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?

We all have this feeling that there is some sort of a "presence" inside of us. It is looking out from inside and is having the experiences we are having.

For example, when you say, "I'm feeling cold". Who is this "me" that is feeling cold?

You could say that it is your body that is feeling cold. But where is this feeling of coldness being experienced? Is it your mind?

But then, when you say "I am feeling happy" or "I am thinking about ice cream", who is this "I" that is feeling happy or thinking about ice cream?

You could say it is your mind.

But again, if you are saying "my body" or "my mind", who is this "inner me" that is not your body or your mind but seems to think it owns them both?

This is a question that has bothered everyone from little children to wise old people for a long time.

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

Consciousness is the feeling we have that there is something inside of us that is experiencing the things we experience. And through the sum total of those experiences, it is the thing that knows "what it is like" to be you.

Over the millennia, the word has taken on a few slightly different meanings.

To start with, there is the meaning we started with, the experience of "the inner me" that knows "what it is like to be you". This is called as "phenomenal experience".

But colloquially, consciousness can also 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. We have also developed the concept of universal consciousness that gives rise to, or in fact, is, all of existence.

Having the same word mean all these things makes any debates about consciousness highly problematic. Often it turns out that when people are having fierce debates, they are really talking about different senses of the word.

And since we are trying to take a principled approach to such important concepts in this book, we need to be clear about what exactly we mean when we use the word Consciousness.

For the purposes of this book, there seem to be at least 3 meanings of the word that could be interesting for us to look at.

Let us take a quick look at them next.

A) Consciousness as in "Phenomenal Experience"

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

Consciousness in this sense is self-evident to all of us but we cannot prove its existence to anyone but ourselves because it is purely subjective.

In fact, the only reason why I believe that you are conscious is because I know I am conscious, and I am a human being, and you look like a human being, so I extrapolate from there and accept that you are probably conscious too!

Needless to say that this makes it really hard to study this phenomena scientifically because science is based on objectively verifiable phenomena. It has generally stayed away from dealing with highly subjective phenomena such as this. (Though I believe it is time for science to find ways of dealing with them, as I have already explained in the chapter on Methodology.)

But since we are trying to build the whole stack of concepts starting from the absolute fundamentals, we have a deeper problem here. It is known as the "hard" problem of consciousness.

The "hard" reference comes from Australian philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers, who characterizes it 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."

― David Chalmers, Australian philosopher and cognitive scientist, in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Essentially, the deeper question here is, "how does consciousness, as in phenomenal experience, emerge from purely physical matter?"

After having thought about this for centuries, we still do not have a good answer to this question. While various people have proposed a few hypotheses, we are far from proving any of them.

But what we can say for sure is that this phenomenon is self evident, easy to understand and widely corroborated. Every human being you can talk to will attest to the fact that they are definitely conscious. One does not need to be an expert on consciousness or a meditator or anything like that.

And since the MBR methodology allows us to include subjective phenomena that are simple to understand and widely corroborated, we can include this sense of consciousness in the MSE Framework, at least at the axiom level. (And, as you have seen earlier, we have indeed included it in the MSE Framework diagram.)

B) Neural Correlates of Consciousness or “Easy” Consciousness

Consciousness in this sense 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. These, among others, are the "neural correlates" of consciousness.

Consciousness in this sense is considered to be "easy", at least in relation to the "hard" version, 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 in fact is, a consciousness. Not only that, but the consciousness we feel inside ourselves is really just this universal consciousness expressing itself through us, though we 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.

As far as this book is concerned, we think of this idea as more of a philosophical concept, but it still has some interesting and sometimes useful implications for concepts like meaning, purpose and hope.

For the purposes of the MSE Framework, when we talk about consciousness, we are primarily talking about it in the sense of "phenomenal experience", and occasionally in the sense of "neural correlates of consciousness". We will mention "universal consciousness" only in passing, as a potentially interesting philosophical concept.

Consciousness as an Axiom

A significant roadblock to scientifically studying consciousness in the "hard" sense is that it is subjective, whereas science likes to deal only 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 consciousness, in the the "hard" sense, 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, using something that is far more universally accepted, namely, physical reality.

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. It 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 of everything. We can use what we know and see if we can create a useful model and a solution to our problem based on it, 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. (As you can see, this is already reflected in the MSE Framework diagram included earlier in the book.)

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. So much so that we treat it as one of the axiomatic pillars of our framework.

Moreover, many other mammals (apes, elephants, whales etc.), birds (crows, parrots etc.) and sea creatures (octopuses etc.) exhibit at least some aspects of consciousness that are quite similar to ours. For example, they all seem to enjoy a certain amount of play, thinking and improvisation, communication with each other, experience of pleasure or pain and so on.

Beyond that, even some complex organized groups of Living Entities or even some abstract ideas such as a country or an economy can also be seen to exhibit certain aspects of consciousness. These again take the form of having a distinct identity, emotionality, exhibition of the desire for survival and expansion, and so on. One could say that their consciousness is just an agglomeration of the individual consciousnesses of the people who inhabit them, but they also demonstrate some emergent properties that aren't present in the individuals,.

There is even speculation that AI could develop consciousness down the road.

Some people also believe that consciousness exists at the deepest level of physical reality, at the quantum or elementary particles level.

In fact, there are theories, like the Integrated Information Theory that try to generalize the notion of consciousness 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 indeed emerged in the universe, and we have good evidence to support the idea that it may be more general and ubiquitous 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. Here again, it demonstrates characteristics very similar to physical reality, and thus deserving to be treated similarly.

Let us just keep this idea in mind for now, we will use it later on. First, we need to look at the most important reason to include consciousness in the MSE Framework.

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 (or creating) great music, great art, great movies, great books, being in or making love, hanging out with friends, eating ice cream, or just enjoying some food you love and so on.

Many people would 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 this realization also entails is that it gives us a clue for where we think our desire for meaning in life 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 (which emerges from 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. Atoms and molecules, or even complex chemicals have no sense of meaning, purpose or hope. And since we have no theory that shows us how consciousness may be arising from physical reality, we can not jump to that conclusion.

So, unless one believes that there is a third player involved in the picture somehow, for which we have no evidence, all we can state truthfully is that the desire for meaning, purpose and hope seems to arise in consciousness.

Note that this admittedly subjective conclusion is simple and widely corroborated. As a result, 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.

Let us take a deeper look at how we can arrive at this conclusion.

We know that the process of Active Inference involves Living Entities building a generative model of their environment. This model is generative in the sense that it generates counterfactual scenarios. The process of Active Inference then seeks evidence for those scenarios in the environment.

Well, desires are nothing but counterfactual scenarios that emerge in these generative models. And the process of Active Inference is essentially the root of the motivation that inspires Living Entities to go out and seek evidence for their existence, which is the same as trying to fulfill them.

So, it seems quite reasonable to say that Active Inference is the root of all desire!

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

Thus, not only does our physical body tends to perform Active Inference, but even our consciousness does it. We could even postulate that consciousness is like a "virtual" life form that complex lifeforms give birth to. (We will explore this particular idea 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.

But these models are different. One is physical and the other is abstract or mathematical.

Let me explain what I mean.

When Newton developed abstract models of some aspects of reality, such as, say, the law of gravity or laws of motion, what he really did was to build a model of physical reality for the benefit of our consciousness, not our physical body.

This is because our physical body already had its own, physical model of gravity and laws of motion. It built it as a result of incessant experimentation with our environment when we were small.

We all built such physical models 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. Similarly, when we learned to throw and catch things or played with toy cars or whatever, we were slowly putting together a model of the laws of motion.

These models were "physical" in the sense that they got embedded somewhere in our neurons and even our muscle memory without us being explicitly aware of them. We didn't know any calculus or even any math then, but we could still deal with physical reality effectively as a result of these models.

It was much later, when we actually did learn math and calculus that we were able to build abstract models of physical reality. Why did we have to build these abstracy mathematical models when we already knew these concepts intuitively?

We did that for the consumption of our consciousness! Our consciousness could not participate in physical reality directly, so it needed abstract mathematical models. And once it had them, it could analyze them and build even more complex models out of them, construct even more counterfacyual scenarios out of them, and then motivate us to realize those scenarios in reality. That's how we enede up with cars and planes and rockets.

When our teachers taught us math and calculus and finally Newton's laws, and we said "oh, I finally get it", what we really meant was "our consciousness got it". Our physical body had already known it from ever since we were children. We wouldn't have been able to walk or run or jump or play ball without that knowledge!

So we actually learned Newton's laws twice in our lives - once on our own (so, actually, we could call them our own laws!) and then again in school.

Isn't that interesting?

Coming back to desires, note that it is our bodies that care about our physical desires such as hunger, thirst, physical safety and comfort and so on. It is our consciousness that desires a sense of meaning, purpose and hope. (One could say that there is some overlap, but we will gloss over that.)

The important point is that all of these desires are a result of Active Inference performed by our physical bodies and our consciousness, respectively.

To make things a little clearer, let me state this 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 (or constructed), that is essentially the same as those desires being satisfied.

Physical desires such as hunger and thirst arise out of the physical process of Active Inference. Similarly, conscious desires, such as those for meaning, purpose and hope in life, arise out of our consciousness performing the same process of Active Inference.

To restate what we started with, this hypothesis 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 constantly try to continue to survive, but our consciousness also does the same. (In fact, we can and do commonly think of our consciousness as a "little person" inside our heads, essentially implying that it is an abstract life form of its own.)

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 of evolution, it keeps perceiving its environment, which includes our own physical environment as well as the virtual environment of our thoughts, feelings, emotions and perceptions.

Throughout this process, this consciousness also tries to build its own internal model of its 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. These are things like equations and diagrams, vs muscle memory or physical skills.

And this consciousness also tries to perform its own actions based on this model, which get translated into actions that our physical body performs. This is how, for example, we dream of ourselves sitting on a tropical island, and after a period of planning, budgeting and traveling, find ourselves over there.

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 even getting our consciousness involved.

These are things like breathing, digesting food, fighting pathogens, circulating nutrients and disposing of waste products, walking and so on. Our bodies do that in order to satisfy their own desires for survival, comfort and so on. They perform these actions without conscious involvement because they use their own internal model 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, though the separation isn't always very clear to us.

What I am ultimately trying to suggest is that it is possible to think of consciousness as its own 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. If it does, it can be incorporated into the MSE Framework as a first class concept.

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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