Apr 22 2014

When Physicists Study Consciousness….

I’m looking for the fountain that will grant eternal youth;
It is said to be in Florida—I’ll take that as the truth—
Expert minds are in agreement (which is never quite the case)
That the Florida peninsula has got to be the place

Now, for centuries, they’ve mapped it, using all the latest tools
And each current generation made the former look like fools
As they upped the resolution of their pictures and their maps,
With the hope they’d find the fountain! Well, eventually… perhaps.

Now with satellites to help them, they have measured to the inch
So it’s just a case of looking—and it ought to be a cinch—
They’ve got all the best equipment, which they’ve pointed all around
So they ought to find it shortly, if there’s something to be found

And the experts are excited, knowing something’s got to give
If they have to strain the data through a quantum-level sieve
And they’re driven to distraction, and they’re pulling out their hair
Cos they’re reaching the conclusion that the fountain… isn’t there.

I’m looking for the correlates of consciousness itself
And it must reduce to physics, say the books upon my shelf
Expert minds are in agreement, past the need to quite explain
That the correlates of consciousness arise within the brain…

Via pbs.org (please please please tell me this is not going to be the topic of a NOVA program!), the news that Physicists Say Consciousness Might Be a State of Matter. Although, actually, it’s one physicist–Max Tegmark, from MIT, writing Consciousness as a State of Matter (pdf), the latest in the attempts to somehow connect consciousness and quantum physics. Spoiler: he’s wrong.

I don’t pretend to understand his whole paper–so how do I know he’s wrong? He starts out wrong well before he gets to the parts that make my eyes glaze over. He assumes mysteries that are not actual mysteries, and looks for explanations many orders of magnitude smaller than what is needed. Even if his notions had any relevance, they are so far down the explanatory chain that they are meaningless (just as an explanation of how an internal combustion engine works does not tell you how to drive from Chicago to New Orleans).

Seriously, the questions of consciousness are made far more difficult (indeed, impossible) than they actually are, because we are presupposing things that simply are not so. Tegmark lists the qualities of “perceptronium” (substance that is subjectively self-aware–and I am not making it up), and the thing is, these are not the qualities of our own conscious experience! If I specified a car that had a perfect crash test rating, 100+ miles per gallon, acceleration and handling to match a high-end formula one car, made of 100% recycled parts, and a price tag that allowed me to buy one for each member of the family, that might well be an ideal car, but it is in no sense a real one. Tegmark’s consciousness has little or nothing to do with human consciousness.

A brilliant expert, speaking outside of an area of expertise, is… just a person.

I have visited this topic a few times before, including the best comment thread in the history of the internets (not just the post–you have to read the comments!)–commenter “thoughts” argues in favor of a view not that far from Tegmark’s; commenter “Phunicular” and I argue in favor of … reality.


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  1. 1
    Robert B.

    A state of matter? Dood, scale. The smallest scale of brain events is pretty well studied (things like, a neuron sends a signal across its synapses) and it happens on nanometer scale. And one synapse hardly constitutes “consciousness” – if we’re being very generous toward lab rats, we might suppose that consciousness is possible on the millimeter scale. States of matter are characterized by interactions (or lack thereof) on the picometer scale.

    Trying to describe consciousness as a state of matter is like trying to describe Earth’s orbit as a pattern of automobile traffic.

  2. 2

    Robert B., you are being too kind to him in limiting the problem to just the scale of the brain. “Consciousness” is a reification of a process that is observed over time and in interaction with an environment. It simply does not reduce to a matter of physics of, well, matter.

    I’ll try to match your wonderful simile–it’s like being given one still frame of a movie and being asked to point out the plot.



  3. 3

    it’s like being given one still frame of a movie and being asked to point out the plot
    Or like being given a model of a snapshot of the universe and then being asked to derive physics, which kind of explains how the need for a multiverse arose, actually.

  4. 4
    Robert B.

    True, Cuttlefish. Scale was just the first major flaw I thought of. (Technically, states of matter can also only be observed over time and through interactions – look at one H2O molecule by itself and you can’t tell whether it’s ice, water, or steam – but it’s a different scale of time and a different type of interactions.)

    The fundamental problem is the mystical approach he’s taking to the problem. He doesn’t understand consciousness, so it must be an irreducable quality. No educated person would ever try to explain any other physiological function as a state of matter, even one that fundamentally relied on environmental interaction. (Visionium?) But consciousness has this magical glow around it in people’s minds, where they feel “allowed” to say whatever they want about it because WOOO~!

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