Does consciousness matter?

Is it possible that consciousness, like space-time, has its own intrinsic degrees of freedom, and that neglecting these will lead to a description of the universe that is fundamentally incomplete? What if our perceptions are as real (or maybe, in a certain sense, are even more real) than material objects? What if my red, my blue, my pain, are really existing objects, not merely reflections of the really existing material world?


A good starting point for our brief discussion of consciousness is quantum cosmology, the theory that tries to unify cosmology and quantum mechanics.

If quantum mechanics is universally correct, then one may try to apply it to the universe in order to find its wave function. This would allow us find out which events are probable and which are not. However, it often leads to paradoxes. For example, the essence of the Wheeler-DeWitt equation (DeWitt, 1967), which is the Schrödinger equation for the wave function of the universe, is that this wave function does not depend on time, since the total Hamiltonian of the universe, including the Hamiltonian of the gravitational field, vanishes identically. This result was obtained in 1967 by Bryce DeWitt. Therefore if one would wish to describe the evolution of the universe with the help of its wave function, one would be in trouble: The universe as a whole does not change in time.

The resolution of this paradox suggested by Bryce DeWitt is rather instructive (DeWitt, 1967). The notion of evolution is not applicable to the universe as a whole since there is no external observer with respect to the universe, and there is no external clock that does not belong to the universe. However, we do not actually ask why the universe as a whole is evolving. We are just trying to understand our own experimental data. Thus, a more precisely formulated question is why do we see the universe evolving in time in a given way. In order to answer this question one should first divide the universe into two main pieces: i) an observer with his clock and other measuring devices and ii) the rest of the universe. Then it can be shown that the wave function of the rest of the universe does depend on the state of the clock of the observer, i.e. on his ‘time’. This time dependence in some sense is ‘objective’: the results obtained by different (macroscopic) observers living in the same quantum state of the universe and using sufficiently good (macroscopic) measuring apparatus agree with each other.

Thus we see that without introducing an observer, we have a dead universe, which does not evolve in time. This example demonstrates an unusually important role played by the concept of an observer in quantum cosmology. John Wheeler underscored the complexity of the situation, replacing the word observer by the word participant, and introducing such terms as a ‘self-observing universe’.

Most of the time, when discussing quantum cosmology, one can remain entirely within the bounds set by purely physical categories, regarding an observer simply as an automaton, and not dealing with questions of whether he/she/it has consciousness or feels anything during the process of observation. This limitation is harmless for many practical purposes. But we cannot rule out the possibility that carefully avoiding the concept of consciousness in quantum cosmology may lead to an artificial narrowing of our outlook.

Let us remember an example from the history of science that may be rather instructive in this respect. Prior to the invention of the general theory of relativity, space, time, and matter seemed to be three fundamentally different entities. Space was thought to be a kind of three-dimensional coordinate grid which, when supplemented by clocks, could be used to describe the motion of matter. Space-time possessed no intrinsic degrees of freedom, it played secondary role as a tool for the description of the truly substantial material world.

The general theory of relativity brought with it a decisive change in this point of view. Space-time and matter were found to be interdependent, and there was no longer any question which one of the two is more fundamental. Space-time was also found to have its own inherent degrees of freedom, associated with perturbations of the metric – gravitational waves. Thus, space can exist and change with time in the absence of electrons, protons, photons, etc.; in other words, in the absence of anything that had previously (i.e., prior to general relativity) been called matter.

Of course, one can simply extend the notion of matter, because, after all, gravitons (the quanta of the gravitational field) are real particles living in our universe. On the other hand, the introduction of the gravitons provides us, at best, with a tool for an approximate (perturbative) description of the fluctuating geometry of spacetime.This is completely opposite to the previous idea that space-time is only a tool for the description of matter.

A more recent trend, finally, has been toward a unified geometric theory of all fundamental interactions, including gravitation. Prior to the end of the 1970’s, such a program seemed unrealizable; rigorous theorems were proven on the impossibility of unifying spatial symmetries with the internal symmetries of elementary particle theory. Fortunately, these theorems were sidestepped after the discovery of supersymmetry and supergravity. In these theories, matter fields and space-time became unified within the general concept of superspace.

Now let us turn to consciousness. The standard assumption is that consciousness, just like space-time before the invention of general relativity, plays a secondary, subservient role, being just a function of matter and a tool for the description of the truly existing material world. But let us remember that our knowledge of the world begins not with matter but with perceptions. I know for sure that my pain exists, my ‘green’ exists, and my ‘sweet’ exists. I do not need any proof of their existence, because these events are a part of me; everything else is a theory. Later we find out that our perceptions obey some laws, which can be most conveniently formulated if we assume that there is some underlying reality beyond our perceptions.

This model of material world obeying laws of physics is so successful that soon we forget about our starting point and say that matter is the only reality, and perceptions are nothing but a useful tool for the description of matter. This assumption is almost as natural (and maybe as false) as our previous assumption that space is only a mathematical tool for the description of matter. We are substituting reality of our feelings by the successfully working theory of an independently existing material world. And the theory is so successful that we almost never think about its possible limitations. Guided by the analogy with the gradual change of the concept of space-time, we would like to take a certain risk and formulate several questions to which we do not yet have the answers (Linde, 1990a; Page, 2002):

Is it possible that consciousness, like space-time, has its own intrinsic degrees of freedom, and that neglecting these will lead to a description of the universe that is fundamentally incomplete? What if our perceptions are as real (or maybe, in a certain sense, are even more real) than material objects? What if my red, my blue, my pain, are really existing objects, not merely reflections of the really existing material world? Is it possible to introduce a ‘space of elements of consciousness,’ and investigate a possibility that consciousness may exist by itself, even in the absence of matter, just like gravitational waves, excitations of space, may exist in the absence of protons and electrons?

Note, that the gravitational waves usually are so small and interact with matter so weakly that we did not find any of them as yet. However, their existence is absolutely crucial for the consistency of our theory, as well as for our understanding of certain astronomical data. Could it be that consciousness is an equally important part of the consistent picture of our world, despite the fact that so far one could safely ignore it in the description of the well studied physical processes? Will it not turn out, with the further development of science, that the study of the universe and the study of consciousness are inseparably linked, and that ultimate progress in the one will be impossible without progress in the other?

Instead of discussing these issues here any further, we will return back to a more solid ground and concentrate on the consequences of eternal inflation and the multiverse theory that do not depend on the details of their interpretation. As an example, we will discuss here two questions that for a long time were considered too complicated and metaphysical. We will see that the concept of the multiverse will allow us to propose possible answers to these questions.

Inflation, Quantum Cosmology and the Anthropic Principle
Link to the full article

Anthropic principle can help us to understand many properties of our world. However, for a long time this principle seemed too metaphysical and many scientists were ashamed to use it in their research. I describe here a justification of the weak anthropic principle in the context of inflationary cosmology and suggest a possible way to justify the strong anthropic principle using the concept of the multiverse.

Andrei Linde

Department of Physics, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA

2 thoughts on “Does consciousness matter?”

  1. “Paul se releva de terre et, les yeux ouverts, il vit le néant.” Je ne peux pas voir ce qui est Un. Il vit le Néant, c‘était Dieu. Dieu est un Néant et Dieu est un Quelque chose. Ce qui est Quelque chose est aussi Néant. Ce que Dieu est, il l’est absolument. Quand il écrit sur Dieu, le lumineux Denys dit : il est au-dessus de l‘être, il est au-dessus de la vie, il est au-dessus de la lumière; il ne lui attribue ni ceci ni cela et il veut dire qu’il est on ne sait quoi, très loin au-dessus.

    Maître Eckhart, Sermon 71.


  2. Space, Time and Consciousness
    Over the last century, however, a third theory has been developed. This suggests that a human being consists of a physical body made of ordinary matter extended in physical space and, in addition, a consciousness module made of a different kind of matter extended in a different space outside physical space. The meaning of ‘outside’ here will be developed later. The two are connected by Humean causal interactions.
    The impetus to the new theory has come partly from philosophers such as C.D.Broad and H.H. Price, partly from advances in introspective psychology, partly from a developing understanding of certain findings in clinical neurology and partly from recent developments in theoretical physics.
    The theoretical physicist Andrei Linde (1990) has suggested that the world
    consists of three different fundamental constituents — space-time, matter and consciousness, with their own degrees of freedom
    Consciousness and Perception
    In the past the postulation of any mental entity additional or external to the brain led to Cartesian dualism as I noted earlier. Descartes used ‘extension in space’ as the criterion to distinguish between mental entities (unextended) and physical ones (extended). However, as I have argued at length elsewhere (Smythies,1994a) this was probably a mistake. Consciousness has contents—namely sensations, images and thoughts — which we can observe by introspection, as is done during psychophysical experiments. Some of these contents, such as visual
    and somatic sensations and images, are clearly extended in (phenomenal) space.
    As Quinton (1962) says: ‘My visual sense-data [sensations] are extended spatial entities, occupying positions and spatially interrelated to other things in the space of my momentary visual field . . . My after-image is plainly a spatial thing, it occupies at any one moment a definite position in my visual field.

    As the Viennese neurologist Paul Schilder (1950) said :
    “ the empirical method leads immediately to a deep insight that even our own body is beyond our immediate reach, that even our own body justifies Prospero’s words “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep”.

    Wolfgang Köhler, one of the founders of Gestalt psychology, made this distinction very clear (1947):
    “Rather, I learned that physical objects influence a particularly interesting physical system, my organism, and that my objective experience results when, as a consequence,certain complicated processes have happened in that system. Obviously, I realized, I cannot identify the final products, the things and events of that experience, with the physical objects from which the influences came . . . My body [somatic sensory field or body image] is the outcome of certain processes in my physical organism, processes which start in the eyes, muscles, skin and so forth, exactly as the chair before me is the final product of other processes in the same physical organism. If the chair is seen ‘before me’, the ‘me’ of this phrase means my body as an experience, of course, notmyorganism as an object in the physical world.”

    Bertrand Russell (1948) puts this clearly:
    “The objects of perception which I take to be ‘external’ to me, such as coloured surfaces that I see, are only ‘external’ in my private space . . . When on a common-sense basis, people talk of the gulf between mind and matter, what they really have in mind is the gulf between a tactual percept, and a ‘thought’—e.g. a memory, a pleasure, or a volition. But this, as we have seen, is a division within the mental world; the percept is as mental as the ‘thought”.

    Broad (1923) puts it thus:
    “For reasons already stated, it is impossible that sensa [Broad’s term for sensations] should literally occupy places in scientific space, though it may not, of course, be impossible to construct a space-like whole of more than three dimensions, in which sensa of all kinds, and scientific objects literally have places. If so, I suppose, that scientific space would be one kind of section of such a quasi-space, and e.g. a visual field would be another kind of section of the same quasi-space.”

    Louis de Broglie (1959):
    “Each observer, as his time passes, discovers, so to speak, new slices of space-time which appear to him as successive aspects of the material world, though in reality the ensemble of events constituting space-time exist prior to his knowledge of them . . the aggregate of past, present and future phenomena are in some sense given a priori.”

    Stannard (1987):
    “Physics itself recognizes no special moment called ‘now’—the moment that acts as the focus of ‘becoming’ and divides the ‘past’ from the ‘future’. In four-dimensional space-time nothing changes, there is no flow of time, everything simply is . . . It is only in consciousness that we come across the particular time known as ‘now’ . . . It
    is only in the context of mental time that it makes sense to say that all of physical space-time is. One might even go so far as to say that it is unfortunate that such dissimilar entities as physical time and mental time should carry the same name!”

    This position is supported by Lord Brain (1963):
    “Moreover when we describe what happens in the nervous system when we are concerned with the movement of electrical impulses in space (i.e. along neurons), and though we use physical time to describe these movements, we can never abstract from such an account time as we experience it psychologically.

    Penrose (1994) says that in the universe described by Special Relativity
    ‘. . . particles do not even move, being represented by “static” curves drawn inspace–time’. Thus what we perceive as moving 3D objects are really successive cross-sections of immobile 4D objects past which our field of observation is sweeping”.

    Others have come to the same conclusion. For example:
    Quine (1982): “A drastic departure from English is required in the matter of time. The view to adopt is the Minkowskian one, which sees time as a fourth dimension on a par with the three dimensions of space.”

    Lloyd (1978) “For the Quinean, what differences we see between past, present and future pertain to our limited mode of access to reality.”

    Heller (1984): “I propose that a physical object is not an enduring hunk of
    matter but an enduring spatio-temporal hunk of matter.”

    Eddington (1920): “Events do not happen: they are just there, and we come across them . . . [as] . . . the observer on his voyage of exploration.”

    Weyl (1922): “The objective world simply is, it does not happen. Only to the gaze of my consciousness crawling upward along the life-line [world line] of my body does a section of this world come to life as a fleeting image.”

    Werth (1978) makes the important point that this new formulation applies to somatic sensation as well as to vision:
    “Our apparent body [‘body image’ is the neurological name for this] at each instant is simply a ‘slice’ of our four-dimensional body. That is the experiencing subject sequentially ‘intersects’ his four-dimensional body and ‘projects’ the sequence of three-dimensional intersections upon the ‘screen’ of his consciousness: his body appears to him as being ever changing though in physical reality it is a static and immutable four-dimensional object.”

    Lastly Broad (1953):
    “. . . if we assume one additional spatial dimension beside the three we can observe, and if we suppose that our field of observation at any one moment is confined to the content of a {3,4}-fold which moves uniformly at right angles to itself along a straight line in the {3,4}-fold, then there is no need to assume any other motion in the universe. This one uniform rectilinear motion of the observer’s field of observation, together with the purely geometrical properties of the stationary material threads in the four-fold, will account for all the various observed motions (various
    in both magnitude and direction) of the material particles”

    “Linde’s theory of consciousness suggests that, in a comprehensive physical
    theory of the Universe, space-time, matter and consciousness will all become ontologically equal partners in a single over-riding physical reality in a multidimensional hyperspace. Linde himself does not discuss what the nature of consciousness might be other than its independent ontology. Nor does he comment on what might be the nature of the relations between a consciousness and its
    brain. However, some of the details of this hypothesis have been filled in by thepeople quoted such as Price, Broad, Russell and myself. My own con tribution to this theory is to present the case that a consciousness may have its own space–time system and its own system of ontologically independent and spatiotemporally organized events (sensations and images) that have as much right to be called ‘material’ as do protons and electrons. Price (1953) and I also have suggested that the relations between a consciousness and its brain are causal.
    So the new formulation of reality might consist of the following ontologically equal partners — (A) physical space-time (10 or more dimensions) containing physical matter (protons, electrons, etc.); (B) phenomenal space (3 more dimensions of a parallel universe) containing mind stuff (sensations and images); and © real time (time 2). A and B are in relative motion along the time 1 axis in time 2. Their contents are in causal relations via the brain. The psychological ‘now’ of time marks the point of contact of the two systems.”

    John Smythies
    Space, Time and Consciousness
    Journal of Consciousness Studies, 10, No. 3, 2003, pp. 47–56
    John Smythies, Center for Brain and Cognition, University of California at San Diego, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla, CA 92093, USA


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