Friday, April 25, 2014

Consciousness as a State of Matter?

The study of consciousness is essential to any scientific understanding of paranormal processes such as magick. As we delve deeper into the inner workings of the brain we become familiar with the biochemical correlates of conscious experience and may even be able to create a crude "consciousness measure" by exploiting them. However, consciousness itself remains elusive. Theoretical physicist Max Tegmark has proposed a new model of experiential phenomena in which consciousness is treated as a new state of matter.

At first glance this conjecture seems to fail the "common sense" test, in that consciousness seems quite unlike any other known substance. However, it is also true that in quantum physics "matter" does not necessarily have many qualities in common with the classical objects that we interact with on a day to day basis. Whether or not "dark matter" is even composed of particles is open to debate, as such particles have been proposed but so far never detected. The same is true of gravitation, which might or might not be mediated by hypothetical particles called gravitons.

Today, Max Tegmark, a theoretical physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, sets out the fundamental problems that this new way of thinking raises. He shows how these problems can be formulated in terms of quantum mechanics and information theory. And he explains how thinking about consciousness in this way leads to precise questions about the nature of reality that the scientific process of experiment might help to tease apart.

Tegmark’s approach is to think of consciousness as a state of matter, like a solid, a liquid or a gas. “I conjecture that consciousness can be understood as yet another state of matter. Just as there are many types of liquids, there are many types of consciousness,” he says.

He goes on to show how the particular properties of consciousness might arise from the physical laws that govern our universe. And he explains how these properties allow physicists to reason about the conditions under which consciousness arises and how we might exploit it to better understand why the world around us appears as it does.

The whole article goes into much more detail and is a thought-provoking read. While I like the idea of treating consciousness as a sort of dynamic superposition of quantum wavefunctions, those wavefunctions must have a high degree of coherence with each other in order to produce anything resembling unitary awareness. So while this may be a "state of matter" in some theoretical sense, it would not possess appreciable mass or volume, and perhaps not even exist in a "wavefunction-collapsed" state. That's a pretty weird state of matter there.

So far I don't see any reason to think that this model necessarily corresponds to physical reality, but the nice thing about it existing at all is that it looks at the problem of consciousness from a novel angle that may prove testable in the future. Anyone who does significant work with spirits knows that they can affect the physical world at least to a small degree, whether that be setting off an EMF detector or shifting the flow of specific material events over time. So that means they must be at least slightly physical in order to interact with the material world at all.

It's also interesting in the context of the magical model of the elements. In Western Magick, the term "element" is used differently than it is in chemistry. Instead of elements being materials like carbon, oxygen, and so forth, they correspond to states of matter. Earth is solid, Water is liquid, Air is gas, and Fire is plasma. The model also includes a fifth element or state, called Spirit or Akasha. If Tegmark's model does turn out to be correct, it should be clear that Spirit would map to consciousness, meaning that when it was proposed the magical model was more complete than the one used in physics and chemistry.

I'm not sure that I buy it yet without any physical evidence, but hopefully Tegmark and others can put together some definitive experiments to help determine whether or not this is a useful model for approaching the phenomenon of consciousness. I'll be watching for them, since the outcome of those experiments could have significant implications for the study of everything from the nature of personal awareness to how magical operations can exert a direct influence upon the world at large.

UPDATE: A friend of mine passed along this comic in response to this article, which I thought was pretty funny in context - and besides, xkcd is awesome.

Yeah, there's a decent chance that Tegmark's model is something like this, which is why I need to see some solid experimental evidence before I take it very seriously.

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