Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Consciousness, Free Will and the Physical Universe

This article is to outline a radical cosmological model, in which consciousness and free will have a central formative role in the evolution of the physical universe.

To begin, let's be clear about what we mean about these two elusive terms, consciousness and free will.

By consciousness I mean the innate capacity to have subjective experiences, the personal experiences of waking life, dream, memory and reflection and those other inner states we sometimes associate with vision, or even hallucination. This does not have to imply self-consciousness, nor is it the external differentiation between waking alertness of being conscious of a particular thing, or event, as opposed to being asleep, or in a coma, but the root capacity to have subjective sensory and other internal experiences.

By free will I mean the capacity to make autonomous personal decisions in a manner that is not completely pre-determined by the circumstances around us, including supposed logical causality, or the assumed determinism, or randomness, of physical processes. This doesn't imply will is absolutely free of external constraints, but that there is sufficient freedom for us to make autonomous decisions when we feel we do so, given the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

All sane people, whatever their proclivities, from religious fundamentalism to materialistic atheism, have a central investment and belief in their own personal autonomy. Although we know many of our life situations and decisions are wholly or partly determined by past and present circumstances around us, we all have an unswerving commitment to preserving our own personal autonomy and vehemently reject attempts by others to encroach on our sense of self and put us in a perceived state of psychological or physical entrapment.

The rule of law likewise depends on the principle that people are accountable for their actions because they have the freedom of choice to distinguish between right and wrong. Legal pleas of diminished culpability often hinge around attempting to demonstrate that this conventional assumption is mitigated through genetic predisposition, overwhelming emotional factors, or by reason of insanity, but otherwise the assumption is that a human of sound mind is culpable for their decisions and thus has the autonomous ability to make them.

However these social assumptions seem to be in conflict with the objective description of a physical universe, in which cause and effect predominates, and in which our decisions appear to be merely a product of biological brain function, determined in turn by the chemical dynamics of the molecules of which we are composed, in which subjective conscious appears to have no role, lacks any status as an objectively observable physical phenomenon we can reproducibly demonstrate in the laboratory, and is at best a kind of internal model of reality constructed by the brain to aid its responses to environmental threats and opportunities.

But this is an entirely insane proposition. It is one thing to embrace a vague existential philosophy paying lip service to the assumption that our subjective impressions are fooling us, while the underlying reality is just that of a very complicated machine. However anyone who seriously believed we have no personal autonomy, in full actuality, would become catatonic, unable to make any kind of autonomous conscious decision, being just a helpless product of their all too inevitable brain processes.

Although, as biological organisms existing in a physical universe composed of atoms and molecules, we are dependent on the physical world around us for our survival, and for our somewhat fragile brains and bodies to function, all our actual experience of the world, from birth to death, is gained purely and exclusively through our subjective conscious experience. Far from being the root existential reality, the physical world actually has a secondary derived status, as the common sense consensus of our shared personal experiences.

The complementarity of subjective consciousness and the objective physical universe is a root paradox that lies at the source of all our existential dilemmas, our religious visions and fantasies and any complete description of reality. Despite the ephemeral fragility of our biological brains in a wild universe at large, the veridical universality of subjective consciousness may be a more valid starting point for a complete cosmological description, as the medium through which we as conscious sentient beings, build up a consensual description of the objective physical world around us, in contrast to a purely objective description based on the physical universe, where all subjective experiences remain unverifiable shadow entities.

Although consciousness appears from outside to be merely an internal model of reality constructed by the brain, which includes non-physical experiences such as dreaming, how this internal reality is generated by the brain remains scientifically baffling and is in fact, sine qua non, the deepest unsolved problem of cosmology, more intractable even than the theory of everything we hope might unite gravity and the other cosmological forces of nature.

How the brain actually generates consciousness remains elusive, no matter how closely we pore over brain function using magnetic resonance imaging and magneto- and electro-encephalography. The best anyone has come up with so far is that conscious decisions involve the whole brain in coordinated functionality while subconscious processing happens regionally in a less connected manner.

We can begin to gain a clearer idea of what we are actually facing in this area if we look more closely at what conscious brains actually do for the organism. The notion that causal circumstances fully determine our decision making is pretty much a fantasy. In fact most decisions happen because there are many possible courses of action, not just one prevailing one determined causally by circumstances.

Moreover, most of the central decision-making dilemmas facing a living organism in the open environment are computationally intractable ones which a classical computer would be unable to solve in real time because the number of contingent factors grow super-exponentially causing the computer brain to become stranded at the crossroads. The salient example of such a situation is the traveling salesman problem - finding the shortest route around n cities. To solve this classically we have to test each path requiring n.(n-1).(n-2). ... .3.2.1 = n! ways. For say 5 cities this is trivial requiring checking 120 paths, but by the time we have 30 or so cities the problem could take the entire history of the universe to solve.

To get a really clear idea of what evolutionary advantages the conscious brain provides, consider a gazelle trying to get down to the water hole to drink and there are at least two paths, a shady one that might have a leopard and a stony one that might have a lion. Rather than trying to compute a solution the gazelle sniffs the air, listens carefully for any sounds of disturbance and sums up its experience intuitively in a hunch decision to take one of the paths, at the same time anxiously paranoid and ready to jump for its life at any discordant sensory shadow or rustle that might hint that a big cat is about to strike.

Note there is no logical way to determine where the predators are, only personal experience and intuitive hunch and the predators are also active sentent agents, so it is a prisoners' dilemma game of consciousness and will.

Subjective consciousness is clearly a supreme evolutionary adaption that anticipates threats to survival and the sometimes split-second application of conscious choice in will has just the required sliver of autonomy to alter outcomes in favor of survival, leading to a potentially endless chain of consequences that are responsible for the survival of our ancestors and our own ability to have the conscious experience of reading this article today.

Although philosophers have taken almost every conceivable position about free-will and its consistency, or inconsistency, with determinism, or quantum indeterminacy, traditional approaches to this problem are broadly divided between those with a 'religious' etiology and those based on 'scientific' notions of causality.

The religious view of free will is typified by the Judeo-Christian notion that God created the universe, but gave us free will to err so we could be punished. This gives rise to a limited freedom of will in a moral causality leading to eternal punishments in hell or a divine life in heaven. Even this degree of freedom has been theologically diminished by notions such as original sin, claiming that our freedom of choice has been fatally doomed by Eve's transgression in Eden in seducing Adam to eat the forbidden fruit.

This is really a conscious description, in which the natural physical world is just one facet of an imagined conscious realm that includes life after death, heaven and hell, demons and angels and in which the whole cosmological history is an apocalyptic passion play of humanity's disobedience to God's divine will.

Eastern traditions of Upanishadic and Buddhist thought add various degrees of subtlety to this picture. Buddhists believe in neither absolute free will, nor determinism. Buddhism preaches a middle doctrine, "inter-dependent arising" - something quite closely related to the picture we are going to unravel.

The religious perspective also leads to dualistic views, in which there are parallel streams of mental and physical phenomena. Descartes, who coined the term cogito ergo sum - "I think therefore I am" , envisaged a dualistic reality in which mental phenomena were concentrated in a homunculus, sometimes equated with the pineal body of the brain, where physical and mental processes were able to interact.

Tantric cosmology has subjectivity and objectivity starting out as a fully integrated complement, with Shiva and Shakti in intimate conjugal embrace, only to subsequently retreat into the dance of subjective consciousness distracted from its primordial awareness by becoming engrossed in the manifold phenomena of Maya in the physical world and its desires.

In contrast to the religiously-derived paradigms, the materialist perspective of physical determinism claims our decisions are just a product of our brain function, which is determined by past and present circumstances, through the mass action of molecular chemical processes following physical laws.

These ideas stem from a Newtonian classical idea of causality, made iconic by Laplace's claim that, given the equations of motion and the initial conditions, he could predict the future states of the physical universe.

However there are a host of reasons why this pre-destined view of the physical universe is incorrect. The first is that we have since discovered that the universe is not a classical mechanism, but is based on quanta which display complementary wave and particle aspects, which leave the actual evolution of the universe subject to quantum indeterminacy. We have also discovered that many unstable systems manifest chaotic dynamics, which although in a classical situation may be in principle deterministic, become unpredictable, due to the exponential growth of instabilities.

The advent of quantum physics has led some people, who would have denied free will because of physical determinism, to instead deny it because of the assumed randomness implied by quantum uncertainty.

This is where the exploration takes a really interesting and radical wist, so we need to examine the next few steps very carefully.

A quantum is a very paradoxical object. It can manifest either as a wave, or as a particle, but not both at the same time. The energy and momentum of the particle determine the frequency and wavelength of the wave and the squared amplitude of the wave in turn gives the probability of finding the particle at that point in space.

This means that quantum theory is a mix of two disparate ideas. The wave itself propagates deterministically according to a conservative wave equation, but the particle can appear anywhere in the wave, apparently randomly, with a probability fluctuating with the wave's amplitude.

To see how this works in practice, think of a wave interference experiment such as letting photons emitted from a light source pass through two slits to be absorbed on a photographic plate on the other side. Each photon is initially emitted as a discrete particle by an excited atom in the source, and then travels as a wave through both slits, before again being absorbed as a particle by an atom on the photographic plate.

We know the photon is a wave in between, because it passes through both slits and we get an interference pattern of bands on the photographic plate that correspond exactly to the interference of the waves emerging from each of the two slits, in the same way the rainbow colours on the underside of a CD are caused by wave interference of the grooves in the CD formed by the closely-spaced circular tracks.

This paradoxical quantum nature leads to all sorts of counter-intuitive consequences.

Firstly, it is possible to alter the experiment after the quantum has already been released, to change it retrospectively. For example we can cover one slit, or place a particle detector in it, after the photon is released from the source. The wave interference will then disappear and we will have a particle detection instead. This "delayed choice" type of experiment has become the basis of experiments on quantum erasure, where we can create and subsequently erase a quantum effect by recombining waves after the particle is emitted.

Another very intriguing counter-intuitive manifestation of quantum reality is the phenomenon of quantum entanglement. There are a number of ways we can, instead of just producing one particle in a wave function, produce two or more entangled in the same wave function. When we do this, although each of the particles has an undetermined random position and polarization within the amplitude fluctuations of the wave function, if we sample the state of one particle, the other instantaneously has the complementary properties, without requiring the time light would take to cross space following relativity constraints.

These two properties in combination imply that quantum uncertainty connects past and future states in a hidden anticipative hand-shaking relationship and that the apparent randomness in where the particle appears in the wave , the so-called collapse of the wave function, masks a hidden interconnectedness which we can see more clearly when two particles are caught in the same wave. All quantum interactions are in-principle time-reversible, reinforcing this hand-shaking view.

Quantum uncertainty leads to another notorious experiment which shows us how subjective consciousness might actually interact with the quantum world. Erwin Schrödinger, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, pointed out that, while the quantum description provides only a probability, our conscious experience reveals an actuality.

In his somewhat macabre experiment, he had a cat in a box with a flask of cyanide which would be released if a sample emits a radioactive scintillation, thus killing the cat. Because the scintillation is determined by the wave function of a leaky nucleus, quantum theory predicts the cat is both alive with probability p and dead with probability 1-p but when we open the box, the cat is demonstrably alive or dead, but not both.

There have been all manner of attempts to resolve this problem. Some physicists have indeed suggested that it is the consciousness of the observer which collapses the wave function. Some have said the wave function never collapses, but the future universe and us with it become endlessly divided into probability universes in which every outcome happens, but the probability clones of ourselves in each branch don't know the others exist.

Others have attempted to finesse the problem away by claiming that the quantum wave becomes fragmented in decoherence caused by interaction with other particles, in the process of an isolated quantum interacting with a macroscopic system containing many particles. But the problem remains that quantum theory predicts essentially an infinity of overlapping probability states replicating out of every interaction with no way to distinguish them - a problem I will call the dilemma of superabundance.

Rather than a superabundant superposition of all past and future multiverses, the universe we experience has an arrow of time in which there is a unique historical process emerging out of the vast collocation of possibilities emerging from all the interactions taking place - a process I will term historicity - the capacity to have a history emerging from the process which means that Napoleon didn't win the battle of Waterloo and Nelson did defeat the Danish after looking through the telescope with his blind eye and claiming not to see the signal of discretion to withdraw.

This adds plausibility to the notion that subjective consciousness, which appears to stand outside all objective physical phenomena, is a complementary phenomenon to the physical universe, which has a pivotal role in influencing its outcomes by reducing the superabundance of super-positions to an historical trajectory.

Now there are other reasons coming from cosmological physics itself which add weight to this argument. Not only are wave and particle paradoxical complements, along with the force-bearing bosons and matter forming fermions, but there is a fundamental inconsistency in the physical description between quantum theory and general relativity. While general relativity ties the dynamical attributes of energy and momentum to the curvature of space-time, quantum theory ties them to frequency and wavelength within space and time, an inversion of the relationship. While we are all hoping to come up with a consistent theory of everything, there is no guarantee the standard model of physics will extend to a consistent 'atomic', or string-based description amenable to a bottom-up causality based on principles of symmetry and symmetry-breaking. There are also signs that to resolve the existing forces consistently, other forces, such as hyper-weak and/or techni-color, might need to be invoked, leading to a potential fractal regress of natural laws.

Thus it has been suggested by physicists Brian Josephson, Lee Smolin and others, that the cosmological description may be fundamentally participatory, in a manner in which biological and evolutionary principles are central to cosmology and in which participatory recognition of descriptive signs formulating the model of reality are fundamental.

Certainly the brain is the most complex and fully elaborated cosmological expression of the four forces of nature in the quantum universe, being the most complete and elaborate expression of the two nuclear forces, and electromagnetism interacting under gravity to make the fractal supra-molecular complexes we call cell organelles, cells and tissues, alongside which the interiors of stars and even potentially those from black holes to dark matter are simpler and more energetically chaotic by comparison.

This provides a reason why subjective consciousness, as we know it, could be a phenomenon, not just of idiosyncratic biological evolution, but a fundamental property of cosmological physics and all wave-particle quanta, expressed most saliently in the conscious brain. This is consistent with the philosophies of Tantra and the Tao, both of which involve a complementarity between subject and object which admits a participatory cosmology which may be complete.

However it is scarcely credible that we fragile humans, together with some relatively similar vertebrates and a host of disparate arthropods, worms, fungi and plants could be solely responsible for the palpable existence of a universe full of vast energies and all-consuming galaxies and black holes, so the necessity for a participatory cosmology may mean there are other undiscovered forms of subjectivity, including forms associated with uncertain or chaotically unstable physical phenomena on a planetary, stellar or cosmic scale which, together with our conscious awareness, and those of the biota complete the capacity of the uncertain quantum universe to form a trajectory of historical becoming.

Because of the nature of subjectivity, which is not amenable to external observation, we would have little or no objective evidence for the subjective aspects of such unfamiliar processes. We have an intuitive impression that other humans have subjective awareness because we share subtle and complex forms of physical communication with people we know and particularly people we love. The brain is richly wired with mirror neurons because we have evolved as social beings highly adapted to sensing the conscious experiences of others through subtle clues.

At a base level we can envisage a subjective aspect being associated with the wave-particle complementarity and uncertainty of every quantum. Candidates for a coherent complementary subjective aspect might include chaotic weather processes such as climatic storms, the fluctuating dynamics of unstable lasers, the turbulent interiors of stars and even the intense vortices of black holes. However one should note that, in the context of the brain, several characteristics distinguish conscious awareness from the sub-conscious processing of individual brain areas, requiring coherent focused activity of the whole brain, and the capacity for memory to lay down a temporal trace which we can recall and recognize later. Even the conscious dreaming brain can lose sight of its wild internal adventures, when the dream process is so distractible that we often fail to recall we even had a dreaming experience, when we are jolted awake.

At face value this sounds a lot like an animistic or pantheistic cosmology, but it is neither based on animal spirits as such, nor the idea that nature deities permeate natural phenomena, but rather the universality of the subjective aspect of existential reality, given conducive physical circumstances. Hence the idea can act as an oracle for widening our notions of theology, deity and religion into a more reflective cosmological viewpoint.