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Posts Tagged ‘consciousness

“Simulation is the situation created by any system of signs when it becomes sophisticated enough, autonomous enough, to abolish its own referent and to replace it with itself”*…

It is not often that a comedian gives an astrophysicist goose bumps when discussing the laws of physics. But comic Chuck Nice managed to do just that in a recent episode of the podcast StarTalk.The show’s host Neil deGrasse Tyson had just explained the simulation argument—the idea that we could be virtual beings living in a computer simulation. If so, the simulation would most likely create perceptions of reality on demand rather than simulate all of reality all the time—much like a video game optimized to render only the parts of a scene visible to a player. “Maybe that’s why we can’t travel faster than the speed of light, because if we could, we’d be able to get to another galaxy,” said Nice, the show’s co-host, prompting Tyson to gleefully interrupt. “Before they can program it,” the astrophysicist said,delighting at the thought. “So the programmer put in that limit.”

Such conversations may seem flippant. But ever since Nick Bostrom of the University of Oxford wrote a seminal paper about the simulation argument in 2003, philosophers, physicists, technologists and, yes, comedians have been grappling with the idea of our reality being a simulacrum. Some have tried to identify ways in which we can discern if we are simulated beings. Others have attempted to calculate the chance of us being virtual entities. Now a new analysis shows that the odds that we are living in base reality—meaning an existence that is not simulated—are pretty much even. But the study also demonstrates that if humans were to ever develop the ability to simulate conscious beings, the chances would overwhelmingly tilt in favor of us, too, being virtual denizens inside someone else’s computer…

Learn why gauging whether or not we dwell inside someone else’s computer may come down to advanced AI research—or measurements at the frontiers of cosmology: “Do We Live in a Simulation? Chances Are about 50–50.”

* Jean Baudrillard (who was describing the ways in which the significations and symbolism of culture and media are involved in constructing an understanding of shared existence… which may or may not, itself, be a simulation)


As we play the odds, we might send dark birthday greetings to Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche; he was born on this date in 1844. A philosopher, cultural critic, composer, poet, and philologist, he and his work have had a profound influence on modern intellectual history.

Nietzsche became the youngest person ever to hold the Chair of Classical Philology at the University of Basel in 1869 at the age of 24, but resigned in 1879 due to health problems that plagued him most of his life. He completed much of his core writing in the following decade, before suffering a complete mental breakdown in 1889, after which he lived in care until his death in 1900.

Nietzsche’s writing spanned philosophical polemics, poetry, cultural criticism, and fiction, all the while displaying a fondness for aphorism and irony. He’s best remembered as a philosopher, for work that included his radical critique of truth in favor of perspectivism; for his genealogical critique of religion and Christian morality (and his related theory of master–slave morality); for is aesthetic affirmation of existence in response to his famous observation of the “death of God” and the profound crisis of nihilism; for his notion of the Apollonian and Dionysian; and for his characterization of the human subject as the expression of competing wills, collectively understood as the will to power. Nietzsche also developed influential concepts such as the Übermensch and the doctrine of eternal return.

After his death, his sister Elisabeth became the curator and editor of Nietzsche’s manuscripts. She edited his unpublished writings to fit her German nationalist beliefs– often contradicting or obfuscating Nietzsche’s stated opinions, which were explicitly opposed to antisemitism and nationalism. Through her published editions, Nietzsche’s work became associated with fascism and Nazism. But scholars contested this interpretation, and corrected editions of his writings were soon made available. Nietzsche’s thought enjoyed renewed popularity in the 1960s and his ideas have since had a profound impact on 20th and early-21st century thinkers across philosophy—especially in schools of continental philosophy such as existentialism, postmodernism and post-structuralism—as well as in art, literature, psychology, politics, and popular culture.


Written by LW

October 15, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind.”*…




I have a confession. As a physicist and psychiatrist, I find it difficult to engage with conversations about consciousness. My biggest gripe is that the philosophers and cognitive scientists who tend to pose the questions often assume that the mind is a thing, whose existence can be identified by the attributes it has or the purposes it fulfils.

But in physics, it’s dangerous to assume that things ‘exist’ in any conventional sense. Instead, the deeper question is: what sorts of processes give rise to the notion (or illusion) that something exists? For example, Isaac Newton explained the physical world in terms of massive bodies that respond to forces. However, with the advent of quantum physics, the real question turned out to be the very nature and meaning of the measurements upon which the notions of mass and force depend – a question that’s still debated today.

As a consequence, I’m compelled to treat consciousness as a process to be understood, not as a thing to be defined. Simply put, my argument is that consciousness is nothing more and nothing less than a natural process such as evolution or the weather. My favourite trick to illustrate the notion of consciousness as a process is to replace the word ‘consciousness’ with ‘evolution’ – and see if the question still makes sense. For example, the question What is consciousness for? becomes What is evolution for? Scientifically speaking, of course, we know that evolution is not for anything. It doesn’t perform a function or have reasons for doing what it does – it’s an unfolding process that can be understood only on its own terms. Since we are all the product of evolution, the same would seem to hold for consciousness and the self.

My view on consciousness resonates with that of the philosopher Daniel Dennett, who has spent his career trying to understand the origin of the mind. Dennett is concerned with how mindless, mere ‘causes’ (A leads to B) can give rise to the species of mindful ‘reasons’ as we know them (A happens so that B can happen). Dennett’s solution is what he calls ‘Darwin’s dangerous idea’: the insight that it’s possible to have design in the absence of a designer, competence in the absence of comprehension, and reasons (or ‘free-floating rationales’) in the absence of reasoners. A population of beetles that has outstripped another has probably done so for some ‘reason’ we can identify – a favourable mutation which produces a more camouflaging colour, for example. ‘Natural selection is thus an automatic reason-finder, which “discovers” and “endorses” and “focuses” reasons over many generations,’ Dennett writes in From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (2017). ‘The scare quotes are to remind us that natural selection doesn’t have a mind, doesn’t itself have reasons, but is nevertheless competent to perform this “task” of design refinement.’

I hope to show you that nature can drum up reasons without actually having them for herself. In what follows, I’m going to argue that things don’t exist for reasons, but certain processes can nonetheless be cast as engaged in reasoning…

Distinguished neuroscientist and psychiatrist Karl Friston argues that the special trick of consciousness is being able to project action and time into a range of possible futures: “The mathematics of mind-time.”

See also: “How the Brain Creates a Timeline of the Past” (source of the image above).

* Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex


As we get our minds around our minds, we might spare a thought for Oliver Wolf Sacks; he died on this date in 2015.  A neurologist, naturalist, historian of science, and author, he had an active clinical practice, but is more widely-remembered for his writing, mostly case studies from his clinical experience and memoir in which which he treats himself as a clinical subject.  Awakenings, for example, recounted his experience treating post-encephalitic patients with a new drug (levodopa); it was a best seller that served as the basis of a BBC Discovery documentary and was adapted into a feature film.  Widely honored for his prolific work, Sacks was the recipient of the 2001 Lewis Thomas Prize for excellence in scientific writing.

250px-9.13.09OliverSacksByLuigiNovi source


Written by LW

August 30, 2020 at 1:01 am

“In the oldest religion, everything was alive, not supernaturally but naturally alive”*…




One of science’s most challenging problems is a question that can be stated easily: Where does consciousness come from? In his new book Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, philosopher Philip Goff considers a radical perspective: What if consciousness is not something special that the brain does but is instead a quality inherent to all matter? It is a theory known as “panpsychism,” and Goff guides readers through the history of the idea, answers common objections (such as “That’s just crazy!”) and explains why he believes panpsychism represents the best path forward…

Goff answers questions from Scientific American editor Gareth Cook: “Does Consciousness Pervade the Universe?

* D.H. Lawrence, “New Mexico,” Phoenix: the posthumous papers of D. H. Lawrence


As we think about thinking, we might neon-pink birthday greetings to Don Featherstone; he was born on this date in 1936.  An artist, is is surely best remembered for his creation of the plastic pink flamingo in 1957 while working for Union Products.  It went on sale the following year– and now ornaments lawns nationwide.

In 1996, Featherstone was awarded the 1996 Ig Nobel Art Prize for his creation; that same year, he began his tenure as president of Union Products, a position he held until he retired in 2000.


A Featherstone flock



Written by LW

January 25, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Control of consciousness determines the quality of life”*…



Peter Carruthers, Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maryland, College Park, is an expert on the philosophy of mind who draws heavily on empirical psychology and cognitive neuroscience. He outlined many of his ideas on conscious thinking in his 2015 book The Centered Mind: What the Science of Working Memory Shows Us about the Nature of Human Thought. More recently, in 2017, he published a paper with the astonishing title of “The Illusion of Conscious Thought.”…

Philosopher Peter Carruthers insists that conscious thought, judgment and volition are illusions. They arise from processes of which we are forever unaware.  He explains to Steve Ayan the reasons for his provocative proposal: “There Is No Such Thing as Conscious Thought.”

See also: “An Anthropologist Investigates How We Think About How We Think.”

* Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience


As we think about thought, we might spare one for Georg Ferdinand Ludwig Philipp Cantor; he died on this date in 1918.  Cantor was the mathematician who created set theory, now fundamental to math,  His proof that the real numbers are more numerous than the natural numbers implies the existence of an “infinity of infinities”… a result that generated a great deal of resistance, both mathematical (from the likes of Henri Poincaré) and philosophical (most notably from Wittgenstein).  Some Christian theologians (particularly neo-Scholastics) saw Cantor’s work as a challenge to the uniqueness of the absolute infinity in the nature of God – on one occasion equating the theory of transfinite numbers with pantheism – a proposition that Cantor, a devout Lutheran, vigorously rejected.

These harsh criticisms fueled Cantor’s bouts of depression (retrospectively judged by some to have been bipolar disorder); he died in a mental institution.

220px-Georg_Cantor2 source


Written by LW

January 6, 2019 at 1:01 am

“What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?”*…


Consciousness permeates reality. Rather than being just a unique feature of human subjective experience, it’s the foundation of the universe, present in every particle and all physical matter.

This sounds like easily-dismissible bunkum, but as traditional attempts to explain consciousness continue to fail, the “panpsychist” view is increasingly being taken seriously by credible philosophers, neuroscientists, and physicists, including figures such as neuroscientist Christof Koch and physicist Roger Penrose…

The materialist viewpoint states that consciousness is derived entirely from physical matter. It’s unclear, though, exactly how this could work. “It’s very hard to get consciousness out of non-consciousness,” says [David Chalmers, a philosophy of mind professor at New York University]. “Physics is just structure. It can explain biology, but there’s a gap: Consciousness.” Dualism holds that consciousness is separate and distinct from physical matter—but that then raises the question of how consciousness interacts and has an effect on the physical world.

Panpsychism offers an attractive alternative solution: Consciousness is a fundamental feature of physical matter; every single particle in existence has an “unimaginably simple” form of consciousness, says [Philip Goff, a philosophy professor at Central European University in Budapest]. These particles then come together to form more complex forms of consciousness, such as humans’ subjective experiences. This isn’t meant to imply that particles have a coherent worldview or actively think, merely that there’s some inherent subjective experience of consciousness in even the tiniest particle…

More at “The idea that everything from spoons to stones are conscious is gaining academic credibility.”

(For a speculative playing out of this notion (and a basketful of other mind-twisting conceits of consciousness) at a cosmic scale, enjoy Vernor Vinge’s exquisite A Fire Upon the Deep…)

* Stephen Hawking  (Panpsychists argue that consciousness is the answer to his question.)


As we treat inanimate objects with more respect, we might send carefully-catalogued and phrased birthday greetings to Émile Maximilien Paul Littré; he was born on this date in 1801. A philosopher (friend and supporter of Auguste Comte, and contributor, with Comte, to the development of positivism), he is better remembered for his Dictionnaire de la langue française, commonly called “The Littré,” a project that ran from 1844-1872, and was originally issued in 30 parts– the largest lexicographical work on the French language at that time.



Written by LW

February 1, 2018 at 1:01 am

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