The Open Mind

Cogito Ergo Sum

Consciousness and the Laws of Physics

with 4 comments

When most people hear the word “consciousness”, they tend to think of what I refer to as “mental consciousness”, that is, the mental process of awareness, self-awareness, or experience in general.  However, I prefer to think of consciousness as a fundamental type of awareness (i.e. an ability to respond to stimuli).  On top of this, I believe this property of awareness applies to “non-living” systems as well.  One idea I’d like to discuss in this post is the idea that “consciousness”, or a “universal consciousness” exists as some driving force in the universe such that experience, awareness, response to stimuli (e.g. physical motion), etc., precipitate from it.  In a nutshell, I equate this universal consciousness with the laws of physics.

Traditional Consciousness

If we look at the traditional view of consciousness, it seems to be the “I” (a combination of an unconscious and conscious driver) or more appropriately the “me”, that is, it is some concept of “self” that subsequently experiences and/or drives all of the constituent processes that constitute our experience.  If we look at consciousness from a physicalist perspective, we are led to the idea that consciousness is nothing more than particular physical processes produced and mediated by the brain.  What is important here is that the fundamental physical processes that produce and mediate consciousness, are processes which are ultimately driven by the laws of physics.  That is, the motion of all molecules, atoms, electrons, ions, etc., which are intricately interacting to produce this mental consciousness, are all governed by the laws of physics.

Mental Consciousness

Looking at mentally conscious beings such as ourselves, we have incoming sensory data/stimuli leading to perceptions which eventually coalesce with our pattern recognition systems such that cognitive processes (e.g. concepts/thought, language, problem solving, learning, memory, etc.) begin to drive our behavior based on our brain’s response to not only this incoming information, but also to its relationship with any information that has been previously acquired.  We could summarize this by saying that we have conscious thoughts or motivations (as well as unconscious motivations) serving as complex stimuli which we physically respond to by behaving in various ways.  In other words, we started with elementary stimuli which led to more complex stimuli finally driving our behavior as mentally conscious beings.

Consciousness of Fundamental Living Systems

If we then look at brainless organisms (e.g. bacteria, etc.), we see some similar properties of responding to stimuli thus driving micro-scale motion and any other aspects of behavior at that scale.  We seem to have lost the possibilities of perception and self-awareness with this type of organism, but the property of sensation and awareness, that is, the ability to respond to its environment (through electro-photo-chemical signals), is conserved.

Consciousness of Non-Living Systems

Finally, if we look at energy quanta (e.g. photons, gravitons, etc.) as well as the smaller-scale constituents of matter (e.g. atoms, electrons, subatomic particles, etc.), we see that they respond to the fundamental forces governed by the laws of physics.  If the magnitude and direction of those forces change, the response changes.  Once again, the property of awareness (i.e. an ability to respond to stimuli) is conserved.

An Evolving Consciousness

Looking at this in terms of consciousness evolution, we started with particles and energy quanta that were fundamentally “aware” of the fundamental forces.  When organized a particular way (given a particular environment), this led to a higher level of awareness (e.g. electro-photo-chemical sensation) as seen in cellular organisms.  Then upon further organization, an even higher level of awareness was reached (e.g. perception and thought) as is seen in the multi-cellular organisms that possess brains.  Eventually, this led to particular brain configurations which yielded the highest level of awareness we’ve observed thus far (e.g. self-awareness).  It is at this point (self awareness) that a being’s mental consciousness includes the experience of realizing that it is a mentally conscious being.  One could perhaps describe this type of awareness as a profound way that the universe has become aware of itself.

Final Thoughts and Questions

We could say that every “level” of consciousness or awareness that seems to exist is but one step in a series driven by the fundamental universal consciousness which increasingly approximates complete awareness of the universe (or at least some maximal level).  This leads me to several questions:

– Are there any other levels of awareness that we are not aware of?

– If there are other types of awareness in which we are constituents of some “higher” level, can we come to know those higher levels, or are certain epistemological limitations in place to prevent this kind of knowledge (analogous to brain cells being unaware of the self-producing brain that they constitute)?

– If the universe has a finite amount of time before all “higher” levels of awareness are reduced to the fundamental form from which they came (due to the second law of thermodynamics leading to an inevitable heat death), what will the climax of awareness consist of, or at the very least, what are some plausible climaxes of awareness?

– If the universe is cyclical (e.g. Big Bang and Big Crunch ad infinitum), will every iteration consist of the same climax of awareness, even if the laws of physics change (e.g. physical constants), and despite the possibility of there being some level of ontological randomness?

Advertisements

Written by Lage

November 16, 2012 at 9:58 pm

4 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Hi! Enjoyed your blog. You should read the book “incognito” by David Eagleman. Fascinating book about the brain and consciousness. There is nothing other than the self. 🙂

    npresa

    November 16, 2012 at 10:40 pm

    • Thanks. I read the “Incognito” description on Amazon. It looks like it’s up my alley. I’ve read about Libet’s experiments and other neurological tests basically implying that our conscious experience occurs after an unconscious (or at least “pre-conscious”) decision has been made. The concept of unconscious motivations in general is interesting. In one post I wrote about our knowledge of the brain, and physics in general and how this affects the fate of classical free will. As you’ll find out, I’m an illusionist. What are your thoughts?

      I see Eagleman talks about brain damage in his book. I think that brain damage and the pathology it has produced illustrates how fragile the brain is and how non-local the processes are. Consciousness and all mental processes are correlated with large distributions of neural network patterns spanning the bulk of the brain. When one area is damaged, we can see the symbiotic/holistic relationship that exists between all the parts. The fact that we can learn so much simply by looking at a brain that isn’t functioning “normally” is simply remarkable.

      The physical communication medium behind conscious perception appears to be the neurotransmitters present in the brain, and we can see how instances of brain damage affect neurotransmitter re-uptake, inhibition, and excitation, but we can also look at how the ingestion of mind-altering drugs produces similar physiological changes. Clearly there are experiences unique to each source of physiological change (i.e. brain damage or drug intake), but the similarities illustrate how there are multiple pathways for a similar conscious experience. I always thought that this was a profound property of nature.

      Eagleman also appears to talk about visual illusions. In my post titled “Knowledge and the Brain in a Vat Scenario” which can be found at: https://lagevondissen.wordpress.com/category/brain-in-a-vat/ I talk about epistemology and its limitations based on how the brain works, not only relating to illusions, but why Solipsism is fundamentally an inevitable truth concerning proven existence.

      There is nothing other than the self.

      It’s interesting that we have a sustaining yet dynamic self despite our physical inconstancy and lack of definably concrete matter, that is, the atoms we are physically composed of are constantly being exchanged with the environment around us and after a certain number of years we have replaced every original cell in the body, and yet we maintain that we are the same person we always were. The information is preserved even though the hardware is eventually completely replaced.

      Based on what I’ve read so far, I’d like to check that book out.

      Peace and love!

      Lage

      November 17, 2012 at 12:08 am

      • When you read his book he will explain that our consciousness is actually at the mercy of our brains processes. There is also a book and a documentary called “DMT the spirit molecule”. DMT is a hormone produced by the pineal gland and a derivative of tryptophan and melatonin. DMT could be responsible for mystical experiences, near death experiences and schizophrenia. After reading that book I had to sit back and think about reality and the implications involved if we are at the mercy of neurotransmitters.

        As far as illusionism I think we don’t really have to worry about people accepting the lack of free will. For people to have the realization of no free will they would have to give up the illusion of control and individuality as it relates to the interdependence of all things. This is the essence of Buddhism as explained in the Heart Sutra, and very difficult to accept.

        🙂

        npresa

        November 17, 2012 at 11:28 am

      • Yes, I’ve read a bit about DMT, and various hallucinogens containing DMT or similar compounds (Psilocybin cubensis, ayahuasca, etc). We have DMT in various plants as well as that which is endogenous — and to think of our mental consciousness not only requiring that compound to function “normally” but see how adjusting the amount by a fraction of a gram results in hallucinations, synesthesia, out-of-body experiences, and other entheogenic effects, illustrates that we have a finely-tuned intricate relationship with various plants that proceeded the emergence of our species. We can speculate about the gradual acquisition of DMT in our brains over time (i.e. the evolution of receptors) and how this affected the evolution of our consciousness. At the very least, the fact that we have DMT receptors in the brain and the fact that various sources of DMT exist in the environment deserves further exploration. What can we say about the role of DMT in altering the course of human evolution? I think that there is a lot of speculation surrounding this topic, but there’s no reason why we can’t suppose a significant relationship exists between DMT, hallucinogens, etc., and how our brains evolved toward using linguistics (perhaps with DMT as a synesthetic catalyst), how our brains evolved a sense of self or ego, etc. I tend to believe that there are a plethora of unknown symbiotic relationships that exist between ourselves and the rest of nature. Evolution and more specifically natural selection must have played a role in DMT receptor acquisition. Is it as simple as the consideration that conscious experience complemented with DMT is more beneficial for survival than consciousness with the absence of DMT? Or is DMT a now-useless artifact of evolution perhaps containing some implicit clue to how our brains evolved?

        As far as illusionism I think we don’t really have to worry about people accepting the lack of free will

        Many people want to believe in free will simply because they can’t accept that they have no control over their lives. Those with religious affiliations depend on free will existing for moralism, “justice”, “reward and punishment”, etc., as they all revolve around the concept of “choosing” the “right” path over the “wrong” path. Moral nihilism may be inevitable, but it doesn’t mean that we have to change, let alone radically change, our behavior. Once the religious baggage is dropped, we can start to understand our place in the universe, and perhaps be able to more easily address some fundamental questions we have about the very nature of our existence. I accept my lack of free will as I am an illusionist, but it doesn’t mean that my behavior is noticeably different than before I came to accept this. I choose to live with the illusion because the causal chain is structured to keep things moving in a particular way, and resistance is futile. All we can do is what we have been genetically pre-disposed, and indoctrinated to do. So let’s flow as one with the universe and just “be”.

        Peace and love,
        -Lage

        Lage

        November 19, 2012 at 1:36 pm


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: