Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A universal consciousness?

In Hinduism, there is this concept of brahman that refers to an all pervading consciousness. The individual souls (atman) are part of this brahman, and upon death, the atmans merge with the brahman.

Till a few years ago, I used to ridicule this concept. To me a unit of consciousness (you may call it "soul") was indivisible and also non-unifiable. Although I was plain aware of the fact that severing the corpus callosum in humans could lead to two individual consciousness in the same person, I still had problems reconciling that. But now, when I think about it, I do not think it is any more mysterious than the creation of a new consciousness when a woman gets pregnant. Physicalism is at the root of both and does have a bearing on consciousness, including creation, destruction, bifurcation, and unification of existing ones.

If bifurcation is possible, so should unification. I would say, re-attaching the nerve cells of the corpus callosum (at least in theory) should merge the two conscious streams back to one.

So does this mean consciousness is not conserved? Can a consciousness be destroyed without being conserved (as in rebirth) or getting unified with another stream? And what about ethics? If a consciousness is going to get permanently destroyed (as in death), does it matter if it is made to undergo a painless death or a painful one? Why do we care?

Fairly profound questions. But here is my take. I think that each conscious entity is nothing more than a physical console for a master consciousness on the "other" side. The "master consciousness", however, is not some omniscient supreme being. On the other hand, it is very limited in its epistemological capabilities. Its function is to provide instantaneous, memoryless qualia, nothing more. In other words, phenomenal consciousness. It interfaces itself to a console (a conscious entity) through some QM processes in the brain. Apart from feeling physical qualia (through the console), it can also undergo emotional qualia (like anger, grief, and so on), but even these processes are largely determined by the physical processes in the brain. Memories of past events, even behavior (access consciousness) are all stored locally in the physical brain. The master consciousness has no memory or personality other than that of the console it is currently plugged into.

This means that if there are two persons having two master consciousnesses, they can exchange them suddenly and they would not even know it. In fact, there could be a single master consciousness operating behind two individuals in a time multiplexed manner, similar to a multi-user operating system.

Now this would lead to an interesting ethical paradox. Let us suppose there are two people A and B. Suppose A harms B in some way. Now ethics would demand that A suffers some retribution because of that. But as soon as A harms B, let us assume that the master consciousnesses behind these two get switched. Now, in the interest of fairness, who would have to undergo punishment? A or B?

For a judge in the same physical world, there would be nothing in the behavior of either A or B that would give away the switching! In fact, there may be no theoretical way of distinguishing the change from a purely physical point of view. So it would be logical for A to undergo the punishment, as would be self-evident had no such switching taken place.

But given that the consciousnesses of A and B have switched, wouldn't punishing A now cause more suffering for the consciousness that was originally in B, while letting the other go scot-free? Although A would continue to believe that he is the one who harmed B, in reality its the other way round! So while A might still resign to whatever punishment he receives (because epistemologically his identity is that of A), in reality the consciousness that was sinned against is also getting punished for the same!

In dealing with ethics, I would like to think of joy/suffering undergone by any "master consciousness" as a scalar quantity. For example, in my life, I could keep a score of the pleasures and pains (both physical and emotional) and could tally the total over some period to give the "net" pleasure or pain I experienced. Although this is simplistic (for example, how does one assign weights to the various experiences?), I want to illustrate some points.

For example, do I assign points to my experiences in my dreams and treat them on par with the waking state? In my dream, I might get beaten by muggers, my loved one might be diagnosed with cancer, and so on, so I sure do suffer. But when I wake up, I feel relieved that it was all just a dream. But does that realization negate the subtotal in my dream? The answer is no. When I was dreaming, the pain (both physical and emotional) that I felt were every bit as real as they would have been in the waking state. Just realizing after waking up that it was all a dream does NOT make the suffering go away. If that were the case, it should not make any difference to me whether I get nightmares or pleasant dreams. In fact, there would be no need to wish "sweet dreams" to anyone then.

What if one has no memory of the bad dream on waking up? In this case too, it doesn't erase the suffering he underwent during the dream. Of course, if one remembers the dream, then thinking about it may cause more suffering, but this is a secondary effect. This is similar to reliving a tragic event or grieving over a loss after a long time since it happened. If a person undergoes a tragic or painful event, but suffers amnesia after that which removes the memory of the event completely from his mind, it still doesn't affect the fact that the person had the painful experience. What the amnesia does is, it prevents the event from having an effect on the pain score afterwards.

Now let's do this thought experiment. Imagine that for every misdeed a person commits during his waking state, the person suffers a negative consequence in his dream the same night. So if he beats someone up in the waking state, in his dream he gets beaten up by someone else! This might seem something like divine justice! If this happens a few times, the person would form the association and might stop beating people up! What a deterrence!

But let's add a twist to this scenario. Let's assume he gets beaten up in the dreams just like before, but has no memory of the dreams once he wakes up. In this case, he cannot form an association and might continue beating people up. But still he is brought to justice the same night every time that happens! Also let us assume that in his dream, he doesn't recollect that he had beaten someone up during the day, and therefore cannot link his being beaten up to what he did in the waking state. Some might call this unfair (since if someone is being punished, they would argue that the person needs to know for what), but I don't think so. Justice is when the consciousness undergoes some unpleasantness (like pain or grief), and no reason needs to be assigned. As long as the pleasure/pain score is altered in whatever manner to cause accountability, justice is being served. Of course, when someone knows why he is being punished, it may change his behavior which prevents him from getting himself into trouble in the future, but that's a separate issue.

In Hinduism, there is this concept of karma, which is akin to a score sheet for misdeeds. It is said that when someone gets reborn, the karma of his past lives would have an effect on his well-being or happiness in this life. Some people, even if they believe in rebirth, are not comfortable with the idea of someone getting punished for something they did in a past life of which they have no recall, for the same reasons as the thought experiment. But I think that if we just think of matters of justice, it is quite sensible. Actually, think of a scenario where between "rebirths", there is a transient state where they are aware of all the lives they have lived till then. In that case, they can sure form associations between their wrongdoings in one life and suffering in another, so not only is justice done, but there is also an opportunity for introspection. Of course, the same soul, on entering a new body, will lose all the wisdom since as I said, memories and identity are tied to the console once interfacing with the console. The console could be a human in one "birth" and an insect in the next one. And because I feel the person does not need to be made aware of why he is being punished for misdeeds of his previous birth, it is quite alright for the "person" undergoing the punishment to be an insect (since the only thing that matters is the ability to suffer pain qualia). This actually agrees with the rebirth aspect of Hinduism where one can be reborn as any other species.

But what if one consciousness commits some misdeed and unifies with another innocent one? Then how can justice be done? Is punishing the unified entity also entail punishing the innocent one to some extent?

I have no answer to this. This is a troubling question. It would be better to avoid this question in the first place if that could be possible. And here is where I am going to reach out for Occam's razor. The whole issue of retributive ethics can be completely avoided if we assume that ALL consciousnesses behind ALL consoles are effectively one and the same!

In this case, there is no question of justice, as the perpetrator and victim are one and the same! There is no need for retribution at the local level (console A vs console B). In fact there is no retribution at all! In reality we do not observe any kind of retributive justice in real life - evolution has always been predator vs. prey, society has seen tyrants who go scot free and so on. But in the grand scale, if we make the assumption that ALL conscious beings are ultimately the same, we need not look for local tit-for-tat justice in the first place!

For those who are unconvinced by the idea of a "dumb" soul behind a console that embodies the personality, think of yourself in dreams. When we wake up, a lot of the happenings in dreams make no sense whatsoever. But in the dream, even though our sensory experiences are quite realistic, mentally we appear to be greatly challenged in not being able to make out the inconsistencies which seem obvious in the waking state. This is because the soul is dumb (and able to only perceive physical qualia and basic mental ones). However congnitively and ethically, it is very challenged, and relies wholly on the physical aspect (the brain) for those. There are brain regions for empathy, criminal behavior and so on, its not the soul that is good or bad, contrary to what most religions say.

Of course, with the point made earlier, the whole question of ethics breaks down. Which is good since it appears to be a needless complication anyway.

The question is of course, how the consoles interface with this universal consciousness. Are QM processes responsible? I think so. If we find out, we could create our own non-biological consoles that can tap into this consciousness to experience any kind of qualia. We can even unify these with ourselves, so we get to share in the experiences.

May the Force be with us.