• Arpan Dey

Is Consciousness Both Fundamental And Emergent?

Updated: Aug 29



Consciousness is undeniably one of the most bizarre phenomena. And, as Max Planck has said, we can't get behind consciousness. Why are we conscious? What makes my experiences unique to me? What makes me what I am? I would like to make it very clear that it will perhaps always be impossible to understand consciousness entirely. This is simply because we can attempt to understand consciousness only by using our own consciousness. Simply put, if consciousness was simple enough to be understood, we wouldn’t be smart enough to understand it. But that won't stop us (at least, me) from trying!


In Our Mathematical Universe, Max Tegmark writes: "...since we don't understand how consciousness works, most physicists feel uncomfortable even talking about it, fearing that they'll get regarded as too philosophical. Personally, I feel that just because we don't understand something doesn't mean that we can ignore it and still expect to get correct answers." We'll take Tegmark's advice. Not ignore it. So, let's begin!

Erwin Schrödinger, so many years back, had already formed the idea that life is both orderly and complex. He saw aperiodicity as the source of life’s special qualities. In his book Chaos, Gleick writes: "Pattern born amid formlessness. That is biology’s basic beauty and its basic mystery. Life sucks order from a sea of disorder. Schrödinger, the quantum pioneer and one of several physicists who made a non-specialist’s foray into biological speculation, put it this way forty years ago: A living organism has the “astonishing gift of concentrating a ‘stream of order’ on itself and thus escaping the decay into atomic chaos.” To Schrödinger, as a physicist, it was plain that the structure of living matter differed from the kind of matter his colleagues studied. The building block of life – it was not yet called DNA – was an aperiodic crystal. “In physics, we have dealt hitherto only with periodic crystals. To a humble physicist’s mind, these are very interesting and complicated objects; they constitute one of the most fascinating and complex material structures by which inanimate Nature puzzles his wits. Yet, compared with the aperiodic crystal, they are rather plain and dull.” The difference was like the difference between wallpaper and tapestry, between the regular repetition of a pattern and the rich, coherent variation of an artist’s creation. Physicists had learned only to understand wallpaper. It was no wonder they had managed to contribute so little to biology. Schrödinger’s view was unusual. That life was both orderly and complex was a truism; to see aperiodicity as the source of its special qualities verged on mystical. In Schrödinger’s day, neither mathematics nor physics provided any genuine support for the idea. There were no tools for analyzing irregularity as a building block of life. Now those tools exist." Indeed, life is both orderly and complex. Of course, life is complex. And there is some amount of order, some amount of organization, some amount of structure that is maintained for a very long period of time. Schrödinger was one of the few physicists to seriously explore biology from a physics perspective. And this is why I respect him so much! The basic feature of life is this, in Schrödinger's words: "When is a piece of matter said to be alive? When it goes on 'doing something,' moving, exchanging material with its environment, and so forth, and that for a much longer period than we would expect an inanimate piece of matter to 'keep going' under similar circumstances." That makes sense. Life is self-sustaining.


In his book The Future Of The Mind, Michio Kaku defines consciousness in the following manner: "Consciousness is the process of creating a model of the world using multiple feedback loops in various parameters (e.g., in temperature, space, time, and in relation to others), in order to accomplish a goal (e.g., find mates, food, shelter)." This definition captures the basic properties of human consciousness well, but it does not tell us anything about the origins of consciousness. In What Is Life?, Schrödinger writes: "…if we were organisms so sensitive that a single atom could make a perceptible impression on our senses… would not be capable of developing the kind of orderly thought which... ultimately results in… the idea of an atom... a physical organization, to be in close correspondence with thought, must be a well-ordered organization." We have already discussed this. This piece of information reminds us that there must be some amount of order and organization for consciousness to emerge. It can't be entirely random. I would like to draw your attention to the fact that Schrödinger puts a condition on physical matter to be in close correspondence with thought: it must be orderly. Do you think this order accidentally emerged from physical matter? That's surely one possibility. And the likely one as well. But not the only one.


So, how does consciousness emerge? One possibility (and this, perhaps, is the best option we have) is that simple neurons in our brains together interact in complex patterns in the precise right range. Below that, no consciousness; above that, no consciousness as well. We need to keep in mind that we need to study not the parts, but the entire system to understand consciousness. Consciousness is an integrated whole. This is a condition that a system needs to satisfy to be conscious, according to Giulio Tononi's integrated information theory. There is one more condition. The system must be capable of processing, storing and recalling information. Building on Tononi, Tegmark proposed that consciousness could be just a new state of matter. In this state of matter, atoms are arranged in a special manner so that they process information. In other words, consciousness emerges from a particular arrangement of matter. So, what is emergence? Think of it this way. An ant colony is an extremely complex and organized colony. You would be surprised to see the level of organization. However, individually, each ant is unaware of the beautiful system they have created. They just do their individual duties, which are simple. However, the overall effect is complex. It’s the same thing with the brain. Each neuron is individually simple and carries out simple tasks. However, the system the neurons have created together is way more complex. You can’t just sum up each neuron. (So, it is a 'greater-than-the-sum' concept.) If you do, you will not get consciousness. That needs something else. This something arises from the interaction between the parts of the system. Studying just the parts will tell you nothing about how the whole system affects an individual part, and how they interact with one another. This is what we mean when we say consciousness is an emergent phenomenon. Until recent insights into emergence, physicists have been studying the world from a reductionist point of view. According to reductionists, everything can be explained by breaking them into smaller and smaller pieces. But, this may not be true. There are loads of phenomena in nature which simply can't be explained from the reductionist's point of view. We need emergence for that. Zoom in, reductionism wins; zoom out, emergence wins (roughly speaking). So the takeaway is that we can’t always explain the whole only by examining the parts (whether that is due to our shortcomings or whether it is fundamentally impossible, we don't know, but according to emergentists, it is fundamentally impossible). The philosophy of reductionism works in many cases, sure. But, the emergentist asks, can you explain consciousness only by studying the neurons in our brains? No, they would say. And this is not because of our shortcomings, this is because it is not possible. Anyway, in conclusion we can say that when many simple parts are interacting in a complex manner, emergence refers to the emergence of new properties of the system as a whole, which cannot be explained by studying the individual parts, or which do not arise from the properties of the individual parts. Another example of emergence is wetness. The atoms or molecules that make up water are not individually wet, rather wetness emerges as a property of water as a whole.


Some people, like Steven Weinberg, have a different view about reductionism and emergence. In Dreams Of A Final Theory, he writes: "...there is the question of emergence: is it really true that there are new kinds of laws that govern complex systems? Yes, of course, in the sense that different levels of experience call for description and analysis in different terms. The same is just as true for chemistry as for chaos. But fundamental new kinds of laws?.. We would not pay much attention to a proposed autonomous law of macroeconomics that could not possibly be explained in terms of the behavior of individuals or to a hypothesis about superconductivity that could not possibly be explained in terms of the properties of electrons and photons and nuclei. The reductionist attitude provides a useful filter that saves scientists in all fields from wasting their time on ideas that are not worth pursuing. In this sense, we are all reductionists now." Now let's look at what Brian Greene writes in The Elegant Universe: "Understanding the behavior of an electron or a quark is one thing; using this knowledge to understand the behavior of a tornado is quite another. On this point, most agree. But opinions diverge on whether the diverse and often unexpected phenomena that can occur in systems more complex than individual particles truly represent new physical principles at work, or whether the principles involved are derivative, relaying, albeit in a terribly complicated way, on the physical principles governing the enormously large number of elementary constituents. My own feeling is that they do not represent new and independent laws of physics. Although it would be hard to explain the properties of a tornado in terms of the physics of electrons and quarks, I see this as a matter of calculational impasse, not an indicator of the need for new physical laws. But again, there are some who disagree with this view." And people thinking along the lines of Weinberg and Greene may be right. Maybe everything can, in theory, be explained in terms of the parts, but they depend on the parts in a very complicated way, as Greene argues. I have not formed a conclusion yet, but it seems to me that what Weinberg and Greene are saying is definitely reasonable. I agree with Weinberg that "different levels of experience call for description and analysis in different terms." But here's the thing: since it is not practically possible for us to understand complex systems just by studying the parts, we should focus on "description and analysis in different terms," and see if we can find some laws (not fundamentally new kind of laws) which make the study of complex systems easier. Does this mean consciousness is not an emergent phenomenon? Well, that depends on our definition of emergence. It may be possible, in theory, to understand consciousness just by studying its parts. But I think when a lot of parts interact in complex ways, new kinds of laws apply to the system (again, not fundamentally new laws). And only by using these laws can we study consciousness, so we should still try to find these laws, even if reductionism works in theory.


What is the other possibility about consciousness I've been hinting at? Consciousness can be a fundamental phenomenon. As Schrödinger says: "Consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms. For consciousness is absolutely fundamental. It cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else." I am not saying emergence can't explain human consciousness. But, consciousness might also be a fundamental phenomenon. I don't want to make our discussion pseudoscientific, but just to let you know, it has been claimed that consciousness in near-death experiences persists even in absence of brain activity. (Please note that I do not make any claim, and I have really no opinion about whether such claims are true or not. But I would still say we should explore the alternatives, instead of hushing the matter up by claiming it all to be 'pseudoscience.') So anyway, if this is true, then consciousness does not emerge from the brain, and can exist even without brain activity. Consciousness, according to these claims, is a fundamental aspect of reality, rather than just a consequence of complex arrangement and interaction of matter. The idea that consciousness is fundamental is not new to scientists and philosophers. But what do we exactly mean when we say consciousness is fundamental? Okay, what do we mean by 'fundamental'? According to most scientists, matter (or energy, they are really the same thing) is at the root of everything. Matter is most fundamental, and everything we see around us is made of matter, and things like consciousness also emerge from the interaction between matter. But, what if consciousness is at the root of everything, and matter emerges from consciousness?


You should keep in mind that there is no good evidence of consciousness being a fundamental phenomenon. So, what is consciousness? Okay, this is just my argument, so take it with a pinch of salt! In the end, I think that matter emerges from information. Wheeler made this precise claim. That every physical object, deep down, has an immaterial source: everything is derived from posing binary yes-no questions to reality and registering the responses. So, according to Wheeler, matter is not the most fundamental thing, it is information. Consciousness may be fundamental (this is not a claim, rather a possibility). Think of it this way. This fundamental consciousness has nothing in common with the human consciousness. It does not have feelings (the way we understand it), emotions and stuff. It is just some kind of information. And it gave rise to the material world. So, consciousness can be a fundamental phenomenon. We are, in some sense, just generalizing the concept of consciousness. You can think of the fundamental consciousness as a bodiless, formless thing, like information. This fundamental consciousness needs no physical matter to exist, because it is fundamental. I know this idea can be difficult to grasp for a human mind, but there you are. However, if consciousness is a fundamental phenomenon, then why are our consciousnesses so dependent on our biology (more specifically on our brains)? In Incognito, David Eagleman says: "...when your biology changes, so can your decision making, your appetites, and your desires. The drives you take for granted ("I'm a hetero/homosexual," "I'm attracted to children/adults," "I'm aggressive/not aggressive," and so on) depend on the intricate details of your neural machinery. Although acting on such drives is popularly thought to be a free choice, the most cursory examination of the evidence demonstrates the limits of that assumption." If consciousness is something fundamental, why are our consciousnesses so dependent on the brain? In my opinion, we can assume that our behavior depends on our biology because the consciousnesses in us have indeed emerged from our biology, from physical matter, but a different consciousness exists fundamentally. Thus, consciousness can be a fundamental phenomenon, but with time, more complex versions of consciousness have emerged out of combination and interaction of matter, and this matter is created by the fundamental consciousness (or information, if you like). Thus, these consciousnesses are emergent. So, according to me, consciousness is both fundamental and emergent! Human consciousness is indeed emergent, but there is a fundamental consciousness as well (keep in mind that this is just one possibility, among many other possibilities, so don't get stuck on this).


Please note that, again, this is only my argument. It is entirely possible that there exists no fundamental consciousness and consciousness indeed emerges from interaction of matter. It may also be the case that consciousness is fundamental, and not emergent. Consciousness can pervade the universe. And if consciousness is fundamental and omnipresent, the brain can 'pick up' this fundamental consciousness and transmit it, just like a radio picks up the radio signals. Carroll explains this argument (and its weakness) nicely: "Perhaps the brain is like a radio receiver. Altering it or damaging it will change how it plays, but that doesn’t mean that the original signal is being created inside the radio itself. That idea doesn’t really hold up... Damaging a radio might hurt our reception, making it hard to pick up our favorite station. But it doesn’t turn that station from heavy-metal music into a smooth-jazz format. Damaging the brain, on the other hand, can change who a person is at a fundamental level." This is precisely what we discussed just above. Damaging the brain can fundamentally change who you are. Keep in mind that all of this (that the brain is like a radio that picks up the fundamental consciousness) is just speculation and we have no evidence for such claims, and just because emergence has not been able to explain consciousness till date, doesn't mean it is not possible. In the end, I think it is most likely that human consciousness is emergent. There is definitely some evidence that consciousness is heavily dependent on the brain. Slight changes in your brain chemistry changes who you are and, I believe, can also explain 'spiritual' experiences like Out Of Body Experiences and Near Death Experiences and more. If, on the other hand, we assume consciousness is fundamental and these experiences are due to contact with a higher level of reality, then there's no way to prove it. It's just useless speculation (I think). Coming to my argument above, I just said that matter could be derivative from information, and we can postulate that this information is nothing but the fundamental consciousness (in other words, we can call the information fundamental consciousness). The point I wanted to make is that even if there is a fundamental consciousness, we shouldn't expect it to be, in any way, similar to the human consciousness. Also, it must be noted that the idea that information is fundamental and matter emerges from information can be incorrect, after all. Wheeler's interpretation is a bit too radical, and it may not be true. So, it's all just speculation when it comes to the fundamental consciousness. In the end, we can say that we have not yet uncovered enough evidence that suggests consciousness can't, in theory, be understood in terms of the physical matter it is made of. Sure, it is a very difficult task, but again, we don't have convincing amount of evidence that says it is not possible. So, it may be possible in the end, but we should also keep in mind the possibility that we may never entirely understand consciousness, because, again, if consciousness was simple enough to be understood, we wouldn't be smart enough to understand it.

What about free will? I don't want to go deep into this. Let’s look at what Eagleman has to say on the subject. In Incognito, he writes: "As far as we can tell, all activity in the brain is driven by other activity in the brain, in a vastly complex, interconnected network. For better or worse, this seems to leave no room for anything other than neural activity - that is, no room for a ghost in the machine… if free will is to have any effect on the actions of the body, it needs to influence the ongoing brain activity. And to do that, it needs to be physically connected to at least some of the neurons. But we don’t find any spot in the brain that is not itself driven by other parts of the network. Instead, every part of the brain is densely interconnected with - and driven by - other brain parts. And that suggests that no part is independent and therefore ‘free’." What Eagleman says is completely true. But I do not think this means there is no free will (the way most people define free will). It is, in the end, a possibility that the emergent human consciousness does not have free will. (And as for the fundamental consciousness, provided it exists at all, we don't know, and it's no good speculating.) However, free will can be an emergent property of human consciousness. Although the atoms and molecules that make up the brain do not possess the property of free will, it is entirely possible that the brain, considered in its entirety, has some form of free will. Free will can be a defining property of the emergent consciousness. Let's take Kaku's opinion on the matter: "Ultimately, I think free will probably does exist, but it is not the free will envisioned by rugged individuals who claim they are complete masters of their fate. The brain is influenced by thousands of unconscious factors that predispose us to make certain choices ahead of time, even if we think we made them ourselves. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we are actors in a film that can be rewound anytime. The end of the movie hasn’t been written yet, so strict determinism is destroyed by a subtle combination of quantum effects and chaos theory. In the end, we are still masters of our destiny." It should be noted that some physicists are suggesting that deep down, the universe is indeed deterministic and everything, in some sense and in theory, is predictable and predetermined. So, we can't completely rule out this possibility. Also, some people say that there is an element of uncertainty in quantum mechanics, and quantum mechanics is at the root of everything, so maybe free will does exist, and things are not predetermined. However, quantum mechanics has nothing to do with free will. Sean Carroll explains this point in Something Deeply Hidden: "...compare what actually happened to a hypothetical re-running of the universe starting from exactly the same initial condition, down to the precise state of every last elementary particle. In a classical deterministic universe the outcome would be precisely the same, so there’s no possibility you could have “made a different decision.” By contrast, according to... quantum mechanics, an element of randomness is introduced, so we can’t confidently predict exactly the same future outcome from the same initial conditions. But that has nothing to do with free will. A different outcome doesn’t mean we manifested some kind of personal, supra-physical volitional influence over the laws of nature. It just means that some unpredictable quantum random numbers came up differently... even if you can’t predict the outcome of a quantum measurement, that outcome stems from the laws of physics, not any personal choices made by you. We don’t create the world by our actions, our actions are part of the world." Yes, quantum mechanics does rule out determinism (recall Heisenberg's uncertainty principle). But again, determinism ruled out does not mean free will verified. Just keep these points in mind, when thinking about free will. And strictly speaking, the answer (to the question "Does free will exist?") might not even matter.

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