- Is the universe aware, like a massively scattered human brain?
- Scientists have long wondered how consciousness and science interact.
- Two mathematicians have developed a mathematical model based on a single theory.
Scientists will strive to demonstrate the existence of consciousness in the universe in future studies. Yes, truly. Whatever the outcome, we’ll soon learn more about what it means to be conscious and which objects around us may have their own minds.
What does this entail for how we interact with items and the environment around us? Buckle up, for something strange is about to happen.
What Exactly Is Consciousness?
The basic notion of awareness purposefully leaves many questions unanswered. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology, it is “the typical mental condition of the waking state of humans, characterized by the experience of perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and awareness of the external environment, and commonly in humans (though not always in other animals) self-consciousness.”
Simply put, scientists do not have a unifying understanding of what consciousness is. We also have no idea where it came from or what it was constructed of.
However, one limitation of this knowledge gap is that we cannot conclusively state that other organisms, even inanimate objects, do not have consciousness. Humans have an affinity for animals and can think that, for example, dogs and cats have some level of consciousness based on their facial expressions and the manner in which they appear to make judgments. But just because we don’t “relate to” rocks, the ocean, or the night sky doesn’t mean they don’t have consciousness.
This is where panpsychism, a philosophical position advocated by All About Space’s David Crookes, comes into play:
This asserts that awareness is embedded in even the smallest pieces of matter—a concept that suggests the fundamental building blocks of reality have conscious experience. Most importantly, it suggests that mind may exist throughout the universe. “
This is also where physics enters the picture. Some scientists believe that consciousness is built up of micro-scale quantum physics events and other “spooky actions at a distance” that flutter inside our brains and generate conscious ideas.
The Problem of Free Will
Roger Penrose, a 2020 Nobel laureate and black hole pioneer, has written extensively about quantum mechanics as a possible carrier of consciousness. He published The Emperor’s New Mind in 1989, in which he stated that “human consciousness is non-algorithmic and a product of quantum effects.”
Let us immediately dissect that sentence. What does it imply to say that human awareness is “algorithmic”? Well, an algorithm is just a series of predictable actions to achieve a goal, and in the study of philosophy, this concept plays a significant role in debates about free choice and determinism.
Are our brains merely producing math-like processes that can be telescoped ahead of time? Or is something extraordinary happening that gives us actual free will, i.e., the ability to make meaningfully different decisions that affect our lives?
The study of free will in philosophy extends back at least three centuries. The overlap with physics, on the other hand, is much more recent. And, according to Penrose’s assertion in The Emperor’s New Mind, consciousness isn’t technically causal since, at the most basic level, it’s a product of unpredictable quantum occurrences that defy traditional physics.
So, where does all of this backstory leave us? You’re not alone if you’re scratching your brain or having troubling ideas. These issues, however, are critical for those who study philosophy and science since the answers could revolutionize our understanding of the entire cosmos around us. The question of whether or not people have free will, for example, has enormous moral ramifications. How do you punish offenders who have no choice but to commit a crime?
Consciousness Can Be Found Anywhere
A study of consciousness as a quantum phenomenon could teach scientists important lessons in physics. Today’s researchers are Johannes Kleiner, a mathematician and theoretical physicist at the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy, and Sean Tull, a mathematician at the University of Oxford.
Kleiner and Tull are following in the footsteps of Penrose, who articulated his opinion that our brains’ microprocesses can be utilized to simulate facts about the entire world in both his 1989 book and a 2014 study. The resulting theory is known as “integrated information theory” (IIT), and it is a more abstract, “very mathematical” version of the philosophy we’ve been discussing.
Consciousness is everywhere in IIT, but it gathers in places where it is needed to help glue together several connected systems. This means that the human body is packed with a slew of interconnected systems, and thus there’s a lot of consciousness (or phi, as the quantity is known in IIT) that can be estimated. Consider all of the elements in your brain that work together to generate a mental image and sense memory of an apple.
The innovative thing about IIT is that consciousness isn’t tied to the human brain at all—simply, it’s this number, phi, that can be determined if you know a lot about the complexity of what you’re studying.
If your brain has nearly countless interconnected systems, then the cosmos must have nearly unlimited resources. And if that’s where awareness gathers, the universe must be rich with phi.
“The theory consists of a very complicated algorithm that, when applied to a detailed mathematical description of a physical system, provides information about whether the system is conscious or not, and what it is conscious of, If there is an isolated pair of particles floating around somewhere in space, they will have some rudimentary form of consciousness if they interact in the correct way.”Kleiner told All About Space.
We warned you that things were about to get strange.
“The theory consists of a highly difficult algorithm that, when applied to a comprehensive mathematical description of a physical system, provides information on whether or not the system is conscious and what it is conscious of,” Kleiner explained to All About Space. “Provided an isolated pair of particles is floating about somewhere in space, they will have some rudimentary sort of consciousness if they interact properly.”
Kleiner and Tull are working on transforming IIT into this complicated mathematical method, laying the groundwork for future research into how conscious objects work.
Consider the traditional philosophical adage, “I think, therefore I am,” and then imagine two geniuses translating that into a usable formula in which you can put in a hundred different numerical values to get your personal “I am” answer.
The next stage is to crunch the statistics, followed by a discussion of the moral implications of a potentially conscious cosmos. It’s an exciting time to be a philosopher—or, more accurately, a philosopher’s calculator.