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A Theory of Consciousness Can Help Build a Theory of Everything - Issue 47: Consciousness


For an empirical science, physics can be remarkably dismissive of some of our most basic observations. We see objects existing in definite locations, but the wave nature of matter washes that away. We perceive time to flow, but how could it, really? We feel ourselves to be free agents, and that's just quaint. Physicists like nothing better than to expose our view of the universe as parochial. But when asked why our impressions are so off, they mumble some excuse and slip out the side door of the party. Physicists, in other words, face the same hard problem of consciousness as neuroscientists do: the problem of bridging objective description and subjective experience. To relate fundamental theory to what we actually observe in the world, they must explain what it means "to observe"--to become conscious of. And they tend to be slapdash about it. They divide the world into "system" and "observer," study the former intensely, and take the latter for granted--or, worse, for a fool.



Using the mathematical language of information theory, Hoel and his collaborators claim to show that new causes--things that produce effects--can emerge at macroscopic scales. They say coarse-grained macroscopic states of a physical system (such as the psychological state of a brain) can have more causal power over the system's future than a more detailed, fine-grained description of the system possibly could. Just as codes reduce noise (and thus uncertainty) in transmitted data--Claude Shannon's 1948 insight that formed the bedrock of information theory--Hoel claims that macro states also reduce noise and uncertainty in a system's causal structure, strengthening causal relationships and making the system's behavior more deterministic. With Albantakis and Tononi, Hoel formalized a measure of causal power called "effective information," which indicates how effectively a particular state influences the future state of a system.

The idea that everything from spoons to stones is conscious is gaining academic credibility


This sounds like easily-dismissible bunkum, but as traditional attempts to explain consciousness continue to fail, the "panpsychist" view is increasingly being taken seriously by credible philosophers, neuroscientists, and physicists, including figures such as neuroscientist Christof Koch and physicist Roger Penrose. "Why should we think common sense is a good guide to what the universe is like?" says Philip Goff, a philosophy professor at Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. "Einstein tells us weird things about the nature of time that counters common sense; quantum mechanics runs counter to common sense. David Chalmers, a philosophy of mind professor at New York University, laid out the "hard problem of consciousness" in 1995, demonstrating that there was still no answer to the question of what causes consciousness. Traditionally, two dominant perspectives, materialism and dualism, have provided a framework for solving this problem.

Physicists Want to Rebuild Quantum Theory From Scratch


Scientists have been using quantum theory for almost a century now, but embarrassingly they still don't know what it means. An informal poll taken at a 2011 conference on Quantum Physics and the Nature of Reality showed that there's still no consensus on what quantum theory says about reality--the participants remained deeply divided about how the theory should be interpreted. Original story reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine, an editorially independent publication of the Simons Foundation whose mission is to enhance public understanding of science by covering research developments and trends in mathematics and the physical and life sciences. Some physicists just shrug and say we have to live with the fact that quantum mechanics is weird. So particles can be in two places at once, or communicate instantaneously over vast distances? After all, the theory works fine. If you want to calculate what experiments will reveal about subatomic particles, atoms, molecules and light, then quantum mechanics succeeds brilliantly.

Is Matter Conscious? - Issue 82: Panpsychism


The nature of consciousness seems to be unique among scientific puzzles. Not only do neuroscientists have no fundamental explanation for how it arises from physical states of the brain, we are not even sure whether we ever will. Astronomers wonder what dark matter is, geologists seek the origins of life, and biologists try to understand cancer--all difficult problems, of course, yet at least we have some idea of how to go about investigating them and rough conceptions of what their solutions could look like. Our first-person experience, on the other hand, lies beyond the traditional methods of science. Following the philosopher David Chalmers, we call it the hard problem of consciousness. But perhaps consciousness is not uniquely troublesome. Going back to Gottfried Leibniz and Immanuel Kant, philosophers of science have struggled with a lesser known, but equally hard, problem of matter. What is physical matter in and of itself, behind the mathematical structure described by physics?