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Universe, Hydrogen and People! (Part III)

Hydrogen, given enough time can become conscious.

We can’t define consciousness because consciousness does not exist. Humans fancy that there’s something special about the way we perceive the world, and yet we live in loops as tight and as closed as the hosts do, seldom questioning our choices, content, for the most part, to be told what to do next.

The last time I was here, we were talking about the meaning/purpose of life. The purpose of life is to fuck, it is quite evident since the population is exploding. Maybe we are finally getting good at it. Don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about. I know, you clearly do. We all do. We are bounded by evolution and the important aspect of evolution is to pass down your genome to the next generation. Everything that you feel and experience is a way to keep you alive so that you can fulfill this simple role.

Sometimes, I feel it strange how people look for a divine purpose as if this simple existence isn’t enough. As if there is something more to us than this mundane existence. Everything that you do or feel is a part of a much bigger plan, maybe part of a much complex physical process, but we can think of existence as the default, as the minimum number of bits that you need to encode it.

We define consciousness in a vague way as “this exact moment of existence and the way that you experience and the way that you experience the world that you’re embedded with.” I find this definition problematic since a lot of what you feel and experience can be explained with simple science. A lot of what you feel is hardcoded into your genome and is associated with some chemical reactions happening inside your brain.

You find someone, who talks about stars at 3 in the morning, about the beginning to the inevitable entropic death of the universe. One day, when she talks about the “planetary world” and you suddenly realize that you’re in love. Of all the people you ended up talking to, this one felt different, as if something suddenly clicks in your brain and everything finally falls into the right place. It makes sense, and it doesn’t makes sense at the same time. A newfound meaning to life and everything around it. She writes the best lines, the right words that carry a certain kind of happiness that makes you feel alive.

But, when you really think about it, "falling in love'….

Is your brain releasing the right amount of oxytocin when it thinks that you find the right mate? Why it thinks that way depends a lot on your genome, vertical inheritance, and horizontal inheritance to be precise. Even when people say that everything and everyone is beautiful they always find certain things more beautiful and desirable. The symmetry in nature and there is a clear difference between the beauty and ugliness that the world holds and how you perceive it.

The feelings and the experiences that are associated with the physical reality that we perceive can be explained with science, evolution, neuroscience, psychology, and ultimately physics. In a way, we can say that we exist in a story that the brain tells itself. So, the experience of the world that we are embedded in, is not a secret direct to physical reality. Physical reality is a view at quantum graph that we can never experience or get access to. But it has these properties that it can create certain patterns at our systemic interface to the world and we make sense of this patterns and the relationship between this patterns that we discover is what we call the physical universe. Some point in our development is a nervous system. We discover that everything that we relate to and in the world can be mapped to a region in the same three-dimensional space by large. But now we know that in physics, this is not quite true because it's not quite 3D, but the world we are entangled with is a 3D space.

In simpler terms, you live in a narrative simulated by your brain. It takes a lot of input of this physical world and creates a much abstract version of it so that you can interact with.

Consciousness is not a simple property of a system that we can compute. So even when the computational power gets exponentially better, that does not mean that we can compute consciousness. So, without consciousness, we cannot create a strong AI, Artificial General Intelligence. We can talk about the AGI some other day, and just concentrate on consciousness.

So the question is how much of this is true? A lot of arguments people make when they say consciousness is not computable. This comes from the superiority that they feel about being human. Hate to break it to you, most of us are dumb and the advancement of the human race can be traced back to a very small percentage of smart sensible people throughout history. The existence is meaningless on a global scale, but that doesn't mean that it is meaningless at the local level. You are not interacting with the entire universe at large, but only to a tiny little part of it, where you get to experience life, and make whatever meaning that you want out of it. That's so hauntingly and terrifyingly beautiful, isn't it?

The hard problem of consciousness is that, “Why does the feeling which accompanies awareness of sensory information, exists at all?” With the current physics, it is pretty easy to explain the easy part of consciousness. How we walk, talk, see, feel and much more! But the hard problem of consciousness is still hard to explain with the current physics. So the idea of computable consciousness depends on what type of consciousness we are talking about. If the consciousness that you're talking about is the way that you feel then I'd say it can be explained.

There are many more ideas that explain consciousness. People are trying to understand ideas like “Panpsychism”, where every material however small, has an element of consciousness, and they collectively create much more complex consciousness systems. So, if we can create any system that can simulate the cognitive processes, then consciousness will already be associated with that system.

Another way to look at this is, taking consciousness as a fundamental property associated with every physical system. We are used to the idea that somethings in the world are fundamental. They are the building blocks necessary to sustain certain property of the physical system. Space, time, mass, charge, etc. are the fundamental properties of a system. So we don’t reduce them to something simpler. We take them and make laws that connect them in such a way that we can explain the entire properties of the system without meeting contradictions. Whenever we have laws that do not explain these fundamental properties, we look for better ones to explain the nature of the system. For example, Maxwell derived laws of electromagnetism by taking charge as a fundamental property.

When we look at things from the physics point of view, everything in this universe is nothing but atoms or simple fundamental particles arranged in different ways. One arrangement of these particles resulted in me, and another arrangement ended up making Henry Cavill, so there is a clear difference in the way things combine and arrange and this different arrangement gives you different properties where, one of them is a majestic human being.

When particles combine to create new things, new emergent properties will start to form, which are more complex than the properties of individual particles. When we apply that same logic to consciousness, it is simply the rearrangement of particles, isn't it? We can take it a bit more precise by including information processing. Information processing or computation is simply the rearrangement of particles, and we can think of consciousness as the emergent property of an information processing system. That is, when we arrange computation in a certain way, consciousness emerges from that physical system. So consciousness is the way information feels when processed in a certain way, and if that's the case then we can say that the consciousness is substrate independent because it's the way the information gets processed that matters and not the structure of the matter doing information processing. And how we should arrange these systems or create clever algorithms and experiments is still a big question!

Christof Koch is one of the people that revolutionized about how we understand consciousness. From his experiments and 1990 paper called "neural correlates of consciousness” (NCCs). Since Artificial Intelligence is getting more popular and mainstream, the question of consciousness is a something that everyone is asking right now or will be asking in a few years.

Whether intelligent entities have subjective experience or not or whether this subjective experience is necessary to create AGI is a really hard and complicated discussion. But at the same time, it's hard not to care about consciousness. As “Yuval Noah Harari” puts it in his book Homo Deus "If any scientist wants to argue that subjective experiences are irrelevant, their challenge is to explain why torture or rape are wrong without reference to any subjective experience.” Without such reference, it’s all just a bunch of elementary particles moving around according to the laws of physics — and what’s wrong with that?