Friday, July 27, 2007

The binding problem

I had in this post suggested a universal consciousness behind all conscious entities. The motivation for this had to do with ethics. I strongly feel that ethics and fairness are not just Darwinian concepts with survival value, but something more fundamental. In fact, I would say that the presence of pain qualia (both physical and emotional) implies ethics as a concept at the platonic level.

As a take on the famed Schrodinger's cat experiment, let us consider a cat in a sealed steel box that is slowly heated by a flame on the outside. Also consider a vial of a tranquilizer inside the box that may or may not get broken early on (if broken, it anesthesizes the cat). Now, at the end of the experiment, the temperature inside gets so high that everything gets charred (including the vial) and the chemical composition of the remains is the same whether or not the cat got anesthesized. However in one case, the cat suffers a great deal (getting roasted alive), and in the other case, the cat suffers a painless death.

Now, if a human being were given a choice to either break the vial (through some remote control mechanism) from the outside or not, is there a moral obligation for him to choose to break it? From an ethical standpoint, the answer is a resolute yes. I don't think that even those who strongly believe in functionalism would choose otherwise (especially if it is their pet cat).

But from a physical standpoint, since both the initial and final states are the same in both cases, and the intermediate states are bounded to within the dimensions of the box that is shielded to the outside , it should make no difference one way or the other. It is obvious that there is a glaring inconsistency in functionalism from an ethical standpoint.

Even if we leave aside compassion, the thought that some conscious entities enjoy a good life while others suffer irrevocably during their brief existence for no fault of theirs, is aesthetically repugnant, given that pain qualia exist. This is the primary motivation for most religions explaining that such injustices are either corrected in an afterlife, or are the corrections to some injustices in a past life.

However, if we assume that all conscious experiences are in the end perceived by the same entity, a lot of the moral and ethical conundrum dissappears.

So, if there is a "mother consciousness" behind all conscious beings, then how does it get compartmentalized into the varied experiences of multiple beings?

The answer may lie in the "binding problem". Recall that the binding problem refers to how the subjective experiences of different qualia (sight, hearing, touch, etc) all come together to form a consistent and unified experience for a single individual.

I speculate that at a higher level, the subjective experiences of this "mother consciousness" (which would be all the experiences of all conscious entities in any physical universe) gravitate towards multiple binding spaces, with each binding space associated with what we call a conscious entity (or a soul).

I postulate that these spaces are 3-dimensional, and I have already referred to these as the "common binding space" (CBS). When a conscious entity is created or destroyed (as in death), a new instance of the CBS associated with that particular entity is created/annihilated.

As I had already suggested in this post, emotional qualia are bound to (or dwell in) the CBS of a particular entity. So any CBS basically carries with it the entire works of the conscious experience of an individual entity, including physical and emotional qualia.

So, even if pain and emotional suffering may be associated with individual CBSes, the actual perceiver is the mother consciousness, although the neat packaging of the collective experience into individual CBSes gives the notion of identity and individual experience.

As alluded in the above referenced post, the CBS serves as the substrate for qualia. This I feel, is true of a worm as much as a human. And since the physical world we live in is 3-dimensional, the CBS in each case is also 3-dimensional.

Each instance of the CBS pops in and out of existence based on physical processes. A patient given an anesthesia loses his CBS. And with that goes not just his physical qualia, but also his emotional ones (in other words, he is now unconscious). Of course, he regains a CBS once he comes out of it (there is no point in talking about whether the new CBS is the same as before - it is immaterial, and all sense of continuity of individual identity is tied to his physical brain).

The brain of a patient whose corpus callosum is severed suddenly pops a new CBS with a portion of his overall experiences migrating to the new one.

It would be interesting to find out what causes a new instance of the CBS to form in the first place. Is it classical or QM phenomena? Or is it some kind of objective reduction "OR" postulated by Penrose and Hameroff?

With advances made in cognitive neuroscience and brain mapping, we may get close to an answer. Not that we would have an answer to the hard problem, but we might inch a bit closer to the problem of how physical processes relate to identity.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Physics and qualia

I was reading Roger Penrose's "The Road to Reality", and was glad that he addressed the philosophical issue of how physics, mathematics, and perhaps even our consciousness interface, in the very first chapter.

In that chapter, he has an interesting diagram of three different worlds, the Platonic mathematical, the physical, and the mental, and how they relate to each other.

I think the majority of physicists, though using completely mathematical methods in attempting to explain the universe, still hold the belief that the stuff they are dealing with is somehow "real" as compared to pure mathematical objects (in other words, the Platonic world, that has an exact correspondence with the real world, obeying the final laws of physics in the same manner).

Thus, the physicist sees concepts like mass, charge, and so on as being something real, and mathematics can only describe "how" they behave, but never "what" they ultimately are. It is almost that the physicist treat these concepts similar to qualia, to use the term loosely.

While a mathematician who programs a computer that simulates the universe may declare mass, charge, and so on, as nothing more than predefined data types , physicists may suggest that these concepts are not just zeros and ones residing in the computer, but might have a deeper meaning that, while not making any material difference to the execution of the program, is nevertheless essential for actually making the program translate to reality, instead of just a simulation of reality.

While many physicists would avoid the qualia/hard problem debate, they unwittingly hold spacetime itself to be something "real", as opposed to being some mathematical structure. Thus, a physicist might not try to explain what "red" and "blue" really are and might even dismiss them, but he would most likely balk at any suggestion that their own perception of space and time as they seem exists only in their minds, and may just be an array of zeros and ones in an ongoing simulation. The physicist is getting duped by his own subjective experience of spacetime and therefore holds it in reverence compared to platonic mathematical objects.

But one cannot blame him for that. All of physics is based on observations of physical phenomena as they happen in our three dimensional universe which flows along time. No one can even imagine a fourth dimension. String theorists have broken this mould, but at present, they are more concerned with trying to explain reality as they happen in our real three-dimensional world. The rest of the dimensions are apparently "curled up" tightly on the order of the Planck length (some 10^-35 m) , so we cannot perceive them.

But then, why cannot we even imagine a fourth or higher dimension? If you are familiar with my previous posts, you probably have guessed where I am headed. Yes, you were right! It is tempting for me to suggest that the platonic qualia space has more than three dimensions, but we have access to only three.

But I choose not to. For the perception of spacetime, in my opinion, is not on the same footing as other qualia, such as the color red or the taste of beer. The access concept doesn't apply to spacetime, as it does for sensory qualia which are bound to the common binding space (CBS) (see this post for an explanation). Here we are dealing with the underpinnings of the CBS itself.

More on this in a future post.

What is reality?

How does one define reality? Is it supposed to be certified by a conscious agent? Well, if the conscious agent is a result of processes in the world that it is trying to certify as real, does that validation have any merit to it? Doesn't the whole argument become circular?

I suppose that when I am dreaming, the world in the dream is in every way as authentic as the world in my waking state, at least for the duration of the dream. But the moment I wake up, I realize that it was an unreal world, a product of my own consciousness. Now can the same be a possibility of the world that I belong to in the waking state? Of course, this enigma is nothing new. It's been the subject of philosophical debates for millenia.

It is possible that my consciousness has nothing to do with the physical brain in my waking state. To give an analogy, in my dreams, I might be led to believe that my awareness is a product of the neural processes happening inside my head in my dream avatar, but the moment I wake up, I know that that isn't the case. This would then correspond to a Matrix-like scenario that I think David Chalmers likes to point out.

I guess the quest for solution for the hard problem assumes otherwise. If the above is true, then the whole issue is moot, for it would be a wild goose chase to try to come up with any explanation.

So then, what is reality? Does it still need a validation by a conscious agent? We saw that it doesn't always work.

I would say that the only definite reality is conscious entities themselves. A conscious agent is its own certificate. A conscious agent, of any form, spirit, or matter, does not need an external validating agent. If a conscious agent feels pain, it feels pain, period. No one (even in another universe) can deny it.

While us conscious beings can deride other parallel universes and basically claim that what that doesn't affect us and cannot affect us doesn't matter to us, if we come to know there are conscious entities in those universes that suffer, we might still empathize with them.

If we were to be asked a question "Is there suffering?", the answer to this question would include not just of beings in our universe, but of all possible fictional universes (from our point) that have conscious agents that undergo suffering.

This is because, all conscious agents spawn their own reality, and in the fraternity of conscious beings, suffering by one has to be acknowledged as suffering taking place by all other conscious beings of different universes. And even the time parameter may not be shared by all these universes, so the suffering experienced by one agent may not even correspond to a timewise progression in another universe. It's indeed a bizzare kind of acknowledgement of suffering which extends across the fraternal order of conscious entities.

I call this meta fraternity of conscious entities.