Consciousness as a State of Matter

Why Physicists Are Saying Consciousness Is A State Of Matter, Like a Solid, A Liquid Or A Gas
A new way of thinking about consciousness is sweeping through science like wildfire. Now physicists are using it to formulate the problem of consciousness in concrete mathematical terms for the first time

We perceive the external world as a hierarchy of objects, whose parts are more strongly connected to one another than to the outside. The robustness of an object is de

We perceive the external world as a hierarchy of objects, whose parts are more strongly connected to one another than to the outside. The robustness of an object is de fined as the ratio of the integration temperature (the energy per part needed to separate them) to the independence temperature (the energy per part needed to separate the parent object in the hierarchy).

There’s a quiet revolution underway in theoretical physics. For as long as the discipline has existed, physicists have been reluctant to discuss consciousness, considering it a topic for quacks and charlatans. Indeed, the mere mention of the ‘c’ word could ruin careers.

That’s finally beginning to change thanks to a fundamentally new way of thinking about consciousness that is spreading like wildfire through the theoretical physics community. And while the problem of consciousness is far from being solved, it is finally being formulated mathematically as a set of problems that researchers can understand, explore and discuss.

Today, Max Tegmark, a theoretical physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, sets out the fundamental problems that this new way of thinking raises. He shows how these problems can be formulated in terms of quantum mechanics and information theory. And he explains how thinking about consciousness in this way leads to precise questions about the nature of reality that the scientific process of experiment might help to tease apart.

Tegmark’s approach is to think of consciousness as a state of matter, like a solid, a liquid or a gas. “I conjecture that consciousness can be understood as yet another state of matter. Just as there are many types of liquids, there are many types of consciousness,” he says.

He goes on to show how the particular properties of consciousness might arise from the physical laws that govern our universe. And he explains how these properties allow physicists to reason about the conditions under which consciousness arises and how we might exploit it to better understand why the world around us appears as it does.

Interestingly, the new approach to consciousness has come from outside the physics community, principally from neuroscientists such as Giulio Tononi at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

In 2008, Tononi proposed that a system demonstrating consciousness must have two specific traits. First, the system must be able to store and process large amounts of information. In other words consciousness is essentially a phenomenon of information.

And second, this information must be integrated in a unified whole so that it is impossible to divide into independent parts. That reflects the experience that each instance of consciousness is a unified whole that cannot be decomposed into separate components.

Both of these traits can be specified mathematically allowing physicists like Tegmark to reason about them for the first time. He begins by outlining the basic properties that a conscious system must have.

Given that it is a phenomenon of information, a conscious system must be able to store in a memory and retrieve it efficiently.

It must also be able to to process this data, like a computer but one that is much more flexible and powerful than the silicon-based devices we are familiar with.

Tegmark borrows the term computronium to describe matter that can do this and cites other work showing that today’s computers underperform the theoretical limits of computing by some 38 orders of magnitude.

Clearly, there is so much room for improvement that allows for the performance of conscious systems.

Next, Tegmark discusses perceptronium, defined as the most general substance that feels subjectively self-aware. This substance should not only be able to store and process information but in a way that forms a unified, indivisible whole. That also requires a certain amount of independence in which the information dynamics is determined from within rather than externally.

Finally, Tegmark uses this new way of thinking about consciousness as lens through which to study one of the fundamental problems of quantum mechanics known as the quantum factorisation problem.

This arises because quantum mechanics describes the entire universe using three mathematical entities: an object known as a Hamiltonian that describes the total energy of the system; a density matrix that describes the relationship between all the quantum states in the system; and Schrodinger’s equation which describes how these things change with time.

The problem is that when the entire universe is described in these terms, there are an infinite number of mathematical solutions that include all possible quantum mechanical outcomes and many other even more exotic possibilities.

So the problem is why we perceive the universe as the semi-classical, three dimensional world that is so familiar. When we look at a glass of iced water, we perceive the liquid and the solid ice cubes as independent things even though they are intimately linked as part of the same system. How does this happen? Out of all possible outcomes, why do we perceive this solution?

Tegmark does not have an answer. But what’s fascinating about his approach is that it is formulated using the language of quantum mechanics in a way that allows detailed scientific reasoning. And as a result it throws up all kinds of new problems that physicists will want to dissect in more detail.

Take for example, the idea that the information in a conscious system must be unified. That means the system must contain error-correcting codes that allow any subset of up to half the information to be reconstructed from the rest.

Tegmark points out that any information stored in a special network known as a Hopfield neural net automatically has this error-correcting facility. However, he calculates that a Hopfield net about the size of the human brain with 10^11 neurons, can only store 37 bits of integrated information.

“This leaves us with an integration paradox: why does the information content of our conscious experience appear to be vastly larger than 37 bits?” asks Tegmark.

That’s a question that many scientists might end up pondering in detail. For Tegmark, this paradox suggests that his mathematical formulation of consciousness is missing a vital ingredient. “This strongly implies that the integration principle must be supplemented by at least one additional principle,” he says. Suggestions please in the comments section!

And yet the power of this approach is in the assumption that consciousness does not lie beyond our ken; that there is no “secret sauce” without which it cannot be tamed.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a group of young physicists embarked on a quest to explain a few strange but seemingly small anomalies in our understanding of the universe. In deriving the new theories of relativity and quantum mechanics, they ended up changing the way we comprehend the cosmos. These physcists, at least some of them, are now household names.

Could it be that a similar revolution is currently underway at the beginning of the 21st century?

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1401.1219: Consciousness as a State of Matter

Read more: https://medium.com/the-physics-arxiv-blog/5e7ed624986d

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4 thoughts on “Consciousness as a State of Matter

  1. “Tegmark points out that any information stored in a special network known as a Hopfield neural net automatically has this error-correcting facility. However, he calculates that a Hopfield net about the size of the human brain with 10^11 neurons, can only store 37 bits of integrated information.”

    So on what basis does Tegmark assume that the node of the network is the neuron?

    It could be a much smaller unit – the microtubles – and even include cells other than neurons.

  2. There is an effect that each of us can do and is not mentioned.

    Consider that we can temporally compress events that take long periods of time to actually evolve – in an instant.

    Imagine a rotating or a moving object – we don’t need to sit there for the entire duration of the event to imagine it, we do it immediately yet the process itself takes time to actually occur.

    It doesn’t have to be predicable either – ” a glass of iced water, we perceive the liquid and the solid ice cubes as independent things even though they are intimately linked as part of the same system.” but we can just as easily imagine its dynamic nature with the ice cubes randomly swirling after being stirred, the slow melt etc. all in an instant.

    I’ve dubbed this temporalidium – an element of perceptronium that adds temporal comprehension to the definition of perceptronium.

  3. This is what happens when people think their evolved intuitions indicate how the world has to work. Much respect for Tegmark, but this is a snipe hunt. Why oh why assume that consciousness has to be a unified whole? We have so much counterevidence for that. Like all the various kinds of brain damage that interrupt parts of perception without breaking the illusion of wholeness.

    Relatedly: have you read Blindsight? rifters.com/real/Blindsight.htm It’s a free sci-fi novel that gives a good summary of all the things that can go wrong in a human brain without us noticing.

  4. If a fifth state of matter, that is fine, but where is the phase change? From what to consciousness? Sounds more like a state of mind than a state of matter. This is just a new twist on quantum mind.

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