Back in 2014, musing on Emma Restall Orr’s excellent Wakeful World, I presented a paradox at the center of the mind / body dualism that’s usually assumed by both western science and religion. The crux of the paradox is: why are we conscious, but other things aren’t? Most people consider humanity conscious, but all other beings (with the occasional exception of dogs, cats, octopi, dolphins, or whales) to be non-conscious. Why? Two answers are usually given:
- The “materialist” answer: our brains generate consciousness (in some mysterious manner), and their brains don’t.
- The “spiritualist” answer: consciousness is separate from matter, an utterly unlike thing, which can “inhabit” or “possess” living matter; and our brains house it, but other brains don’t.
Both answers lead to deep dilemmas, because neither says anything about where one lays the lines; nothing is said of the niceties. Details like: what kinds of brains can generate (or house) consciousness? Can consciousness arise from something that isn’t a brain? Why, or why not? How exactly does it work? And what about different kinds of consciousness — sleep, inebriation, amnesia, dementia, woolgathering? And is there a difference between consciousness and sentience? If so, what, exactly?
And each answer has its own particular problems. For materialists, it’s not clear why a human brain spawns consciousness, but a mouse brain or a worm brain does not; or indeed why it cannot spring from any cluster of nerve cells. Maybe you think human brains are sentient, and other brains have other kinds of consciousness. But you’ve just pushed the question a step back: now you also have to have a clear theory of human sentience vs. chimpanzee / dolphin / octopus sentience. Meanwhile, for spiritualists, it’s not clear why damage to the brain should change consciousness at all, or why spirits are especially at home in brains as opposed to, say, hearts or spleens.
The word paradox is Greek, from para (opposite, against) and dokein (thought, opinion, vision). A paradox is created when there are multiple ways of viewing (dokein) a situation, but the opposing viewpoints (para) cannot be resolved into a single vision. A whole new way of thinking about the situation is needed — one that resolves the apparent contradictions into a unifying whole.
Orr’s vision is animistic. In this view, consciousness is not something separate from matter, nor something generated by some kinds of matter. Instead, it is inherent to all matter. There are, for our purposes, three critical points to Orr’s position:
- Mind is a feature of the universe’s very fabric. All matter has mind of some kind. In the same way that all matter has temperature, mass, and electrical charge, it also has consciousness.
- Mind comes in many different types. The mind of a rock is slow, diffuse, and hazy; the mind of a bee is quick, determined, and keen. A human mind sits somewhere between.
- The form of a mind is isomorphic with the form of its matter. A bee’s mind is quick and sharp because its brain is a neural net that is small and attuned to learn and act decisively. A rock’s mind is slow and diffuse because its “brain” is a network of aggregated minerals connected by chemical and physical proximity; it “learns” (i.e. changes configuration) over geologic eons, and it is not attuned to the task of subsistence.
So far so good. But the mind / matter paradox also entangles (ha!) with an opposite pair of paradoxes: the observer problem in quantum mechanics, and the failure of quantum mechanics to play nicely with relativistic physics — or gravity in general. It seems that all these paradoxes may be resolved with a single model.
The observer problem, at its heart, is simply that quantum mechanics entails an aware observer in order to make any particular predictions. If particles interact, quantum mechanics provides only probabilities of an outcome. Furthermore, the probabilities interfere and influence each other; and, most vexingly, one outcome or the other will only occur when an aware observer appears and takes a look. This model gives very good results, but it doesn’t tell you what a conscious observer is, and without that, the theory has a hole in its center. We know that we are aware observers, because we can literally feel how aware we are. But if other things are aware observers, we can’t know, and quantum mechanics doesn’t tell us.
Schrödinger’s Cat is the classic thought experiment that shows the heart of the paradox. I won’t rehash it here, but briefly, the paradox rests on the question of whether a cat counts as an aware observer. If it does, then the cat is the one who observes whether it is alive or dead. If it does not, then the cat is both alive and dead until a human being opens the box to check, and collapses the wave form. Schrödinger’s point is that surely it’s ridiculous to think that a cat would not know whether it is alive or dead; but then, where do you draw the line? Does a worm count as an observer? A bacterium or virus? Consciousness is thus a mystery in the marrow of quantum mechanics.
The other issue for quantum mechanics is relativistic physics. Under extreme conditions — high gravity, tremendous accelerations — relativistic physics predicts that the energies and masses involved invariably lead to impossible infinities. Quantum mechanics, meanwhile, ignores gravity altogether (since at small scales and low accelerations, gravity is so weak as to be negligible). This isn’t concerned with consciousness per se, but it’s a persistent problem in modern physics and asks for an explanation.
So here we have a nice pile of puzzles! Remarkably enough, a paper came out earlier in 2021 which suggests the outline of an answer to all of them. Vitaly Vanchurin suggests the physical world might be a neural net.
The Living Fluid of Spacetime
When dealing with particle physics, which is all math, it can be a struggle to make a metaphor that “explains” what the equations are saying. There is nothing in our lived experience that really compares to what is going on at the deepest levels; but perhaps we can get a handle on it if we think of the universe is composed of a kind of living fluid.
Imagine a magical, living liquid. It’s like water, made up of tiny molecules that slide over and around each other, but with these key differences:
- The fluid’s particles are extremely small — much smaller than quarks. These particles are the nodes of the neural net, and they’re all connected or interacting each other. Mostly they’re interacting with just their neighbors, but there are also hidden connections with more distant nodes — perhaps through higher dimensions.
- This fluid can literally turn into anything. Just as water can turn into ice or steam depending on warmth and pressure, different configurations of the particles of the living fluid give rise to energy and matter in all its forms.
- The fluid “learns”, in the way that a neural net learns: the links between its nodes sometimes strengthen, sometimes weaken. Portions may freeze or crystallize; other portions may boil and expand. It may also create new links between particles, or destroy old links. Structures may emerge within it — some ephemeral, others fixed forever.
- At large scales, the fluid seems unruffled, perhaps with gentle ripples flowing through it. But at small scales, when you zoom in, the particles are always changing and coming in and out of existence in a seemingly random way. Again, this is just like water: a lake may seem smooth from a distance, but when you look at it under a microscope, the particles shimmer with Brownian motion.
A net like this is always changing, always “learning”. Connections and nodes are always growing, twisting, and shrinking. And different parts of the net can be doing different things. After all, the cosmic net is vast — perhaps infinitely vast. Some portions of the net are relatively quiet and flat; other areas are boiling with energy, surging with avalanches of changes.
In the quiet areas of the net (what the author calls “learning equilibrium”), any random fluctuation in one part of the net is counterbalanced nearby, or fades away relatively quickly. Perturbations are small and affect only very local nodes. An example is empty space, frigid and static except for wandering hydrogen atoms, and the occasional photon zipping through on their way from distant stars. Or it may be found in the depths of the ocean, where the water is at a near-constant temperature throughout, and the rain of photons from the sky is incessant but thin, and the only disturbances are slow-growing algae and extremely lost fish. It turns out that the equations of quantum mechanics can be derived from a net in this quiet state of equilibrium.
In the more active areas of the net, where things are changing quickly (“learning disequilibrium”), the net’s connections are in a state of flux. The random firings are still going on but they’re swamped by the larger waves and surges. For example, a star may move into the region of empty space, causing spacetime to curve; or a burst of cosmic rays may sweep through. A wave of cooler water may disturb the ocean depths, or a ship may sink slowly and inexorably through on its way to the bottom. When a net is under this stress, there are a number of different ways the net could be modeled, but one simple way it might behave is in accordance with the theory of general relativity.
Paradox to Symphadox
In other words, a single net can model the effects of both quantum mechanics and general relativity. When it’s quiet and undisturbed (learning equilibrium), it acts in accordance with quantum mechanics. When it is disturbed and in flux (learning disequilibrium), it (can) act in accordance with general relativity.
Vanchurin also points out that this effectively resolves the observer paradox, in the following way. A neural net models the multiple states of quantum mechanics by maintaining two states simultaneously within the same region of the net. The multiple states are resolved into a single state when it is “observed” by another region of the net. (I gave an example of this kind of thing in the human brain in my previous article: when you hear the word “bye”, your brain simultaneously hears it as “by”, “buy” and “bye”, and resolves it into one of the three using contextual clues, i.e. information from another part of your brain). In the same way, when Schrödinger’s cat is faced with the possibility of death, the poison gas is both released and not-released into the environment, but the potentials are overweighed one way or the other by the surrounding net, which chooses among the options and collapses the wave form, probably before the cat has any cognizance of the matter. Thus the net is both the observer and the observed: each part of the net observes the other parts.
The neural net model, then, provides a framework for resolving the observer paradox and the quantum / relativistic paradox. It transforms the paradoxes into a symphadox: a unifying vision.
It also allows for answers to some even thornier questions, questions which mainstream physics has not yet approached: synchronicity and astrology.
Time is a very tricky question in the neural net conception of physics. The equations for a neural net assume that time moves forward and learning occurs; so, unlike in relativity, time is treated mathematically as a separate kind of thing from space, matter, and energy. (There is no such thing as “spacetime”: space and time are very different things. Space, matter and energy, however, are all parts of the net.) But, unlike in Newtonian physics, there is no reason to assume that the time increments are universal, or that the learning rate is universal. That is, time may move faster or slower in some regions of the universe; and while the “laws of physics” may be approximately the same everywhere, they may operate at different speeds or in different fashions. There is also no reason to assume that future node states are not connected to present or past node states. Thus although time is real and causality is real, in some situations, a set of future nodes could influence present nodes. Causality could flow in the opposite direction.
Specifically, if some drastic event is to occur at time t, some prior events at time t-1 may be affected before the drastic event takes place. In general, the affected prior events will be much smaller than the drastic event, and individually they might all be discounted as coincidence. But taken together they can only be explained as triggered by the future event.
For example, it’s been shown that dogs are extremely good at knowing in advance that their owners are on their way home, rushing to the door and waiting for fifteen or twenty minutes before their owners arrive. (For dogs, the owner coming home is the “drastic event” that influences prior events.) Individually, any one dog’s behavior can be dismissed as coincidence; but the sheer quantity of dogs doing this again and again shows that there is likely to be some non-causal link in the world’s neural net between the dogs and their owners — a link that is hidden from normal three dimensional spacetime. The neural net physics allows this kind of entanglement trivially.
And so this is also the first theory of physics that allows for the effects of astrology. Astrological influences are invisible, acausal, and mysterious, but neural physics could, in theory, model these influences as hidden connections. In other words, these influences are not in fact uncaused; the causes are simply hidden from us. For example, if your mood is connected to the position of the moon, the connection may be due to the entangled particles shared by the earth and the moon.
(To be clear, I’m in no way claiming that the neural model shows that astrology is true, or provides the specific equations of the proof. I’m just pointing out that, unlike any prior model of physics, the neural model provides a framework for astrological influences to be studied.)
Finally, and most importantly, the neural model resolves the mind / body paradox, fitting extremely well with Orr’s conception of the universe as a minded network of interconnected particles. After all, if our brains are conscious, and our brains are simply a biological neural net, why would a non-biological neural net not be conscious? Put another way: the structure of the universe is isomorphic with that of a brain. If our brains are conscious, then any arrangement of matter like a brain might also be conscious. Remember that the brain is not conscious as a single unit. The brain consists of multiple sub-consciousnesses, and the universe is the same way. Different kinds of consciousness are localized in different areas.
This conception of the universe tells us that are no “inanimate” objects; we are all the same substance. We are connected and we learn and change together. This doesn’t mean that we are all “one”, or that distinctions don’t matter. It can take a lot of discernment to learn how we are connected, and how to navigate those connections, and how the pushes and pulls will pan out. And many connections are hidden from us and will surprise us. But we can be assured that the disparate parts of the net are not working paradoxically at cross-purposes. Instead, the fluid of spacetime ebbs, flows and learns, sometimes slow and sometimes quick, sometimes asleep and sometimes awake, in symphonic harmony.
For a hundred years, Western civilization has been living with these paradoxes in quantum physics. For the most part, we’ve been ignoring them, going about our lives as if they didn’t exist, waiting for the physicists to find a workaround. The mind / body separation has been a much more troubling issue, for much longer. It’s resulted in all kinds of rubbish, from immoral experiments on animals to supplications for the Rapture. It inspires hope in me to think that we might finally have discovered a demonstrable, experimentally verifiable framework for resolving these into a single elegant harmony.
If our culture grapples with the symphadox and its implications fully, it will lead to a true synthesis of physics and psychology, and re-ground our civilization in ways of thinking that encourage us to engage with the universe properly. Instead of conceiving ourselves separate, exalted, exceptional overlords of creation, we will perceive our part in an ecological community, and seek to be in compassionate, full relationship with every bee, rock, particle, and hurricane.
All beings by nature are Buddha
As ice by nature is water.