Friday, May 04, 2018

On Consciousness and Matter

If the third person attempts to grasp the low level
reality of the first person this is "all" he sees. 

1. Introduction

I hold two concurrent views on the nature of consciousness, views that I believe to be logically symbiotic - that is, they are logically dependent on one another. These two views are:

View A): I'm certainly not the first to express the opinion that consciousnesses is unlikely to be some kind of special vitality over and above the general providential covenant of matter; that is, it is not  a feature patched in ad hoc style by God in order to turn what would otherwise be an insentient "robot" into a being with conscious cognition. I support the anti-dualist school of thought which sees conscious cognition as an inherent but potential property of matter. This potential is part of the divine providence of our physical regime. But this potential is only realized if matter is configured correctly; there is something about the way matter is used in the complex network we call the brain which gives it that first person perspective of having a conscious identity.

View B) And yet in spite of  view A I also hold the view that any model of the conscious mind and its so called “material” substrate only makes sense if we presuppose the a priori existence of an up and running complex conscious cognition. That is, it makes no coherent sense to talk of material elementa without assuming, a priori, the context of a fully blown consciousness by which these elementa are conceived and understood. 

So which is primary;  elemental matter or conscious cognition? Neither; they are co-dependent.

Let me explain…

2. Logical positivism

Opinion B goes back to my early philosophical days when I was impressed by the compelling nature of logical positivism. We tend to think of “logical positivism” as highly atheistic in nature but inadvertently it actually gives the game away because it places the observing cognating agent centre stage; that is, anything above and beyond immediate experiences and the theoretical thoughts of the cognating observer has a problematic claim to being a meaningful reality. Logical positivism presupposes that meaningful reality can only be hosted as a mix of observation and theory by a full blown conscious cognition engaged in the activity of embedding its experiences in theoretical narratives. It reminds me of what I have said before about the “bits” of a binary sequence: Binary “bits” are only intelligible entities in so far as they are, by definition, embedded in the complex higher level reality of the sequence. The sequence is presupposed to exist in order to give the concept of a “bit” meaning; a "binary bit" is meaningless without reference to a sequential context. Likewise, the elementa of so called “material reality" only have an intelligible existence if they have their place in the experience and thought life of a cognating agent and have been crystalized in conscious cognition as a coherent object.

So, that’s logical positivism for you in a nutshell. Logical positivists may wave their hand and accept that there is some kind of "material" reality out there which underwrites our coherent thought life, but it can offer no deeper meaning to that reality other than the immediacy of thought and experience.

But logical positivism  actually leaves us with considerable problems: Unless we are solipsists logical positivism prompts the question of just where it leaves the reality of things we don’t experience and cognate like, for example, long past histories, the planets of galaxies far, far away and the experiences of persons we never meet; these things suggest a reality independent of perception and cognition. If we are to retain the basic compelling idea from logical positivism that “material” objects only have meaning if they are hosted by an experiencing & thinking agent and yet at the same time give reality to what is not perceived and theorised about then there is one solution which presents itself: This solution is some kind of Berkeleyean idealism whereby we take Berkeley's cue to introduce God as the omniscient experiencer and cognator whose thoughts and feelings host a whole cosmos in every fine detail, thus underwriting reality and truth with the Divine.

In the forgoing form of idealism the reality of the world is less an independent gritty “material reality” – a concept which to my mind is not particularly intelligible – but rather a network of communicating conscious cognating agents with God centre stage as head cognater and experiencer who underwrites the meaningfulness of all that proceeds in the cosmos. This takes the basic idea of logical positivism that only experience and thought have a meaningful reality and at the same time addresses its main problem of fragmenting reality into a few islands of subjective human consciousness by suggesting there is an underlying universal cognating agent which gives us a harmonious & coherent cosmos: In order to bring a coherent unity to the fragmented world of pure logical positivism we introduce the all-embracing perceiver; an omniscient thinking and experiencing God whose thoughts embrace a whole cosmos. For it is clearly an intuitively outrageous idea to suggest that the cosmos “goes away” whenever human beings simply close their eyes and go to sleep!

This philosophical idealism won't, of course, be to the tastes of many, particularly as thought and mind have such a central place in idealism; that's likely to be seen as the thin end of the theistic wedge. Rather, those who have a preference for atheism are likely to feel that the concept of a gritty material world being the primary reductio makes much more sense to them. Fair enough, we all have our own a priori. philosophical preferences.

3. Complementary perspectives

A human being is an entity that can be grasped from two perspectives: 

Firstly from the first person perspective: “Inside” we all know what it feels like to be a stream of conscious thought and experience. So unless one is in denial about this as are, for example, those who subscribe to philosophies which declare “consciousness” is an illusion, a trick somehow played on us by a primary “gritty material reality”, the first person cognating perspective is a compelling and irreducible reality for those who know it.

Secondly, there is the third person perspective:  This is the perspective that one human being has of another human being. When I look at another human being I only ever see that person as “downloads” to my own experience, experience which is then organised by cognition into a concept (or theory) of that person. At the macroscopic level this perspective sees human beings as patterns of behaviour; namely, talk and action. At the microscopic level, however, the brain presents itself to the third person perspective as a complex pattern of chemical activity; namely, networks of neurons, molecular motions, atoms, fields etc.  By definition when a first person perspective takes a third person view of another human being that third person doesn’t see anything else other than his own experiences and the theoretical narratives about the nature of humanity into which these experiences are organised. Ergo, the third person perspective can only ever register first person consciousness as a blend of macroscopic behaviour and nano-machinery. But the latter turns out to be a very exotic kind of quantum machinery, if machinery it can be called. Moreover, the third person, unless he is some kind of sociopath, must see this exotic machinery to be evidence that it has, in fact, its own “internal” conscious first person perspective. But a third person perspective clearly can’t experience directly this first person's experiences without becoming that person!

I don’t accept the dichotomy of the material vs the spiritual.  The so called “material account” of the human mind, an account rendered in the scientific language of the third person, is simply one first person’s perspective on another first person perspective. The first person and the third person accounts of human consciousness are complementary accounts and must be held together as two sides to the same coin.

But when a first person perspective looks beyond himself at other human beings all he perceives is what God’s world delivers to his senses; namely, macroscopic behavioural patterns of action and if he looks closer the seething motions of microscopic configurations. Clearly, when we look at other human beings we are only going to see what our senses (and theories) deliver to our perception. But, and this is the big ‘but’, the  normal empathetic human observer sees past his third person observations  to infer the presence of a fellow conscious first person perspective.

4. The physical basis of consciousness

There remains however one pressing question. Viz:  What is the necessary and sufficient conditions  in the third person account of human beings for us to infer the presence of a fellow first person conscious perspective?  After all, it seems conceivable that with enough technical skill it is possible to construct a computer simulation that from a behavioural  point of view passes the Turing test. Is passing this test, as some suggest, sufficient criterion to infer the presence of consciousness or is it just a clever façade? If we go behind the scenes of a Turing-test-passing-computer we will, of course, find very different hardware to the human neural structure; I propose that the physical basis of human consciousness is very different to a silicon based machine; formal isomorphism is not a sufficient condition for consciousness; I suggest that certain potential qualities of matter must also be tapped into before we can say consciousness is present. I think it likely that a biological object like the human brain, being God’s biological object, (and not some “material” reality independently created by a demiurge) supplies clues from its microscopic physics and chemistry which tell us that this is a cognating object with a first person conscious perspective and not a mere Chinese room simulation (See Searle).  But this is a question I am working on.

In contrast if “consciousness “ is something which has to be patched in to the human brain as a kind of “supernatural” endowment by God himself then it follows that the first person conscious perspective could be absent from a biological object which otherwise is identical to a human being in both microscopic physical structure and behaviour. Such an idea is consistent with the dualist conception of humanity which sees people as machines inhabited by ghosts. This is not a sound philosophy in my opinion.


5. Conclusions

It is common to believe that what we see around us has some kind of gritty particulate reality and that in some mysterious way humans “reduce” to this primary “concrete” reality. “Gritty”, “concrete”, “material”, “solid” are some of the metaphors which may be used to express the gut-feeling that a non-sentient reality is primary and that conscious cognition is secondary. This to my mind, however, should really be the other way round; “Gritty”, “concrete”, “material” and “solid” are unintelligible concepts if posited without positing mind first;  but this requires the positing of the complexities of mind, primarily God’s mind, as an a priori reality. “In the beginning God…”; only then does existence make sense

In this idealist vision of reality the mathematics of physics is not about primary elemental entities whose existence we try to express with metaphors like “concrete”, “grit”,  “matter” and “solid”  but rather this mathematics is about the organising principles which constrain the experiences, perceptions, and thought life of a community of first person conscious perspectives thereby giving their world coherence, intelligibility, harmony and not least provide the means by which sentient beings can understand their own inner workings. However, this idealist vision is only saved from fragmentation if one admits: “In the beginning God….”. 

Below is a quote taken from the prologue of my book "Gravity and Quantum Non-linearity" where I try to express why the first perspective and the theoretical third person perspective are mutually necessary; that is, they are co-dependent. 

Mind is thought to be composed of matter but this common sense view is challenged by a persuasive case for idealism; that is, that matter is composed of thought. The material of the cosmos is mathematically conceived as the interplay of complex loci in a Riemann space, but what actual reality does such abstraction have outside the mind? Is there anything beyond the stuff of minds corresponding to space-time loci? Can points and coordinates be anything other than cognita hosted by an advanced mind? In fact, is it even meaningful to make the “outside/inside mind” distinction given that the totality of our known world can only be that which impinges upon our minds? Even if we posit an independent “material world beyond the mind” we can only do so because it has been given to us to be able to conceive such a concept in the first place; the very idea of the “external” otherness of a material world must be constructed by the mind. We are therefore prompted to ask if there is any fundamental distinction between noumena and phenomena.

Purely third person accounts of the nature of the conscious mind - that is, narratives instigated by other conscious observers who make conscious beings their object of study - are clearly possible. But what do these third person observers find? They find that much about their sentient objects of study resolve themselves into the theoretical abstractions the mind itself has conceived, e.g. as computation and information realised in chemistry and physics. Thus, the mind as the creator and translator of scientific narrative is itself paradoxically an object written in that self same narrative. Conscious cognition can be theoretically described in terms of its own conceptual artifacts. In effect neural theory is consciousness as it appears from the point of view of someone else's consciousness, and to claim consciousness is just the activity of neurons is to obscure the a-priori role of consciousness by admitting it through the back door of third person descriptions. Of course, it may be that a complete neural description of mind can not be made, but if it should, then it would amount to little more than a mathematical reduction; a telling of the story of consciousness in terms of logical cognita. This logical reductionism does not imply the strong ontological reductionism of the kind of materialism that imputes a primary metaphysical reality to “concrete” elementa, such as fundamental particles.

For myself I have no problem with the concept of logical reductionism, for if God is a master mathematician then why not? Should this kind of mathematical reduction be possible it would constitute the ultimate elegant stroke of the whole rational coherent system we perceive the world to be: conscious cognition, like a software compiler that is written in the very language it compiles, can be described in its own terms. Those so called “objective” third person material concepts - neural computation, molecules and fields etc. - are none other than consciousness's view of consciousness, and are so bound up in a symbiotic relationship with mind as to make nonsense of the mind versus matter dichotomy.  Our theoretical constructions have a holism about them in that they presuppose an up-a-running sentience in order that they can be perceived; they have a self-affirming circularity built into their very structure.  The primary cosmic reality may be less some causative physical agency independent of sentience, but rather a kind of convoluted self-descriptive logic. Whether the structure of a good theory actually has a deep correspondence with some “hard material reality” beyond mind is really difficult to say. But the least we can say is this: our world presents such an integrated, consistent, seamless and coherent interface and is so thoroughly amenable to our simulations that sentience finds itself both subject and object. In this sense our world survives an in depth reality test and thereby fulfills a criterion of reality analogous to Turing's test for machine intelligence. The hard reality of our world exists at least in as much as it is capable of surviving the best test by which conscious cognition probes for that reality; namely, that this world comprehensively submits to theoretical simulation. We can ask for little more. 

 The ontology of the cosmos may be one of appearance only, it may be more than one of appearance, but either way our experiences, our perceptions, and our theoretical apprehension of them jointly constitute a nexus that is so internally coherent and consistent as to be beyond the wit of finite beings to expose them as superficial fabrications. Like Turing's hypothetical intelligent machine, the logical depth of our world is such that it stands up to elaborate cross checking. Thus, as far as we are concerned the reality of our world is constituted in its ability to survive this in depth testing and cross-examination. It is this grand rationality which gives this world its touch and feel of reality, a reality to which a radical anthropocentric or nihilistic notion of ontology fails to do justice: We don't contrive our experiences; we don't even, in actual fact, consciously construct our theories; they assemble themselves from unconscious depths. The rationality of our world is not some arbitrary anthropocentric construction, for mind and experience, if we allow them, conspire together, independently of whim, to create the perception of a comprehensible world that can be rendered using theoretical logic. The intuition that the physical world has a life of its own, independent of the minds that perceive it, is therefore difficult to gainsay, although we must concede that this intuition is itself a resident of mind. It is very difficult to prove that the basis of this intuition goes further than a logical positivist’s take on the coherence and consistency of our perceptions. At the very least, however, our world is an elaborate logical construction, and its very faithfulness to the principles of coherence and consistency is perhaps a sign of a deeper integrity which means that it actually is what it purports to show.

If sentient beings are to become aware of one another, they need a medium by which to understand one another; that medium they call "matter" with its full complement of theoretical sophistication. They then find that conscious cognition is "written" in the language of conscious cognition.  


Postscript on Quantum observation

What constitutes an observation? Is the ambiguity in superpositions of quantum states only resolved when a conscious observer makes an observation? As has been pointed out before, if an observer is needed to remove quantum ambiguity it follows that even macroscopic objects could exist in a mixture of states: Take for example a motorised toy vehicle which has been arranged to go backwards or forwards depending on the detection of the output of a single quantum event. e.g. if the event is detected the vehicle moves forwards, whereas if it goes undetected it moves backward. Since quantum events can be ambiguous (that is, they can happen and not happen at the same time) does it then follow that this vehicle can move both backwards and forwards at the same time? So, if quantum ambiguity is allowed to influence the state of macroscopic objects up until some kind of observer is invoked then it follows that the vehicle can exist in a state where it could be in two positions at once; at least up and until an observer observes it!  This kind of scenario perhaps could be extended to whole galaxies affected by the butterfly effect of single quantum events thereby leading to a galaxy occupying several locations at once, all separated by millions of light years; that is, up & until an observer does some observing!*

This kind of reduction to the absurd has led me to doubt that observers are needed to “collapse” wave functions. Instead I have been thinking along the lines that there is some physical criterion which means that when there is a danger of an ambiguous quantum state mixing the states of a macroscopic system there is a discontinuous jump of the quantum state which ensures that the macroscopic world maintains its coherent integrity (BTW I don’t accept the decoherence account of quantum collapse). Anyway, this is an area I’m still working on and it also relates, I believe, to the question of consciousness.

* My work on gravity may suggest that the weak gravitational field is in fact a faint residue of this very process of macroscopic ambiguity!

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