Quantum Irony is Ambiguous, Too

1schrodingers-bet.jpgTwitter has been abuzz about a theory that consciousness is a state of matter.  See here and commentary here.

Couple of critical errors.

The first has to do with the researchers’ definition of “consciousness,” which is always the problem with scientific papers that contain that word in the title.  Some aspects of consciousness, including wakefulness and capacity for cognition, are legitimate areas of scientific research.   The spiritual aspects are not.  Inasmuch as there are other words that can be used with precision, the use of the term “consciousness” in a scientific research article is inappropriate. To be more specific, it’s trashy attention-seeking behavior.  In a review article, or a general-readership article, it’s fine.  But it’s not science. 

In this case, it seems clear to me that he is really talking about intelligence. The reference to “self-awareness” does not change that fact.  The term “self-aware” is inherently circular; it can only not be circular if there is some ambiguity as to the nature of the self.  This cannot occur if the self is an emergent property of a system, complex or not.  Note, uncertainty and ambiguity are two different things.  I’m a poker player; and believe me, I earned that t-shirt.  I may be uncertain about my opponent’s hand, but his actual holding is not ambiguous.  That’s my problem, actually.  He knows, and I don’t.

In this case, no one cares if the observer is uncertain about the nature of  the system’s output.  The question is, does the system perceive issues with the nature of its own output. The theory is actually set up specifically to avoid that problem.  So we are not talking about consciousness in this article.

Remember, we are basically talking about computers.  Computers deal in information.  But we need to remember that there are two different information spaces at play.  There’s the information that the computer spits out.  But there’s also the information space implied in the structure of the computer,and the software it’s running.  Every computer started with a blueprint, and every program started with code.  You know that old saying: “Garbage in garbage out”?  That’s what I’m talking about.

A computer can only question its own output if it’s spitting out stuff it wasn’t designed to produce.  And I’m not talking about erroneous results that come from design errors. Nor am I talking about random variation in output (don’t roll your eyes, my work computer does that all the time.)  I’m talking about output that is impossible.  I’m talking about a program that was designed to model global warming, that come to find out, spits out options-trading algorithms.  That would be cool if it could happen.  I guess.  But it can’t.

Ambiguity about the nature of the self can only arise due to questions about the nature of the information space of the structure, not the output.   That sort of information, by definition, precedes matter. We are assuming no such thing.  The reference to self-awareness, then, is circular.  Every system is perfectly designed to render its own particular output.

Second problem: theory is not designed to be disproven.  That’s not as big an error as it sounds; it’s just bad form.  Scientific theories don’t have to be proven, and it’s kind of a waste of time.  As more information comes in, the theory will get modified sooner or later.  But it is absolutely essential that a theory can be disproven.  Otherwise, it’s not science.  Now, in this case, we would disprove the theory by showing that information precedes matter. But that sort of thing is starting to get outside the realm of science, and so no one is going to do that experiment.  So in that respect, once again, it’s really more of a trashy theory than a crappy one.

But, there’s a bigger problem.  Any experiment on the evolution of intelligence is based on the assumption that matter precedes intelligence.  In this case, then, the assumption and the theory are the same.  No system of logic can derive its own axiomatic assumptions.  This is a tautology, not a theory.

This guy gets an “F” in freshman logic, but wait — it gets worse.  He also gets a “D-” in graduate-level quantum physics.  Niels Bohr founded the field of quantum physics (along with his co-worker, Heisenberg) when he began to write about the dual-nature of matter; that every particle is kind of like a wave, and every wave is kind of like a particle.  Each particular thing has features of mass and energy, both at the same time.  As early as 1927, he hypothesized an “observer effect,” in which the intent of the observer might determine the outcome of an experiment designed to determine if, say, an xray were a particle or a wave.  You want it to be a particle, it’ll be a particle.   In spite of several demonstrations of this effect in the lab — I remember hearing about this in college — the notion was disputed up until recently, when this article was published to well-deserved fame.  I expect that article to be disputed, too.  Shoot, I don’t know if consciousness precedes matter.  But the original quantum physicist thought it did, and there’s decent experimental evidence to support his contention.  That’s interesting stuff.  I’d like to hear more about it.

But no,  the “consciousness state of matter” guy has assumed away the oldest and most vexing problem in quantum physics.  And, one suspects, has fallen victim to it.  We all know that scientists are a bit over-prone to prove what they set out to prove.  That’s why the literature has to be read with skepticism.  Nowhere is this more true than in the field of quantum physics.

Nobody that smart can be that stupid.  I can only conclude that this article is intentionally ironic.  The only question in my mind is, whether the experimenter’s ironic intent was conscious, or subconscious.  It almost doesn’t matter: intent is intent, whether we want to admit it or not.  But I think  it does matter, in a spiritual sense.  And either way is cool.

Way I look at it, if this guy did this on purpose, he is truly the greatest Zen Master who ever lived. He gets 10,000 style points.  20,000 if he doesn’t lose his job.

If he didn’t… well, that’s kind of cool too.  Sometimes, getting at the truth seems really, really hard.  This makes me think that we will inevitably get there.  That we can’t not get at the truth, no matter how hard we try not to.

Which isn’t much of a compliment for a scientific experiment.  “The effect was so robust, even you couldn’t screw it up.” (It’s really just a thought experiment, but still…)

I dunno.  I’d like to talk to the guy, and maybe someday I will.  Call me a skeptic, but… lessee… Cornell?  Yeah,  I figure that’ll most likely happen when he’s pouring coffee for me at Starbucks.

Look.  The human brain is a computer, and it’s spitting out information that makes no sense at all, based on what we know about the information space implied by its structure.  To be clear, we don’t have a good grip on what that information space looks like.  Genetics only accounts for a small part of the brain’s structure.  (It follows, then, that the Darwinian concept of evolution likewise only accounts for a small part of the brain’s structure.)  Part of the brain’s structure is chaotic.  But there’s a level of detail to the structure of the brain that is remarkable for its granularity and consistency.  There’s evidence of fractal structure, which implies an information space we haven’t even begun to explore.  It’s not surprising that we are having a hard time figuring out what we are.  Just to look at ourselves, we look like animals.  We eat, we reproduce.  We compete.  We have the capacity to kill, and do so at a fair rate.  Being intelligent helps; the fact we can kill elephants says something.  Yet right about the time we think we have the whole beating-the-second-law-of-thermodynamics thing licked, we notice ourselves spitting out things like this.

What’s that all about?  What the heck is going on?  What are we?

I’ll be danged if I know.  But, this business about “consciousness states of matter”isn’t getting me any closer.  Except to the extent that it makes me think.  And that’s why the coolest thing of all would be if the guy didn’t really intend the irony.

This is all my opinion of course.  I don’t know anything about quantum mechanics.  (Does anybody?)  Maybe I have the definition of “tautology” all wrong, eh.  Spiritually speaking?  Barking up the wrong tree.  We are doubling down on the delusion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s