Tegmark in his paper, Consciousness as a state of matter appears as something as an outlier in the physics and philosophy literature in that he designates consciousness as a state of matter.

But this has again a precursor in Milsian Physics, in particular the 'soul atoms' of Lucretious:

Our spirit and our mind (anima and animus in Latin) are made of very, very fine atoms (the spirit permeates every part of our body, whereas the mind stays in one place) enabling us to breathe, perceive and move (animating us, in other words). They are composed of breath, heat, air and a fourth, nameless substance, of incredibly smooth, small atoms, that starts the motions of sensation in our bodies.

Of course Tegmarks speculations are rooted in the concepts of modern physics; but there is here undeniable to my untutored eye a link. He argues:

In this paper, I argue that recent progress in neuroscience has fundamentally changed this situation, and that we physicists can no longer blame neuroscientists for our own lack of progress. I have long contended that consciousness is the way information feels when being processed in certain complex ways ... i.e., that it corresponds to certain complex patterns in spacetime that obey the same laws of physics as other complex systems, with no “secret sauce” required.

It is of course the metaphysics of natural philosophy that determines that no 'secret sauce' is required; that all concepts are rooted materially (and atomistically broadly understood); one argument against this is the notion of qualia, and Democritus's solution was to consider that this can be reduced to irreducible atoms of qualia (hence his description of atoms of anima); is Tegmark following the same line, or is he arguing for a different conception of qualia? Or does he not touch upon this problem at all? Finally, given that Tegmark doesn't mention Lucretious, am I broadly correct in suggesting that his conception lies within Milesian Materialism?

  • There's a guy named Pierro Scaruffi who claims consciousness is a property of matter. His "book" used to be online but it looks like he pulled it down. He's not a crackpot, I don't think, he's quite interesting (but I don't agree with him on this). scaruffi.com/nature/index.html – obelia Dec 31 '14 at 0:03

Tegmark, unlike Lucretious (I think?), claims that consciousness is an emergent property, not fundamental. Contrast the "breath, heat, air, and a fourth nameless substance" which are apparently elemental with "the way information feels when being processed in certain complex ways". He certainly is not suggesting fundamental atoms of qualia like Democritus.

Tegmark does, however, make stronger claims about the distinct existence of consciousness (composed as it is of simpler components) than do many. For example, liquid water vs. water ice are distinct substances made of the same molecules, and the two have drastically different bulk properties (and a sharp transition from one to the other). Tegmark's conception of consciousness seems to me of this form: made from components but clearly its own unique thing with unique properties (but these arise from the mathematics of information processing, not a certain type of substance).

In any case, he's squarely in the camp of standard methodological naturalists, without even introducing anything extra physically.

  • I'd suggest that Lucretious takes that consciousness is an emergent property; that is my consciousness, for example emerges from a large number of anima atoms suitably configured; in analogy to how he describes matter emerges from matter atoms; but I suppose to state this properly one would have to root it in his text. – Mozibur Ullah Dec 29 '14 at 20:00
  • @MoziburUllah - The distinction I mean to draw is that consciousness doesn't have any stuff that the rest of the material world doesn't have, which I believe (though I am not sure?) Lucretious posits. So even though consciousness is emergent, it emerges from the stuff-of-consciousness, not from completely-ordinary-matter. (The reason this distinction is important is that if you get to have your own special substance, you have far more flexibility in what can emerge since the rules can be radically different than for e.g. protons and electrons.) – Rex Kerr Dec 29 '14 at 20:23
  • 2
    I think the guy is a little farther off to the edge than that. I read the notion that consciousness is the way information feels not in an emergent sense but as a form of perception. I think he is saying we perceive the existing 'perceptonium' we are using instead of being the thing that generates it. – jobermark Dec 30 '14 at 6:04
  • @Kerr: yes, this is why Lucretious distinguishes between atoms of anima and of matter; its the same distinction that Descarte and Spinoza uses, and possibly Leibniz. – Mozibur Ullah Dec 30 '14 at 10:18
  • @jobermark - I don't see how you get that at least from the text of "Consciousness as a state of matter". Can you point to a passage that indicates such a thing? – Rex Kerr Dec 30 '14 at 13:21

Given the ways we have chosen to frame relativity and thermodynamics, we have backed ourselves into a place where information is already a subject of physics. The infamous Hawking equation that indicates black holes eat themselves involves information as a primary factor.

But that does not mean we are headed back to anything like Lucretian atoms. We can frame the part of a control equation that is guided by information as a field effect from a different kind of 'substance', if we really want to. But we cannot jump from there back to the notion that there are consciousness or entropy 'particles', in the same way there are plasma particles or gravitons. We see what entropy is, and it spreads by sheer combinatorics, not particle exchange. His hierarchy of relations (which just seems to be Leibniz's with better knowledge of physics) captures this, and betrays the idea this is a state of matter.

Besides, we know that the small, smooth things that allow us to perceive are metallic ions in nerve channels. To indicate that information is a real part of physics does not mean neurology is false. We know what yellow is, and it is not a wavelength of light, or any other single physical thing, because we can use mixtures of other colors to make it up. The idea that qualia encode wide ranges of physical causes in the same way prevents them from being physically represented by identifiable mediating particles. The information still needs to be mediated by all the effects we observe it working through, unless we decide God is prone to joshing us to a degree that is just plain mean.

Big swathes of psychoanalysis, including the one I was trained into, do maintain that order is communicated and held trans- or interpersonally, and that it may therefore be thought of as a substance independent of an animal base. But this notion of substance is not the same notion of substance as we seen in the four states of matter.

At best, it is a form of substance related to energy, which is indirectly a form of matter, but the framing in this paper is just misleading in a very basic way. One would never assume 'solidity' or 'gaseousness' to be a direct factor shaping the Hamiltonian of a system, as one might see energy. So his explanatory approach and his stated framing don't even match.

  • Where does he claim that perceptronium shapes the Hamiltonian in a direct way instead of asking about those sorts of Hamiltonians that are compatible? (Are you mixing up the "perceptronium" and "physics-from-scratch" parts of the paper?) – Rex Kerr Dec 30 '14 at 13:28

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.