1, 2, 3… consciousness

“La conscience” by Francois Chifflart

By Ignacio Gonzalez.

In a sense, trying to understand consciousness is like attempting to get a tight grip on a lump of baking dough. First, you put the dough on the palm of your hand, it is easy to feel its mass, its weight falls frankly and tangibly. In the same way we all have a natural grasp on what consciousness is, we are familiar with how it feels to exist, to feel desire and to generate thoughts (or rather to witness them as they run inadvertently though our mind). But as you close your fist on the dough trying to get a more faithful feeling of its topology, of its very substance, you notice helplessly that the dough immediately morphs in response to your embrace until ultimately your own efforts cause it to slip through the slits in between your fingers. Similarly, as we struggle to focus our mind’s eye to take a look at the fine features of consciousness the whole picture only seems to get blurrier.

Is consciousness better defined as self-awareness? Or is it possible to allocate each life form in its reserved slot along something like a gradated spectrum of consciousness irrespective of how self-aware they might be? If such a spectrum is conceivable, is it smooth and continuous or are there leaps in between different “consciousness levels”?

Take the case of a dog. Whichever race will do. Dogs exhibit complex behavioral traits, they set goals for themselves (get food, find a mating partner…) and are ready to use whatever tools at their disposal to accomplish them (it is estimated that they can be as intelligent as a two and a half year old kid, so they might be as resourceful as your average toddler). They have the brain structures as well as the underlying hormonal chemistry necessary to experience emotions ranging from fear to ecstasy and apparently even jealousy. In short, dogs exhibit many of the feats that we tend to associate with conscious agents. Nevertheless, even the most enthusiastic dog-loving person would think it twice before proclaiming that when dogs stare blankly into space it is because they are lost in ruminations about the subtleties of their “canine condition” (even if they look as concentrated as any creature might). Dogs are certainly conscious, but we have no indication whatsoever to claim that such a level of self-awareness is available to dogs. What about a snake? is it at any rate conscious? probably yes, can we tell that a snake is “less” conscious than a dog? or that it has a more fundamental kind of consciousness? A protozoan? Does it have a yet more fundamental one? A silicon atom? Empty space?Where do we stop? Is there a critical point of no return at which the “conscious state” overtakes the “unconscious state”, something similar to the critical point of a phase transition? Or is it omniscient and present at a level in all that there is? Put in other terms, is consciousness an emergent phenomenon or is it fundamental?

Dozens of theories of consciousness spring all over the place with every tick of the clock. This theoretical over-fecundity is just another uncomfortable reminder of how little we know about the issue of consciousness. So few confident steps have been taken on this area, that still a multitude of directions seem to be worthy of exploration, even those that hold only the faintest hint of success are still being walked by crowds of die-hard renegades. I cannot be egalitarian and dedicate some lines to all the standpoints I have heard or read about (not that I feel very prompted to equality in this respect anyway), instead in what follows would like to briefly review a couple of them and finish off with my personal perception.

The “ghost in the machine” doctrine is the oldest hypothesis ever attempted to explain the awareness phenomenon. It is also the most ubiquitous one, virtually every culture that has ever existed has come up with their own version of it (perhaps singling out the Buddhist tradition that arose in eastern India around 600 BC which admittedly is a much more sophisticated ideology). Despite the multiple and independent birth-places and birth-times of the ghost-in-the-machine doctrine its central dogma has remained practically unmutated throughout all its incarnations, and to keep matters simple, its core ideology is actually very easy to enunciate, so much in fact that a single nutshell suffices to encapsule it (leaving enough room to accommodate the superfluous differences among the many ghost-in-the-machine variants). Essentially one just need to replace the word “ghost” by “soul” or “spirit” and the word  “machine” by “human” or “subject” to get a good idea of what the ancients had in mind when they speculated about what kind of entity is to blame for agency behind conscious beings. Only one ingredient is missing to get the full picture: the supernatural or divine ingredient that summons, or in fact secrets the ghost that haunts the machine. Grab this ghostly construct, wrap a mythology around it, flank it with a moral code (together with punishment rituals for the infractions) and all the religions ever engineered emerge naturally out of the mix.

The main objection to the ghost-in-the-machine theory of consciousness is painfully obvious: Not the slightest shred of evidence in favor of a soul haunting our bodies has ever been produced, let alone of the divine architect responsible for its very origin. On the other hand, there is solid evidence against the viability of souls.

By definition, souls are the ultimate recipients of our true identities. Souls are as unique as handcrafted trinkets, they’re endowed with a distinctive “personality”. In addition souls are not earth-bound entities, they inhabit our bodies but are not chained to the plane of material reality and they triumphantly prove their immaterial nature by surviving the death of their bodily cages. Now, here is the problem with that conception: it is a fact that damages in certain areas of the brain can radically change the personality of an individual. Reportedly, patients that have experienced injuries in the frontal lobes of their brains can see their ability to empathize with other fellow humans severely undermined. A brain injury in the right (or very wrong) place can effectively turn a compassionate person into a callous one. Such reports are incompatible with the possibility of souls with a perennial personalities since souls should remain unaffected by mundane contingencies. Unless of course you grant the ghost the right to remain pissed off by the unsigned remodeling to its home for as long as its host has the indecency to stay alive.

If the supernatural paradigm is the prototype of a top-down strategy to unveil consciousness then the “panpsychic” theory is the bottom-up approach par excellence. Panpsychism posits that consciousness is in itself a fundamental property of the universe, in its most literal version panpsychism states that all matter whether animate or inanimate has a mind. Panpsychic ideologies are nothing new under the sun, in particular, they form the core of the Buddhist philosophy. Some schools within the Buddhist tradition organize consciousness in 9 levels arranged as the layers of an onion. The outermost layers are related with the awareness as registered by our sensory devices (eyes, ears, etc.) and are taken as the most superficial kinds of consciousness we have access to. To peel layers off is equivalent to reach to more fundamental planes of consciousness until at the ninth layer of awareness we hit bottom. The ninth stratum pervades the whole universe by and large, it threads a cosmic web that connects all the elements contained within it and upon which all actions develop and all motives are originated. This resonates with the archetypal Buddhist precept that at the most fundamental level we are all interconnected components of a cosmic super organism. What are the weaknesses of the Buddhist paradigm? you might ask. Well, as insightful as it can be, it is based solely on intense subjective introspection. This does not necessarily rules out the argument as completely false or excludes it from being “on the right track” or “well-spirited” it simply forces us to take it at face value, something that will simply not do if we really want to uncover the mystery of consciousness until its bare bones are exposed. Putting eccentricities such as the existence of no more and no less than 9 levels of consciousness aside, Buddhistt philosophy feels to me as a well intentioned piece of thoughtful speculation.

More recently, panpsychic or, I should better say, “panpsychiesque” theories have come back with a vengeance. Their adherence to something like “intellectual honesty” varies widely according to the inclinations of their prophets. While some philosophers like David Chalmers approach the idea of universal consciousness with caution and bending over backwards to thread their arguments with as much logical rigor as possible, others are keen to rant assertions about cosmic psychic interconectedness with a startling degree of confidence as if they had been handed the ultimate truth in advance. Another common feature of the later breed of thinkers is their tendency to craft their arguments as loosely knitted chains of scientific-sounding wording. This style of argumentation seems at times deliberately meant to confuse the audience and at others plainly ignorant. Take the following piece of a speech by Deepak Chopra extracted from an interview with Stuart Hameroff. The remark came about while he tried to lay down some implications of living in a universe arising from nothing and returning to a final state of nothingness (as it might be the case if the observed expansion rate of the universe continues its accelerating trend) would have on the conscience of living beings: “when we go into this experience where observer, observed and process become one you are actually at (the) ground state and the ground state of the self, of you as an organism, is also the ground state of the universe. How could it not be?! Because, you know, there’s only one ground state, this ground state is immortal and therefore there’s a part of me which connects to that ground state which is immortal and embedded in this, (is) the potential, or, you might say the superposition of memories, desires, imagination, platonic values that exist in a superposition of possibilities. And when I die I probably go into this ground state which is part of a matrix, of perhaps, other individuals or beings and we are all entangled there while maintaining some kind of individuality, at least as potential and that this has the possibility of recycling”… if you found that impenetrable to comprehension then you know how I feel.

Among the most sophisticated and scientifically committed thinkers that advocate for a scientific paradigm shift that embraces consciousness as a fundamental quality we have Sir Roger Penrose and Giulio Tononi. I cannot do proper justice to the thesis of both of these gentlemen here mainly for two reasons. One: time and space limitation… books would be necessary to address these issues with the profundity they require. And two (way more relevant than “reason one”): I am not nearly qualified to go into the intricacies of Penrose’s and Tononi’s thoughts. So instead I present you here with a compactified interpretation of their ideas and then I will try to tie them up with my own position.

Penrose exposes his view on the causal origin of consciousness in an argument dubbed as “objective reduction ” upon which he elaborated at length on his 1994 book “Shadows of the mind”. For Penrose the kernel of consciousness does not emerge from the computations carried out by complex circuitry such as the neuronal networks of the brain, instead, the true nature of consciousness is quantum mechanical. (brace yourself, technicalities are on their way). Consciousness arises when a given superposition of quantum states ceases (that can be imagined as a collection of alternative realities waiting to be realized) collapses into a well determined universe state (one of the potential realities gets selected out and thus becomes real… for real). Here is where Penrose goes creative, he poses that the mechanism through which the superposition collapses has nothing to do with an external observer carrying out a measurement of the system (like would be merely witnessing it) as the traditional Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics would require, instead, he calls for the aid of quantum gravity to save the day. At the macroscale, the action of gravity between massive objects is a consequence of their capacity to warp the geometry of space-time around them. Space-time warping by mass-energy concentrations is precisely the stuff of Einstein’s general relativity theory. Quantum gravity is what would result from the (not yet consummated) marriage between general relativity and quantum mechanics. Penrose alludes to quantum gravity to explain that superimposed quantum states can be mapped onto a collection of microscopic space-time geometries with slightly different energy distributions. In this picture the collapse of the wave function is equivalent to picking a particular space-time geometry among the rest. The advantage of looking at the wave function collapse from a geometrical perspective is that in this way a responsible cause for the collapse materializes naturally: the influence of the gravitational field. When the difference between the gravitational energy associated to each of the space-time geometries that make up the superposition reaches a certain threshold then the superposition state decays into a definite unique geometry. Penrose conjectured that these kind of processes must be happening in the brain and that they hold the key to consciousness but he had no idea of which actual structure in the brain would be a good candidate to carry them out. It is then when Stuart Hameroff enters the picture and joins forces with Penrose by proposing that the microtubules that build up the neurons cytoskeletons are the perfect substrate upon which the “objective reduction” mechanism can happen. Together Penrose and Hameroff forged the “orchestrated objective reduction” that enshrines the microtubles as self-building quantum computers with variable geometries capable of generating consciousness via coherent behavior at the brain-scale. The theory is debatable in many points, it contains significant speculative steps and it is rather vague in some areas, however, the intellectual honesty and bravery of its authors (Penrose in particular) is laudable to say the least.

Introducing now Giulio Tononi’s version of consciousness. For Tononi, consciousness is the amount of “integrated information” within a physical system, then, in a very unexpected turn of events, Tononi baptized his theory as “integrated information theory (IIT)“. The value of integrated information in a system is represented by the Greek letter phi (Φ) and its what allow us to move up and down the consciousness ladder. More than the mathematical expression to calculate Φ we are concerned with knowing what Φ actually is?

To understand Φ Tononi uses two thought experiments involving a photodiode and a digital camera respectively. In the first case a human is put to compete against a photodiode in asserting whether a screen is illuminated or remains dark. In normal consitions the person does an equally good job as the photodiode at discerning light from darkness. However, the person has access to more information about the light than the photodiode does, for example, its color. All what the photodiode can do is to distinguish between two stats based on whether the threshold value of an electrical current running through it has been reached or not… in fact, it doesn’t even know that it is distinguishing between light and darkness, it only “cares” about the measurable output of a given input. What if the projection on the screen is a photographic image? Then the breach between the amount of information available to the diode and to the person by looking at it can only widen. Now replace the photodiode for a camera comprised of a million of binary on/off photodiodes. Such a camera is able to discriminate between a repertoire of 2 to the 1,000,000 states, clearly nearer to the patterns of light and dark discernible by a person. But does this bonanza of photodiodes puts the camera in a higher state of awareness than the single diode? No. The information processed by the camera has multiplied but is not integrated, instead, is only a linear superposition of the on/off signals of each photodiode acting completely independently from one another. We on the other hand can discriminate and read out information as an integrated system”one that cannot be broken down into independent components each with its own separated repertoire” to quote Tononi. In contrast with the camera, as soon as we are presented with an image we immediately establish a series of informational relationships that stem out from the simple act of observing, we see a a football player beaming with happiness after scoring the decisive goal in the world cup final and if we happen to be of the same nationality we might as well have own our share of ecstatic feelings. What ultimately determines how much integrated information a system is capable of harboring is the degree of interaction between its components. Low interaction = Low amount of integrated information = Low consciousness, conversely, high interaction is translated into a higher level of consciousness. The utmost conclusion that one can draw from this causal relationships is that they can grant a consciousness to inanimate objects. Computers are endowed with a degree of consciousness because they have a non-zero Φ.

Who is right? Penrose with his consciousness popping out from the spontaneous collapse of space-time geometries at the quantum scale or Tononi claiming that consciousness is in fact synonymous with integrated information? I believe we are not yet in a position to know towards which side balance tips (if is to tip towards any of these alternatives at all).

The curious fact is that these sort of theories were motivated to constitute antitheses of the more broadly accepted (but rather vague) paradigm, which is, that consciousness is an emergent property born naturally out of the complexity of a system. Maybe I am grossly missing the point here, but, I actually do not see a inherent incompatibility the complexity argument and both of these ideas, I would rather see them as complementary to it. Penrose’s view might be better understood as proposing a fundamental mechanism from which consciousness is attainable at all, a starting point for a kind of proto-conscience to come into existence. It then requires increasingly complex structures to come closer to resemble the consciousness we are familiar with, after all, microtubules alone cannot do the trick of generating intelligence, awareness or any kind of subjective experience, they serve their purpose once you locate them inside a complex brain with trillions of synapses embedded in a network of interactions of the uttermost complexity (even at the level of a single cell the complexity of the environment is staggering). Penrose’s mechanism can at best provide theoretical ground to explains how a potential for consciousness is inherent to the very fabric of the universe and how through the laws of quantum mechanics can give rise to a proto-conscience.

Once the spark of consiousness has been ignited within a sufficiently complex substrate one can summon Tononi’s integrated information parameter Φ as a tool to quantitatively measure its “levels of consciousness”. We would then have a method to account from the qualitative differences in the level of awareness of, say, a bonobo and a bacillum. In this way, both ideas could be accomodated to fill important gaps in the complexity paradigm by providing: a trigger for consciousness (Penrose) and a framework for its gradation (Tononi).

To say that consciousness is fundamental and seems to me, an abuse of language, or perhaps a symptom revealing that a new terminology is needed to address these matters. Perhaps my staunchest objection to the proclamation of consciousness as a new fundamental property of matter is that it has a deeply anti-unionist ring to it. As a physicist, I believe that unification endeavors tend to pay-off in practical, intellectual and also aesthetic terms, but above all, their rewards lays in that they gradually reveal a deeper underlying theme over which reality develops. If after moving heaven an Earth we still cannot conceive how consciousness can be built from already known blocks, then so be it, a new scientific paradigm will be mandatory. I just believe it is too soon to give up.


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