Saturday, January 09, 2021

The Mathematics of Consciousness

[This is a transcript of the video embedded below.]

Physicists like to think they can explain everything, and that, of course, includes human consciousness. And so in the last few decades they’ve set out to demystify the brain by throwing math at the problem. Last year, I attended a workshop on the mathematics of consciousness in Oxford. Back then, when we still met other people in real life, remember that?

I find it to be a really interesting development that physicists take on consciousness, and so, today I want to talk a little about ideas for how consciousness can be described mathematically, how that’s going so far, and what we can hope to learn from it in the future.

The currently most popular mathematical approach to consciousness is integrated information theory, IIT for short. It was put forward by a neurologist, Giulio Tononi, in two thousand and four.

In IIT, each system is assigned a number, that’s big Phi, which is the “integrated information” and supposedly a measure of consciousness. The better a system is at distributing information while it’s processing the information, the larger Phi. A system that’s fragmented and has many parts that calculate in isolation may process lots of information, but this information is not “integrated”, so Phi is small.

For example, a digital camera has millions of light receptors. It processes large amounts of information. But the parts of the system don’t work much together, so Phi is small. The human brain on the other hand is very well connected and neural impulses constantly travel from one part to another. So Phi is large. At least that’s the idea. But IIT has its problems.

One problem with IIT is that computing Phi is ridiculously time consuming. The calculation requires that you divide up the system which you are evaluating in any possible way and then calculate the connections between the parts. This takes up an enormous amount of computing power. Estimates show that even for the brain of a worm, with only three hundred synapses, calculating Phi would take several billion years. This is why measurements of Phi that have actually been done in the human brain have used incredibly simplified definitions of integrated information.

Do these simplified definitions at least correlate with consciousness? Well, some studies have claimed they do. Then again others have claimed they don’t. The magazine New Scientist for example interviewed Daniel Bor from the University of Cambridge and reports:
“Phi should decrease when you go to sleep or are sedated via a general anesthetic, for instance, but work in Bor’s lab has shown that it doesn’t. “It either goes up or stays the same,” he says.”
I contacted Bor and his group, but they wouldn’t come forward with evidence to back up this claim. I do not actually doubt it’s correct, but I do find it somewhat peculiar they’d make such a statements to a journalist and then not provide evidence for it.

Yet another problem for IIT is, as the computer scientist Scott Aaronson pointed out, that one can think of rather trivial systems, that solve some mathematical problem, which distribute information during the calculation in such a way that Phi becomes very large. This demonstrates that Phi in general says nothing about consciousness, and in my opinion this just kills the idea.

Nevertheless, integrated information theory was much discussed at the Oxford workshop. Another topic that received a lot of attention is the idea by Roger Penrose and Stuart Hamaroff that consciousness arises from quantum effects in the human brain, not in synapses, but in microtubules. What the heck are microtubules? Microtubules are tiny tubes made of proteins that are present in most cells, including neurons. According to Penrose and Hameroff, in the brain these microtubules can enter coherent quantum states, which collapse every once in a while, and consciousness is created in that collapse.

Most physicists, me included, are not terribly excited about this idea because it’s generally hard to create coherent quantum states of fairly large molecules, and it doesn’t help if you put the molecules into a warm and wiggly environment like the human brain. For the Penrose and Hamaroff conjecture to work, the quantum states would have to survive at least a microsecond or so. But the physicist Max Tegmark has estimated that they would last more like a femtosecond, that’s only ten to the minus fifteen seconds.

Penrose and Hameroff are not the only ones who pursue the idea that quantum mechanics has something to do with consciousness. The climate physicist Tim Palmer also thinks there is something to it, though he is more concerned with the origins of creativity specifically than with consciousness in general.

According to Palmer, quantum fluctuations in the human brain create noise, and that noise is essential for human creativity, because it can help us when a deterministic, analytical approach gets stuck. He believes the sensitivity to quantum fluctuations developed in the human brain because that’s the most energy-efficient way of solving problems, but it only becomes possible once you have small and thin neurons, of the types you find in the human brain. Therefore, palmer has argued that low-energy transistors which operate probabilistically rather than deterministically, might help us develop artificial intelligent that’s actually intelligent.

Another talk that I thought was interesting at the Oxford workshop was that by Ramon Erra. One of the leading hypothesis for how cognitive processing works is that it uses the synchronization of neural activity in different regions of the brain to integrate information. But Erra points out that during an epileptic seizure, different parts of the brain are highly synchronized.

In this figure, for example, you see the correlations between the measured activity of hundred fifty or so brain sites. Red is correlated, blue is uncorrelated. On the left is the brain during a normal conscious phase, on the right is a seizure. So, clearly too much synchronization is not a good thing. Erra has therefore proposed that a measure of consciousness could be the entropy in the correlation matrix of the synchronization. Which is low both for highly uncorrelated and highly correlated states, but large in the middle, where you expect consciousness.

However, I worry that this theory has the same problem as integrated information theory, which is that there may be very simple systems that you do not expect to be conscious but that nevertheless score highly on this simple measure of synchronization.

One final talk that I would like to mention is that by Jonathan Mason. He asks us to imagine a stack of compact disks, and a disk player that doesn’t know which order to read out the bits on a compact disk. For the first disk, you then can always find a readout order that will result in a particular bit sequence, that could correspond, for example, to your favorite song.

But if you then use that same readout order for the next disk, you most likely just get noise, which means there is very little information in the signal. So if you have no idea how to read out information from the disks, what would you do? You’d look for a readout process that maximizes the information, or minimizes the entropy, for the readout result for all of the disks. Mason argues that the brain uses a similar principle of entropy minimization to make sense of information.

Personally, I think all of these approaches are way too simple to be correct. In the best case, they’re first steps on a long way. But as they say, every journey starts with a first step, and I certainly hope that in the next decades we will learn more about just what it takes to create consciousness. This might not only allow us to create artificial consciousness and help us tell when patients who can't communicate are conscious, it might also help us allow to make sense of the unconscious part of our thoughts so that we can become more conscious of them.

You can find recordings of all the talks at the workshop, right here on YouTube, please check the info below the video for references.

You can join the chat about this video today (Saturday, Jan 9) at noon Eastern Time or 6pm CET here.


  1. I don't understand quantum mechanics. I also don't understand consciousness. Therefore quantum mechanics and consciousness are connected. -- IMHO this sentence is an accurate summary of Penrose et al.'s argument.

    1. Hilarious and perceptive comment.

      Also, panpsychists - I don't have an ontology of matter and can't explain consciousness. So we'll have consciousness as an ontology of matter.

      Or the religious - I understand nothing, so I'll believe anything.

    2. Also, physicalists - We don't have a clue how consciousness works, but consciousness is obviously a purely physical phenomenon because physicalism is just obviously the correct metaphysical worldview, so therefore consciousness must be purely physical.

    3. Touché Ryan. Yes we physicalists do the same as well. This is why I think science needs effective principles of metaphysics (not to mention epistemology and axiology) from which to function. As a potential cure consider my single principle of metaphysics:

      To the extent that causality fails, nothing exists to understand.

      Here scientists would not consider the conscious element of existence physical/causal because it’s “true”, but rather because if it’s not then there would be nothing for us to figure out in that sense anyway. So to me this would be pragmatic reason to presume physicalism in science while also granting that scientists might be wrong.

    4. “ if it’s not then there would be nothing for us to figure out in that sense anyway”

      Is that true? Most relational quantum interpretations have physical properties only existing as part of an interaction. By assuming the macro world we experience is just the physical properties, and that’s how we interact with it, you’re removing any sustained reality from everything.

      You say “granting that scientists may be wrong”, but my impression is that most scientists (and the general public as a result) believe that this nihilistic assumption of physicalism is correct and proven.

    5. Simon,
      I wasn’t addressing QM specifically, though we can take my metaphysical principle there if you like. First make sure that my meaning is clear to you. How might one figure anything out in a void of causal dynamics? It seems to me that causality itself happens to be what we attempt to grasp. If so then removing the causal element should remove exactly what we were trying to figure out. So to me it seems that any given causality void would sacrifice our ability to grasp what’s going on, or “magic”.

      For quantum mechanics this means that either the observed wave particle duality reflects an actual void in causality, and so there isn’t anything for us to potentially figure out in this sense (magic), or there is something causal to understand that we don’t grasp. So I’d modify Einstein’s famous statement: Wherever God plays dice, science itself should be obsolete.

      And is science obsolete regarding QM? Perhaps, though I presume that causality does exist somehow anyway. This is to say that I have greater faith in human ignorance than spookiness.

    6. Hi Eric

      I guess my question would be why you can’t have causality when using a metaphysical framework that’s neoplatonic, thomistic, idealist etc?

      I’ve personally have gone from a physicalist to theistic perspective, and in trying to understand why I was so confident about my physicalist worldview, I’ve realised that it’s an assumption often ‘secretly’ added to the science.

      If physicists dealt with the basic causality results, and the theoretical abstractions of those results, and then any speculation beyond that was very clearly labelled by the assumed metaphysical context of those speculations, then maybe it would help both physics and philosophy?

      The early quantum pioneers like Heisenberg were confident that what we were seeing made more sense under a Platonic rather than physicalist ontology. However physics turned back to “shut up and calculate” to retain the physicalist assumptions, and progress on understanding anything effectively halted. Now we have idealist ontologies that fit the data at least as well as physicalism, and physicists are again becoming more free to think about what it’s actually telling us.

      I’d argue that physicalist assumptions are a barrier to physics progressing any further. Physicalism can’t make sense of entangled particles forming ‘a whole’ whilst separated in space. But if you have a concept of underlying forms, then maybe you have a way to start making sense of what we’re seeing?

      In fact I’d argue that only physicalism requires god to be playing dice, as it’s limited to properties that only unfold as part of an interaction…

  2. Dr. Hossenfelder,

    A few months back I read this book, "Lost in Math" it was a very good book but for the life of me I cannot remember the author. Anyway, it seems to me the point of this book very much applies right here and I am going to just ask one question why is it necessary to use math to explain consciousness? The presumption being made is that math CAN explain consciousness.

    1. I don't think anyone who works on this presumes that math can explain consciousness. There are however a huge amount of people who are convinced that math cannot explain consciousness. The reasonable thing to do is obviously to try and see how far we get. I see no reason that it should not work.

  3. Giving a role to quantum mechanics makes sense from a dualist point of view. For a dualist, the mind has a separate existence from matter but the two obviously interact somewhere (in our brain). The mind can perhaps even influence the behavior of the brain. Now, this hypothetical influence could only take place at a microscopic level, or else we would already have noticed a gross violation of the rules of physics as we know them. Ergo, quantum mechanics.

  4. Our brain takes care of its own interesrts (Dick Swaab, We are our brains). To improve its capability to do this during a very long time of evolution and during our own personal lifetime the development of awareness seems to be a very good tool to serve our brain's interests. I am afraid that trying to encompass these very complex processes over time mathematically is rather pretentious.


  5. When attempting to quantify consciousness, you assume a continuum from unconscious to conscious. I certainly believe there is a continuum. That might imply that basically every object and every part of every object posesses consciousness to some degree. This in turn would imply that a brain does not contain one single consciousness but many! There is no contradiction here, because each one of them experiences only itself, and sees all the others as unconscious extensions of itself.
    (See also my comment at The Problem of Now )

    Or perhaps the continuum is more like the trajectory from non-living to living.
    The most interesting transition lies roughly between viruses and bacteria.

    Maybe this is more than just an analogy. Bacteria would know.

  6. Here's another recent 'mathematics' paper on this topic. I'm surprised they couldn't be at this conference to present their contribution. Here's the link to the paper: and title: "Hard Problem and Free Will: an information-theoretical approach" by Giacomo Mauro D'Ariano, Federico Faggin.

    1. The conference was in late 2019 not 2020.

    2. Ah... but their paper was just submitted to the archive in December of 2020, thus my confusion. That conference (at Oxford) was "Models of Consciousness", interestingly, but the paper doesn't describe a model so much as a general (mathematical) framework of how any(?) physical system may possess consciousness.

    3. it seems they were there

  7. IMO, as anything else, consciousness could be described mathematically. But before being able to do so in details, I think we have first to understand more generally that consciousness implies sensitivity to one's own body and personal will to act according to one's own well-being. Without sensitivity to one's own body, we get only robotic sensors and externally programmed rules of behavior, not consciousness. A lot of "outside" and "inside" informations must be integrated in the process of consciousness, but the "essence" of consciousness is not the process of integration itself but the fact that the integration concerns oneself.

    1. Yes, You first need to have the information processing architecture described before you can make a mathematical model where you can define what it means to experience various qualia, e.g. the color red.

      I think the Attention Schema Theory lays some foundation for the information processing architecture part, at least for robotics developers that need a bit of self awareness, like self driving cars in the future.

      In short I interpret it as consciousness is created when the brain models the model of attention, to make the prognosis of the immediate future, thus creates the observer that observes itself.

  8. Out of interest, if we did find a way to rule out many worlds and superdeterminism, where would your best guess be for where ‘measurement’ happens?

  9. Greetings, Dr Hossenfelder! What do you think about the concept of the electromagnetic field being the physical substract of consciousness?

    I recently read about Johnjoe McFadden's CEMI theory, published on the journal Neuroscience of Consciousness (Sept 2020), and it caught my attention as it describes consciousness as information integrated in the electromagnetic field of the brain. I imagine it as a dynamic and unified tridimentional form in the EM field "molded" by the activity of neurons.

    I'm a med student that likes to learn about physics, so not an expert. That said, I think that theory makes sense from a reductionist point of view based on Quantum Field Theory and the Standard Model. And it would also be deterministic.

    1. "What do you think about the concept of the electromagnetic field being the physical substract of consciousness?"

      Electromagnetic fields transmit the most important interactions in the human brain. They are arguably important, but clearly not the entire physical "substract" (whatever that means) because brains are not made exclusively of electromagnetic fields.

      The brief answer is I think that's nonsense.

    2. Thanks for the answer. I don't think I expressed what I wanted to convey very well. Evidently, brains are not exclusively made of electromagnetic fields. Cells are structures of molecules, which are structures of bonded atoms, which are structures of up quarks, down quarks, gluons and electrons.

      What I sought was a possible answer to the "hard problem of consciousness", meaning "Why do we have the conscious macroscopic perspective that we have?", instead of no perspective at all or a different one like the perspective of a single neuron.

      The easy problem of consciousness, which is explaining the functional dynamics and computational organization of the brain is explained with physiology, biochemistry, citology/histology and neuroanatomy, where the neural correlates of consciousness (NCC) are thought to be located in the posterior cortex of the brain. But the NCC by themselves don't answer the hard problem. That's why I thought that the CEMI theory could be compelling by defining our perspective as information integrated in a specific quantum field.

      If it's nonsense then I don't know what could be the answer of why we have the perspective that we have.

    3. Greetings David S!

      The idea that consciousness exists by means of the electromagnetic radiation associated with certain sets of synchronous neuron firing, has rocked my world since a blogging friend did a post on this 13 months ago. You can find his site under “Broad Speculations”, though often we hang out at “SelfAwarePatterns”. (Then my own lame WordPress site is called “Physical Ethics”.) You’d be quite welcome at any of them, and I suspect we’d have some interesting conversations.

    4. Nobody is asserting that the brain is completely composed of EM fields.

      McFadden argues that the brain's EM field(s) generated by synchronous firing of neurons spatially organizes information and is the substrate of consciousness. The pattern of the wave, organized in three dimensions, could be quite complex and represent the current integrated state of the brain. It also potentially could feedback to the neural circuits and provide an explanation for things like neurofeedback where the consciousness itself seems to be the causal learning loop.

    5. David S,

      Note that McFadden rules out quantum effects. The integration is electromagnetic not quantum.

  10. Consciousness should be associated with the running of algorithms. This is the older conventional idea that was rejected by many philosophers based on arguments such as the Chinese Room argument that actually do not prove this idea wrong. There are other objections based on the problems with identifying a computation being performed, which can actually be addressed by invoking quantum mechanics.

    The argument is then that one can map a computation that is supposedly rendering a conscious system to a trivial system. Here one assumes a deterministic system, the system performs computations so it moves through a certain set of physical states. If the system were replaced by a mechanical device that always runs through the same set of states during some time T, then there is no difference between that system and the original system during that time T, so that system should also generate the same consciousness for a time T. But you then have a trivial system like a clock that is conscious.

    This paradox can be resolved as follows. The classical device that performs the computation is only effectively classical. This means that it's classical behavior is due to fast decoherence, it's physical degrees of freedom are always entangled with those of the environment. The degrees of freedom that contain the relevant information about the computation that is performed are then always in some superposition that is entangled with the environment.

    The conscious agent should then be associated with a course-grained picture of such a state. This is reasonable, given that we are not aware of everything that goes on in our brains. But this then means that the superposition of the micro-states that are entangled with the environment remains relevant for the conscious agent. And this contains information about how the algorithm would respond in response to a small range of inputs that falls with the resolution of the consciousness.

    So, the physical effects that make the system behave in a classical way are also responsible for making the computation defined within a certain range of inputs in an unambiguous way. The system cannot be mapped to a trivial system, like a clock because of this.

  11. Being conscious of your consciousness is still called consciousness. This makes consciousness a fixed point. Mathematically you can't study a fixed point just by looking at it without the bigger picture of the actual map or equivalently by looking at a snapshot of brain synchronization or connectivity between brain areas.

    We have to do better!

  12. Smolin had a theory that universes that have a lot of black holes reproduce more and are more likely to support life, making universes subject to evolutionary theory. I thought then why not go all the way and suppose universes are life and particles are baby universes which is also life — then of course life would exist in all universes that are reproducing.

    Traditional definitions of life would just be a way for the Universe to provide advanced education for the most advanced particles.

    I agree that the brain constructs a complicated EM field but only to communicate with the homuncular particle, a high mass particle with the highest de Broglie frequency in the brain that inherited its conscious and free will ability from the conscious universe.

  13. I have thought that since consciousness is involved with self-awareness that this might be a Gödel's theorem. The ability to reflect upon oneself, but not in a complete way, strikes me as at least similar to self-reference. If so this might mean there can never be found a complete or consistent mathematics of consciousness.

    Penrose invoked ideas of Gödel's theorem in his quantum consciousness. He pointed to microtubules as being some sort of quantum wave guide. Microtubules are a polymer of tubulins that are largely structural element in eukaryotic cells. They do communicate information, but they do so through kinesin and myosin molecules. These polypeptides change shape upon ATP → ADP + P_i phosphorylation and walk along the tubulin fiber. These transport other polypeptides around a cell. These are molecular robots, and variants of these construct the molecular basis for muscle activity. Microtubules are also the spindle body fibers that pull chromosomes apart in mitosis and meiosis. These are interesting, but no evidence of anything quantum mechanical.

    I will also say the idea that quantum noise plays any role seems wrong. A quantum critical point occurs with thermal fluctuations are smaller than quantum fluctuations. The term quantum fluctuation is of course a phenomenological term associated with measurement and decoherence. This limit occurs ideal for T → 0, and where quantum fluctuations then determine the phase of a many body or complex system. The brains of even cold-blooded animals is far to warm for quantum fluctuations to play any role.

    I remember a couple of decades ago there were ideas of nonlinear physics in microtubules that somehow shielded quantum waves from these thermal fluctuations. Nothing came of this as far as I can tell. I think the idea of quantum consciousness in general is one the trash heap of failed hypotheses.

    1. “Penrose invoked ideas of Gödel's theorem in his quantum consciousness. He pointed to microtubules as being some sort of quantum wave guide. Microtubules are a polymer of tubulins that are largely structural element in eukaryotic cells. They do communicate…” I must say I am amazed at the broadness of Lawrence’s knowledge. I was under the impression that my first encounter with the concept that microtubules might provide a link between consciousness and quantum mechanics was in Danah Zohar’s 1982 book “Through the Time Barrier, A Study in Precognition and Modern Physics”. But scanning through her book this morning I was unable to find a reference to that. In any case it looks like any link between consciousness and quantum mechanics is on very thin ice, as Lawrence emphasizes in the last paragraph of his comment I referenced above. That’s too bad as I was greatly enamored of the idea on reading Zohar’s book years ago.

  14. Some parts of consciousness might be illusions, some might be emergent phenomena, others might just be as real as they appear to be. Even if free will might be an overstatement, it seems that our consciousness is often involved in decision making. So one of the biological purposes of consciousness might be just this decision making. Starting from potential biological purposes of consciousness might be helpfull in clarifying which parts of consciousness even need such mathematical models as presented in the video.

    1. Without some empirical finding that breathes life in the quantum consciousness conjecture I think it is a dead horse at this time. Smart is the person who does not waste time beating a dead horse.

    2. For me, the quantum consciousness conjecture from Penrose is not convincing. But the thoughts from Erwin Schrödinger in "Mein Leben, meine Weltansicht" have some appeal. The difference is that Schrödinger doesn't try to explain human consciousness. Instead, he links quantum jumps to the evolution of the world at "interfaces" (interface like the surface between two different materials) where decisions are "possible" (or "happen") and matter.

    3. Lawrence Crowell7:20 AM, January 14, 2021

      "Without some empirical finding ... beating a dead horse"

      Lawrence, my boy, you are finally learning. Now just apply the same reasoning to effort unduly expended on other equine fatalities - inflation, MWI and String Theory.

      I'll make a physicist of you yet ;)

    4. I was long a fan of consciousness being influenced by quantum effects, from the time I first encountered this notion reading Danah Zohar’s book “Through the Time Barrier, A Study in Precognition and Modern Physics”. But the prospects for such a brain-quantum interface appear rather dismal with such a phenomena requiring a billion times longer states of coherence than Max Tegmark estimates microtubules are capable of sustaining. In one femtosecond an electromagnetic wave will propagate across a length equivalent to about 1000 hydrogen atoms end-to-end, or 10^-7 meter. According to Wikipedia microtubules are about 25 nanometer in size, or 2.5 x 10^-8 meters. Thus, an electromagnetic signal will propagate the length of four microtubules in one femtosecond, hoping I got all the math right. Working the numbers out surprised me, as I was initially expecting light to only traverse a small fraction of the length of a microtubule.

      At 10:41 AM, March 13, 2020, responding to PhyscistDave’s mention of consciousness in the Blogpost titled: “Is Gravity a Force”, posted on Saturday, March 7, 2020, I brought up an apparently precognitive dream I had the previous night. In brief, partly quoting from that comment, a woman dressed in white overalls, working on a rack of food was talking about cheese Danishes. She spoke a 4 digit number to me, which I assumed was a code for that particular pastry. The number was so clear to me that I jotted it down on awakening to use the bathroom. Getting up later I wondered if my state of New Hampshire had a 4 digit lottery game, and it did called Pick 4. The number in the dream was 9828, while the number that came up that evening was 6892. Interestingly, if the ‘6’ is flipped 180 it becomes a ‘9’. In any case three of the numbers matched. In another comment in the Blogpost “Essays Elsewhere”, March 12, 2020, I suggested the Superdeterministic version of QM might provide a scientific basis for reports of precognition in humans and animals. If sleeping, or even awake, brains can somehow tap into the not-entirely-random future outcomes of quantum events inherent in Superdeterminism, then that information might provide a leg up for an organism’s survival. The issue is there doesn’t seem to be any way robust quantum effects can exist in brain tissue that is far above the temperature associated with large scale quantum coherence.

    5. In my comment at 11:33 AM, January 16, 2021 the 25 nanometer “size” I stated for microtubules was actually their diameter. Reading the paper “Consciousness in the universe: A review of the ‘Orch OR’ theory” in “Physics of Life Reviews”, March, 2014, by Penrose and Hameroff, they state that the length of microtubules can range from several hundred nanometers to “apparently up to meters in long nerve axons.” Their theory is very sophisticated and even proposes a link between consciousness and “fundamental space-time geometry.”

  15. There is a fellow who occasionally posts here, A.M. Costello I believe is his name. He made the comment that consciousness evolved as an attention mechanism which I think is a pretty good idea. It gives you the ability to pay attention and escape from something that is trying to eat you as well as the ability to catch something to eat.

    Be that as it may, many people of an advanced age have experienced the phenomena of not being able to come up with a word or a name only to have it pop into their consciousness a short time later. I experience this. The thing that makes it interesting is that I have no conscious awareness of trying to make it happen before the lost term pops up. I just happens on its own. The time interval can be a few seconds or even a whole day.

    There is much happening within our brains of which we are not aware. However, this does not mean that any extra physical process outside of our body is responsible for consciousness. Essentially its all in our head.

  16. I find these spooky ghost-in-the-machine ideas foolish and deeply misguided. If you think about anything long enough you can believe it is true, including the subjective "phenomenon" of consciousness. I mean, why TF would a wave collapse or whatever produce the required effect anyway. To a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail?

    We know empirically that consciousness is in the computation, there is no special substance or process required for this but you do need a computational system that is capable on modelling the world and its own place in the world in real time. That is a big complex ask. We definitely do not have this and we are an unknown distance away. It seems unlikely to me that this can be achieved by the current AI networks. Such a thing will "believe it is conscious" or at least say that it is if it is anthropomorphising itself for your benefit.

    1. Daniel Dennett makes an argument against the Cartesian theater argument. The ghost in the machine is the spectator in the theater. The theater is the output of this biological machinery and the spectator then makes decisions based on what the theater presents.

      This though begs a question, for how does the spectator, the ghost, itself function? Then we may need a second theater with a second spectator. It is then not hard to see this becomes a recursion as with Matryoshka dolls.

      The ghost in the machine in effect explains nothing. It is related to the "God did it" explanation for other issues.

    2. The problem is that there is nothing in the brain that’s not analogous to water pipes and taps. If you had enough pipes and taps you could replicate what a computer does, although it may need to fill a few km of land. But can you conceive of pipes and taps ever having conscious experience?

    3. I can, no problem. But I'd like to point out signalling time in your pipe brain would be miserable, so even if you'd manage to reach an interesting number of synapses, it might only make it to a thought every 100,000 years or so.

    4. It is common to compare neurons to logic gates or circuits. This ignores the fact a neuron is a living cell. A computer circuit is not alive. It is then possible this is a factor as well in the nature of consciousness.

  17. I wonder, why physicists, when thinking about consciousness, do not consider consciousness like any other physical phenomena, and instead try to create something "fundamental". Usually, in science, we first look at a phenomena and collect its observable features, and then try to create a mathematical model which would recreate these features. We try to grasp, "what the phenomena is like", and then try to create a mathematical model that would look similar. For example, on a large scale universe looks like a manifold and each object is kind of like a moving point. Hence, one builds classical mechanics in this image (interacting points in space). Or, another example, quantum mechanics: "these particles behave like waves; let's make a wave equation where waves move like regular particles" (*went to write Shroedinger equation*).

    I do not understand, why we are trying to use a completely different approach with consciousness. We should fist ask, what consciousness is like? Is our phenomenal experience continuous or discrete? Are we always experiencing something certain, or most of the time the experience is vague? Do we experience several things simultaneously, or only one at a time? We need to collect these properties (and probably a bunch of other) from the corresponding experiments, and then create a mathematical framework that would incorporate the properties. We then can call the model a "theory of consciousness" not because it tells us what consiosness is, and what it is not, but because it recreates the properties of the physical phenomena it is supposed to describe.

    1. One idea why physicists try a completely different approach for consciousness: maybe it is related to some connection to the "fundamental" question: why is (exists) there something instead of nothing. What does existence even means (as opposed to mathematical existence in Max Tegmark style), if there is nothing (like consciousness) to experience it.

    2. What does "meaning" even means? What does even "why" means? :) These are all good questions, but, in my opinion, they are not a science's business. Science puts mathematical constructions in correspondence to physical phenomena. It also studies the properties of the mathematical constructions and the properties of the physical phenomena separately. All scientific achievements I can think of, reduce to these three categories: properties of mathematical models, properties of physical phenomena, and correspondence between these two fields. I am pretty confident, if science ever comes up with "a theory of consciousness", it will lie within these categories.

      "Existence"... In my opinion, the word "existence" got a number of different meanings, and people confuse them with each other:
      1. "Existence" of physical objects. Something ("chair", "atom", "gravity") "exists", if it has a representation in the physical world. This existence is needed to distinguish things that exist physically, from things that do not exist ("there exists a painting on my wall" vs "there exist no painting on my wall")
      2. "Existence" of phenomenal experience. We have to communicate our experience to others, and distinguish situations when "you are afraid" vs "you are not afraid", "you see red" vs "you do not see red". Even though some people may use the word "redness" as a label for a neural pattern in their brains, usually they just mean a particular type of phenomenal experience (not a part of the physical world, but rather a part of their experience).
      3. "Existence" of coherent abstract ideas. "Triangles" exist, while "two-and-half-angles" do not. The existence here indicates the possibility of coherent verbal construction of the thing/word.

      People try to explain terms from one category with terms from another, which is possible to a degree, but practically always looks absurd at the end. Like, we may try to define things that are "real" physically (1st category) as things that "accessible" to many people (2nd category), which leads us to a question "so, if there are no people, nothing is real?". You could also think of similar situations when you try to define ideas as neural patterns in the brain (explaining 2rd category by 1st), or find out if strings "really" exist, assuming string theory is true (explaining 1st category by 3rd).

  18. I'm just a thinly-educated layman, and I doubt that physicists and mathemeticians could imagine how profoundly unimpressed I am by attempts to 'explain' consciousness with math. Claiming it's a part of physical reality impresses me even less, especially as the word "physical" lacks any meaningful non-circular definition in this context.

    I think it's intuitively and immediately obvious that consciousness lies outside our conceptual framework. We discover ever more about its apparent correlates - information, neural structures - but we remain at an infinite distance from the thing itself. Until we're ready to formally admit observer knowledge into our quantum description of reality, we have nowhere to go.

    I suggest a thought experiment: try to conceive of consciousness without an accompanying flow of time. I think it's impossible, and that this is significant.

    I prepare to be flamed.

  19. if its not obvious way trough, probably most fruitful approach to get some counscious attempt.

    why? who knows, maybe that's the reason were all living forms are code based.

    how? there is some answer on limiting issues, reductionist behaviur and of course memorizing.

    psychology of consciousness only differ some part with creativeness, which is difficult to obtain on scientific domain (different than our invented math slightly).

    but to be sure, logical purposes has own language, arbitrary or additive, mixing or differentiated up coming with free selective ability, isn't this concept has a treshold?

  20. Descartes was very pro-science, not anti-science. Galileo and Descartes were the architects of modern physics and they would get together and excitedly foresee what physics would become and how important it would be.

    In order to make the case for mathematical physics, mental causation had to be put in a box in order to get modern physics started. They did not believe the box was empty like many today. Philip Goff writes about Galileo and his thoughts on the mind, but his colleague, Descartes, famously took it to the logical conclusions.

    If you take Descartes seriously like I do, the Cartesian theater would need to be updated to a Cartesian holodeck. The only reason I could imagine a high mass particle would have this capability is if the particle inherited its capabilities from the conscious universe making universes and particles not only conscious but living organisms capable of reproduction and subject to the theory of evolution.

    If there is a high mass particle in the brain that is a Cartesian Holodeck, I deduced it would probably communicate with the brain by electromagnetic code probably using something like the microtubules of neurons as antennas.

    High mass particle Cartesian Holodeck theory is a scientific theory that can be tested experimentally by looking for electromagnetic codes sending sensory information and receiving voluntary free will commands. The code could be verified simply by pointing a maser with an encoding of an image using the homuncular code at a homuncular particle and asking the person what image they see. If high mass particle Cartesian holodecks are found it would be the greatest discovery in science ever leading to the artificial body industry and mostly the end of death and pain!

  21. Kevin Pryor5:09 PM, January 11, 2021

    "Philip Goff writes about Galileo and his thoughts on the mind"

    Philip Goff is a crank. He claims "panpsychism" is an ontology of matter, but can tell us not a single fact about matter - in fact, he will just continue to agree with whatever physicists find out about matter because he has a null theory.
    He also claims "panpsychism" can explain consciousness, but, what a surprise, he can explain consciousness no better than scientists who don't assume matter is made of consciousness, whatever that might mean.

    Bizarrely, he is employed by Durham Uni to churn out this nonsensical garbage. I can guarantee you he will not produce a single fact about the universe until the day he retires.

  22. From my experience, super creativity comes from high brain activity, high dopamine levels, leaky dentrites or axons, and a brain that is really good at forgetting.

  23. For anyone interested in the nature and origin of human consciousness the October 2019 paper by Antonio Damasio and Kingson Man is a great place to start: "Homeostasis and soft robotics in the design of feeling machines." These authors connect evolution, feeling, and homeostasis in explaining the emergence of consciousness in humans. Damasio has written several books on the subject. Nothing in our biological world can be explained without reference to evolution, and consciousness is no different. Roger Penrose, in his book The Emperor's New Mind, wrote a short fictional narrative, in the Prologue and Epilogue, about the grand unveiling of a new intelligent computer. One person was selected from the audience to ask the intelligent machine its first question. The 13 year old boy selected to ask a question stunned the experts and the audience by asking the simple question, "What do you feel like?" This is a core issue in human consciousness. The computer responded that "it can't even understand what you're getting at." The regulation of our body's life processes has developed through evolution and consciousness has emerged as information processing connected to homeostasis has become ever more complex. Threats and opportunities, the challenges to the biological organism's effort to survive, have resulted in human consciousness.

    1. How does my laptop feel as I press on its keyboard and it forms symbols on my screen and sends codes for them to the Internet?

      Answer: on its most basic level, to feel is to experience something via whatever senses are available to detect that experience. I can't know what what my laptop feels because I don't have those same senses. But I know it feels something, because those characters are appearing on the screen. As brilliant as he is, Dr. Penrose's book, "The Emperor's New Mind", seemed like one long Argument From Incredulity to me--interspersed with interesting stuff such as Penrose tiles. That is, some people seem to have a fundamental assumption that only beings exactly like homo sapiens can "feel" anything; some of them will argue even that other animals have no consciousness. Evolution tells us that there is a link, however long and tortuous, between us and flat worms, and flat worms are known to be simulatable by "dead" transistors to within an undetectable experimental difference.

      (I was surprised that Douglas HofstadTer's work, such as "I Am A Strange Loop", was not mentioned in the presentation. Perhaps it is not mathematical enough.)

  24. All commenters here find this topic (the substance) interesting of course but that puzzles me and is actually the only interesting part.Define interesting as novel or potentially useful practically or amusing. The topic does not meet the criteria except amusement which is very subjective.
    To me the question is well beyond human understanding. Knowledge is different from understanding, can be interesting but that is another discussion.
    There are several serious gaps in the reasoning.First the brain is assumed to be the seat of "consciousness" despite the fact that the human body critically depends on other organs which operate independently of the brain and the brain is unaware. Even for those aspects of which the brain is aware (and integrates) i.e. sensory signals, the data seen by the brain is not raw but filtered. Secondly the organizing principle of the body is not only not understood but is not even considered. Why is that? Maybe future imaginings. So is the amusement worth the effort?.

  25. The great physicist Max Planck (contemporary and mentor of Einstein) said, "I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness." This means that consciousness--as Consciousness--existed and exists before all things and will continue long after all things cease to exist; therefore C more than permeates the material and non-material that we always seek to understand. As much as we flail around trying to quantify and qualify consciousness, we can't. I suppose this is why humans have created God, Allah, gods, the Akashic Record, the Great Spirit,etc., and Physics, to rationalize our place in what we can see, touch, feel, smell, and hear. Given C, in order to access an understanding of C, we will have to accept that the only way we may do so, is by admitting that we can't physically or intellectually. That leaves us with a single elegant way: through an interface with C via Intuition, our simple intuition. That's a hard idea for most to swallow, but, at the end, after all the frustrations and arguments, it is the only way. Max Planck understood that. The few great spiritual leaders have understood that. Shamans and true mystics have understood that. And continue to. I am glad that physicists and neuroscientists work to understand how the quantum realm and the brain and physiology operates. This advances our understanding of the natural world and ourselves. That is what scientists do. But understand, there is still something greater than this. Maybe this is where what is meant by being still and hearing the quiet voice within ultimately comes into play. Good luck, guys.

    1. What Planck said rings just as true today as it did then.

    2. Suzanne Bredlau Turgeon6:46 PM, January 12, 2021

      This is just an appeal to authority fallacy. Planck did not formally publish or provide evidence for these comments. They are off the record.
      As far as we know, the mind is emergent from the brain. Neuroscience cannot currently completely explain conscious experience in terms of the structures of the brain, but that doesn't mean it won't. Your claim is unjustified speculation.

      There is not known to be anything "greater than this". Every phenomenon in the universe is emergent from the physical as far as is known.

  26. I am a bit disappointed at these attempts to grasp the nature of consciousness. The idea that one number could capture the concept seems unlikely when we consider that relatively limited neural networks code, say, the state of a chess or go game as a 1000 dimensional vector. Why invoke QM to generate noise in brain systems when ordinary thermal noise is ubiquitous? I'm putting my money on life scientists to penetrate this mystery.

    1. The state of consciousness of someone contains in it the identity of the person. So, it seems to me that one can simply identify consciousness with algorithms. Your brain is right now running a certain algorithm and that contains all the information about what you are experiencing, including the fact that it is you and not someone else.

      So, what exists are states of consciousness which are just computational states of algorithms. A question like is X conscious is then wrongly formulated. One can instead ask if there exists a state of consciousness (= algorithm) that corresponds to experiencing being X.

  27. I tried to formulate the main (IMHO) problem as the Theorem on the nonlocality of other's consciousness.
    General arguments in favor of the nonlocality of consciousness of the 'other' Based on the arguments of Descartes: 'I think, therefore I exist' - one can unambiguously assert about the temporary localization of consciousness 'from the first person'. That is, 'I am thinking now at noon before Christmas, therefore, I am now at noon.' This is a very clear reasoning, which can only be refuted by a clearer one, which has not yet been done. As for the consciousness of the 'other', it is impossible to assert so unambiguously about it, because there is no direct access to it. It is not for nothing that Descartes wrote: 'I (think)' and not 'he (thinks)' or, for example, like this: 'about whom it is known that he thinks, therefore, it is known that he exists.'
    Even greater doubts about the possibility of localizing consciousness of the 'other' arise in connection with the relativity of time, which became clear as a result of the physical discoveries of the 19th-20th centuries. Indeed, if the temporal coordinate, as well as simultaneity, depends on a subjective choice, namely, on the choice of the frame of reference: the velocity of the reference body and the choice of the point-origin of coordinates, then along with the change in the frame of reference, the temporal localization of physical bodies also changes. Thus, with the transition of 'I' from the reference frame S to the frame S 'moving with a speed V relative to S, the body of the' other 'must change its localization in time. With a certain choice of S and S ', it can happen that the body of the' other 'will jump in time and move to the' future 'or' past ', because such a movement means a change in the time coordinate of the body of the' other 'when going from S to S' ...
    But what happens to the consciousness of the 'other' during the transition from S to S '? Does it also make a leap in time along with 'its' body? If the answer is 'yes', then it would mean that the localization of the consciousness of the 'other' depends on the subjective choice of the 'I' - the consciousness of the first person. Indeed, after all, the transition from S to S 'is a subjective decision of the' I ', since no one forces the' I 'to change the speed of movement of their body.
    If the answer is 'no', the localization of consciousness of the 'other' in time does not depend on the choice of the frame of reference, this contradicts the data of SRT (Special Theory of Relativity), since it means the presence of a certain 'chosen', that is, one with some exceptional properties, a frame of reference ... Moreover, since there are many 'others', we would have to provide each of the 'others' with their own 'exclusive' frame of reference for the life of their consciousness.
    Thus, either the theory of relativity is incorrect and each of the 'other' consciousnesses is in its own time, which may or may not coincide with the time of the first person, or the consciousness of the 'other' is in principle impossible to localize. That is, an attempt to present such a localization leads to a logical contradiction with physical theory.
    Against this background, it should be noted that the localization of the 'first person' consciousness does not lead to the denial of physics and is quite compatible with the (special) theory of relativity.
    The reason for this 'paradoxical' situation is that the person's consciousness always acts in a point area of space (in its own 'present' time), but at the same time the physical body is a 'world line' stretched in space-time.

  28. Just to remind:
    Neither physics nor math explain (demystify) anything.
    They describe. Difference. Big difference.
    To be not precise and confuse these two states we will run in big trouble.

    To do so physics introduces (theoretical) constructs (and it does it well), like force (or very complicated ones). It's a mighty approach and leads to wonderful results to describe behavior (of not living matter). But even at this point its not an explanation at all. A full explanation has to explain what force really IS. As far as I can see, the underlaying principle ist always the same: Energy, Mass, Fields...all wonderful and great constructs to describe. But not explanations.

    Thus beeing said, I have tremendous respect for physics and math and the other sciences and their wonderful concepts and results. But scientists should not claim to have explanations ("We can explain how the world is set up..".
    It's not honest and lead to confusion.

    physics and living matter ("consciousness"):
    They say we live in an age of information and the brain is an information processing unit.
    Same (and other) problems here: We can measure information, we can transmit information. But we have no clue what information really is. It seems that it is an imaterial quantity.
    (btw: superimposed on this is the problem of another very important imaterial entity couppled to consciousness: meaning)

    Can material sciences "explain" (or demystify) imaterial entities in living systems (such as consciousness (whatever it is)) based on the sheer principle of material reductionism? I would argue no, because they cannot even explain it in their own field of non living matter. Can they fully describe the behavior of (imaterial) quantities in living systems?
    Thats the question.

    But whatever the output will be: My assumption is:
    It will not and can not be an explanation.
    Not based on material reductionism.
    (For those who refuse my thought: Explain to me, say, the Number 10 only in terms of material reductionism.
    You can't.)

    Maybee we should be a little more humble especially when it comes to dynamical complex living systems. And there are much more problems, not only conscoiusness when it comes to living organisms. At least this is my experience as an Biomedical Engineer.

    Great blog.

  29. The aim of current scientific research on consciousness, including Giulio Tononi's work, is the identification of the neural correlates of consciousness (NCC),which mean the brain structures that are on during the state of consciousness.The phenomenon of consciousness cannot, at the present time, be the direct object of scientific research. There is not any objective test to ascertain consciousness. Therefore, the design of conscious machines is impossible (at the present moment), since consciousness cannot be tested directly, even if the machine behaviour could indicate consciousness. Would a computer able to talk and to reason like a human(such as HAL 9000 in the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey") be conscious? Or would it be just able to reproduce human intelligence without consciousness?

  30. Understanding the processes by which neural networks function is an interesting problem. All animals have them at some level of complexity or other. but the obsession with consciousness as something special seems very anthropocentric and reminds me of the astronomy of Earth as the center of the universe. Every time we have postulated our special place in the universe, science has eventually shown us otherwise.
    It seems the Occam’s Razor answer to the question of consciousness would be that the experience of consciousness is merely what it feels like to have a functioning human brain. It may be more complex than what what it feels like to have a bovine brain, since a human brain has a higher complexity of neural connections, but it seems the most likely understanding would be a continuum of complexity of that feeling from simpler organisms to more complex.
    It seems like the burden of proof of the specialness of “consciousness” should be on those that imagine this specialness.


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