table. Yet it can generate—under the premises of qualitative materialism—the dream-imagery of a rainbow. Analogously, the brain itself does not sound like anything. Yet, it can generate—still under the premises of qualitative materialism—the dream of a lovely concert. So the same qualities must be both fundamental to matter when they occur outside our skull, and also epiphenomena of material arrangements when they occur inside. This doesn't seem coherent to me.

You see, even if the perceptual qualities of our inner mental imagery are just remembered from earlier perceptions, under qualitative materialism the brain still has to epiphenomenally generate the experience of re-living the memories, despite not having the entailed qualities in its own matter. For instance, the brain has to epiphenomenally generate the re-experiencing of a rainbow—which entails experiencing many colors—without having all those colors in its own matter. So we still end up with two fundamentally different grounds for the same qualities.

But that's not all. The defining principle of all formulations of metaphysical materialism is that the classical, macroscopic world beyond our private mentation, as it is in itself, is objective; that is, its properties are independent of observation. Under qualitative materialism, this means that the perceptual qualities of an object—such as e.g. its color—are objective, intrinsic to the object itself, not private creations of our personal mind. Therefore, these qualities can only change if the object itself changes.



Let's make this more specific with an example. Consider the squares marked and B, respectively, in the figure above. We clearly perceive square A as dark grey and square B as light grey. Under qualitative materialism, these perceived qualities are in the squares themselves; their colors are objective, beyond our personal mentation; dark grey is a property intrinsic to square A as it is in itself, whereas light grey is a property intrinsic to square B as it is in itself. Therefore, for as long as we don't change anything about squares A and B themselves, their colors should remain the same.

In the figure below, squares A and B are shown again, with no modification except for some zooming; only the rest of the original figure above has been removed (if you can't believe it, watch this). Can you still perceive the light grey color? If by altering merely what was going on around squares A and B, without touching the squares themselves, we managed to make a color disappear, how could this color—this perceived quality—have existed 'out there,' beyond our personal mind, to begin with? How could it have been objective in the first place?
Mainstream materialism preserves the objectivity of the classical, macroscopic world around us by stating that the colors—or any other quality, for that matter—we perceive are generated by our brain, inside our skull. This internal generation of qualities depends not only on the internal characteristics of our visual system, but also on the external context of observation. This is why we perceive the colors of the squares differently depending on context.

Qualitative materialism, on the other hand, has problems accommodating not only color illusions, but any perceptual illusion. Do you see the circles in the figure below rotate? (Click on the figure for a higher resolution version, where the effect is more powerful.) If so, qualitative materialism would presumably say that this perception is objective; that the circles on the screen, outside your private mental life, are themselves moving. Yet, this would contradict myriad other ways of observing the circles (e.g. through instrumentation), which would destroy the illusion of movement. Thus the qualities associated with experiencing the rotation cannot be objective.


Qualitative materialism can't work. Self-declared materialists who unwittingly associate the plausibility of their position with this misapprehension of what materialism means should rush to review their worldview.
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There is method to the condescension


My previous post has gotten a lot of comments—some positive, some negative—particularly in my forum. On the negative side, a criticism often leveraged against my essay writing style has, unsurprisingly, returned: some of you dislike the condescending tone of my criticisms of materialism, preferring me to stick to purely objective, sober argumentation without scornful overtones. I understand the point and acknowledge that my essay writing sometimes is indeed a little disparaging.

However, contrary to what some might assume, this isn't a reflection of my evil personality (I actually tend to be quite kind in person); it is and has always been deliberate, aiming to achieve something very specific that I consider integral to my work. Allow me to explain.

Since at least the late 19th century, the western intellectual establishment has placed materialism on the high-ground of reason and plausibility (how and why this happened is something I discussed here). The attitude of most academics, for instance, is that the burden of argument and evidence rests squarely on those who do not endorse materialism, even though the latter has devastating—even insoluble—problems of its own.

Consequently, idealists such as myself must fight an uphill battle against entrenched prejudices. Throwing rotten tomatoes down from the high-ground of rationality they believe to occupy, many materialists feel they don't even need to bother acquainting themselves with the opposing argument before mocking and dismissing it. When an entire intellectual establishment is biased in your favor, I guess it is hard to avoid this kind of entitlement complex.

And indeed, the entrenched metaphysical bias that plagues our intellectual establishment manifests itself in the derogatory manner in which materialists feel entitled to criticize other metaphysics. Such derogatory behavior, in turn, reinforces and perpetuates the entrenched bias. The result of this vicious circle is a normalization of conceit, indolence and condescension; provided that they are expressed by materialists. The more we see non-materialist views being disparaged, the more the notion is subliminally inculcated in our minds that materialism is the default metaphysics; the most plausible, coherent and 'serious' view of reality.

The problem is that materialism is neither plausible nor coherent. As a matter of fact, the only reason it isn't considered bonkers is the peculiar intellectual habits developed by our western culture since the early Enlightenment, in the 17th century. The rational high-ground materialists believe they occupy is a fiction without basis on fact or reason, a mere cultural artifact of our ephemeral age.

And this is why I deliberately adopt a condescending tone in my criticisms of materialism and the incoherent arguments of its spokespeople: to level the playing field; to restore some semblance of balance; to help legitimize and normalize a hard-nosed critical attitude towards materialism as well.

Through my own rather uncompromising and vocal example, I want to help others give themselves intellectual permission to overtly break with the mainstream storyline if they can't buy into it. By getting accustomed to seeing materialists being as disparaged as they disparage others, and on solid grounds, perhaps our intellectual establishment will eventually realize that its favorite metaphysics is just a tentative story full of holes; something far, very far from an unassailable fact.

I deliberately emphasize my utter lack of reverence for materialism in an attempt to help dispel its religious aura of untouchable metaphysical superiority. I want to grab the pretentious little impostor by the hair, pull it down to the earth and drag it through the mud in full view of everybody, so people see that materialism isn't a god in the pantheon of reason, but just a very vulnerable conjecture—a mere opinion—full of holes. My overt scorn for materialism aims to get us slowly accustomed to the fact that it is as legitimate a target of rational criticism—and yes, even disdain—as any other metaphysics might be.

The equations 'evidence + reason = materialism' and 'science = materialism'—nonsensical as they are—are very prevalent in our culture and have very real effects. In philosophy circles, for instance, I feel that dualists, panpsychists, cosmopsychists and idealists alike tend to be somewhat shy, submissive, apologetic, even reverential, when submitting their case to the scrutiny of an overwhelmingly materialist intellectual establishment. They seem to implicitly concede that materialism has some kind of head start, so that the full burden of argument and evidence falls on them alone. I find this an extremely counterproductive attitude without any basis on fact.

I make a point of conceding nothing to materialism that it hasn't earned on the basis of good argument and evidence, as opposed to mere intellectual habit; and I explicitly reject the materialists' presumptuous claim of rational high-ground: they have the same burden of argument and evidence as the rest of us. My tone aims at illustrating this attitude by example, so to help non-materialists vanquish their needless inferiority complex.

Only by publicly desecrating the false god—dragging the bully by the ear and then scolding it—can we reveal to the world the weakling it has always been. By subjecting materialists to scornful criticism—the same kind they liberally dish out to others—whenever I have a strong, substantive basis to do so, I am trying to empower those who are skeptical of materialism but fear being taken for irrational 'mystics.' I want to help intelligent people give themselves permission to feel proud—not insecure or shy—of repudiating materialism on rational grounds.

A cultural game as this admittedly is, I believe it is as integral a part of my work as elucidating and promoting idealism, for I have never seen others playing the role I've described above; at least not as explicitly as I've been trying to. The substance of my arguments has always been, and shall always remain, the foundation of everything I do; I have never replaced, and shall never replace, substance with empty rhetoric. But whenever the foundation is solid and the chance is presented to me, I shall not be shy to leverage it for maximum rhetorical effect. I believe this to be necessary to restore a semblance of metaphysical balance to our culture and I wish others would join me in the effort.
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Ignorance: the surprising thing materialism has going for it


There is a strange feeling I get every now and then, which is difficult to explain: sometimes, when I get objective confirmation of some conclusion I had already drawn, I get the feeling that I, in fact, hadn't really drawn the conclusion properly before; at least not as assuredly as when the confirmation comes. At that moment, the conclusion suddenly feels so much more vivid and truer that whatever reasons I had to believe it before seem hazy in comparison. I think to myself, "I thought I knew this, but only now do I really know it!" Can you sense what I mean?

Anyway, this has happened to me a couple of times over the past couple of weeks, as I found myself doing an exposé of eliminativism and illusionism—the ridiculous notions that consciousness doesn't exist. More specifically, I sought to refute the incoherent arguments of neuroscientist Michael Graziano and philosopher Keith Frankish. It was when Graziano attempted to reply to my criticisms that I got the strange feeling I tried to describe above: I thought to myself, "this guy really, really does not know what consciousness is! He just doesn't have the capacity to introspect and self-reflect enough to recognize his own raw awareness."
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GUEST ESSAY: The marriage of physics and idealism

By Adur Alkain

(This is a guest essay submitted to the Metaphysical Speculations Discussion Forum, where it was extensively reviewed and critically commented on by forum members. The opinions expressed are those of its author. For my own views on the subject of this essay, see this paper.)



“Man has no Body distinct from his soul; for that called Body is a portion of a Soul discerned by the five senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.”
William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

Physics, without doubt the most successful and prestigious science of our time, has been traditionally married to a highly problematic companion: physicalism. Physicalism can be simply defined as the metaphysical thesis that everything in reality is physical. It isn’t surprising that most physicists would readily subscribe to this thesis, since it grants physics a privileged position as the most fundamental science. Sadly, this marriage of convenience has brought not only physics, but all related sciences like cosmology, biology, neuroscience, etc., to a hopeless dead end. The reason is simple: physicalism is false.

The purpose of this essay is to propose an amicable divorce, followed by a new marriage to a much more suitable partner: idealism. Only by decisively separating itself from physicalism and embracing idealism will physics be able to truly thrive and flourish.

To achieve this, idealism will also need to embrace physics, giving it its proper position as an indispensable ingredient in our understanding of reality. Like in all successful marriages, both partners will need to be willing to listen to each other, and to let themselves be transformed in the process.

ONLY OBSERVATION IS PHYSICAL

The first step is to reject the misguided belief that ‘everything is physical’, and replace it with a much more humble—but true—thesis: only observation is physical. Physics is the science of observation.

This very simple but far-reaching idea may seem obvious and disconcerting at the same time. To clarify what I mean by it, I offer the following points:

  1. The laws of physics don’t describe a hypothetical world made of ‘matter’ that exists ‘out there’. The laws of physics only describe our observations. In more precise terms: the laws of physics describe the probabilities of future observations.
  2. Physics is essentially founded in observation. From the point of view of physics, the following is true: “if it can’t be observed, it doesn’t exist”. This attitude gave rise to physicalism. But the true corollary is this: if it can’t be observed, it lies outside the realm of physics. For example, according to physicalism one of these two options is necessarily true:
    • (a) consciousness can be reduced to observable physical processes in our brains.
    • (b) consciousness doesn’t exist.
      But in idealism we have a third option, which happens to be self-evident:
    • (c) consciousness exists, but it is not a physical phenomenon.
  3. Only our observations show the regularity and consistency that we associate with the laws of physics. All other conscious experiences (thoughts, emotions, dreams, hallucinations, etc.) are not constrained by the laws of physics.
  4. The physical world is the observed world. It doesn’t exist outside our observation.
  5. Since observation happens in the mind of conscious observers, physics is a branch of psychology. Psychology, and not physics, is the most fundamental science.

WHAT IS OBSERVATION?

Given the fundamental role we ascribe to observation, we should provide a precise definition of what we mean by this term. Here it is: observation = detection + consciousness.

Let’s unpack this definition:

  1. I’m using the somewhat awkward term ‘detection’, instead of possible alternatives like ‘sensation’, to take into account the fact that in modern physics most observations are carried out with the help of scientific instruments, making it possible to acquire data beyond the reach of the human sense organs. Sensation, as carried out through our natural senses, is a particular form of detection.
  2. We can define detection as the acquisition of information about the physical world, that is, about previous observations (since the physical world is nothing but the sum of all observations), combined with the creation of new information. We will explain later in detail what we mean by this.
  3. Observation vs. perception: Although in informal contexts the terms ‘observation’ and ‘perception’ can be used interchangeably (I have done so myself in some of my writings), in modern psychology perception is understood as the processing and interpretation in the mind of the ‘raw data” coming from the senses. Perception implies mental concepts, acquired knowledge, memories, expectations, etc., and lies therefore outside the realm of physics.
  4. The crucial element in the equation is consciousness. Self-driving cars, for example, can detect red traffic lights and react accordingly, but they are not observing anything. Without consciousness, there is no observation. (Ultimately, without consciousness there is no detection either, as shown by quantum mechanics. We’ll come back to this later. But let’s not forget that, according to idealism, without consciousness there is nothing.)
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