Since we perceive and sense things as people, we realize we are alive. On the other hand, scientists and great philosophers are stumped into what consciousness is and from where it comes.
“Consciousness — or, to put it another way, conscious perception — is clearly a part of reality,” said Johannes Kleiner, a mathematician and theoretical physicist at Germany’s Munich Center For Mathematical Philosophy. “We’re all getting it, but our comprehension of the universe is incomplete until we consider how it applies to understood physics.”
Kleiner is hoping that math would allow him to describe consciousness with this in mind specifically. Working with colleague Sean Tull, a mathematician at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, the two are influenced by panpsychism, a metaphysical viewpoint. This theory asserts that consciousness is present in even the tiniest particles of matter, implying that the underlying building blocks of life have conscious awareness. It also means that consciousness may exist somewhere in the world. Will our minds assist us with understanding the universe?
If the researchers can figure out how our brains produce subjective knowledge, their mathematical model could apply to inanimate matter as well, they said.
Kleiner told All About Space by email that “a scientific principle can be generalised to several different structures, not just minds.” “You should apply a statistical model of consciousness based on data derived from brains to other structures, such as machines or thermostats, to see what it means about their conscious perception as well.”
Some notable minds support panpsychism, including famed Oxford physicist Sir Roger Penrose, one of the first scholars to suggest that we look beyond neuroscience while studying consciousness. He claims that quantum mechanics plays an important part. In his book “The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics,” published in 1989, he argues that human consciousness is non-algorithmic and a result of quantum effects. It developed this concept into a theory called Orchestrated Objective Reduction in partnership with the anesthesiologist and psychologist Stuart Hameroff (Orch OR).
It argues that quantum vibrations in microtubules deep inside brain neurons are more likely to cause consciousness than the widely accepted belief that interactions between neurons cause consciousness.
However, according to a comment published in the March 2014 paper “Consciousness In The World: A Review of the “Orch OR” Theory” by Penrose and Hameroff in the journal Physics of Life Reviews, “Orch OR indicates there is a link between the brain’s biomolecular processes and the fundamental structure of the universe.”
Kleiner and Tull are operating on this foundation. Neuroscientist and physician Giulio Tononi, distinguished chair of Consciousness Studies at the University of Wisconsin, has also influenced them. Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory (IIT) is one of a small group of promising theories of consciousness presented in the journal BMC Neuroscience. Kleiner explained, “IIT is a very mathematical theory.”
Consciousness, according to IIT, is an essential feature of reality; it exists, is ordered, precise, unified, and definite. A central theory proposes that consciousness emerges when knowledge flows between the subsystems of a more extensive system: conscious, an object must be single and interconnected, with a property called “phi” based on the interdependence of the subsystems.
Put it another way. You might have many coins on your desk with a bunch of neurons on top of each one. If the knowledge that passes through those channels is critical for those coins, you have a high phi and awareness.
There would be no phi and no consciousness if those coins could function perfectly as subsystems without knowledge streaming to and from other currencies. The more interdependent subsystems are, the more aware something becomes.
“Integrated knowledge is an empirical quantity that can be calculated provided you have a good descriptive explanation of the mechanism,” Kleiner said, noting that the system need not be biological.
“The effect is a number denoted by phi, because if you have an apple, you can ask how much combined information it contains, just as you can ask how much energy it contains. Much when you can talk about entropy, you can talk about how much interconnected knowledge is in a machine.” According to the hypothesis, even a proton will contain phi, so IIT strongly supports panpsychism. And, just like an egg, a thermostat, or a server will have it, so can your chair, your desk, and a whole host of other objects in the world.
“There are many independent experiments that point to a connection between combined knowledge and consciousness,” Kleiner said of the experimental data.
So, do the subsystems have a sense of self? No, it’s not true. Are these devices aware of their surroundings? No, it’s not true.
“The principle is made up of a very complicated algorithm that, when applied to a complex mathematical description of a physical system, gives details about whether the system is conscious or not, as well as what it is conscious of,” Kleiner said.
“If something is conscious according to the principle, then the components that make up the structure can’t have conscious perceptions of their own,” says the author. Just the object, not the bits, has conscious memory. As applied to the brain, this means that although some of your cortex is alive, the particles that make up the cortex are not.”
What does this imply for the world as a whole?
“If an isolated pair of particles floating about in space interact in the right way, they will have a primitive kind of consciousness,” Kleiner said.
As a result, according to IIT, the world is brimming with consciousness. Does it, though, have ramifications for the real universe? It does not, according to the theory’s math. Whether or not a physical system has a cognitive experience, it can function independently.
Kleiner uses a machine as an example, claiming that IIT’s math indicates that it might have consciousness but that this would have little effect on its functions.
“This contradicts the theory’s philosophical foundation, which is deeply idealist in nature,” Kleiner said. “It prioritizes consciousness over the physical.” We may see a shift in the mathematics at some stage to better account for this underpinning.”
It is what his and Tull’s research aims to address. Emergentist theories of consciousness sometimes claim that physics is the only thing that exists. “They would deny the notion that consciousness is distinct from or more primary than the physical,” Kleiner said. “They would argue consciousness is nothing more than a particular physical phenomenon that results from the interaction of basic physical quantities under certain circumstances.”
His and Tull’s mathematical edition of IIT, on the other hand, is meant to be a foundational principle of consciousness. “It seeks, in a very particular way, to weave consciousness into the basic fabric of life,” Kleiner said. What happens if it’s shown that the world is conscious? What are the ramifications?
“It may have moral ramifications.” “We prefer to perceive systems of conscious memories differently than systems without,” Kleiner said.
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However, proving that consciousness has a causal function in the cosmos would have far-reaching implications for the empirical understanding of the world, according to Kleiner. “This has the potential to spark a technological revolution comparable to Galileo Galilei’s,” he said.
And it is something to keep in mind.