8. Consciousness: A Way for the Cosmos to Know Itself

“The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.”

― Carl Sagan, American astronomer, in the TV series "Cosmos"

“The universe contains infinitely more beauty than humans can ever appreciate. While you enjoy the spectacle of one sunset, trillions of sunsets are simultaneously occurring across the universe, painting alien skies with color frequencies you couldn't even perceive.”

― Francois Chollet, AI Scientist at Google, in a Tweet

What is Consciousness?

There is something it is like to be you.

We say “my body”. Or even “my mind”. So, the next question that arises is, “who is this 'me' that is not my body or my mind but seems to think it owns both of them?"

And we have given this “me” a name, “Consciousness”.

Over the millennia, the word has taken on many different meanings.

To start with, there is the meaning we started with, "what it is like to be you". This is also known as "phenomenal experience".

But colloquially, it can refer to the cat's version in the meme up there i.e. being awake (vs sleeping), being aware of what's going on (vs being unconscious), having a certain amount of activity in certain brain regions (vs being dead) and so on.

Having all these meanings makes any debates about consciousness highly problematic. One has to first establish what exactly they are talking about.

For the purposes of this book, where we are trying to establish the "stack" of concepts that lead us to meaning, purpose and hope, there seem to be at least 3 meanings that could be interesting. Let us take a quick look at them:

A) Phenomenal Experience or “Hard” Consciousness

This is the “me” or "what it is like to be you" mentioned at the beginning of the chapter.

This type of consciousness is self-evident to all of us but we cannot prove its existence to anyone but ourselves because it is purely subjective.

This makes it really hard to study this phenomena scientifically. That’s why we call it “hard”.

The "hard" reference comes from Australian philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers' characterization of the "Hard Problem of Consciousness" which goes as follows:

"The hard problem of consciousness is the problem of explaining why any physical state is conscious rather than nonconscious. It is the problem of explaining why there is “something it is like” for a subject in conscious experience, why conscious mental states “light up” and directly appear to the subject."

― Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

As an aside, the logical explanation for why we believe other human beings are conscious in spite of being unable to prove this fact is because we share a ton of other attributes, so we logically conclude that consciousness must be one of them.

In other words, if I am capable of walking, talking, thinking and being conscious like a typical human being, and you are also capable of walking, talking and thinking and looking like a typical human being, then you are very likely conscious too.

As a result of this, though, we can say that the Hard version of consciousness, though it is only a subjective experience, can be allowed into the MSE Framework because it is very widely corroborated. One does not need to be an expert meditator or anything like that to experience this version of consciousness.

B) Neural Correlates of Consciousness or “Easy” Consciousness

The easy version of consciousness refers to the structures and processes inside our nervous system that appear to be related to consciousness.

We usually associate various cognitive functions with consciousness, such as perception, attention, memory, and introspection.

This version is considered to be "easy" because we assume we can study these neural correlates objectively and independently of any account of subjective experiences, and thus gain scientific insight into them. And while we haven't completely solved this problem, we have made tremendous progress in doing so, using various brain imaging techniques.

C) “Universal” Consciousness

This is the idea that the entire universe is a single unified entity and, just like we have a consciousness, it also has, or is a consciousness. Not only that, but the consciousness we feel inside ourselves is really just this universal consciousness, but aren't always aware of this.

This concept is known as Brahman in the Vedic tradition or Tao in Chinese tradition or sometimes just as the Universal Generative Principle.

Unfortunately, here again, we have no evidence that such a thing exists or that it is conscious in any way that we can understand or what relationship it has with the individual consciousness we experience. While many meditators tell us that they have experienced this, this is not widely corroborated, so, as per our methodology, we can't allow it to be a part of our framework.

For the purpose of the MSE Framework, when we talk about consciousness, we are primarily talking about the Hard version, and occasionally about the Easy version. We will make the distinction clear when needed.

Consciousness as an Axiom

A significant roadblock to scientifically studying Hard Consciousness is that it is subjective, whereas science deals with objective evidence. The most powerful tool of science, the scientific method, requires objective evidence.

On the other hand, the phenomenon of consciousness is self-evident. You don’t really need any proof of the fact that you are conscious and having an experience of seeing these words in front of your eyes right now. But there is no way to prove this fact to someone else. All they can do is to infer it based on the sharing of characteristics, as mentioned earlier.

Normally, when science comes across phenomena that aren’t objective, it can simply dismiss them as not being real (or at least in need of further study). But in the case of consciousness, that would make no sense since it is self-evident already.

There are various proposals to show how consciousness might be emerging out of physical neural activity. I am myself receptive to the idea and have my own proposal which I have included in the Deep Dives below.

But unfortunately, all such proposals, including mine, are far from being proven at this point.

The way I have chosen to resolve this problem for the MSE Framework is to treat the Hard version of consciousness as an axiom. An axiom is nothing but something fundamental that is self-evident, widely accepted and can’t be explained in any other way, so this seems reasonable.

This might sound a little surprising or improper to some, so allow me to explain a bit more.

The truth is, what we call “physical reality” is also something fundamental and self-evident that we take for granted. Everyone agrees that it exists, but it is also just a subjective experience.

If you think about it, we don’t really have a good definition of what “physical” even means. Whatever we think it is, is simply something we all intuitively agree upon without any further basis.

Any definition, such as “we can see it” or “touch it” either quickly becomes circular or somehow involves consciousness.

We can talk about elementary particles and forces and quantum fields and so on, but those are just characteristics of physical reality. They do not tell us what we mean by the word “physical”. There is no deeper frame of reference to base such a definition on.

This is no different from what we said about consciousness earlier. We all agree it exists but there appears to be no deeper frame of reference to base it on.

So, it makes sense to treat both physical reality as well as consciousness on the same footing - as axioms.

This allows us to completely bypass all the philosophical debates that try to create a dividing line among people who believe in one or the other and hinder progress towards finding solutions to real issues.

And this brings us to my next point.

Mindful Bounded Rationality to the Rescue Again

A lot of scientists have the temptation to treat physical reality as privileged and consciousness as something that needs to be explained using physical reality as the basis.

That is why, by “Hard Problem”, we always mean the “Hard Problem of Consciousness” i.e. the problem of defining how consciousness arises out of physical reality.

On the other hand, there are philosophers who argue that one could take consciousness as fundamental and physical reality as something emerging out of it. In fact, this is the stance taken by Vedic philosophy.

Interestingly, if you take this to be true, then consciousness becomes easy and explaining how physical reality emerges from it becomes the “Hard Problem", i.e., "the Hard Problem of Physical Reality”!

Many scientists and philosophers alike get stuck on one or the other of these problems. Because they believe that unless we can resolve this, we cannot have a complete understanding of reality.

But we do not need to go there. Our focus is on solving a real-world problem, that of defining meaning, purpose and hope. Due to our adoption of Mindful Bounded Rationality as our methodology, we are fine with not having complete knowledge. We can use what we know and see if we can create a useful solution, which we can always improve later on as we learn more.

So, we'll go ahead with treating consciousness as an axiom, and both it and physical realty as having an equal footing in our model.

Consciousness as a Universal Tendency

As we have already stated, we have no good theory for how consciousness originates. But what we do know for sure is that it does originate, and we can feel its presence here and now.

Moreover, many other mammals (apes, elephants, whales etc.), birds (crows, parrots etc.) and sea creatures (octopuses etc.) exhibit some aspects of consciousness at least to some degree. Beyond that, even some complex organized groups of Living Entities or some abstract ideas also can be seen to exhibit certain aspects of consciousness. There is even speculation that AI could develop consciousness down the road.

There are theories, like the Integrated Information Theory that try to generalize this notion to all systems that have a complex organization, irrespective of their substrate, biological or otherwise. (There is a Deep Dive into this theory below.)

The point I am trying to make is that, irrespective of our inability to identify its origins, consciousness has emerged in the universe, and we have good evidence to support the idea that it may be more general than just a feature of human beings.

You have probably guessed what I am going to say next: Yes, we can absolutely think of consciousness as another universal tendency. So, let us add it to our list.

Universal Tendency #8: Consciousness

The universe appears to have a natural tendency for creating entities that display consciousness to various degrees.

Also, let us note that consciousness itself demonstrates all of the other universal tendencies that we have identified, namely Coherence, Complexity, Continuity, Curiosity, Creativity and possibly even Evolution. Let us just keep that in mind for now, we will use it later on.

The Desire for Meaning, Purpose and Hope

Most of us have probably experienced what are called states of "heightened awareness" or "intense consciousness".

They could be a result of experiencing to (or creating) great music, great art, great movies, great books, being in or making love, eating ice cream, or just smelling some food you love and so on.

Many people would even say that such experiences are really meaningful to them.

Such intense conscious experiences are certainly a part of what we call having meaning in one's life. (As we will soon see, there is a lot more to meaning than that, but let us set that aside for now).

What it also does is that it gives us a clue for where we think our desire for meaning comes from, not to mention where the experience of having meaning occurs.

The answer is consciousness, the source of our desire for and the location of the experience of not just meaning, but also purpose and hope.

All of these observations give us hints for where consciousness belongs in the MSE Framework.

Let us take a slightly deeper look at this phenomenon to figure out how exactly consciousness fits into the framework.

We have seen that our physical desires, such as those for nutrition, comfort, safety etc. arise in our physical body as a result of it performing Active Inference in order to survive.

But while these desires arise from our physiology (i.e. Physical Reality in our framework diagram), some other desires, such as those for meaning, purpose and hope in one’s life, appear to be arising out of the other side of the diagram, i.e. our Consciousness.

One reason for saying that they arise out of consciousness is that the sense of meaning, purpose and hope have no counterpart in physical reality. So, unless one believes in a supernatural power that gives rise to these desires, the only other place they could be coming from is our consciousness.

Moreover, the experience that they do seem to be arising from our consciousness is widely corroborated, as we saw earlier. In other words, this fits within our methodology and allows us to add it to our framework.

While that should be sufficient for our needs, I am going out on a limb and postulating a highly plausible hypothesis about desires in general and using that as another factor in favor of this argument.

Hypothesis: The Origin of Desires

I am claiming that desires, whether they are physical or conscious, arise in Living Entities as a result of Active Inference.

We know that the process of Active Inference involves Living Entities that have a generative model of their environment that generates counterfactual scenarios and then seeks evidence for those scenarios in the environment.

Well, desires are basically counterfactual scenarios that emerge in Living Entities and they motivate those Living Entities to go out and try to fulfill them, which is the same as seeking evidence for them.

So, it seems quite reasonable to say that Active Inference is the root of desires.

Now, note that Active Inference is a general principle that applies equally well to any entity that persists over time in spite of being immersed in a complex and changing environment. It does not matter if the entity is physical (such as a living organism) or abstract (such as consciousness). One can say it is “substrate-independent”.

Thus, not only does our physical body need to perform Active Inference, but even our consciousness needs to perform it. We could even postulate that consciousness is like a new "virtual" life form that we give birth to. We will take a quick look at this hypothesis further down.

As a result, we can also say that some of our desires are physical, such as hunger or physical comfort, and some are conscious, such as meaning, purpose and hope.

For example, our body does have the ability to sense our environment, build a model of the environment and perform actions on the environment. Similarly, our consciousness can also be seen to sense its environment, build a model of it, and act on it.

One can argue that when we try to build models of reality, such as, say the law of gravity, what we are really doing is building a model for our consciousness, not our physical body.

This is because our body already has its own, subconscious model of gravity. It uses it all the time to maintain balance when we walk or get up from our chair, for example. It built that model a long time ago when we were infants and kept dropping our toys on the ground or falling down ourselves and intuiting over time that things always seem to fall down unless supported i.e. essentially "discovering" gravity ourselves.

But what we didn’t have at that time was an abstract model that our consciousness could understand. So eventually someone had to build it (Newton, to be precise) and our physics teacher had to teach it to us, and then we "got" it.

Ironically, when we said we "got" it, what we meant was that our consciousness got it. Our physical body had already figured it out and even mastered it, since we needed to do that in order to move about or play games etc.

Coming back to desires, note that my body cares about physical desires such as hunger, thirst, physical safety and comfort and so on. It is my consciousness that desires a sense of meaning, purpose and hope. And all of these are a result of Active Inference performed by my physical body and my consciousness, respectively.

So let me state the hypothesis a little more formally.

Hypothesis: The Origin of Desires

Desires arise in Living Entities as a result of them performing Active Inference. They are the counterfactual scenarios generated by their internal generative model. The process of Active Inference results in the Living Entities going out and seeking evidence for the existence of those counterfactual scenarios. When such evidence is found, that is essentially the same as those desires being satisfied.

Also, physical desires arise out of the physical process of Active Inference, and conscious ones out of the conscious one.

This hypothesis, which looks quite reasonable, though it is currently unproven, lends additional support to the idea that the desire for meaning, purpose and hope arises in consciousness via the Active Inference process.

This idea actually turns out to be a rich vein capable of generating many insights about consciousness. Allow me to propose another intriguing hypothesis that emerges from it.

Hypothesis: Consciousness as a “Virtual” Life Form

As we have already seen, Living Entities perform Active Inference in order to continue to exist or survive.

In case of conscious creatures such as ourselves, not only does our physical body continues to survive, but our consciousness also does the same. We almost think of our consciousness as a "little person" inside our heads, essentially implying that it is a life form.

Does that mean that consciousness may itself be a Living Entity? Could it be a “virtual” life form that complex Living Entities give birth to and continue to support, nurture and enrich during their own lifetimes just like they do with their biological offspring?

It is known that newborns do not exhibit many aspects of consciousness. Then, as they grow, they develop more and more attributes of consciousness until they mature into the adult version of consciousness that we are all familiar with.

While their consciousness is going through this process, it keeps perceiving its environment, which includes our own physical environment as well as the virtual environment of our thoughts, feelings, emotions and perceptions.

Over time, it builds its own internal model of this environment. This is what we would typically call our conscious understanding of our reality, which is different from our physical or subconscious understanding of it.

And it also performs actions based on this model, which get translated into actions that our physical body performs. (This is basically an example of Free Will, as we quickly noted in a previous chapter.)

Note that all of this is separate from the physical perception, internal model building and action that our bodies perform. Our bodies perceive and react to a lot of things in our environment without getting our consciousness involved. These are things like breathing, fighting pathogens, digesting food, circulating nutrients and disposing of waste products and so on. Our bodies need to do that in order to survive and they perform them using an internal model of their own which is pretty much hidden from our consciousness.

The Active Inference that our consciousness performs is on top of what our bodies are doing. Some of our physical perceptions do reach our consciousness (like you noticing a notification popping up on your screen), get processed in our consciousness (such as you consciously deciding to look at the notification that just popped up), and then converted into physical actions (such as you clicking on the notification).

Of course, as you may have noticed , all of these conscious activities are tightly integrated with our physical bodies. But we can also see that they are separate from the activities that our bodies perform subconsciously.

So it is possible to think of consciousness as a separate life form that lives inside our bodies, that we essentially give birth to, nurture and support throughout our lives.

While I have no evidence to support this besides my own introspection, I am hoping that this idea might appeal to other people and, over time, gets corroborated by a wide range of people.

As I mentioned, this idea is a rich vein and we will look at another idea that emerges out of it in the next chapter.

Ok, after that bit of diversion, let us get back on track to consciousness and desires.

Suffices to say that, unlike many other scientific frameworks that try to avoid talking about consciousness, the MSE Framework treats it as a critical part of its foundation, as the source of our desires for meaning, purpose and hope.

Satisfying these desires helps us improve our mental and physical wellbeing, which is ultimately why we consider it so critical for the framework.

With that, we have now built all the scaffolding we need to finally get to where we have been trying to get to, Meaning. We will do that in the next chapter.

Deep Dive: The “Easy” Problem of Consciousness

The "Easy" Problem of Consciousness refers to the question of how and why certain physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective experiences or the phenomenal experience of consciousness. This distinguishes it from the "Hard" problem, which deals with the deeper philosophical conundrums of that phenomenal experience itself.

While the Easy Problem is still an area of active research and debate, there are several leading theories and approaches that attempt to explain it. Here are a few prominent ones:

Higher-Order Theories (HOT): Higher-order theories propose that consciousness arises from the brain's ability to generate higher order representations or thoughts about one's own mental states. According to these theories, conscious experiences occur when the brain represents or reflects on its own internal states. They are called higher order to distinguish them from subconscious or unconscious mental processes.

Representationalist Theories: Representationalist theories propose that consciousness is closely tied to the brain's capacity to model the world, similar to the idea of the internal model in the Free Energy Principle. These theories suggest that conscious experiences involve mental representations that are rich, detailed, and actively updated by sensory inputs and cognitive processes. Consciousness is seen as a form of inner representation of the external environment as well as the internal states of the living organism itself.

Attentional Theories: Attentional theories emphasize the role of attention in generating conscious experiences. They propose that conscious awareness arises when attention is focused on specific sensory inputs or one's internal mental contents rather than the entirety of the sensory experience. According to these theories, attention acts as a spotlight, selecting and amplifying certain information, thereby making it available to conscious processing.

Global Workspace Theory (GWT): While GWT primarily addresses the Hard Problem of Consciousness, it also provides insights into the Easy Problem. GWT suggests that consciousness arises from the global exchange and broadcasting of information in the brain. According to this theory, information becomes conscious when it is made available to multiple cognitive processes and enters a "global workspace" that allows for flexible, widespread access.

It is worth noting that the Easy Problem of Consciousness remains a complex and multifaceted issue, and no single theory has yet provided a satisfactory and comprehensive explanation.

Nevertheless, the problem is considered to be "Easy" because it appears to be easier than the Hard problem, about which we are far more uncertain.

Deep Dive: Integrated Information Theory

The Integrated Information Theory (IIT) is a theory proposed by neuroscientist and professor Giulio Tononi that attempts to explain and characterize the Hard Problem of Consciousness.

According to this theory, a conscious experience is characterized by a high degree of integrated information, meaning that the conscious system must be able to generate a large number of highly differentiated and irreducible states that cannot be decomposed into simpler components.

The theory also proposes that consciousness exists on a spectrum, with different levels of consciousness corresponding to different degrees of integrated information.

For example, a simple system like a thermostat may have very low levels of integrated information and therefore be considered unconscious, while a complex system like the human brain has a high degree of integrated information and can support rich, complex conscious experiences.

This theory is still very controversial, and a satisfactory and comprehensive theory for the Hard Problem remains an ongoing challenge.

Deep Dive: The Observer in Quantum Mechanics

Based on what we know so far about physical reality, at the most fundamental level, the universe consists of quantum fields.

A quantum field is basically a probability distribution i.e. a wave function that has a value everywhere in space. This value corresponds to the probability of an elementary particle existing there. These fields evolve over time, leading to the changes we see in the universe.

But then, we don’t perceive anything like that when we observe reality. What we see are concrete things happening, not evolving probabilities.

In order to explain this paradox, physicists came up with the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics, which proposed the idea of “wave function collapse”.

The idea here is that the universe behaves as a quantum wave function when observations aren’t being made. But as soon as an observation is made, the wave function “collapses”, i.e., we don’t perceive probability distributions, we perceive definite outcomes.

An equation known as the Schrödinger Equation has been extremely successful at allowing scientists to calculate the results of the wave function collapse, so we have strong evidence of this theory.

At the same time, the idea that an observation causes the collapse has caused a lot of controversy because it introduces the idea of an “observer”. Many people have speculated that this observer is nothing but the mysterious (Hard version of) consciousness.

Physicists have generally shied away from venturing too far in this direction, but the idea is still quite popular. For now, physicists are content with simply doing the calculations, leaving the idea of the observer to speculators.

Still, Stephen Wolfram has proposed an intriguing possibility, mentioned below.

Deep Dive: Stephen Wolfram’s Conceptualization of the Observer in Quantum Theory

Stephen Wolfram has come up with some intriguing ideas about the "observer" in quantum theory. It is a deep topic, but I will try to summarize it here quickly. His argument goes as follows.

We ourselves are embedded in the universe, which means we also ultimately consist of quantum fields.

Unfortunately, this means that we can never be sure of anything being anywhere at any point of time.

Which raises the question: How can an observer such as ourselves, who is embedded in such a quantum universe “make sense” of anything?

Wolfram has a hypothesis about what might be going on, based on his own framework of Physics. (See the Deep Dive on it.)

According to him, the only way for an entity such as ourselves which is embedded in the quantum field of the universe to make sense of anything is to make the field “collapse” into concrete physical particles.

This “collapse” is exactly what the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics demands. And it is corroborated by the fact that whenever we make an observation, we always see concrete things happening, though we can also infer the existence of the quantum fields.

Of course, this is still a hypothesis and is actively being worked on.

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