Tag Archives: consciousness

What is Time?

What is time, and what does it have to do with consciousness? In this episode we’ll take a look at what science says about time and how it relates to things like free will and consciousness. While time itself can’t be fully defined and seems to be either a fundamental property of the universe, or of our minds, there’s a lot of interesting stuff to be said about it. Unproven assumptions about time also crop up in many philosophical thought experiments.

Quantum Mindcast

In this episode:

Clarification about physics and consciousness – undefinability of time – entropy, free will and unknowability – entropy as a measure of disorder – Second law of thermodynamics – Evolution and 2nd law fallacy – free will and time – Daniel Dennett’s view of free will – multiple possible versions of the past – entropy and determinism – entropy and randomness – interpretation of quantum mechanics – Werner Heisenberg – the connection between space and time – train simultaneity thought experiment – Michelson-Morley experiment – time dilation – the twin paradox – Minkowski spacetime and determinism – Kant’s view (transcendental aesthetic) – what’s wrong with solipsism – usefulness of Einstein’s approach to time – Schrödinger’s Cat and time – black holes – vagueness of existing ideas on consciousness

Could Consciousness Have Evolved?

I suspect the article that I’m about to write is going to annoy almost everyone, except for those who enjoy exploring genuine mysteries, even mysteries that challenge their existing beliefs.

Consciousness is a very woolly term, so lets focus on just one particular aspect of it, with which we’re all too familiar — the experience of physical pain. Now I ask you; could the experience of physical pain have evolved?

If you’re a “fundamentalist” Christian, you’ll answer “no”, since you will choose to believe that nothing significant can evolve. If you’re a materialist, you’ll likely answer “yes, of course it can — it did evolve”. Both of these answers are actually based on a combination of faith and misunderstanding.

Christians often misunderstand the theory of evolution by natural selection completely, making widly incorrect or irrelevant statements such as “complex beings cannot evolve by chance” (irrelevant, if you understand the theory properly) or “something as complex as the human eye could not have evolved” (incorrect). Evolutionary processes take place whenever the basic necessary conditions are in place; we can even program such conditions into a computer and literally evolve arbitrarily complex computer programs, limited only by the processing power and memory of the machine we’re using. Once the initial conditions are put in place, including a process mimicking natural selection that weeds out programs that are not fit for the purpose of their designated task, the evolution of a “well-designed” computer program takes place without human intervention.

I can well imagine, while I type this, a fundamentalist Christian picking apart my sentences and trying to explain to him or herself why they don’t make sense. If you’re that person, don’t waste your time like this. Instead, read a book that explains natural selection, genuinely try to understand it, and afterwards explain why you feel it’s wrong.

Materialists, on the other hand, are likely to feel that since we evolved and since we experience pain, the experience of pain has evolved. Let’s look at what’s wrong with this reasoning.

In my podcasts I’ve argued that a feeling, such as the feeling of pain, needs to be regarded as a separate entity to the processes of the brain that produce that feeling. I won’t reproduce my full explanations here, except to suggest listening to my podcasts and looking up the Knowledge Argument on Wikipedia. There is no clear reason why all our physical reactions to pain should not have evolved, including everything that happens physically in our brains. But the “inner” feeling of pain — that’s another matter. A truly matter-based machine, such as ourselves in the view of the materialist, should not have any inner sensation of pain, no matter what goes on with its senses, nerves, brain and facial expressions or vocalisations. And yet, we do have an “inner” experience of pain.

Materialists are prone to saying that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain, or that consciousness occurs when a system becomes “self aware”. These statements are pseudoscientific — no real meaning can be extracted from them. Materialists believes this kind of thing because they think — wrongly, as I explain in my podcasts — that the alternative is to say that we have a soul which affects the workings of our brains.

Suppose the inner sensation — the actual emotion — that goes along with inner pain had really evolved. At what point on the long evolutionary road from inanimate matter to us did this matter start to feel pain? And again, I’m not talking about sensing damage to itself and processing information relating to that damage; I’m talking about the actual emotional experience of being in pain. Did the ability to experience pain in this way suddenly appear when we reached a certain level of complexity? If so why; at what level of complexity did this occur and what caused it to occur? At what point did we go from having no inner emotional experience of pain (or anything else) at all, to having some merest smidgeon of inner emotional experience? Or do even atoms have some sort of primitive pain-like sensation, which was steadily magnified as our complexity increased?

Both ideas seem absurd, and these kinds of considerations force materialists to get into saying things like “our emotions are an illusion” or “the emotions and the brain are the same thing” — again, pseudoscientific, irrationalist statements, if you really think it through.

The problem goes away to a large extent if you postulate the existence of a sort of primitive, unfeeling consciousness as the basis of the universe. This consciousness expanded in complexity and began to experience all kinds of more complicated sensations as the universe progressed, in exactly the same way that the material universe is imagined by materialists to have started out as some sort of primitive singularity, which gradually developed increasing complexity.

The material universe, from this point of view, constitutes one set of sensations that this consciousness (which is really us) has diversified into experiencing.

I think this kind of theorising sounds unscientific only because science has so little explored this idea that it has allowed everyone else to adopt the language involved and mould it to their own ends. We do, after all, experience emotion, and if we’re honest, we’re more certain of that than of any fact in the material universe.

Does this point of view suggest that God exists, that telepathy is possible or that we can contact the ghosts of our ancestors? No, absolutely not, although admittedly it’s probably kinder to a belief in some sort of a God than materialism, which really does make the notion of any sort of god utterly ridiculous. The only thing that’s currently labelled as “superstition” by materialists which this theory seems to me to make more plausible, is the notion that we might survive our own bodily deaths — albeit probably not in a form that would please many Christians or spiritual people.

However, I created this site in the hope that we can gradually move away from talking about what we want to believe and move towards what we can figure out logically, and ultimately translate into hard science with experimentally verifiable predictions.

I’m not talking about ridiculous experiments in psychokinesis here, or anything like that; I’m talking about the development of a theory that starts with our experience as its basis rather than any notion of “matter”, moves from there to show how our notion of matter arises and why space as we perceive it must have three dimensions, finally going on to explaining why we observe the particular fundamental particles and forces that we do observe — including hopefully experimentally-verifiable predictions about the observable universe.

I sometimes like to watch videos of Professor Richard Dawkins debating the truth of evolution with Christians. Let’s be clear — evolution is true in the same way that a table is a table; but there’s a whole other level to both the table (the fact that it’s ultimately made of space, interacting fields and subatomic particles following the bizarre laws of quantum physics, for a start) and evolution. This fact should not encourage us to sway into superstition.

What strikes me about these videos of Dawkins is that none of the Christians who debate with him appear to understand evolution by natural selection. Dawkins appears to suspect that if they did understand it, they’d agree that it was true. I think many of them probably indeed would. I suspect that most people who fully understood the ideas that I’ve tried to put across here and in my podcast would agree that they were true if they fully understood them — but most people do not really want to fully understand them, since they contradict almost everyone’s core beliefs — whether you’re a “spiritual” person or an atheist.

What if — just, what if — the truth about the universe was more interesting and more glorious than any of the simplified views held by either religious people or most atheists? As soon as you start saying “it must be like this, I just feel that it’s like that”, you move away from whatever the truth might turn out to be. To have a chance of dealing with the truth of any particular subject (I’m talking here about truth in the scientific sense), you have to firstly commit to using logic and rationality, and secondly to investigating the matter very thoroughly. You have to accept that you’ll never actually fully get to the bottom of anything; truth is a journey. You also have to accept that there are many things — most things, in fact — that you will simply never know. The correct scientific response to those things is not to jump to a conclusion and stick to it, but to simply say “we don’t know yet; let’s consider investigating”.

One last remark — in case you’re wondering, no, I’m not trying to start a cult! I don’t have many answers here; most of what I have are questions and suggestions about things we can investigate. But I believe in calling a spade a spade; if there’s something that doesn’t fit with any of our existing scientific theories — and the existence of emotion, in my view, clearly doesn’t — let’s carefully examine the underlying presumptions of our theories before we find ourselves fitting a square peg into a round hole.

The Creation: God, Big Bang or Us?

The question of why the universe exists is a difficult one for both religious people and pure materialists. While a believer may say that God created the universe, this only begs the question of where God came from.

In my podcasts, I present the idea that matter is not what the universe is fundamentally made of; rather, our own “consciousness” (a sadly woolly term, but it’ll have to do) may be the basis of the universe. Physical matter may be just one thing that our minds construct or perceive. At one time this would have sounded ridiculous and woolly to me, but as I explain in my podcasts, I now believe it to be entirely rational, provided we go into some depth in defining our terms.

Some physicists argue that since “empty” space spontaneously produces pairs of particles and anti-particles, something clearly can come from nothing. This doesn’t really solve the mystery of the universe’s origins, however, because we’re still left wondering where space came from or why pairs of particles pop out of it.

Something I’ve been wondering about is whether “consciousness” or “mind” can exist in some simple, undifferentiated form somehow, which can then start to indulge in a process of differentiation, producing the plethora of things that we see in this experience. This doesn’t solve the basic question, but it at least takes us a step closer — in much the same way that physicists are drawn to idea of the laws of physics (and even time) somehow developing as the Big Bang progressed.

While the idea that I’m keen to discuss could also be interpreted in terms of God, personally I don’t see any evidence for the existence of a consciousness separate to living beings. This isn’t really important one way or the other for the topics discussed here, though. Those who want to believe in God will not find any contradiction of the idea in these theories, except for this site focussing on evidence and logic rather than on any kind of faith.

What really interests me is the possibility of a “bootstrapping” process, whereby a “primitive” mind (whatever that might look like) starts to create such things as the laws of physics and mathematics. Could such a process have taken place? Is that why we appear to exist in the way that we do?

The concept of “nothing versus something” is surprisingly complex. Once you have something rather than nothing, you are committed to a whole range of attendant concepts. For instance: how can you tell the difference between nothing and something? To observe any kind of difference between two things, the two things have to exists in different times, or different places, or at least be capable of being somehow or other viewed at the same time, so that we can see the difference between the two. And of course we’re already thinking of “nothing” as a thing in itself ….

It seems that we can’t form even a concept of nothing without also forming a concept of something. Nothing is … literally nothing. The number of different concepts that are required to form even the most minimal concept of “nothing” seems to be extensive. Many of them are outlined by the axioms of the various set theories in mathematics, but these theories leave out certain common grounds to all theories — such as the existence of space or time (necessary for the above reasons), or at least the ability to differentiate between two separate things.

I suspect that, quite possibly, the minimal set of concepts that we’d need in order to be able to form a conception of “nothing” are so numerous that they may even form the entire set of fundamental concepts that we, in practice, entertain as intelligent beings. Is it possible to enumerate them, or would such a task be pure foolishness? I think anyone who attempts to at least answer whether such concepts can be enumerated, would spend their time well. Set theory itself came about through a historically long process of reflection on such questions, culminating in Georg Cantor’s controversial paper of 1874 and moving forwards from there.

Wouldn’t it be fascinating if it turned out that you need exactly three spatial dimensions to fully form a concept of “nothing”? Is it possible that the 3D nature of space is there, lurking somewhere in the unspoken assumptions of set theory? We think of mathematical concepts as being purely abstract, written down only for convenience. But in thinking about mathematics, we are inevitably forced to visualise spaces, in the most general mathematical sense of the word “space”.

I remember laughing when my college mathematics tutor stated that some people think the mathematical cross product is the reason why 3D space exists and is three dimensional. I’m not laughing anymore … Although the suggestion conjures up visions of academics so divorced from mundane reality as to have gone off on a complete tangent altogether, if this idea turns out to have legs, it may one day revolutionise our understanding of physics and even our own existence.

Mary’s Room and the Theory of Evolution – Quantum Mindcast Episode 2

Episode 2 of the Quantum Mindcast. In this episode we’ll take a look at a couple of intriguing thought experiments that help to shed light on the nature of consciousness and physical reality; namely, Frank Jackson’s “Mary’s Room” and John Searle’s “Chinese Room”. We’ll also talk about the Theory of Evolution and why it’s not quite the full story.

Quantum Mindcast

In this episode:

Mary’s Room, aka The Knowledge Arguments – Emotion and the brain are not the same – experience vs. knowledge – Quale – Who makes the grass green? – The mind vs. the brain – Searle’s Chinese Room – Why do so many people dislike the Theory of Evolution – Why consciousness cannot have evolved.

Featured music: Ludwig van Beethoven – Sonata no. 14 in c sharp minor ‘Moonlight’, op. 27 no. 2 – i. adagio sostenuto

Ram Dass and Terence McKenna in Prague

This is a really great YouTube discussion between Terence McKenna and Ram Dass, also known as Richard Alpert, filmed in Prague.

Both of these guys have spent their lifetimes engaged with the idea that the outer world is somehow a projection of the inner mind, and that by changing the inner mind we can, and should, change the outer world.

McKenna’s ideas were almost invariably potty, but he’s easily forgiven since he was also highly entertaining. At least he makes a refreshing antidote to the ultra-serious mode of existence that most of us spend much of our lives in. If you’re weary of your job or the demands of family life, McKenna appears as a bolt from the insane blue, a person highly concerned with questions so abstruse and downright peculiar that you can end up feeling like you’ve been transported to another, somewhat more interesting planet, just by listening to him.

McKenna was obsessed with “magic” mushrooms, for good or ill; he and his brother Dennis figured out how to grow them back in the 70’s and published a book on the subject. Although McKenna sadly died in 2001 (allegedly of a mushroom-shaped brain tumour), his voice and ideas, however crazy, live on in Internet form. The Internet is a richer place for it.

Ram Dass taught at Harvard in his earlier guise as Richart Alpert. It was there that he met Timothy Leary and became heavily involved with LSD. Alpert later traveled to India and became interested in Indian spirituality, largely ceasing to have much to do with LSD, since he seemed to later form the opinion that LSD can at best give one short-lived insights into something that only non-drug spiritual practice can attain for the longer term. He was renamed Ram Dass by his guru and in 1971 wrote the spiritual classic Be Here Now.

As of the date of publication of this blog post, he is still alive and still teaching, although he suffers some verbal impairment due to a stroke.

Both men in his video appear to be concerned with the question of how the inner world can change the outer world, and why so little progress appears to really occur. Dass seems the more optimistic of the two, although McKenna often expressed huge optimism in his speeches (alas, much of it was connected to his belief that something huge would happen on December 21st, 2012 – and as we now can say, if anything did happen, it happened pretty quietly).

European Food Safety Authority Claims Profound Knowledge of Consciousness

It seems the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has astonishing insights into the very nature of being, far beyond anything philosophers or scientists have been able to attain. I may as well give up working on this site before I’ve even started it. Crabs, apparently, are not sentient (mere machines!) while “higher” animals are sentient. Case closed.

Further evidence crabs and other crustaceans feel pain [BBC News]

While admitting that “Crustacean Pain” is a great name for a thrash metal band, I wonder whether the EFSA’s controversial stance may be influenced more by their desire to not have to worry about the ethics of boiling lobsters or maiming crabs than by scientific considerations.

Are We Machines? – Quantum Mindcast Episode 1

The Quantum Mindcast is here: a podcast about consciousness and quantum physics.

Quantum Mindcast

In this episode:

The world is a projection of the mind – Introducing the Quantum Mindcast – The mind-body problem – Why there’s little point discussing stuff like telepathy – Schrödinger’s Paradox – Are we machines? – How the brain works – Three common responses to the mind-body problem – Philosophical zombies – We don’t need to throw rationality out the window.

Featured music: Illumination by Action Davis, featuring Emmalyne Braswell

Note: Francis Crick apparently died in 2004. His work, however, lives on.