Consciousness As a State of Matter?

Max Tegmark has a new paper Consciousness as a State of Matter. The paper is filled with mathematics which I am not going to try to explain or pretend to understand but there are parts of it which are fairly accessible to anyone with a modest understanding of modern science. Here is a good write-up of it without the mathematics. The paper takes the seemingly radical position that we can understand consciousness as another state of physical matter just like solids, liquids, and gases. I have argued in some other posts that consciousness must be material so I will find myself in agreement with the general sentiment even though I disagree with this approach There are, however, some additional aspects of this that Tegmark may be missing that I want to discuss.

Tegmark writes “the key difference between a solid, liquid, and a gas lies not in the types of atoms, but in their arrangement. In this paper, I conjecture that consciousness can be understood as yet another state of matter.”

Tegmark draws extensively on the work of Giulio Tononi and his Integrated Information Theory of consciousness. Tononi argues the consciousness consists of two features: information and integration. Both features must be present. A disc drive might contain a large amount of information but the information is not integrated. Every bit is either on or off independently from every other bit. For information to be integrated, the different bits need to interact with each other. The bits need to be clustered into complexes and networks that affect each other in a coordinated manner. The greater the amount of integration the greater the degree of consciousness. Tononi has a developed a theoretical, mathematical framework for measuring integration but has no practical way of measuring with human beings or other organisms.

Tegmark starts to build on this Tononi’s theory with an interesting chart which characterizes the states of matter he is considering. I reproduce this chart below:

State of matter Long-lived states? Information integrated? Easily writable? Complex dynamics?
Gas N N N Y
Liquid N N N Y
Solid Y N N N
Memory Y N Y N
Computer Y ? Y Y
Consciousness Y Y Y Y

Long-lived states means that the components maintain their arrangement for periods of time. In gases and liquids, the molecules are in constant movement and do not persist in a stable pattern. Information integrated is the integration that Tononi speaks about. Consciousness by Tononi’s theory is defined by integration of information. Tegmark leaves a question mark by computer suggesting that the computer state may be or could in the future be conscious. Memory may be described as a solid that can be easily read from and written to. Tegmark gives the example of a gold ring with an engraving. The engraving persists on the ring because it maintains long-lived states. If we wrote the engraving in water, it would quickly vanish. A computer not only has memory but also is dynamic. Think of a computer executing a simple program adding one to a variable in a loop. Not only is there memory to persist the value of the variable, the value is changing in a predictable fashion by the addition operation and a program that describes the logical steps. It is not static memory like the engraving.

Consciousness, the last state in the table, has all of these characteristics. Of course, just putting consciousness in a table with solids, liquids, and gases doesn’t mean that they really are in some way comparable or, more importantly, that it is useful in any to compare them. There is a big discontinuity between the first three entries in the table and the last three. We can transform solids into liquids and gases by adding energy. If I heat ice, it becomes water and eventually steam. Going the other way, if I remove energy from steam it cools to water and eventually ice. We can move from one state to another by changing the amount of energy. But how do we go from solid to memory? We can’t do it by removing energy. In fact, the recording of information requires energy. Computing requires even more energy and consciousness is very expensive. The human brain needs more energy than any other organ. We understand how to move between the first three states of matter but we do not know how to move from the first three to any of the last three or how to move between the last three.

Where is life in the states of matter and how does life itself differ from consciousness? Life has many long-lived states. Its hallmark is its persistence over time by copying its DNA. Its information is integrated into a unified whole – the organism itself. It is complex and dynamic. Its writability is shown every time a cell divides and writes a copy of its DNA. It constantly recreates itself by assimilating raw materials and energy from the environment It is dynamic. The entire notion of evolution is the changing information in life through natural selection.

Fundamentally Tegmark seem to have omitted the key transition point between solids and the only “states of matter” which most of us can agree possess consciousness. Even if we deny consciousness to any lower form of life than human, most of us agree that humans are conscious. Indeed, if we are not, then probably we must argue that consciousness itself does not really exist and, despite what most of us think and feel, we are really automatons. Despite the question mark in the column by computer, few of us would believe that computers are now conscious though we might debate whether they might become so in the future. Consciousness at this point in our experience in the universe is only a property of life. It came from life. It differs not a bit in Tegmark’s table from consciousness itself.

As I have argued extensively in this blog, consciousness is just an extension of life, not something radically different from it. It is a product of the evolving complexity of life and its increasing capacity to store information. In fact, I have gone one step farther to say that consciousness is built from the materials of life and that it is unlikely non-lifelike materials, such as computers as we know them, will even become conscious no matter how well they may be able to imitate human behavior or even exceed human intelligence.

In a new paper described as “A New Physics Theory of Life” Jeremy England tries to derive an understanding of life from the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Living beings in this view are dissipative engines that create entropy by assimilating energy from the environment and using it to reproduce. I quote from an article about it:

Self-replication (or reproduction, in biological terms), the process that drives the evolution of life on Earth, is one such mechanism by which a system might dissipate an increasing amount of energy over time. As England put it, “A great way of dissipating more is to make more copies of yourself.” In a September paper in the Journal of Chemical Physics, he reported the theoretical minimum amount of dissipation that can occur during the self-replication of RNA molecules and bacterial cells, and showed that it is very close to the actual amounts these systems dissipate when replicating. He also showed that RNA, the nucleic acid that many scientists believe served as the precursor to DNA-based life, is a particularly cheap building material. Once RNA arose, he argues, its “Darwinian takeover” was perhaps not surprising.

England’s concept is not exactly new. The idea that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is what life is about can be traced back to Erwin Schrodinger’s “What is Life?”. Others have built on this idea including Karo Michaelian and Eric D. Schneider with “Into the Cool”.

Coupled with the idea of life as an energy dissipating engine, however, must come an understanding about how “information manipulates the matter it is instantiated in” as Paul Davies puts it in the “The Algorithmic Origins of Life”. Life not only dissipates energy, it seems also to store and increase information. As the complexity of life increases, its capacity to store information increases. Energy and information are related. I quote myself from another post: “Consciousness is the encoding of information in near real-time just as life itself is the encoding of information in evolutionary time. Consciousness may also be a phase transition during which mind gains a qualitatively different level of control over the matter it is instantiated in from that of genetic and other regulatory information. This to me suggests that consciousness is an almost inevitable outcome of the evolution of living organisms”.

Ultimately Tegmark’s attempt to view consciousness as a state of matter falls apart because it misses the obvious connection between consciousness and life. The last three states of matter in Tegmark’s table, along with life itself, might be better considered “supra-states of matter” in that they are built on matter but go beyond them. These supra-states arise through the inherent self-organizing capability of life and its ability to convert energy into information, generating entropy in the process.

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11 Responses to Consciousness As a State of Matter?

  1. jeff says:

    Excellent work. Important point. It seems that the big point of interest is in the fact that England can simulate the proposed processes computationally. Shiny, colorful, moving things always attract attention. I hope that you are collecting these entries with a view to compiling them into a critical chapter on the prospect of conscious machines. Please say that it is so…

  2. For this post, I caught your definition of life as being something like an efficient system of dissipation on thermodynamics, as well as a generator of order or information. But since you find consciousness to be just an extension of life, what qualities might you attribute to consciousness? And what formal relation would it have with the above definition of life (hard problem of consciousness)?

    Nagel provides the unified subjective experience by asking what is it like to be a bat. Rationality marks a capability that humans (at minimum) have because of our ability to construct a body of knowledge from justified true beliefs. I find these to fit well with my understanding of the rational actor from economics and game theory.

    From what I can see, this unified subject of experience is essential to the reality of human persons as possessing minds or being selves.

    I know you speculated that tensegrity might mean all matter is conscious, but I don’t find that to be more defensible than some versions of subject dualism (dualist-interactionist or emergent subject dualism). Ultimately, there is a ghost and a machine, and there just seem to be different ways of establishing that distinction.

    I appreciate you fielding this question from another angle. What do you think?

    • James Cross says:

      This is a great comment. Thanks.

      I may have stated otherwise in other posts that all matter is conscious but I am not quite sure I believe it to be so now. I do believe consciousness to be material but it is more like a dynamic informational structure erected on top of matter (as I called it a supra-state) , particularly the carbon based molecules of life.

      Tegmark speculates at one point that our sense of being conscious might have arose as an accidental by-product of error correction mechanisms that informational systems require. I don’t really think this is the case. When we look at the evolutionary history of the nervous system we see it began as cluster of neural cells near the mouth and running down the digestive system in the first worms. It seems to me from this that the evolutionary role of this was to serve metabolism. As predator and prey evolved the need for control over the physical organism and ability to perceive the environment (predator/prey) through sensory apparatus also needed to increase. We could probably debate at what point in evolutionary history we say consciousness developed. It seems to me that the highest elaborations of consciousness are found in organisms with larger brains relative to body mass of course, but they also seem to be associated with social organisms – elephants, dolphins, apes, and humans.

      I am not sure I have addressed all of the issues you raise but I may make a main blog post on this and some related matters in a week or two.

  3. Wes Hansen says:

    I’ve read Tegmark’s consciousness paper and, based on personal experience primarily with yoga, meditation, and pranayama, I feel he is in error; there exists a plethora of evidence, mostly ignored by the orthodox community, which strongly suggests that consciousness is not a state of matter, rather, matter is a state of consciousness. The difference is subtle but very important in that it establishes which is more fundamental.

    In your Don Luis post you quote a Tibetan Rinpoche, have you ever read the Bardo Todol? If not, I would recommend “Meditations on Living, Dying, and Loss: The Essential Tibetan Book of the Dead” (http://www.amazon.com/Meditations-Living-Dying-Loss-Essential/dp/0143118137). His Holiness provides an insightful introduction/commentary. Many advanced Tulkus, those who engage in darkness work, can, upon impending death, completely transform their body to energy using nothing but their mind; it’s called the Rainbow Body phenomenon and has been researched by the Institute of Noetic Sciences (http://noetic.org/library/audio-lectures/the-rainbow-body-phenomenon-with-father-francis-ti/).

    The Mayan shaman are also quite experienced with dark work; when children are born and recognized as the reincarnation of an advanced shaman, thirteen wraps are placed about their eyes and they dwell in total darkness until age 10 or 13. Better than two millenia before Galileo, the Mayan people knew that our solar system orbited a “sun” at the center of the galaxy, how did they deduce that without powerful optics? Perhaps you would find the book and documentary by Barclay Powers, “The Lost Secret of Immortality,” informative (http://www.amazon.com/Lost-Secret-Immortality-Barclay-Powers/dp/1456435116).

    Dr. William Tiller, Professor Emeritus at Stanford, has conducted several double-blind experiments which demonstrate the absurdity of reductionist arguments with regards to consciousness. One of his experiments has been duplicated by other researchers both here in America and in Europe; of course the orthodox science community tends to ignore his work although I believe that is changing. Dr. Tiller and his colleagues use advanced Chi Gong practitioners to embed a conscious intent onto a simple integrated circuit they call an Intention Host Device (IHD). This IHD then “conditions” a space-time volume in which an experiment is conducted; without fail, the results of the experiment reflect the intent embedded in the IHD (http://www.scienceoflife.nl/BTiller_Towards_a_Consciousness-Inclusive_Science_for_Our_World.pdf) and (http://www.tillerfoundation.com/White%20Paper%20IV.pdf).

    Physics hinges on conservation principles, conservation of energy, conservation of charge, etc., what is emerging now are two new conservation principles: Conservation of Information; Conservation of Consciousness.

    • James Cross says:

      Thanks for your comments.

      Whether mind is matter or matter is mind may make no difference. I have often argued the strong materialist position but that has been more for shock value than anything else. Materialist, however, doesn’t equate with reductionist. The real question is not so much whether reality it is mainly mind or mainly matter but how is complexity created, how do all of the pieces fit together.

  4. clifford says:

    I am encouraged by this line of thinking regarding consciousness. It makes sense that consciousness is inversely related to entropy and correlated with information/intelligence. And the idea that it is another state of matter (matter with an advanced organization) makes a lot of sense. The idea that it is related to Quantum Mechanics has merit since it could explain some of the querky aspects of QM that defy intuitive logic, such as the superposition principle and Heisenberg uncertainty principle since the “querkiness” is simply a function of our consciousness.

  5. oiscarey says:

    I’m glad someone took the time to critique this study, personally I view it as looking at the problem at the wrong level of zoom, akin to trying to infer the behaviour of the brain by building equations detailing the behaviour of quarks… Physicists should be more careful before they decide to wade into the muddy waters of biology.

    Here’s another theory of consciousness that seems a lot less esoteric, I’d love to hear what you think: http://srsc.ulb.ac.be/axcwww/papers/pdf/07-PBR.pdf

  6. Pingback: Consciousness: Much Ado About (Almost) Nothing? | Broad Speculations

  7. Reblogged this on gigglinginthegutter and commented:
    I think this is thought provoking. Thank you. Worth considering in the context of Teilhard de Chardin’s work – in relation to evolution and phase transitions (physical, chemical, biological and mind evolution) and where that leads?

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