• Arpan Dey

Is Consciousness Both Fundamental And Emergent?

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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? Though after a certain interval we are physically a new person, the untraceable mental link is really stupefying. 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 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!

Schrödinger, so many years back, had already formed the then-unusual idea that life was 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. Schrödinger was one of the few physicists to seriously explored biology from a physics perspective. And this is why I respect him so much!

In his book The Future Of The Mind, 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 properties of human consciousness well, but it does not tell us anything 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. 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. First, let's understand what emergence is. 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 is 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. Thus, 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 is not 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. Is the whole simply the sum of the parts it is made of, or something greater? We can’t explain the whole only by examining the parts always. The philosophy of reductionism works in some cases, sure. But, can you explain consciousness only by studying the neurons in our brains? No. Mere aggregates can be explained by the sum of parts and the arrangement of the parts. A heap of a hundred stones can be fully described by the number of stones, and how they are arranged. But a heap of stones is just a loose aggregate. For integrated wholes, like a machine or the mind, we need something else. Interaction between the parts. For loose aggregates, Whole = Parts + Arrangement, whereas for integrated wholes, the Whole = Parts + Arrangement + Interaction. When many simple parts are interacting in a complex manner, emergence simply 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.

What is the other possibility 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." Science must learn to look beyond the brain. I am not saying the brain is not the seat of human consciousness. And maybe emergence can explain the 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.') 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. Quoting James Jeans: "The stream of knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality; the Universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine. Mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder into the realm of matter... we ought rather hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter."

What do we exactly mean when we say consciousness is fundamental? Okay, what do 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 are 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? That is, matter exists inside the consciousness, the consciousness gives rise to matter?

There is an argument against consciousness being an emergent phenomenon. A lot of arguments, maybe. But this one caught my eye, and although this argument is from the Galileo Commission Report (not a serious scientific paper), I decided to include it in the book. I will be quoting a rather large portion from the report. "All emergent properties we know of in Nature are emergent properties of the same categorical kind. For instance, water arises out of two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule and displays emergent properties that neither hydrogen nor oxygen have and that cannot be predicted by the single constituents. It freezes at zero degrees Celsius temperature and is liquid above. It has a phase transition again at 100 degrees Celsius, when it turns into a gas. It has its highest density at 4 degrees Celsius, which allows water to freeze from the top and the fish to breathe and survive in a frozen lake. And it even has a fourth phase, namely a quasi-crystalline state which is highly ordered, like a crystal, yet fluid like a liquid, whenever it is in contact with hydrophilic surfaces under infrared radiation conditions, as in living systems. This explains a lot of properties of living systems. But none of this can be seen in hydrogen or oxygen, let alone derived from the single constituents’ properties. So, obviously, there can be very complex new properties which emerge out of simpler constituents in their specific systemic combination. And even more complex examples can be introduced, such as complex electronic devices like computers that produce, out of a certain arrangement of simple binary elements, highly complex activities such as calculation operations that allow even more complex activities like controlling the behavior of cars, aeroplanes and other technical devices. So, quite obviously, we see complex behavior emerging out of the intelligent arrangement of simpler constituents all the time. And these more complex properties of systems are in no way predictable by looking at the constituents. Taking a TV set apart or a computer and looking at all the parts will never tell us what the end product was capable of doing, nor will looking at hydrogen or oxygen tell us what kind of properties water will have and what will result of water’s properties in combination with still other things like hydrophilic border areas. While this is all true and impressive, it is important to note that in all examples we know of, we see emergence always on the same conceptual or categorical level. The properties of water are still material properties, like the four phases, or the capacity to be subject to electrical or osmotic forces. The properties of TV sets and computers are still material, namely to relay and receive electromagnetic radiation, photons, properly speaking, and convert them into meaningful signals. And here another categorical plane comes into play: meaning. Those signals and their results are only meaningful for a conscious observer and agent. And they have been made meaningful by a conscious inventor and engineer, otherwise they would not be there. All emergent properties we know in nature, such as the fluidity of water, the light producing property of certain algae and bacteria, the light converting properties of photosynthesis, the light producing properties of strong electrical discharge in lightning, or metabolism and movement as consequence of organization in higher organisms, all these properties remain properties at the same conceptual level. They are still material, physical in nature. One can of course claim that there was at least one phase transition or emergence that was across a categorical border, namely the origin of our universe, where matter emerged spontaneously out of an incredibly dense energy, which itself emerged out of, well, immaterial informational blueprints. But following this argument through reveals: at the bottom of matter is actually information, a thoroughly non-material concept. So if there is any phase transcategorical transition and emergence into another ontological plane then it is one from information or consciousness-like reality into matter. Not exactly helpful in arguing that matter is basic, is it?... None of the emergent properties we know in nature lead to a categorically different thing, except the original emergence of matter from information-energy. Or put differently, emergence, as far as we know and understand it, never transcends categorical boundaries from matter to something else... natural emergence within complex systems, as far as we know them and have described them, does not switch planes, transporting the constituents into another level of being or into a different nature. But this is exactly what consciousness is. It is categorically different from all material systems we know. The inner, subjective phenomenal feel of what it is to be conscious does not occur in any material descriptions we know of our world or which we can create. Granted, one might say that perhaps in a very complex system such as the brain a new mode or order of emergence might happen, such that indeed an ontologically and categorically different level such as consciousness is reached. But this then is not an explanation but begging the question, or an overstretching of the notion of emergence. For it says, in essence, that we define consciousness as a new, categorically and ontologically different emergent property of a complex neural system. This is a postulate or definition, but not an explanation. It may in fact be so, but then we should be aware that we are not using known examples of emergence to reduce consciousness to an exemplar of such known types of emergence, but we are postulating a hitherto unknown type of emergence and are postulating that consciousness belongs to that type. This is, argument-wise, the same thing as Descartes did when he postulated a second type of substance, because its properties were not in alignment with the definition of material substance. This is possible, but it is neither an explanation nor does it help." I am not saying we can conclude consciousness is not emergent from this. But it is still important to know this perspective. I agree with the part that says 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. I neither believe in this idea, nor do I think it is impossible. But there still remains the possibility that matter is fundamental and everything is derivative from matter. All I am saying, we must explore the alternatives as well. And today, I'm happy to see, many scientists and philosophers are doing just that.

So, what is consciousness, then? Fundamental or emergent? Okay, so this is just my argument, so take it with a pinch of salt! Consciousness may be fundamental (this is not a claim, rather a possibility). Think of it this way. This fundamental consciousness has nothing in common to the human consciousness. It does not have feelings (the way we understand it), emotions and stuff. It is just, some kind of, information (are you listening, Wheeler?). 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 of matter, and this matter is created by the fundamental consciousness. Thus, these consciousnesses are emergent (emergence has not been deeply studied, and in spite of the Galileo Commission Report argument, consciousness may still be an emergent phenomenon). 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 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. Even atoms and electrons can have some degree to consciousness. 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. But it should be noted that all of this 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. And if we assume consciousness is fundamental, then there's no way to prove it. It's just useless speculation. 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.

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. It is a very good summary of our current knowledge. 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’." I agree. It is, in the end, likely that we do not have free will. The emergent human consciousness does not have free will. As for the fundamental consciousness, we don't know, and it's no good speculating.

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