It’s being debated by scientists and philosophers from three countries.
Last year, scientists inferentially detected the existence of 2D visual mental representations that fundamentally change vision science. “The question becomes, what are they exactly? Are they patterns of neurons firing? Are they some kind of phenomenon not necessarily reducible to any kind of physical substrate?” Asks Jessica M. Wilson, philosopher and author of the book Metaphysical Emergence.
Coming up, scientists and philosophers spanning three countries weigh in on an experiment to discover the material nature of consciousness and the content of our experiences.
Let’s start with a definition: Consciousness is awareness. It’s the qualitative experience of that awareness — what it’s like to be something.
Wilson, like many of her peers, doesn’t see anything controversial about the idea that mental representations might be actual things that exist in space and time and populate conscious experience. Sensory information and neurons firing seem to be involved in the vibrant, dynamic mind show projected onto our every living, waking, dreaming moment.
But there’s little consensus about how activity at the level of our neurons turns into conscious experience. This is the Hard Problem of Consciousness. How does microscopic activity in your brain turn into the large, rich experience of sitting on the edge of a craggy outcropping on the Atlantic shoreline and sipping a steaming cup of toasted, earthy buttery Columbian coffee, while watching a kaleidoscopic halo over the rising sun as a cool, crisp brackish breeze whisks your cheeks? While the Easy Problem is how the brain works, the Hard Problem is how brain workings turn into experience.
What does it mean to say consciousness emerges?
Theories about the fundamental nature of consciousness fall roughly into two camps: The first camp, called Identity Theory, thinks conscious experiences are identical to neural events. Mark Balaguer, philosopher, identity theorist, and author of the book Free Will, thinks conscious events are identical to neural events the same way Clark Kent is identical to Superman. It may seem to Lois like they’re not identical. For instance, Lois doesn’t think Clark can fly. When Lois looks at him, “he doesn’t seem to be a flyer,” says Balaguer. “But my view is that he actually is a flyer.” For Balaguer, if you don’t think they’re identical, you’re committed to a “spooky dualist view” — meaning you believe consciousness is something like a soul.
The second group considers conscious experience to be distinct from brain activity. This is due to the fact that experience has qualia, or “what it feels like,” whereas neuronal events do not. Consciousness, according to the second camp, originates from complex systems such as brain activity in one of two ways. Wilson defines weak emergent properties as “new qualities originating in systems as a result of interactions at an elemental level,” proposing a theory in which a conscious experience emerges as a new entity that can be reduced to its constituents. The notion of strong emergent consciousness states that consciousness arises as something else than the sum of its constituents.
A Strong Emergence experiment
The majority of strong emergence theories are dualistic. The belief that there is a natural, physical world that can be described by science and a spiritual one that cannot is known as dualism. Conscious experience, according to dualists, exists in the spiritual dimension. However, breaking free from natural rules isn’t required for the hypothesis that awareness originates as something altogether new. Science progresses by attempting to fit new findings into pre-existing frameworks. A hypothesis is proposed and tested if new findings cannot be explained by the current scientific theory. The existing scientific hypothesis is revised or a new one is formed based on the findings.
The First Law of Thermodynamics (Conservation), which states that energy cannot be generated or destroyed, is an example of this in action. It’s constantly kept in reserve. When physicists noticed something that appeared to violate this law, they proposed the ‘neutrino‘ as a new particle and the ‘weak force‘ or ‘weak interaction‘ as a new force. This was a whole new, irreducible force. The theory was tested in the laboratory, and a new fundamental interaction was added to our understanding of the natural world.
Wilson believes it is scientifically acceptable to speculate that consciousness could be a new, basic interaction that arises at a certain level of system complexity, a phenomenon known as Strong Emergence. Wilson cautions, however, that the notion has yet to be proven.
Wilson believes that, using the weak nuclear interaction as a model, the idea of strongly emergent consciousness might be tested, at least in principle. The first stage would be to develop a theory based on known fundamental physical interactions, which would predict the overall energy of a complex system, such as an octopus brain. The next step would be to check for any obvious violations in this system’s energy conservation. If there was, it could indicate strong emergence, similar to how the apparent violation of energy conservation led to the discovery of a novel interaction.
A physicist, an anesthesiologist, a cognitive neuroscientist, and a developmental and synthetic biologist are among the scientists who answer.
Wilson’s proposal to test for Strong Emergence is described as “pseudoscience” by Eric Carlson, an associate professor of physics at Wake Forest University. “We all know that awareness is the result of the brain’s electrochemical principles at work.” Testing to see if awareness is a new interaction, according to Carlson, legitimizes trash science. “There were spiritualists who attempted to prove the presence of souls by demonstrating bodily manifestations. Some speculated that it had anything to do with electromagnetic radiation. And there are still ghost hunters out there monitoring electromagnetic fields.” Strong Emergence, according to Carlson, is a rejected research into the existence of a soul that has been repackaged as “consciousness theory.”
Carlson admits that he isn’t up to date on the growing body of evidence that organisms without neurons (such as plants and slime molds) are capable of memory, thinking, problem-solving, and learning — or that it’s becoming more difficult for scientists to dismiss these behaviors as purely nonconscious and mechanical. Consciousness in brainless creatures calls into question the idea that consciousness is a brain operation. While the brain is definitely important in human and animal consciousness, if entities without brains can be conscious, there must be another explanation for what consciousness is.
“I’m not sure how [Strong Emergence] is tested. “I don’t believe consciousness is an emergent property in the sense that it emerges at a higher level of complexity,” says Stuart Hameroff, an anesthesiologist and University of Arizona professor. “In fact, I believe it is a fundamental property of the cosmos.” There’s a little blip of experience every time there’s a collapse.”
With Nobel Prize-winning physicist Sir Roger Penrose, Hameroff co-authored a theory of consciousness. Orchestrated Objective Reduction, or the Orch OR Theory of Awareness, is their theory, which states that consciousness emerges from quantum wave function collapses inside microtubules. It’s a divisive idea, and one of the few theories of consciousness that can be tested and proven correct or incorrect.
What does it mean when a quantum wave function collapses? “With his theory of general relativity, Einstein established that enormous objects produce large curvatures in spacetime,” Hameroff argues. “On a microscale, Penrose claimed that tiny particles generate tiny curvatures in spacetime. In quantum superposition of two places, a single particle would have opposing curvatures, causing a split in the structure of spacetime. These divisions are fragile and self-destruct, resulting in consciousness. That is where qualia and amazing experience come from.”
Quantum collapses that give way to proto-conscious moments, according to Orch OR, occur everywhere in the universe. This isn’t the same as consciousness. The building blocks of awareness are these moments of proto-consciousness. Inside microtubules, the blocks are constructed in a precise order. Inside cells, microtubules are fractal structures. They’re found in plants, unicellular organisms, and neurons, among other places. They assist cells in maintaining their structure and internal order. Microtubules, despite being smaller than neurons, may be large enough to host proto-conscious events (quantum collapses) of the scale or quantity required to give rise to conscious experience.
“I believe the fundamental issue is that the brain is not purely a computer. It’s more like to a symphony orchestra. “It’s a multi-scale hierarchy that goes downward, inside neurons, to microtubules, and finally to the quantum level,” Hameroff explains, comparing proto-consciousness to atonal notes played by orchestra performers tuning their instruments. The notes harmonize once the performance begins. If proto-conscious events are notes and microtubules are the orchestra, awareness is the symphony. Hameroff believes that these random, disjointed proto-conscious moments occur everywhere until quantum collapses are organized by microtubules into conscious perception. “They’re life’s beginnings.” Alternatively, they may have triggered the emergence of life. They’re in charge of evolution.”
Multiple labs, including The Bouwmeester Lab (managed by Dirk Bouwmeester’s team) at University of California, Santa Barbara and Ivette Fuentes’ research group at University of Southampton, are conducting tests for quantum collapse owing to spacetime separation. The results of these tests may help to address the measurement problem in quantum mechanics, which is a major physics problem and a key component of the Orch OR theory. These tests, on the other hand, are not intended to demonstrate that quantum collapse causes proto-consciousness.
Anirban Bandyopadhyay, a distinguished scientist at the National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS) in Tsukuba, Japan, was able to establish that cognition is dependent on microtubule activity. Quantum effects can also be found in microtubules, according to Bandyopadhyay’s research. However, the quantum nature of microtubule activity associated to cognition has yet to be demonstrated.
The real manipulation of consciousness, turning awareness on and off through anesthetic, is another crucial test in confirming Orch OR.
“General anesthesia primarily impacts consciousness and very little else in the body,” says Hameroff, who points out that even while you are unconscious, your brain is still active. Consciousness appears to be the objective of anesthesia. Anesthetic gases also work on the basis of quantum interactions. “We’ve demonstrated quantum effects in microtubules and are aiming to demonstrate their relevance to consciousness by testing for anesthetic sensitivity proportional to anesthetic potency,” Hameroff explains. “Within a year, we should know.”
Why is it necessary for science to answer the problem of consciousness?
“It’s really fundamental to figure out how we transition from a neurological event to a psychological experience,” says Jacob Bellmund, a cognitive neuroscientist at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences. Bellmund’s study is focused on the neurological substrates that form mental representations, rather than on what consciousness is. Bellmund’s research focuses on memory and cognitive representations of location and time.
His prior research focused on the brain’s grid and place cells, which act as our internal GPS, guiding us through the environment. Bellmund and a group of international researchers discovered that these cells generate a route through cognitive space, a coordinate system for our ideas in which we collect and put together aspects of a concept. “Our stream of thought might be viewed as a journey across the spaces of our minds, traversing several mental dimensions.” His findings were used to support the theory that knowledge is stored in the mind in a spatially structured manner. “Right now, I’m working on temporal memories,” Bellmund explains. “How we remember events, how we construct this image.”
Bellmund, like all cognitive neuroscientists who work at the intersection of neuroscience and psychology, needs to characterize experiences using abstract terminology like cognitive spaces and mental dimensions. “I think it’s crucial to understand how this emerges,” she says of the link between brain activity and cognition. Bellmund doesn’t believe it’s accurate to argue that neurological and cognitive events are the same, but he doesn’t know how to construct an experiment to prove it.
“You can’t just have ideas on this,” says Michael Levin, a Tufts University developmental and synthetic biologist who researches slime mold intelligence. “Experiments are required.” Scientists, according to Levin, must propose several definitions of consciousness, analyze which definition provides a better knowledge of a conscious system, and then conduct experiments to anticipate and govern conscious systems. Levin believes that consciousness emerges on a continuum, with a higher degree of fidelity as the system becomes more complicated. “If evolution is true, these cognitive capacities must arrive someplace, and if you believe it is binary, you must offer an empirical explanation for what is different and where the jump occurs.”
Levin also finds a flaw in trying to make sense of subjective experience using an objective discipline like the scientific method. He explains, “You may express predictions of stories about brains, cognition, and computation.” “Assume you have a flawless, accurate theory of consciousness. Okay. “In what format do you make your predictions?”
There’s an objective third-person tale about what’s going on for every other scientific idea. It’s third-person observations and descriptions of neuronal and human activity in cognitive neuroscience.
Levin is unsure about how to examine and explain findings concerning consciousness objectively. “How can you possible know if you have a true theory of consciousness if you can’t even tell me what shape or language the answers will take?” “I don’t believe there is a third-person story about awareness to be told.”
Why is it necessary for humanity to overcome the problem of consciousness?
In a technical sense, we don’t. We can continue to live with the paradoxical fact that our consciousness is the only thing we know better, more immediately and intimately than anything else. And there’s almost nothing in the world that isn’t still a mystery. Meanwhile, the need to bridge that divide and comprehend consciousness could point to a solution. But that’s a different (future) story.