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There just has to be something more, you know?

13 Post author: Academian 24 March 2010 12:38AM

A non-materialist thought experiment.

Okay, so you don't exactly believe in the God of the Abrahamic scriptures verbatim who punishes and sets things on fire and lives in the sky.  But still, there just has to be something more than just matter and energy, doesn't there?  You just feel it.  If you don't, try to remember when you did, or at least empathize with someone you know who does.  After all, you have a mind, you think, you feel — you feel for crying out loud — and you must realize that can't be made entirely of things like carbon and hydrogen atoms, which are basically just dots with other dots swirling around them.  Okay, maybe they're waves, but at least sometimes they act like dots.  Start with a few swirling dots… now add more… keep going, until it equals love.  It just doesn't seem to capture it.

In fact, now that you think about it, you know your mind exists.  It's right there: it's you.  Your "experiencing self".  Maybe you call it a spirit or soul; I don't want to fix too rigid a description in case it wouldn't quite match your own.  But cogito-ergo-sum, it's definitely there!  By contrast, this particle business is just a mathematical concept — a very smart one, of course — thought of by scientists to explain and predict a bunch of carefully designed and important measurements.  Yes, it does that extremely well, and you're not downplaying that.  But that doesn't explain how you see blue, or taste strawberry — something you have direct access to.  Particles might not even exist, if that means anything to say.  It might just be that observation itself follows a mathematical pattern that we can understand better by visualizing dots and waves.  They might not be real.

So actually, your mind or spirit — that thing you feel, that you — is much more certain an extant than scientific "matter".  That must be something very important to understand!  Certainly you can tell your mind has different parts to it: hearing, seeing, reasoning, moving, remembering, empathizing, picturing, yearning… When you think of all the things you can remember alone — or could remember — the complexity of all that data is mindbogglingly vast.  Imagine the task of actually having to take it all apart and describe it completely… it could take aeons…

Imagine then, for a moment, that you could isolate just one part: some relatively insignificant portion of your vast mind or spirit.  Let's say a single, second-long experience of walking with a friend; certainly minute compared to the entirety of your life.  But still, an extremely complex object.  Think about all you are perceiving in that second...  your mind is incredible!  No, I'm not talking about your brain, I'm talking about your experiencing self, your mind, your essence, however you might think about that experiencing entity.  Now imagine isolating some small aspect of that memory with your friend, discarding the massively detailed experiences that are your vision, your sense of balance, how hungry you are for nachos… Say, a concerned awareness of your friend's emotional state at that instant.  This too is a highly complex object, so it too has parts, which I may not be able to describe in finer granularity, but they're there.  Now let's say you're some kind of super-introspective savant, who can sense the conceptual fragments of still finer, sharper aspects of this…

I'm doing my best here to approach what "a tiny piece of your soul" might mean.  But no matter; perhaps you have a better idea of what that is.  In any case, suppose you somehow isolated this tiny fraction of a mind or spirit, and took it out of the context of all the countless other details we didn't look at.  Now it's disconnected from all that other stuff: vision, balance, nachos, nuances of empathy…

Suppose you managed to somehow look at this object, by which I mean observe it in some way — It is part of your mind, after all — and consider a possible outcome. So that we're picturing roughly the same thing, imagine that as you observed it, this piece of your soul is not writhing and thrashing about spasmodically, but appears in fact calm, and focused on its task.  Suppose it moved regularly, like maybe in a circle, for example.  How curious it could turn out to be!  What would we call this tiny, almost infinitesimal speck of your mind?

I say we call it "electron".


Like many readers of this blog, I am a materialist.  Like many still, I was not always.  Long ago, the now-rhetorical ponderings in the preceding post in fact delivered the fatal blow to my nagging suspicion that, somehow, materialism just isn't enough…

Finish reading in: The two insights of materialism

(these were originally a single post, so some comments below refer to the sequel.)

Comments (75)

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 24 March 2010 03:58:45PM 10 points [-]

Expecting physics to explain consciousness is like expecting lambda calculus to explain Microsoft Word. On one level, it does (you are a pattern in a simple lawful process that we call 'reality' or 'physics'), on the other, it's not supposed to. Jumping from apparent confusion to postulating new substances is a basic error.

Comment author: taiyo 24 March 2010 01:39:34PM *  6 points [-]

I'd like to offer what I think might be objections to this post. When I imagine myself as a non-reductionist and non-materialist reading this post (I am, in fact, neither of these things), I believe I find myself unconvinced by this thought experiment. I suppose I'm not sure convincing this hypothetical me is the goal... nonetheless here are my hypothetical objections:

  1. When I introspect on my thought processes, I am using my mind. I might imagine that I can isolate a "specks of consciousness" just as you ask me to do, but this is a fact about my state of mind which does not necessarily correlate with reality. Perhaps my consciousness is indecomposable. It feels that way to me. What it seems like you are asking me to do in this thought experiment is build a model of consciousness in which consciousness is already similar to matter in that it is decomposable. This seems like question begging! I need more evidence that shows that such reductionism is actually possible.

  2. In any case, suppose that I put my reductionist hat on, and examine my model of decomposable consciousness. Calling infinitesimal specks of my consciousness electrons isn't helpful to me. It also feels like question begging since it seems to assume that my consciousness is made of the same stuff as ordinary matter. If you want to call these specks of mind electrons, feel free. But labeling something is a fact about maps, not about the territory. I need evidence of this which speaks directly about the phenomenon of consciousness.

  3. My perceptions or feelings may sometimes lead me astray, but often times they work really well! For example, when I perceive a rock flying at my face, I do much better when I trust my instincts and feelings than when I don't. How can I tell that my feelings that there is something extraphysical about my consciousness or that the only right way to think about consciousness is by taking a holistic approach are, in fact, wrong?

Comment author: bogus 24 March 2010 01:59:44PM 1 point [-]

Perhaps my consciousness is indecomposable.

There is a big difference between decomposing consciousness into its constituent fragments, vs. simply identifying the degrees of freedom in your conscious experience. Drilling down into your introspection and identifying the smallest specks of experience which you can think of as being details of your consciousness is doing the latter. You can go about modifying any of these tiny details more or less independently, but your consciousness is still a self-contained object.

It's only after you isolate a single electron that you can talk about what its conscious experience would look and feel like.

Comment author: taiyo 25 March 2010 06:27:48PM 0 points [-]

I have no problem letting decomposition refer to details of mind that can be adjusted independently of others. I can imagine such things. But I do not know if such things actually exist in my mind.

I have a math background so I tend to think a bit like that. Here's a silly analogy: consider a linear transformation on a vector space. Sometimes there are invariant subspaces of the vector space called eigenspaces, but sometimes there are not. In this case, you cannot just analyze the effect of a linear transformation by examining a smaller subspace of the vector space since the transformation sort of forces all subspaces to interact with one another.

I can imagine that I adjust some detail of my mind's inner workings and I might imagine that this detail is somehow independent from all the other details. But perhaps, in reality, my mind has no eigenspaces. Perhaps adjusting one detail necessarily has an effect on all the other details of my mind. I can't really understand my consciousness unless I look at the whole thing at once.

Maybe this is embodied in the qualification you made: "more or less independently". Seems fair. But this is the sort of objection I think a non-reductionist might have.

They might also reject the notion of an electron having a conscious experience (as do I) for reasons mentioned elsewhere in the comments section.

Comment author: Nisan 24 March 2010 08:01:49PM 5 points [-]

The decomposability or granularity of experience may be illusory. (This is the first point in taiyo's comment.) But even if one can sensibly pick out a tiny piece of one's experience, I don't expect it to be an electron.

Analogously, the tiny piece of my computer's function that makes the cursor blink at a steady rate is definitely a physical process, but it's not an electron.

Comment author: JanetK 24 March 2010 12:13:20PM 5 points [-]

I want to try to get away from the idea of jumping from mind to physics. The middle ground is more firm. The brain is a biological organ with a function. The stomach is a similar organ with a digestive function. The heart is a similar organ with a circulation function. The function (or one of them) of the brain is mind. Mind is not a thing, it is a biological function. If I extract an electron from my heart, I do not have a bit of circulation. There is no magic here. Take the physics and move to chemistry, take them and move to biochemistry and biophysics, take them and move to biology in its sub-sciences like physiology, genetics, development etc. and then to neuroscience. There is not a shortcut from electrons to thoughts. Materialism does not require that jump.

Comment author: bogus 24 March 2010 01:42:47PM 0 points [-]

If you taboo the word 'function', all you're left with is an explanation of what the brain does. The question is whether such an explanation exists which can account for our conscious experiences. The kinds of materialistic explanations which tend to be favored here do not account for conscious experience; at best, it's bolted on as a (non-materialistic!) afterthought, or handwaved away as magical and spiritualistic "emergence". This is not a satisfactory situation.

Comment author: RobinZ 24 March 2010 02:15:20PM *  2 points [-]

What kinds of explanations are you talking about that are unsatisfactory? Most of us have only been issuing promissory notes based on a confidence that there is such an explanation, not building that explanation. (Hint: anyone who says "emergence" and isn't being wrong in doing so is declaring that they aren't explaining it yet.)

Comment author: bogus 24 March 2010 02:44:29PM *  0 points [-]

Most of us have only been issuing promissory notes based on a confidence that there is such an explanation,

That does clarify some things, but why are so many of you bothered by the claim that conscious experience may in fact be a basic physical phenomenon? It seems that many physicalists here are putting up semantic stopsigns to compensate for the fact that they don't really have an explanation yet.

Comment author: RobinZ 24 March 2010 03:11:20PM *  3 points [-]

It's a mysterious answer to a mysterious question. If consciousness were basic, what would that rule out?* Nothing, so far as I can see. It's the same kind of 'explanation' as "phlogiston".

(A lot of this is connected with the MAtMQ sequence, if you're wondering where I'm coming from on this.)

* Edit: Quick summary of the link: this is equivalent to "what would it imply" - logically, A -> B and A -> ~~B are the same - but because it's much easier to fool yourself into thinking that A implies an observation than that it prevents one. The latter is usually only managed by theories which actually explain.

Comment author: BenAlbahari 24 March 2010 05:22:32PM 0 points [-]

What do you mean when you suggest consciousness is a "basic physical phenomenon"? The handwave may lie in the question you give to the materialist, not the answer the materialist gives to your question.

Comment author: JanetK 25 March 2010 09:59:45AM 1 point [-]

Yes indeed, mind is what the brain does - and mind includes consciousness. I will give a picture, but I do not believe that this is the explanation as there are many such explanations - it is just an illustration of how it might be so as to show that such things are possible. Suppose - the brain does the work of perception, and goal directed motor planning etc. and then creates a model that predicts what the incoming data will be in a fraction of a second. It takes a fraction of a second (same fraction) to do this. It then compares the model with what is coming in and makes corrections to the model based on errors in its prediction. The model is stored in short-term memory to assist in the construction of the next frame of the model and the more permanent memory a little later. This model is shared by all the parts of the brain that require it to do their work (more of less the whole brain). The model is involved in predictive monitoring, sharing of information and memory storage. How would this 'feel' any different from conscious experience? Experiments in neuroscience have given evidence of the movie-like frames, the prediction, the link to memory, the periodic synchronous communication across the brain etc. This is not handwaving but science. And there are other just as reasonable ways to envisage the evidence.

Comment author: cousin_it 24 March 2010 07:48:37AM *  3 points [-]

If a "materialist" believes that the problem of consciousness can be solved by current physics plus vague "complexity" (rather than new physics), then I don't know if I'm a "materialist" or not, and this post doesn't convince me one way or the other. Am I alone in thinking this is all just hand-waving?

Comment author: Academian 24 March 2010 10:12:59AM 1 point [-]

This post wasn't about solving the problem of consciousness, but accepting that the physical sciences indeed studies pieces of it. Thanks for sharing your differing impression of it; enough feedback like this will no doubt result in a revision someday!

Comment author: Hook 24 March 2010 12:44:02PM *  2 points [-]

When we talk about the states of a microprocessor, what we care about are the contents of the registers, the cache, and the instructions in the pipeline. I'm not certain about the gigahertz level processors of today, but for the processors of 20 years ago, these states are completely stable in terms of changing the placement of one electron with non-relativistic energy levels.

Those processors operated at tens of megahertz. Are 100 Hz neurons so much more sensitive that the placement of a single electron has any effect on the mind states we care about?

Comment author: simplicio 24 March 2010 08:00:30AM 2 points [-]

What would we call this tiny, almost infinitesimal speck of your mind?

I say we call it "electron"…

I would like to clarify what you mean here. I think you're saying that any given mind-state is ultimately the result of 10^n particle movements, so that some "fraction" of that mind-state is in principle traceable to only one particle - say, an electron - moving. Is that right?

Comment author: Academian 24 March 2010 03:14:22PM *  1 point [-]

Yep, but with "in principle" in capitals, and the words "ultimately" and "result of'" removed, because I think they break a symmetry in relating the two notions. A nuance, perhaps, but I want to be careful what words I put in my mouth, heheh. I'd prefer to say that a mind-state and 10^n electrons moving just-so are the same object.

Comment author: simplicio 24 March 2010 07:34:55AM 2 points [-]

Brilliantly done! :)

Yes, I think the major hurdle is that people expect an account of mind as arising from matter to somehow feel intuitive, or to be easily picturable.

Which is as unreasonable as, say, expecting a psych profile of a murderer to be so good that it makes you murder somebody.

Comment author: bogus 24 March 2010 09:45:39AM *  0 points [-]

No, people are in fact quite content with psych profiles as they are today, even though these profiles cannot cause us to share the murderer's brain state. What we might expect to learn from a good psych profile is how being a murderer would feel like in terms of the degrees of freedom which make up our conscious experiences. Emergentist theories of mind cannot explain why this is the case; quantum monism can, at least in principle.

This doesn't mean quantum monism is right, but yes, the actual explanation of consciousness is likely to be at least as intuitive to both physicists and common folks.

Comment author: taw 24 March 2010 06:01:45AM 2 points [-]

Please, start with a tl;dr summary before writing such huge blocks of text. There's a reason every research paper starts with an abstract.

Comment author: Morendil 24 March 2010 09:22:58AM *  1 point [-]

Better yet, when revising, don't forget to cut. The latter portion of this is quite good (starting around "Like many readers"), that whole intro could probably be scrapped without hurting the main part.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 24 March 2010 11:44:46AM 5 points [-]

I disagree. The article is meant to be persuasive to nonmaterialists. The intro makes it clear that the author really understands and sympathizes with why someone would find it hard to credit materialism. That's an effective way to get the reader to want to hear the rest of the argument.

Comment author: Academian 24 March 2010 02:25:17PM 0 points [-]

Yes, that was my idea. So, respecting the symmetric difference of the audiences who would appreciate each half, I'm making the second half its own post. Thanks again to everyone for the input.

Comment author: Jonathan_Graehl 24 March 2010 01:47:10AM *  2 points [-]

Does neurology presently explain cognitive biases, or allow for memory restoration? I'd like to see some examples of such cool stuff.

I don't relate to your inspirational material, but I liked the analysis.

Comment author: Yvain 24 March 2010 01:44:45AM *  2 points [-]

I'm doing my best here to approach what "a tiny piece of your soul" might mean. But no matter; perhaps you have a better idea of what that is. In any case, suppose you somehow isolated this tiny fraction of mind or spirit, and took it out of the context of all the countless other details we didn't look at. Now it's disconnected from all that other stuff: vision, balance, nachos, nuances of empathy…Given modern science, there is something more you can say about a particle besides the geometry and equations that describe it, something which connects it to the direct, cogito-ergo-sum style knowledge we all enjoy: whatever it is, a particle is a one thousand-trillion-trillionth of a you. Yes, you, your essence. Yes, science can now describe, in more or less complete detail, a one thousand-trillion-trillionth of a "soul".

Um...originally I thought this argument was skipping over the whole "how do particles lead to conscious experience" issue, but looking over it again I think I detect a hint of panpsychism - that all particles are conscious and the fact that you're conscious is an effect of the particles that make you up. If that was your intent, it definitely deserves a more complete treatment than a few sentences buried in an article about convincing nonmaterialists. If that wasn't your intent, how does this explain the apparent gap between physical matter and conscious experience at all?

Comment author: Rain 24 March 2010 02:34:10AM *  1 point [-]

Yes, it would be nice if you could clear up that whole "what is consciousness" thing for us.

I do think the use of words like "soul" and "essence" can create too much ambiguity about what's being described, considering their loaded history.

I also like bogdanb's correction on the topic.

Comment author: Clippy 24 March 2010 04:15:02PM 1 point [-]

There doesn't have to be anything more. (I certainly don't require "more" for my existence to be justified.)

Also, I know.

Comment author: RobinZ 24 March 2010 01:13:28AM 1 point [-]

Interesting. Mind if I bounce this off some of my Internet peeps? I'm curious as to how people outside this rather eccentric community would react.

(Granted, "my Internet peeps" is a rather eccentric community of its own - just separate from this one.)

Comment author: Academian 24 March 2010 10:26:56AM 0 points [-]

That's the idea!

Comment author: RobinZ 24 March 2010 02:05:54PM *  1 point [-]

...except that I wanted to link to what I had read, and parts of the article I thought were critical were then deleted. I would have preferred you not tell me to link it if you were still allowing yourself to perform major edits.

Edit: Jack quoted one of the critical missing concepts before it was deleted.

Comment author: Academian 24 March 2010 02:18:05PM 0 points [-]

Yes, many apologies... I hadn't been planning on significant further edits. Anyway, the hope is that now you will be able to link directly to the part that interests you.

Comment author: RobinZ 24 March 2010 02:21:50PM *  1 point [-]

The part that interested me was both parts together. I upvoted it before the edits, but butchered like this, I am about one trivial impetus from downvoting. Primarily because the way it stands, it sounds like it means that "electrons" are "conscious" and other such woo.

Edit: I've decided not to downvote it, but I'm still dissatisfied with the way you've handled this.

Comment author: Academian 24 March 2010 03:28:19PM 1 point [-]

The second half is re-posted, with a clear lead in to it at the bottom of the first, to guard against "woo". I decided this was the best compromise between unity and requiring people to wade through an introduction that doesn't serve them (see other comments by taw, Morendil, Jonathan_Graehl ... ).

Comment author: RobinZ 24 March 2010 07:05:01PM 0 points [-]

That's a pretty good compromise - I'll leave it there.

Comment author: RobinZ 25 March 2010 12:49:19AM 0 points [-]

Why does the link open in a new window? This is rude behavior for a blog post to exhibit.

Comment author: rosyatrandom 24 March 2010 02:00:23AM *  0 points [-]

I think a good term for what I believe in might be 'abstractionism'; essentially, I believe in all possible things, and all entities existing in all possible contexts.

From this perspective, matter, mind and mathematics are all the same kind of stuff: patterns. The mind is a pattern than can be abstracted from processes functioning to solve problems which, at a high level, implement our thoughts. Those processes can be performed by brains running in the kinds of universe we are familiar with, which run on ontological frameworks consistent, at least for observable parts, with the mathematics we know and love.

What is it all made of? Just information that can be endlessly traced downward through infinite contextual abstractions. In the end, there are only two definitive aspects: Everything (the kaleidoscopic, crystalline pattern of patterns) and the manner by which elements abstract (which links Nothing to Anything to Everything).

Or, as some of you may recognise it, The Dust Theory. In the end, all other theories require an arbitrary contextual abacadabra.

Comment author: cousin_it 24 March 2010 10:31:28AM *  6 points [-]

essentially, I believe in all possible things, and all entities existing in all possible contexts.

Dust Theory has a problem: there are many more possible chaotic worlds than possible ordered worlds. Therefore each conscious observer must believe that they appeared in the smallest ordered bubble that can sustain them; in other words, that the beautiful order they observe is an accident, and chaos will reach us at the speed of light any moment now. So, do you really think you will morph into a pheasant tomorrow?

Comment author: gort 24 March 2010 01:44:30PM 2 points [-]

Alternatively, the conscious observer simply interprets the surrounding chaos as ordered in some way. Despite the fact that I will be a pheasant tomorrow and I was a pushme-pullyou yesterday, I always perceive myself as the same continuous being.

Don't people actually do this anyway? It's called "storytelling": the knack for finding meaning in the random series of events that is reality.

Comment author: cousin_it 24 March 2010 02:48:53PM *  5 points [-]

This is even crazier! Do you really think you weren't a human being yesterday? If yes, for Cthulhu's sake why?

Comment author: RobinZ 24 March 2010 02:04:13PM 3 points [-]

Why would any random conscious being be formed so as to interpret its particular surrounding chaos as ordered? The theory as proposed establishes no connection between "what an agent interprets as normal" and "what an agent observes at any given instant".

Comment author: DanielLC 21 May 2010 06:37:14PM *  1 point [-]

There's two possible counterarguments to this:

  1. There are many more chaotic worlds, but simple worlds will be more common within those chaotic worlds. For example, for any universe you can get another universe by adding "You turn into a pheasant", but you can also get one by adding "Universe A exists inside of it". Because the latter is presumably simpler, it will occur more often. There will also be universes that have "Universe A + you turn into a pheasant exists inside of it" but there will be more with "Universe A exists inside of it twice" and so on. In short, although virtually every universe is chaotic, most of the people living in them will be the ones living in ordered universes inside of them.

  2. The ordered universes have a higher weight. The weight decreases exponentially with the chaos, so that there's a finite probability of a finitely chaotic world.

Comment author: Johnicholas 27 March 2010 07:11:04PM 1 point [-]
  1. In order to say there are "more" chaotic worlds, you have to pick a measure to put on the space of all possible worlds.
  2. If you did want to put a measure on the space of all possible worlds, nothing forces you to put more weight on the chaotic ones than the ordered ones.
  3. With a measure, you can give probabilities to things - but as you've noticed, those probabilities may not correspond to your current informal notion of probability.
Comment author: Academian 24 March 2010 12:42:16PM 0 points [-]

The two halves of this post, as originally written, were indended for different (but overlapping) audiences.

This was not wise. I'm splitting it now, and the second half should be more interesting after some revision.

Thanks to everyone for very helpful comments!

Comment author: RobinZ 24 March 2010 12:51:31PM 0 points [-]

A note in the original post would be appropriate.

Comment author: Academian 24 March 2010 12:55:26PM 0 points [-]

Will do.

Comment author: RobinZ 24 March 2010 12:09:02PM 0 points [-]

Hullo! Where'd the second half go? There was good stuff there!

Comment author: Rain 24 March 2010 02:44:44AM *  0 points [-]

As a conviction, physics need not claim that "dots and waves are all there is", but rather, that all there is can be described on analogy with dots and waves.

I found this a very useful statement.

And then the more I thought about it, I lost why it was special. I'm not sure why that happened, or what it means. Perhaps a reversion to my dark side. If so, that was faster than I would have thought.

Comment author: CronoDAS 24 March 2010 04:17:57AM 0 points [-]

Do electric and magnetic fields actually exist, or are they simply a mathematical description of how charged particles move in the presence of other charged particles?

(As it turns out, the fact that Maxwell's equations describe light entirely in terms of said fields provide a good reason to believe the former over the latter.)

Comment author: Jack 24 March 2010 04:21:25AM 3 points [-]

Do electric and magnetic fields actually exist, or are they simply a mathematical description of how charged particles move in the presence of other charged particles?

I don't think there is a meaningful difference between these two alternatives. What distinction do you have in mind?

Comment author: CronoDAS 24 March 2010 04:32:58AM *  1 point [-]

I agree; there really isn't a difference.

But on the other hand...