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What Is Consciousness?

Consciousness Physics Quantum Mechanics Philosophy

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#1 Dubbelosix



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Posted 25 January 2018 - 07:39 PM

This will be a Four-part essay on my thoughts concerning consciousness and why it continues to baffle us today. A small part of it consists of philosophy intertwined with physics. 



Part One - Never Mind the Matter, The Matter is the Mind


''The mind is not in the body, rather the body is in the mind.''
There is more truth to this than some would normally adhere to. For instance, in science we learn that what we see is actually a re-interpretation of the world created by the brain that we come to be consciously aware of. We do not actually look outside the eyes directly, instead, the eye takes in information of the outside world and after many complex biological processes, somehow creates this ''inner world'' we experience on a day to day basis. 
Everything we come to ''see'', is basically information extracted from the outside world in the form of light bouncing off objects and what we experience boils down to electrical signals interpreted by brain. Not a single person has seen reality in its bare form. We continuously see a copy of the outside world based on how our brains are interpreting
the information. 
What does this say about the question of whether the mind is in the body, or whether the body is in the mind?
When we say the mind is in the body, materialists tend to think of how the neurons and electrical signals of a brain would give rise to consciousness. On the other hand, the body, that is, everything with it, exists in the mind. Essentially everything we come to personally become aware of, happens in the mind. It's hard to dispute this. It was after all, an inspiration in creating the movie, The Matrix, in which the hero Neo discovers that reality is largely a lie and that our brains where being manipulated in the ''real world'' to create the illusion that the lives we experience on a day-to-day basis was reality itself. Though I am not saying this is what we are dealing with here, but rather, they are rooted within the same premise; That consciousness is subjective and an interpretation of the world around us and that anything we come to experience, through touch, smell, taste and sight, are experienced within the mind. Even our sense of our physical bodies, exists only in the mind. 
Of course, this applies only to sensations. We cannot just assume the physical mind plays no role, of course it does. There's now evidence for instance, that we are largely determined by physical occurrences inside the brain, raising the issue of free will. We know of other circumstances in which the physical brain affects the state of consciousness. It's well known that psychedelic (mind bending) drugs like acid (Lysergic acid diethylamide) can affect consciousness by inducing visual hallucinations. Anesthesia can render a person clinically unconscious. So yes, the brain is much the mind - as the mind is the brain. They are symbiotic in every sense. I tend to think about phantom limb phenomena and how the brain can fool itself into sensations that biologically no longer remain. This is a good example of how the brain/mind creates the reality. 
Solipsism is a branch of philosophy (even considered a theory by some) which deals with subjective experience as absolute, it essentially believes that the mind is all there is and in effect, the mind is all one can be sure to exist. There was once a time I believed in this myself. Vital questions like, ''if no one is around to experience something, does the event in question hold any meaning?'' In other words, in the very act of observing the world and the events that unfold, do we give the universe a special meaning?
Though it is best to not confuse this question with the quantum interpretation that Einstein once asked, ''does a mouse bring the moon into existence just by looking at it?'' Though they are in a way related. If no one is around to see the universe in its splendor, then does it have any meaning?'' Some can argue the universe doesn't need to have a meaning and in a way I would tend to agree, only on the basis that physical processes have happened in the universe without anyone around to watch it happen; though I ask, isn't the ability for life to form in a universe, relate to a subjective meaning within ourselves? The very fact we can see the world and the universe around us, adds to the great mystery and the drive within us to ask such questions? If none of it had any meaning, why does it hold meaning with us? Why do our most basic questions often revolve around the mysterious and unknown? Plain curiosity perhaps?
Of course, this alone is not enough to convince, so there is another way to look at this. We are often told, we are made of ''star stuff'' - created from the afterbirth of a star that once went supernovae and the gas coalesced to create the solar system around 4.6 billion years ago. Yet I tell you, we are even more than this. We are made from ''universe stuff!'' We are not, as often the illusion of consciousness brings, a single entity unconnected from the whole. We are essentially the universe, itself living. We are in the most basic sense, the universe observing itself! If this is understood properly, then there appears to be a much shorter gulf between the self and the universe. The gulf that separates the two is shortened so much that it is hard to separate the two. Trying to do so could be the height of arrogance and selfishness. 
This recognition that the self may be part of a much grander totality involving the cosmos is hard to grasp, but the indications within science itself may easily point towards this direction. The illusion of self involves not only the universe, but applies to other conscious beings as well. It was shown by Ludvic Bass (a student of late and great Erwin Schrodinger) that it is possible that there be an indication within science that there is only one consciousness - he come to this conclusion from a series of arguments that starts off with correlated systems - a quantum correlation is just another description of the well-abused term ''action at a distance'' or quantum entanglement to scientists. On a grander scheme involving the universe, it is believed that everything came from a single event called ''big bang.'' In physics, we know of a property/phenomenon called entanglement. In a very elementary way to explain what it is, whenever particles interact, or when a group of particles are created from a single source, they will be quantum entangled, meaning they will behave no longer as if they were single entities. It was suggested by some scientists that it was possible that all the matter in the universe was quantum mechanically related. It's also true though, that quantum entanglement can be broken by interactions with the environment later in the universe. 
The last paragraph was really to demonstrate, even on the fundamental level of particles, there is a connectivity that is shared between systems, which relates to the idea that self is an illusion. In a way, if the idea that we are the universe by definition is true, then there is a likely assumption to follow: That there is one universal consciousness which expresses itself in all living beings in the universe.
Further conclusions can lead to different but equally interesting idea's concerning the physical brain vs the subjective experience of the mind. Though I have made my opinions clear that there is a inter-dependency between the physical brain and the subjective mind, it is also possible that the mind is entirely emergent: That is, consciousness may be more than the sum of its parts! Emergence is not some fancy notion, but rather a respected topic in the field of physics and in some cases cosmology. It seems counter-intuitive that something like the mind can arise as a more complicated system than the brain - normally, maybe, one would tend to think the brain has to be extremely complex to give rise to consciousness - and in a way, the brain actually is complex enough. We still do not understand all of its workings, let alone how it generates the thing we call consciousness. It was only recently scientists discovered that the double helix DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid) could hold much more information than previously been thought [see references]. The layers of complexity seem to increase all the time in the field of biology and neuroscience. Of course, the greatest task would be to find a unification between physics and biology.Many scientists believe that such a unification could explain consciousness. Certainly subjects like quantum entanglement between cells, the zeno effect and of course, quantum wave function collapses have all at one time or another, been suggested to be linked to the dynamic complexity of consciousness - and for good reasons of course. The zeno effect for instance, has been suggested to maybe play a role in memory and attention. We'll come back to the zeno effect soon enough. Though it seems natural to think about quantum mechanics answering consciousness, it was once believed by a great mass of scientists that the brain was too warm and wet to allow quantum mechanical processes. This later was challenged when quantum vibrations where found in the microtubule, as predicted by Penrose and Hameroff [see references]. It would be fair to say the presumption quantum effects play no role in the brain, is well under the carpet.
Is reality determined?
In the previous part, I discussed the scientific results that consciousness appears to be largely determined by physical processes inside the brain. In a way, it removes any notion that we have free will - it's almost as if the brain and essentially the mind is fooling itself. What does science have to say about determinism?
There are two main groups: The first believe that quantum mechanics is inherently indeterministic at the fundamental level. Some have went as far to use Heisenbergs uncertainty principle as a clear demonstration of this indeterministic nature of the universe. The second group believes the universe is deterministic through causal laws. How those laws deviate from the classical into the quantum are still unclear however, most things in physics can be explained in a deterministic way. There are some situations in which science really has no clue and have labelled it a random process, such as the radiation of a caesium atom or another example is the collapse of the wave function itself, though, the evolution of a wave function is entirely deterministic. The word ''random'' for me in physics, likely expresses a lack of understanding rather than the system really being random in nature. Let's look at some of those arguments against:
1) The Radioactive Atom
The process of radiation is unknown because to know why it happens would require full knowledge of the interior of the atom. An electron will radiate energy as it accelerates around the nucleus because of a phenomenon known as the Larmor effect. As it radiates away energy, classical theory suggests the electron would fall towards the nucleus - and reality as we know it would have ended a long time ago... but this did not happen. It was found that quantum mechanics answered the question of why the electron did not fall into the nucleus and it had to do with a few different things - first of all, the electron did not possess a true acceleration because of something called the wave function, which is phenomenon of all matter (as shown by d'Broglie). Because of the wave function, the electron did not have a well-defined orbit around the nucleus and so, existed rather as a wave, or cloud of ''probabilities.'' There are physical aspects though to this supposed cloud of probabilities, since the wave function can interfere with itself causing interference patterns in a well-known experiment known as the double slit experiment, which we will come back to soon. 
The Zeno effect is a phenomenon in which a ''watched pot'' atom never radiates away its energy. Theoretically, if you repeat an observation on an atom by hitting it weakly with radiation, you can disturb the evolution of its wave function in such a way that it ''rearranges'' the electrons inside the atom to their ground state, that it may never give up its radiation. If you do the experiment wrong, there is a phenomenon called the anti-zeno effect in which you can increase the rate at which the atom will give up its energy. From this we learn, that even an atom ripe to give up its energy, all depends on what is happening inside the atom. Since it is possible to stop an atom from radiating away its energy, then its also logical to conclude there are real causal dynamics going on at work here - and thus, giving up radiation is also a causal process, not a random one like we have been led to believe. The problem with calling it a random process, is that this gives no initiative to the scientist to investigate it - left as just one of those 'mysterious random things' that no one can solve, when really, this probably isn't the case. 
2) Uncertainty Principle 
As mentioned before, it has been suggested by some that the uncertainty principle suggests that reality is inherently random. Truth be told, the uncertainty principle has very little to do with any intrinsic uncertainty to reality, but instead is a measure of the limitation of information we can gain from a system due to complimentarity. The idea behind uncertainty is relatively simple; the more you try and measure the location of a particle, the more it's momentum becomes uncertain. Likewise, I said it was complimentary after all - if you try and measure the momentum of a particle, the more uncertain its position becomes. This actually applies to a wide range of complimentary variables, another such case which exists is an uncertainty between energy and time. And even though the wave function is often thought of as a ''statistical field of probabilities'' there may be some indication from experimentation that reality may not be so undetermined as we would think - one such case is that Heisenberg's uncertainty principle became more certain in experiment [see references] (if you take it to mean something about indeterminism). Another argument might exist in the double slit experiment is an apparatus which fires particles through two slits before hitting a detector screen further back. What early scientists found, was that when the apparatus allowed one particle at a time, the particle actually travels through both slits at the same time, unlike a classical system that would take only one path through space! This phenomenon has been the center-piece of physics discussions and theories for many years now and we still don't understand it truly. When you have a lot of particles going through the slits, bands becomes visible on the detector due to wave interference. The situation get's very strange if you have a single particle going through the slits - and allow it to do so for some time - you will come to notice something strange... the same interference pattern was showing up on the screen!! This totally baffles scientists because the particles are completely uncorrelated and the particles are not supposed to ''know'' where the last particle has landed, but sure enough, somehow it does ''know'' and the interference pattern inexorably emerges. How is this possible without a sense of determinism I ask? It is of course, very likely our physics is incomplete, there will be thing about the world and universe we will struggle to understand because they cannot be tested in a scientific way, at least... not yet. Though it is not direct proof of determinism, I want the reader to seriously consider how strange that situation is [see references] for a good (and easy) explanation of the double slit experiment. 
I'll be wrapping this part up, but before I do, since this part is about the material brain-mind connection, I want to show you an incredible story of a man that has 90% damages to his brain, yet still remains alive to tell his tale;
As the article clearly mentions, this case is starting to make scientists think twice about how much consciousness relies on the brain. Let's not get crazy here though, I doubt anyone is suggesting we can live without a brain, but what this does show is that the thing we call the brain, may not have a defined center we can call ''consciousness.'' Certainly, scientific results shows that we cannot actually locate consciousness to any one specific part of the brain. Neurobiologist, Candace Pert suggests that consciousness arises from all the cells of the body, not just the brain. 
Still, it amazing to think such a thing like a human brain, being made of around [math]10^{26}[/math] particles could even come around. Through a process of evolution, the first prokaryote, single-celled life form that arose from a rich goo of complex polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons could have resulted in the diverse and range of life we see today, and that is not to mention, all the unseen life on other planets which surely exist - You can only wonder whether that is the intention and meaning of the universe. There is of course so much more I could have spoke about concerning the mind-matter problem. 

Edited by Dubbelosix, 26 January 2018 - 04:11 AM.

#2 Turtle



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Posted 26 January 2018 - 04:11 PM

Also tagged with one or more of these keywords: Consciousness, Physics, Quantum Mechanics, Philosophy