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“Quiet revolution” in theoretical physics: Consciousness is a state of matter?

You’ve heard what great physicists have said about the immateriality of consciousness? Now, from The Physics arXiv Blog:

For as long as the discipline has existed, physicists have been reluctant to discuss consciousness, considering it a topic for quacks and charlatans. Indeed, the mere mention of the ‘c’ word could ruin careers.

We are about, one fears, to witness still another reason why. Max “multiverse” Tegmark offers a new approach that is said to be “spreading like wildfire”,

Tegmark’s approach is to think of consciousness as a state of matter, like a solid, a liquid or a gas. “I conjecture that consciousness can be understood as yet another state of matter. Just as there are many types of liquids, there are many types of consciousness,” he says.

Taking a cue from quantum physics and noting that consciousness is impossible to divide into independent parts, he uses the term perceptronium to describe “the most general substance that feels subjectively self-aware.”

So far we have this: Up to half the information stored in a Hopfield neural net, which is a special network with error-correcting codes, can be reconstructed from the rest. Tegmark calculates that

a Hopfield net about the size of the human brain with 10^11 neurons, can only store 37 bits of integrated information.

“This leaves us with an integration paradox: why does the information content of our conscious experience appear to be vastly larger than 37 bits?” asks Tegmark.

He think that the paradox suggests that a vital ingredient is missing.

Might be. We are informed, “And yet the power of this approach is in the assumption that consciousness does not lie beyond our ken; that there is no ‘secret sauce’ without which it cannot be tamed.”

Okay. So a vital ingredient is missing. But there is no “secret sauce.”

A perceptronium or two may wish to weigh in either at PhysicsArXiv or here.

File with: New theory of consciousness: Humans, worms, and the Internet are all conscious and  that other theory of consciousness that hit the boards a couple years back, Rocks have minds

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4 Responses to “Quiet revolution” in theoretical physics: Consciousness is a state of matter?

  1. Tegmark gets one thing right–states of matter are immaterial abstractions, just like consciousness. After all, the atoms in H20 are the same in vapor, liquid and ice, it is just that they behave differently with some extra energy needed to move them from one state to another. It also takes extra energy to move them, say, from my desk to my mouth, but I don’t usually say that this is because there are two states of my cup. It isn’t an “intrinsic” property of water to be in one state or another, because if I take liquid water and heat it up in my pressure cooker to the critical point, it is both liquid and vapor at the same time and in the same way.
    So what is this thing, this “state of matter”? It’s a human language abstraction that helps abbreviate a lot of long-winded explanation. Sort of like saying that you feel aggravated by philologically inept physicists. It conveys an abstraction, an idea. Something that people pay money for when it is in a novel, but the US Government declines to pay for in a science experiment.

    So what did Tegmark just say when he said “Consciousness is a state of matter”? He just said, “Consciousness is something people are consciously conscious of.”

    As Dufflepuds would say, “So true, so true, Boss.”

  2. Why are physicists getting into this mess? Descartes established that mind and body are fundamentally different (mind incorporeal, among other properties) in the early 1600s, and there’s not been a great deal of progress since then. Tracing neural pathways and determining which parts of the brain are active during various cognitive tasks tells us nothing about consciousness. About all we know is that for it to survive death will require a supernatural force like a soul, and physicists don’t deal with the supernatural – by definition, they deal with things that follow natural laws.

  3. The thing is, Robert Sheldon, it’s unclear to some of us what the “quiet revolution” is. Do I add to your understanding of the questions by referring to what I read in PhysicsArXiv as “balonium”?

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