Consciousness as Force or Accident

A conscious nebula?It seems to me that there are two main camps of thought regarding the origin of consciousness. The first camp considers it an epiphenomenon (i.e. an end result of) matter. After 13 billion years eventually enough of this tumbling, insentient matter got together in just the right way (nevermind how for now) and made something that was able to perceive itself.

The second camp believes that either consciousness is inherent in matter in media res, i.e. from the creation of the universe, or consciousness naturally arose from this progression by some directing force. Now when I say directing I’m not necessarily referring to the hand of a supernatural being. A river following a channel down a mountain is directed, and we can rightly predict where a volume of water will head. I am therefore talking here about proper initial conditions.

There is a third camp that believes that man was plopped here on the sixth day, creatio ex nihilo, creation from nothing, about 6000 years ago, with no progression, no evolution of form and thought. This camp is just too stupid to consider, so we’ll drop it.

If you haven’t guessed already, this topic was inspired by a very interesting and intense discussion going on over at Lauren McLaughlin’s blog about the sometimes destructive paths of blind faith. This got me a thinkin.

Why I lean towards the second camp:
Because, to me, information is meaningless without a perceiver. Not just meaningless, but the whole concept of information doesn’t even make sense without a perceiver. If I say I have three atoms per cubic foot of empty space, what does that mean if we remove the observer? Measurement, count, and concepts of “space” disappear. But, can we remove the observer?

A proton is attracted to an electron but is repelled by another proton. Isn’t the proton in some way aware of the presence of the other particles? Isn’t this reaction a kind of rudimentary consciousness? Before intelligent life arose — before even life arose — can you not say that the universe was in some sense aware (even if only marginally so)? Otherwise, particles would be flying in a thousand directions and never once interacting in all eternity. As the uncertainty principle has shown, awareness of an object must imply interaction with it. Hence, interaction implies awareness of.

The Entropic Argument:
This argument may at first sound like the anthropic principle, but after further consideration you will see that it is not. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that all systems increase in entropy over time, that is, they increase their disorder. But, cries the wise philosopher, what about humanity? How can such an intelligent, complex, ordered being arise in a universe which is ever increasing in entropy? And the wise physicist answers that Earth and perhaps other planets like it are merely pockets of increasing order in a system with large amounts of disorder. The overall entropy is increasing, but it decreases in small areas like the Earth. The net sum is always increasing.

But I say, if this is so, if the total amount of disorder in the universe is increasing, and humanity and the Earth are considered a small packet of complex order, then at some point in the past there must have been an order more complex than the human being and the Earth. The universe is, after all, winding down, not winding up.

This is not an attempt to prove there is a God, but merely to show that, if I am interpreting this law correctly, that something more ordered than us existed at some point in the past, and if we take this back to the creation of our universe, where the order was supposedly greatest, that thing or object or being or whatever was a lot more complex and ordered than we are.

7 Replies to “Consciousness as Force or Accident”

  1. Fascinating post, my friend.

    Either scenario may be possible. It may just be some law of physics, something about the state of matter in our universe, that results in inanimate matter coming together in such a way that self-aware beings arise. My only question is whether such a “directing force” or principle can fairly be labelled God. If so, call me an agnostic. (Heck, if evolution qualifies as God, call me a devout believer.)

    Maybe I’m not thinking deeply enough, but gravity and magnetism as a form of consciousness seems a bit of a stretch–since any physical interaction whatsoever would seem to qualify under this definition. The very laws of physics would equal consciousness. (“Precisely!” I can hear you say. :))

    As for the “observer” argument, if there were no conscious beings would the universe exist? Like the tree falling in the forest, I think so. But the weird shit that goes on with respect to our observation of subatomic particles would seem to support your argument.

    Why does the inevitable move towards entropy dictated by the Second Law of Thermodynamics mean that the starting point (the point from which the Big Bang emanated) is conscious? It may be more ordered, as you say, but does that mean it’s more *complex*?

  2. Someone suggested the same counter-argument to me before. They asked, as you have, does higher entropic order mean more complexity? I am no physicist, but I would ask one to intervene here and (dis)qualify my argument.

    I don’t know if a human being can be classified as higher order than say a tranquil sea of expanding hydrogen. I don’t know if the concept even makes sense in this context. But to me (and to anyone, I think, whose ever tried to understand the workings of even a single cell), life is inordinately complex. This (to me) denotes higher order than say a gaseous nebula of methane and hydrogen. But, if the second law is to be trusted, a higher order than us has to have existed in the past.

    I think either:

    o) my understanding of the meaning of the second law of thermodynamics is flawed or

    o) the second law of thermodynamics is incomplete or

    o) neither is the case and something more ordered than us existed at some time in the past.

    Also of note is Stephen Hawking’s new hypothesis that we are “creating” the universe as we study it. He and his colleague treat the entire Cosmos as an elementary particle and therefore subject it to the “sum over histories” idea of quantum mechanics where particles exist in all states (i.e. all positions and speeds) simultaneously, but “collapse” into one state and one place only when we observe them. Hawking says we are doing the very same thing when we look out into the night sky. One of the most brilliant minds of our times is suggesting that the universe is intimately linked with our consciousness. It’s quite profound and may have just as much a dramatic shift in perception for us as a species as Einstein did with relativity, if it proves to be true.

  3. I’d draw an analogy to a perfect, unblemished window pane. Now shatter it. Each individual shard is intricately shaped and arguably much more *complex* than the flat, square glass from which they originate. The original glass, however, is much more *ordered.* I don’t think that the mere existence of these shards of different shapes and sizes necessitates the existence of an uber-complex Super-Glass.

    On the other hand, I confess to knowing zilch about the Second Law of Thermodynamics myself.

  4. So you are saying complexity implies a lack of order? A human being is highly complex, but in my eyes, also highly ordered. I think a human being is more ordered than a placid lake. Does physics say otherwise?

    I think I need to really look into this whole Entropy thing.

  5. Okay, I think I discovered my mistake. According to this Wikipedia entry, entropy is the “amount of energy in a physical system that cannot be used to do work.”

    My understanding of entropy came from layman’s books attempting to describe physics, and they often used the classic example: a coffee cup falls off a table and shatters. Its entropy increases. The coffee cup is “ordered” and the shattered pieces are “disordered.”

    But I think this analogy is flawed. From what I understand now, the capacity to do usable work is not the same as “ordered,” though they sometimes use these words interchangeably.

    Also from the entry: “Recent work has cast extensive doubt on…the applicability of any simple thermodynamic model to the universe in general.”

    So my argument is weakened, perhaps voided. But, what made the early universe have so much more capacity to do work?

    Also, does interaction imply awareness of? I think so. It may not be self-awareness, but when a particle, let’s say, is affected by gravity, its course is averted. The concept of “course” and “averted” have no meaning without an observer, in my opinion, even one so rudimentary as a particle.

  6. That’s one take, Matt, with entropy and free energy. But I’d suggest looking at it in terms of information theory, which is tightly linked to cosmology but makes more intuitive sense. Humans are complex, but we also contain an immense amount of information. We are islands of information density. Entropy is the measure of randomness or dis-order.

    Anyway, there are cosmological arguments that entropy may not be increasing universally, just locally. I can’t prove or disprove any of it. But you can also make an argument that if total entropy and free energy are conserved, then you might find islands of very high order/information and other areas of low.

    I do like the idea that we’ve evolving towards a godhead rather than from one. But it’s difficult, since it would likely take more free energy than exists in the unverse to order all of matter in anything resembling consciousness. But it may be that consciousness, as an undocumented physical force (I’d call it Will, personally) is a force that converts free energy to ordered information and depending on the origins of that force, may or may not be subject to conservation of energy.

  7. One of the things that’s been bothering me recently about Cosmology is the assumption that the Cosmos can be described by a series of mathematical laws. More and more I see this as a reification of our own mental perception of the universe, and that perception may be vastly different than the true structure of the cosmos.

    I do understand that we have only our senses to work with, and mathematical models seem to match the workings of the universe with a high degree of accuracy. But as I mentioned above with Stephen Hawking, I wonder how much of this “accuracy” is a product of how we observe and our assumptions about the universe.

    Like David’s story last night, perhaps we are assuming the universe works “mathematically” when it does nothing of the kind. We are trying to interpret a sound as a smell.

    Just a thought.

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