Rewards from a failed attempt to ambush Neil deGrasse Tyson

Hayden Planetarium

By Ignacio Gonzalez

The past 18th of October Carolina, Josue and me were on a mission. We knew that if we were to successfully accomplish it then our bodies would pay the consequences dearly, undoubtedly our feet would take the highest toll. We managed to coincide in New York City after more than a year and a half from our last encounter. I was flying from Germany and they both from Mexico, not a small deal of organization, money and will had been put into the effort and we had to make the whole event count. The plan for the day was to visit not one, not two but three museums, and, we had to reach the third before 6:45 pm!… and none of us was wearing particularly comfortable shoes! It was too late to back off, the targets were set and the route planned, time had come to man-up, but much more importantly, to nerd-up. At 10:00 am sharp the doors were open: the American Museum of Natural History welcomed us!

And what a welcoming sight that was! You have not yet completely dragged yourself through the entrance door and you already need to pick up your jaw that has dropped to the floor while simultaneously your neck arches backwards in an effort to fully contemplate the figure of a towering sauropod skeleton (a Barosaurus) rising to its full frame. Luckily, if you already had the chance to walk around skyscraper-crammed Manhattan, maybe by then your anatomy is used to this uttermost anti-ergonomic posture. So imposing is the intimidating stance of the Barosaurus that one almost misses the Allosaurus which is provoking the defensive reaction in the first place. But when one does spot the (wannabe) predator, one cannot help to feel a bit of sympathy mixed with pity towards it. No matter how many dozens of razor-shaped teeth you can squeeze into your mouth, there’s no chance you’re going to take down such a leviathan. If the Allosaurus had rationalized that it surely wouldn’t have acted so cocky. But wait, not so fast! maybe the intended prey was never the gigantic long-necked dinosaur but instead its considerably smaller offspring that shies away behind the protective colossal parent. The Allosaurus was not that bold (or blatantly stupid) after all, it was just trying to get very very lucky.

We had only as much time as it took us to get our entries to contemplate that fossilized scene of Jurassic drama. Why the rush? cause we had less than 30 minutes before the big show began. You see, the American Museum of Natural History is a large place, so big that you could fit, say, a planetarium in it. And that is exactly what whoever is in charge of taking such decisions did. Thanks to an enlightened choice the Museum also serves as home for the Hayden Planetarium and it was there where we were heading. The featured space show was (and it still is) the “Dark universe” and I will be telling you in more detail about it in a moment but first allow me a slight deviation. The show is narrated by  Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. Chances are that the reader knows who Mr. deGrasse Tyson is, if not from his prolific scientific work as a physicist (mainly in the fields of cosmology and general relativity), or his contributions as an educator for the masses (he has authored or co-authored at least ten popular science books and he is the heir of Carl Sagan as the host of the totally refurbished version of the classic Cosmos TV series), then, at least because he has been meme-fied (or meme-rized, as you prefer) for posterity. As of right now myriads of hand-sketched deGrasse Tysons in an it-was-not-me sort of gesture swarm through the internet (open your facebook, he might be there… more than once). Tyson also happens to be the director of the Hayden planetarium but it is not that office what makes him the obvious candidate to guide us through the dark universe, probably not even his appropriate credentials were the decisive factor, surely if he had lacked that characteristic baritone voice of his then the job would have gone to another astrophysicist. On our way to the planetary dome I kept scanning the corridors looking for a sign saying something like “Dr. deGrasse Tyson office. Knock twice for an autograph. Thrice for free books” followed by an accusatory arrow but such a sighting never materialized. In a snap my hidden agenda simply vaporized, even being fully conscious of the naivety of my childish little plot I was not quite able to shake a tiny feeling of failure. However, I knew that as soon as the tour through the “Dark universe” began I would be more than compensated.

To understand the premise of the show first consider all what you can perceive with your own senses, all of that already encompasses a considerable fraction earthly and cosmic stuff. Now add to that bunch everything that you can detect aided by whichever piece of gadgetry or machinery that has ever been conceived, then your list has become immensely improved. Now you can also count electromagnetic radiation (or photons) of essentially any frequency you choose (radio waves, infrared, X-rays, gamma rays…) and a dazzling zoo of subatomic particles as entities that are perceivable. We have worked out how all those ingredients can cluster to produce a rich plethora of matter-energy states (matter and energy being ultimately interchangeable according to the über-famous Einstein’s equivalence E = mc2, where E stands for energy, m for mass and c is the speed of light). We have come to understand how liquids, solids, gases, plasmas, laser beams, rays of particles, Bose-Einstein condensates, and other rarities come into existence. And more recently we started to peer into fancy new states of matter-energy like “molecules of light“,”dropletones” and the first observed Majorana fermion. Indeed mankind has amassed a lot of physics over the last couple of centuries and with all that knowledge we have forged two powerful theoretical frameworks that together (but so far not united) span an umbrella under which we can accommodate almost every phenomenon ever registered: we have general relativity to explain gravity and the standard model of particles physics to deal with electromagnetism, the weak, the strong force and the whole cornucopia sub-atomic particles (in principle gravity could be included within the standard model but for that we still need to detect the yet unseen graviton that works as carrier for the gravitational force). The picture of the universe painted by all these couple of theories is quite impressive, but, and here comes the devastating blow to our ego as a species, it is also utterly and miserably incomplete.

Turns out that of all the stuff (matter and energy) that makes up our universe only around 5% of it can be explained in terms of our beloved theories, the remaining 95% is in a form which is totally unaccounted for by either the standard model or by general relativity. More precisely, to the best of our knowledge that 95% is made of around 27% of something called “dark matter” and 68% is an even more mysterious thing denominated as “dark energy”. One can almost hear the echo of the Nobel laureate physicist I. I. Rabi exclaiming “Who ordered that?!” as he did when he was informed about the discovery of the muon. Well, dark matter and dark energy is what the “Dark universe” show is all about, however, in this entry I will refer only to the former.

The complains start with the term “dark matter” itself. It is commonly regarded as a staunch reminder of the dull naming abilities of physicists (consider the examples: standard  model, black holes, or the quarks which come in  up, down, strange, charm, bottom and top versions… not exactly pearls of creativity). Dark matter is dark because we cannot see it, that is, because it does not emit or reflect light. Nevertheless, I cannot get rid of the feeling that “dark” does not quite work as a good label mainly because dark matter does not even absorb light which is  the single most transcendental characteristic of dark objects. Other than deflecting light due to its gravitational pull, dark matter remains supremely oblivious to the existence of photons. I think the name “transparent matter” would have been more accurate though perhaps with a weaker marketable punch, but then who asked my opinion?

The million dollar question that is begged at this point is: if we cannot “see” it then how do we even know that it is there? Well, I sort of let a spoiler slip through the last paragraph. We can be unmistakably aware of its presence due to its gravitational effects over “conventional” (or baryonic) matter as well as over light.

The first solid hints of the presence of dark matter came from the abnormal dynamics of stars within galaxies, more specifically, their rotational speed around the center of their respective galaxy. Just as the gravitational pull of the Sun causes the planets to go around it, all the stars contained within a galaxy describe elliptical orbits around their galactic center where most of the galaxy’s matter was thought to be concentrated. Furthermore, this distribution of matter should make the stars nearer to the center to go around faster than those located at the outskirts, however, this is not what is observed. The astronomer Vera Rubin cataloged several galaxies where the rotational speed of the stars is essentially the same  regardless of their distance to the galactic center. That is an astonishing fact on its own right but there were yet mor surprises in store. It turns out that the overall speed of rotation of the stars was simply too high, at those velocities the stars should get projected into the void of intergalactic space! The galaxies were spinning so fast that their gravity should be insufficient to hold them together unless: 1) Our theories of gravity had been embarrassingly wrong all along, an option too scary to contemplate or 2) There is more matter lurking in the galaxies than meets the eye (actually much more than that which we can see). It is via the option No. 2 how dark matter enters the picture and saves gravity.

More evidence. Matter and energy can bend the space around it (one of the central consequences of general relativity) and this bending can be measurable to a high degree of accuracy by a phenomenon called gravitational lensing where the light passing nearby a massive object (or collection of objects) suffers an apparent deflection due to the curved space around caused by the object itself. It is not that the light rays actually curve their path, they continue travelling in straight lines, it is that the flatness of space itself has been disrupted due to gravity! (curiously, Einstein was fully aware of this implication of his theory but he deemed the effect as to be too weak to ever be measured experimentally). Astronomers have measured the gravitational lensing due to large clusters of galaxies and determined that the amount of deflection of the light that they cause is much too large to be provoked by only the luminous matter seen in the clusters. Again, most of the matter is missing… or not, it is there but it refuses to be seen, it is dark. The list of experimental results demonstrating the existence of dark matter is very rich but I better move on rather than going through them all.

Mysteries exist to be solved, and, the more puzzling the mystery the higher the motivation to clear it out for good. Dark matter is one of the biggest mysteries of modern science, thus, it is not a surprise to have a surplus of theories competing for the “final answer” status. Physicists seem to have picked their favorite theory, one stating that dark matter is made of WIMPs! I do not mean that, over ridden by despair, physicists have resorted to loudly accuse dark matter of  having a feeble anatomy so as to at least vent out their frustration, WIMPs is actually an acronym that stands for Weakly Interacting Massive Particles. Surely the reader (as myself) cannot escape the feeling that, stated like this, this answer sounds like no answer at all. It is like living in a universe where corkscrews have not been invented and stumbling upon a bottle of wine, then, the stumbler accepts that he cannot think of any kind of known machine that would allow him to open the bottle and then theorizes that a WIBOD or Wine Bottle-Opener Device is just the type of machine that would solve the problem and walks away feeling elated for his cleverness. This is to me the same way in which WIMPs solve the problem of dark matter. WIMPs are particles with mass thus they can give rise to the gravitational attraction and they interact so weakly with ordinary matter as to almost obliterate our chances to detect them (they could be neutrinos, axions or another kind of supersymmetric particle. Only neutrinos have been detected so far), but is this not kind of reformulating the problem of dark matter but this time pretending that the act of restating it provides in itself a solution?

Then string theory  (or a family of string theories that have been amplified and re-baptized as M-theories) comes along and offers that gravitons are what actually constitute dark matter, quadrillions of them. The issue then is obvious, why if they are so numerous not a single one of them has been yet detected? String theory attempts to get away with this enigma by assuming two things: 1) Our three-dimensional spatial universe is actually a so-called brane embedded in a higher dimensional space which in principle can host many more branes, and 2) gravitons are tiny pieces of strings forming closed loops such that they do not have open ends which might anchor them to a particular brane. In this way gravitons are fundamentally higher dimensional entities that are free to travel from between branes. The only footprint they leave during their fleeting path across our brane-universe is their gravitational attraction. Interesting premise undoubtedly, but there is a deep stigma that prevents one from investing too much faith in string theories, none of them has been able to make predictions that can be experimentally tested. For a group of theories that have been around  for more than 30 years that is hardly an invigorating health signal (see Lee Smolin’s “The trouble with physics“).

As I said earlier, we do not suffer from a famine of ideas regarding the dark matter puzzle, nevertheless, I sense a strong imbalance or bias in the arguments of such theories. Briefly, what all of them basically do is to pick a particle (known or unknown) and hold it as their champion suspect for it being the stuff of dark matter. To the best of my knowledge there is not a single theory which dismisses the particle hypothesis altogether, which, leads me to ask the very obvious (and probably equally ingenuous) question: What if dark matter is actually not made of matter at all? and more importantly, if that is the case, then, of what else can dark matter be made of? Well… what about space itself? would that be a too crazy/stupid suggestion? maybe, but give it a chance for a moment.

Left to right: Me, Triceratops, Carolina, Josue

Imagine that space itself has an intrinsic and particularly intricate “curvature pattern” at a cosmic scale. How could this come to be? consider the possibility that during the very early period of expansion of the universe some regions of space “flattened” at a slower rate than others, and that the places where those regions would be located were somehow determined by the positions where the earliest clusters of matter got nucleated. Afterwards, as the universe continued to grow, the regions where matter agglomerated to form stars and galaxies co-evolved forever entangled with those primordial regions of “crumpled” space, creating a super structure of unevenly stretched space that survives nowadays. Of course, this is wild speculation. I do not attempt to provide a mechanism explaining how the clustering of matter promoted a network of spatial “wrinkles” additional to the amount of space curvature induced by virtue of the clusters’s own mass, nor I can explain why  those regions have not been yet totally flattened by further cosmic expansion. I would only like to provide a new perspective from which to look at the problem of dark matter that does not consist solely on hunting for the right kind of particle, and at the same time, raise speculation about the potentially crucial role that space itself might play in this puzzle.

Well, this is a juicy topic and it is impossible to do justice to it in a single blog entry, undoubtedly these dark matters will be routinely addressed in this space. Before finishing this post I would only recommend that if a visit to the American Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium within it is within your reach, then, do not miss the chance! Go watch “Dark Universe” and enjoy the show… oh, and the dinosaurs, enjoy the dinosaurs, they are forever cool!


On cosmic fleshy rings and other sensible nonsense

Nasa/JPL/Space Science Institute

“Circumcision of Christ” by Friedrich Herlin









By Ignacio Gonzalez

One of the many cool features of friends is that they have the sensibility to peer into our interests, scrutinize them and then come to us with suggestions, pieces of information or advice about how we can enrich them or pursue them more effectively. Over a month ago my friend Fernando Castillo exercised this sort of kindness in a spectacular manner. He stumbled upon a block of information, picked it up, and quickly realized that it might just fill in a crucial gap in the knowledge of the members of the “Manglaristas” Whatsapp chat group, a group to which I belong along with three other friends from my adolescent years.This was no ordinary block, it was a diamond worthy of a shrine and I will be forever grateful to “Fercas” for having handed it to us. Genuine selflessness!

Without more preamble, here is what all the fuss is about:

Back in the XVII century there was a Vatican librarian that went by the name Leo Allatius. Mr. Allatius was a passionate theologian and had an interest in astronomy, thus, he set up his talents to arrange a rendezvous between both disciplines. The result of the affair? a literary piece titled “De Praeputio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Diatriba” (or for us who are not fluent in dead Latin: “Discussion concerning the Prepuce of our Lord Jesus Christ”, a great example of how the act of translation can immediately strip away all sophistication). Essentially, this work was Allatius’s shot at solving two big mysteries of his age in a single master stroke: Where did the prepuce of Jesus go after his death? and what are Saturn’s ring made of?… I am pretty sure that at this point the reader is able to connect the dots but just for the sake of completeness I will explicitly outline Allatius’s thesis: Jesus’s holy foreskin was lifted into the heavens and turned into the trademark ornament of the solar system’s poster child, or put more bluntly, the annular piece of skin had been enlarged to colossal proportions and placed around Saturn for eternity. The simplicity of the argument is only matched by its wishful naivety.

One last point about this peculiarly bizarre issue. Back in the day the quest over the fate of Jesus’s foreskin was not treated as a superfluous or morbid topic, after all, which among all the alleged holy relics could surpass in holiness an actual part of the savior’s own body? To trace back its whereabouts was a dignified “field of research” for centuries. On defense of those antique persons obsessed with circumcision leftovers, I assume that only a small fraction of  17th century businesses would not look bizarre through a 21st century lens (well, maybe this is not the best example of long-forgotten oddities, turns out that the holy foreskin hunt might not have totally died out after all).

The somewhat more subtle but by far more relevant point of the story has to do with what you might call an “intellectual dichotomy”  very characteristic of the human species: humans are capable of coming up with a “circumcisionist” theory of Saturn’s rings and simultaneously master science and engineering in order to manufacture telescopes powerful enough to observe those same rings in the first place. To achieve the latter you need an accurate understanding of (a set of ) the natural laws which govern the universe, while to conjure the former you need to perform mind-bending intellectual gymnastics so those same natural laws can be forced to conform to preconceived dogmas that have nothing to do with reality. It is even more remarkable to realize that a single person is fully capable to harbor these two essentially opposed methodologies to apply them alternatively to examine the world and come to terms with its workings.

It appears that sensical and non-sensical approaches to get a grasp on reality can cohabit a single brain without generating unbearable amounts of intellectual friction. Remember for example that the same guy that revolutionized the physical sciences by single-handedly inventing calculus on a fine summer, also invested many years of his life trying to turn less precious metals into gold as well as finding hidden messages encrypted in the Bible (I am referring to Sir Isaac Newton and not to Gottfried Leibniz, in case a clarification is needed). It is as if whichever circuitry allocated in the brain and assigned to deal with evidence-based, logic-bound kind of thinking does not make short circuit with the circuitry used for faith-based, superstitious-bound kind of thinking. I suppose that if you hold a compartmentalized view of the brain as composed of several specialized sub-units capable to act independently if so is required, then, the possibility of this chiaroscuro so inherent to the human mind is not quite challenging after all. I however have a hard time comprehending how a single mind juggles between both lands and still holds (or struggles to hold) a cohesive personality. I do not question the viability of humans shifting from a reasonable thinking mode in the morning to a superstitious one in the afternoon, so to say, I only stare mildly aghast at how their brains swiftly accomplish the shift without incurring into an “operative system breakdown”.

The key to understand why it is possible to hold a defined set of superstitious beliefs and not develop a rational/irrational split personality is to realize that this danger does not exist in the mind of the superstitious subject in the first place, instead, it is only conceivable for an observer that acts as a judge of what is rational and what is irrational according to his own internal paradigm. We humans need to make sense of stuff at any cost and it is precisely this universal impulse what forbids the holder of a non-sensical belief to even realize about the falsehood of the belief in question. Whenever you are able to realize by yourself that some tenet or idea does not make sense, you simply stop holding it as true and immediately discard it, but if you gloss over the falsehood of any given proposition then you will most likely find a way to rationalize it and make it true, even if this requires to build an ideological cathedral that defies reality. To “make sense” is as vital for a well functioning brain as water is for a human body.

The rationalization of otherwise non-sensical beliefs can be an extremely demanding mental exercise. Despite of being so there is an eagerness in many people to push their conscious minds to square the circle (an impossible geometrical feature), I believe this universal impulse can be traced back to a fundamental property of brains: to create or to complete patterns. The human brain is remarkably good at patterning, and that is alright, if it were incapable of doing so then we would have long perished as a species. Ironically the problem might be that the brain is actually too outstandingly good at this task that it quickly “sees” patterns where none are there (take for example how easily we are fooled by optical illusions). Rapid pattern recognition it is just one among many evolutionary traits with a double edge; while it enables us to make quick life-or-death decisions with incomplete information (especially important when your habitat is a predator-packed grassland) it is also to blame  for distorting our perception of the real world out there. Needless to say that our brains carry out a good deal of this sort of automatic “photoshopping” behind the plane of your awareness, i.e. subconsciously. In my view, rationalization can be seen as a conscious effort to make propositions about reality to conform to preconceived patterns or cannons, in other words, it would be like the conscious counterpart of the subconscious patterning labor that our brain performs so well.

As with patterning, rationalization is a double-edged tool. On the one hand it is essential for assimilating ideas and on the other  it vindicates false propositions by nesting them within a true, or at least more reasonable, framework. Perhaps the widest and simplest mode of rationalization consists of creating a mental bucket, label it as “fundamentally incomprehensible” and then drop all those facts and/or ideas that are deemed as impossible to understand even after only the slightest scrutiny. I apologize if it sounds condescending or unfair, but it is quite common to see how a fair amount of people do not seem bothered in the slightest degree when they regard entire domains as to be fundamentally beyond comprehension, as if enveloped in an impenetrable halo of mystery. Common examples are the beliefs about the existence of ghostly entities, wandering spirits, and all kinds of otherworldly creatures as well as with witchcraft, curses and the like. It is even worse when some domains are considered to be even beyond all scrutiny or questioning as it may happen with the literal interpretation of sacred books or religious mandates. These types of rationalization seem so lazy that it is even hard to concede that there is a process of reasoning behind them, nevertheless they definitely require a deliberate act of classification or categorization in order to separate matters that can be ultimately comprehensible from those over which any kind of inspection is meant to be futile. But do not be deceived by the ingenuity of this apparently mindless classification process, after all, it is not hard to see how to abandon all lines of inquiry over a whole class of issues can easily lead to the erection of taboos, which of course is a highly toxic practice.

There are of course much more ingenious attempts at making sense of all sorts of grandiose claims, some of which I find incredibly curious. Generally, this other kind of rationalizations consist of very  delicate intellectual constructions where many times the original propositions end up so distorted as to be essentially unrecognizable. But why the need of such a stupendous act of intellectual contortion to rationalize the unreasonable? it is necessary because the final goal is to create a map that can accommodate unfounded claims onto facts supported on as much evidence as possible. This map is solely built upon analogies, metaphors, interpretations, code-talking and other devices to strain or straightforwardly misuse language. No surprise then that once the task is accomplished we end up with and undecipherable knot where we can hardly discern the original content of whichever proposition we wanted to make sense of.

One of my favorite cases of “extreme” rationalization is Frank Tipler’s interpretation of the Holy Trinity (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit). You see, Tipler is a physicist and as such he took over the improbable task of reconciling Christianity with theoretical physics. Do not believe me? well, he is author of a book which is actually titled “The physics of Christianity“… there you go. There he goes away with “explaining” the virgin birth of Jesus, his ability to walk over water and even his resurrection, none of which I will touch here, instead I will elaborate a little over how he found the three Holy persons of Christianity lurking in disguise within an important cosmological concept: the singularity.

An example of a singularity is that which is thought to occur at the center of a black hole where the gravitational force has an infinite value and the laws of physics (as they are currently formulated) simply break down, this is, we do not yet know how to apply them to predict what would occur to a test particle under such extreme conditions. Other singularity is thought to have taken place at the beginning of the universe when space and time themselves suddenly arose from this singular state. Well, it is precisely the latter type of singularity the one which Tipler identifies as God (the Father) himself. Not metaphorically speaking, the point of infinite mass-energy from which the universe sprung into existence is God in Tipler’s view… alright fair enough. Then comes a second “present singularity” in his sanctified physical model and here things start to get weird(er). First of all Tipler assumes that we live in a universe contained within a much larger multiverse and then justifies the multiverse’s existence on the validity of quantum theory which he interprets as a “theory of possiblities”, this is a bold move but not yet a completely implausible one (although this is not the most popular approach to the multiverse). Then, if the number of universes living within the multiverse is infinite then there are infinite copies of ourselves inhabiting an infinite set of those universes. Each one of us (as well as our copies) are of course limited to exist within the confines of a single universe and cannot jump from one to another (no odd encounters with your own self from another universe are allowed), however, this mysterious “present singularity” can travel between universes at will, after all what good is a singularity for if it needs to surrender to physical laws? and oh, yes, I almost forgot, the “present singularity” is Jesus Christ, hopping across the multiverse to make sure that no one, absolutely no one is deprived of the chance to be saved. The third and last singularity is the point-like end of the multiverse, the final singularity created when the whole multiverse faces its death. This final singularity is only possible if you assume that the multiverse happens to be a “closed multiverse” since only this kind of multiverse will collapse back onto itself in a big-crunch style. If you are counting then you already know that this final singularity must be identified with the Holy Spirit according to Tipler’s scheme, not many options left anyway. Unfortunately for Mr. Tipler almost all theories involving closed universes and big-crunches have lost a great deal of credibility in modern cosmology since it is now known that far from contracting, the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate and there does not seem to be enough matter-energy within it in order to drive an eventual re-collapse. So, in three strokes of truly cosmic proportions Tipler merrily announces that he has proven the existence of the Holy Trinity. But again, you do not have to believe me, you can listen to it yourself.

There you have how the human hunger for sensibility has driven a man to speculate that heavenly bodies can be adorned by huge rings of flesh and another to summon a universe-hopping Jesus, better to have an explanation that none at all… right?

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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