Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Has Ed Witten Given Up On Consciousness?

Sad to say, but many physicists seem to be on the verge of giving up. Some think they’ll never know how the universe came to be, The multiverse is basically a cop-out, an excuse for abandoning the search for answers. The other big bugaboo is consciousness. As John Horgan reports on Scientific American’s Cross-Check, no less a superstar than Edward Witten now believes that consciousness “will remain a mystery.” All this pessimism comes as a result of many decades of failure to make significant progress on the hard questions.

The answers the physicists are seeking can be found on this blog. So far, however, I’ve seen no indication that anybody believes that. The biggest stumbling block may be that I’m an engineer, not a physicist, so I’m a crackpot, in their minds. But setting that aside, I think that there are serious stumbling blocks in the material itself. One is that the current paradigm—the way physicists look at the world—has been so successful up to now that they’re unable to believe that it has reached the end of its usefulness and a new paradigm is needed, which is exactly what I’m proposing.

A second stumbling block is consciousness. They don’t know what it is, but it’s obvious to them that it’s an emergent phenomenon generated in the brain, while I’m saying that it’s fundamental, that in fact it’s the source of the universe. Obviously some sort of zen craziness, right?

In this post I’d like to focus on consciousness. Nothing I haven’t already said in other posts, but emphasizing the really critical, impossible-to-understand points.

First of all, what is consciousness? As I explained here, human-style consciousness is a thought thinking itself. A what? Now that’s a mind blower, isn’t it? Brains think thoughts; thoughts don’t think themselves, right? Actually, there’s one thought that does think itself. “I think, therefore I am.” Remember that? “I” is a thought, isn’t it? And what that statement really means is “I observe myself, therefore I exist.” Or, actually, “I think myself, therefore I exist.” René Descartes may not have realized it, but he had discovered that consciousness is a thought that thinks itself, actually creates itself, because to think myself is to exist.,

Yes, to think myself is to exist, and it works the other way, too--to exist is to think myself or to be conscious. Consciousness is the same thought as existence—they’re identical concepts. This point is absolutely crucial. If you don’t get it, you may still be able to do the physics, but you’ll never completely understand the universe.

It makes sense that there’s something in the universe that creates itself because if everything had to be created by something else, nothing could ever exist. That something, we’ve found, is existence or consciousness—same thing. It creates itself, so it can never die. But wait! “I” can certainly die—must die, in fact. Well, yes and no. A thought that creates itself is self-referential, and self-reference is known to lead to logical paradoxes. In case you hadn’t noticed, the universe is full of paradoxes, or dualities, as physicists call them, and the physicists have found a neat way to deal with them. It’s Danish physicist Niels Bohr’s principle of complementarity. Say two observers examine something in different ways and reach contradictory conclusions about its nature—it can’t possibly be both ways at the same time. Bohr’s principle says that’s OK as long as no single observer can see it both ways at the same time. It’s OK if one observer sees it one way and another observer sees it as something completely incompatible. This is another crucial point, because in spite of what I’ve said about consciousness never dying, the “I” that we know always dies.

Maybe you’ve already guessed the solution. Yes, there are two “I”s. Consciousness has two aspects, that is, there are two ways of looking at it. The first is purely logical. It creates itself and nothing else. It’s outside of time. It never changes. However, it has a logical structure. There’s the consciousness that observes itself, there’s the consciousness that’s observed, and there’s the relationship between these two—identity. Three thoughts. Any time you have more than one thought, you automatically have still more. With three you can make at least seven, and so on ad infinitum. The existence of existence implies a huge number of thoughts arranged in logical levels with the thoughts on each level implied by the thoughts on the preceding level. This is a purely logical progression—it has nothing to do with time. This aspect of existence is atemporal, as is the “I” associated with it. It never dies.

On the other hand, that logical progression from level to level looks an awful lot like a set of thoughts expanding in time. Well, it is. That’s just another aspect of existence or consciousness—just another way of looking at it. Both ways are correct. The first way is the logical, atemporal way, and the second is the physical, temporal way. Why physical? Because you can make the entire physical universe out of that expanding set of thoughts. As I explained beginning here, you just give those thoughts a new name—I’ve chosen spacetime points, and the rest is not difficult, as I’ve explained in many of the posts on this blog following the one just mentioned.

So, Edward Witten, don’t give up. Consciousness is just that thought you call “I”. Don’t overthink it. It’s the explanation for everything, including itself. It creates itself, thinks itself. No other explanation is possible or needed. But remember that it has two aspects. It’s the atemporal one that creates itself. The temporal one is created by your brain and dies when you do.