I waited years before I finally had the opportunity to see Tom Stoppard’s play that tackles the hard problem of consciousness, and when I did see it this year, I was disappointed that there wasn’t much time or depth spent on scientific or philosophic banter about the nature of consciousness. Last night’s program, “Reality Is Not as It Seems” at The New York Academy of Sciences, filled in what Stoppard’s The Hard Problem only touched upon.
Steve Paulson, public radio Exec. Producer from my home state of Wisconsin, moderated a discussion between neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan and cognitive scientist Donald D. Hoffman, two brain scientists—and authors—who approach the mysteries of consciousness from very different angles.
O’Sullivan works with people who are having seizures or other neurological issues. A surprising number of them, whether they are suffering from seizures, paralysis, or blindness, do not show any physical damage or malfunction to the brain or affected part of their body. For example, she worked with someone who couldn’t see, even though there was physically nothing wrong with her eyes and she reacted to things as though she could see them. Perhaps she could see, but she didn’t know that she could see.
Hoffman is pursuing a theory that consciousness is fundamental and that spacetime is emergent. The idea is controversial, and even Hoffman admits it’s probably wrong, but discovering that a theory is wrong and where specifically it is wrong can help move science forward. At one point, Paulson asked:
Are you saying consciousness was there before the Big Bang?
To which Hoffman said, “Yes.” The tricky word in this sentence is before, as we don’t know that time existed “before” the Big Bang, and in Hoffman’s theory, (space)time comes as an emergent property of consciousness. Consciousness is required; spacetime emerges as a result.
Hoffman is using computer science to see if, to put it crudely, you plug consciousness into the equation, does spacetime come out the other side? This is counter to the popular idea that our brains are like organic computers, and consciousness is an emergent property of activity in the brain. In fact, Hoffman’s deep learning computations have been able to mimic attention, memory, and intelligence but not more everyday things like the experience of smelling coffee. We are not simply computers, his theory argues. O’Sullivan, on the other hand, believes that there is a biological substrate to consciousness, but we haven’t found it yet.
We do not experience reality as it is.
We experience what will help ensure our survival. Hoffman likens our view of the world to a computer interface. Clicking and dragging a file into the desktop trashcan is a useful symbol for us as users, but it is not what is really going on inside the machine. When we look at a bus, we see a bus, but it may not actually be a bus. It may not have color or mass or movement, but these things are useful to us in order to interpret whatever the bus really is. Spacetime, according to the theory, may be just a useful part of the interface to help us perceive our world in a way that is advantageous to our survival but may not actually exist “behind the curtain,” as it were.
Truth is not important to evolution.
“Evolution does things on the cheap,” says Hoffman. If a male jewel beetle needs to mate to carry on its line, evolution will strap it with a “good enough” ability to identify a mate (the ability to note the glossy, brown, dimpled appearance of a female). If the beetle were instead given the ability to see the truth (recognize definitively what is a mate and what isn’t), then it wouldn’t be trying to mate with beer bottles. We understand reality in a way that will be both advantageous to us but also in a way that will preserve the most energy.
Why wouldn’t it be to our evolutionary advantage to see the truth?
O’Sullivan says that we can’t handle the amount of information around us, so we need to filter some information out so that we survive (and don’t instead fall down the stairs). In her line of work, she wonders if this system of filtering can malfunction, producing the sorts of symptoms that she sees: people who go blind but have working eyes, etc. These disabilities are caused by the way people perceive changes in their bodies. O’Sullivan wonders if you can use this filtering ability to your advantage, filter out the things that you think will harm you in order to stay healthy.
You should take what you perceive seriously, but you don’t have to take it literally. You have evolved to see a bus as a bus. For the sake of survival, you know that stepping out in front of a moving bus is bad for your survival, so you take it seriously. Even if it’s not really a bus.
Why do we all see the same bus?
We all share the same graphical interface. Humans all have basically the same makeup. We are all going to see the bus the same, use the same “desktop display,” so to speak.
Does physics back this theory up?
Some of it. Current evidence in physics suggest that local realism has been proven false and that objects don’t have properties outside of the method of their measurement. These things support Hoffman’s theory. If, however, it turns out that any physical object does have a definite property when not observed or that if anything in spacetime has actual causality, then he knows his theory is wrong.
You are a network of many consciousnesses.
Experiments that involve physically cutting off the left side of the brain from the right side of the brain suggest that you are not just one consciousness. You have many consciousnesses, and by singling them out in these experiments, it seems that these different consciousnesses even have different personalities. The results have suggested the left side of the brain is happy, makes up lies, and believes in God, whereas the right side of the brain is not any of these things. Thought seems to be simply communication between consciousness agents in you.
We recognize our own conscious voice, but when that goes wrong, that’s when people start “hearing voices.” They no longer recognize their thoughts as their own.
When consciousnesses interact, it creates new, more complicated consciousnesses. If you calculate that out to infinity, what you get is a theory of infinite consciousness. The line between science and religion begin to blur as ideas of an infinite consciousness come up in calculations.
- The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes by Donald Hoffman (coming August 2019)
- Brainstorm: Detective Stories from the Wold of Neurology by Suzanne O’Sullivan (2018)
- Visual Intelligence: How We Create What We See by Donald D. Hoffman (2000)
- Is It All in Your Head?: True Stories of Imaginary Illness by Suzanne O’Sullivan (2018 paperback release)
- Atoms & Eden: Conversations on Religion & Science by Steve Paulson
Photo credit: Trifonov_Evgeniy