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I just finished watching a youtube video Bernard Carr - Why Did Consciousness Emerge? on consciousness and the talkers spend a great deal of time talking about emergent aspect of consciousness and its relationship to the "consciousness" of the universe and physics.

They have to be related, as I can't see how you can understand physics, mathematics and philosophy without consciousness. So the question is therefore can those sciences exist without consciouness?

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    "Science" is a social system of sharing knowledge. I don't know that you can have a social system without consciousness -- maybe you can?
    – TKoL
    Nov 23, 2023 at 16:33
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    But it seems like you might be asking, not if the sciences would exist without consciousness, but if the "truths" they've discovered will still be true if there were no conscious beings to be there to think about them -- is that right?
    – TKoL
    Nov 23, 2023 at 16:34
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    I'm afraid you'll have to define "understand" before the question "can you understand physics, mathematics and philosophy without consciousness?" can be answered. For instance, if an automated system encodes all of classical mechanics and is able to calculate all forces and trajectories given any list of objects and initial conditions, does this automated system "understand" classical mechanics? That entirely depends on your definition of "understand". For many definitions the answer will be a hard and simple yes, for others it will be a no.
    – Stef
    Nov 24, 2023 at 13:28
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    I suspect you would love the book "Gödel, Escher, Bach" by Douglas Hofstadter.
    – Stef
    Nov 24, 2023 at 13:30
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    Understand, in this context, means being able observe, use existing knowledge and through perception formulate new concepts and laws that can be tested. An automated system would not be able to achieve that unless it had some form of consciousness and conscious awareness.
    – Alexander
    Nov 24, 2023 at 13:54

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During the period of classic physics scientists one way or another thought of the world as something totally independent of our perceptions, that was governed by some laws. Their main concern was to discover those laws and the debate that emerged was whether these laws was defined by God or not.

But gradually they realized that nature was more complicated than that. Starting with relativity - as a way to model this complicated way of the appearance of reality - and eventually with quantum mechanics, it was realized that the observer was not just someone outside the window watching what is happening, but what is happening is relative to, or "worse" dependent upon the observation.

This situation along with the lack of scientific response to the question of how and why consciousness exists, formulated as the hard problem of consciousness, revived interest in panpsychism : the view that the mind or a mind-like aspect is a fundamental and ubiquitous feature of reality.

As now all these concepts are seen as interrelated, the view that consciousness is the "glue" that ties all these aspects of reality together has gained an interest in pop culture but not only there : all these questions are still open to different interpretations in physics, metaphysics and philosophy.

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It may be that nothing can exist without consciousness because it is fundamental to the universe. In the panpsychist view there is no need for emergence. The hard problem disappears. I would recommend Strawson, Chalmers, and Goff. Also the paper by Hoffman et al in Entropy in January 2023. But panpsychism goes all the way back to Thales and Plato, and was promoted as monism by Bertrand Russell.

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There are many views on what consciousness is, if it exists at all.

Most views accept that consciousness exists in some form, even if that's just the firing of neurons in a chemical soup (reductionism).

The eliminative view would reject that consciousness exists. This doesn't mean that you don't have the experience of what we describe as being conscious, but an eliminativist might argue that this description is flawed and includes aspects that don't exist. They may also reject the idea of "understanding" something, even if you can find a formula that corresponds to some phenomena and predict future events (a non-eliminative reductionist, among others, might say that's what "understanding" means). Our ability to find formulas and predict future events would be a result of the firing of neurons. Note that eliminativism isn't a singular worldview, but rather it's the idea of denying or challenging the existence of various mental states.

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I think you are asking: is there understanding without consciousness?

We need to know what consciousness is before we can even begin to answer that question. Consciousness must be all of our current experience. If it were less than all then there would be non-conscious parts. Our current experience is a synonym for consciousness.

We can describe the parts of our current Experience (capitalised to indicate that this means all of it).

Unfortunately we cannot imagine our current Experience even if we have described the parts because imagining Experience based on the parts involves a creation that is less than the Experience that is imagining the creation. We can only be our current Experience, we cannot imagine how this occurs.

Given we can only be conscious and cannot describe it we cannot test whether consciousness is necessary for our understanding. It is possible that there are parts of Experience that are required to understand maths etc. that are only found in conscious beings and these might be examined.

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Nowadays we have computer programs that can play the games of chess and go at a much stronger level than human players. These programs can also be used to analyse games played by humans, and will point out the mistakes made by humans and perhaps even give an explanation as to why those were mistakes and how to fix them.

Do these computer programs "understand" chess and go?

If you ask the players and the computer experts on the subject, you'll get both "yes" and "no" answers.

So who is right? Do the computer programs "understand" the game?

It turns out that everyone is right, because the answer depends entirely on your definition of "understand".

The computer program has managed to extract some knowledge and understanding of the game, and synthesise this knowledge into a form that can be used to find good moves, point out bad moves, explain who is winning and why. In this sense the computer program definitely has developed a strong understanding of the game.

On the other hand, the program is not conscious nor alive, and is blindly applying a maximisation algorithm to find the best move and to assign a score to a game position. In this sense the computer program doesn't understand what it's doing, and doesn't even understand that it's playing a game.

I'm afraid you'll have to define "understand" before the question "can you understand physics, mathematics and philosophy without consciousness?" can be answered. For instance, if an automated system encodes all of classical mechanics and is able to calculate all forces and trajectories given any list of objects and initial conditions, does this automated system "understand" classical mechanics? That entirely depends on your definition of "understand". For many definitions the answer will be a hard and simple yes, for others it will be a no.

You say:

Understand, in this context, means being able observe, use existing knowledge and through perception formulate new concepts and laws that can be tested. An automated system would not be able to achieve that unless it had some form of consciousness and conscious awareness.

Why wouldn't an automated system be able to achieve that? That doesn't seem related to consciousness at all. We do have formal languages in which to express theorems or laws or arithmetic formulas, and I see no reason why an automated system couldn't use those to formulate new laws and test them.

As a simple example, imagine I implement the law of gravitational attraction, which just says that two objects of masses m1 and m2 at distance d from eachother exercise a force of magnitude G m1 m2 / d^2 on eachother, and I also implement the second law of Newton, which says that force equal mass times acceleration, and then I write a genetic algorithm that tests new relations of variables together and tries to find one that fits the trajectories of the planets in the solar system; this genetic algorithm could come up with Kepler's laws and test them. So by your definition, this algorithm would have a good understanding of classical mechanics and the movement of planets in the solar system; yet it's pretty clear that this program has no consciousness.

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  • The flaw in the argument is that the automated system can only do those things because if has been imbued with certain capability as a result of your consciousness, perception and ability. As you say it has no fundamental understanding and thus could never augment its capability without consciousness - which is what humans do.
    – Alexander
    Nov 25, 2023 at 1:45
  • @Alexander And yet your comment appears to be contradicted by chess and go programs like DeepMind's AlphaZero, which were only "taught" the bare rules of the games by humans and then augmented their own capability from "complete beginner" to "superhuman level". Still they have no consciousness, and it can be argued that they have a deep understanding of the game.
    – Stef
    Nov 25, 2023 at 5:16

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