Ming the Mechanic
The NewsLog of Flemming Funch

Sunday, January 11, 2004day link 

picture There are quite divided opinions about what consciousness is and where it comes from. Arguments mostly arrive from quite divided assumptions about what the Universe is and where it comes from. One way I would simplify the views would be as follows.

You could assume that there's an external entity, which you can call God or something else, which intervenes in order to make things happen inside the universe. So that if something new happens, it is because God decided it was a good idea and introduced it.

You could also assume that the universe is a closed system. I.e. what is there is what is there, and when it evolves into new things it is because it is in its nature to do so. If hydrogen and oxygen turn into water, even the first time it happens, it is only because they have the emergent property to do so.

In my own somewhat controversial view of all this, I think there are many people who are confused about which camp they're in, or who really assume something different than what they think they do.

Let's look at consciousness. It is observable that there are entities here who have awareness, consciousness, the ability to think about things, including self-reflexively and abstractly. According to the first view, it would be because God suddenly one day said "Hey, I now decree that this mud henceforth will be conscious". According to the second view it would be because it would be perfectly logical, that the component parts merely evolved such a capability, based on the way they're put together, based on their pre-existing properties, and based on a natural sequence of events.

But many people who believe the latter will also try to deny that the consciousness is in fact an emergent property. If I say it a little differently: consciousness can only emerge if it has been there all along. Just like hydrogen and oxygen only can turn into water because they've been able to do that all along. If we use a controversial word for it, their design includes the capability to transform in such a manner.

Water can only happen because the universe possesses a water-ness. If you believe that such a capability suddenly happened and wasn't there before, you're a subscriber to the first worldview above, that there's an external agent who shows up and makes it happen.

Likewise, the universe can only manifest consciousness if it already possesses the capability for consciousness. Consciousness can only emerge if it all along has been an integral quality of the universe. We can discuss whether it was a latent quality or a continuously expressed quality, but it has to have been there, unless it suddenly came from the outside.

If the universe is a closed system, it of course gives some major problems of trying to explain where that came from. Even if we accept that there's no outside interference, but everything in the universe is just doing what is its nature to do, over billions of years, and that happens to have lead to human consciousness and MTV and the Internet and other interesting things, you can not avoid coming up with an answer to where such a brilliant evolutionary engine came from in the first place. If we assumed that the Universe actually evolved from a Big Bang 12 billion years ago, and everything that happened emerged naturally from the qualities inherent in whatever it was that exploded, it still does absolutely nothing in explaining how that something happened to be so exquisitely designed that extremely complex lifeforms would develop which would be self-aware and capable of developing advanced technology. Despite that it supposedly is a natural law that physical matter does the opposite, moving towards increased entropy.

The explanation that most often is used to avoid admitting that the universe possesses inherent intelligence is to invoke Randomity. I.e. to show how random events will carry along evolution. There are some big problems with that, however. What is called "random" usually just means that it is too hard to calculate which exact interactions between what produced what, and it is never just simple cause-effect relationships when one gets down to it. Some people think that Quantum Mechanics show that the universe is basically random. But it really just talks about uncertainty. Because you basically have to include all sub-atomic particles existing in 12 or so dimensions, in a possibly infinite number of parallel universes, in order to calculate what exactly will happen. Which is rather impractical at this point, so the actual outcomes of events, particularly very small ones, are for our purposes uncertain. To our limited view they seem "random" because we're incapable of understanding the whole system at one time at this point.

"Randomness" as such is essentially a variation of the external "God" in the first worldview at the top. I.e. believing in "randomness" influencing the universe in arbitrary ways has much of the same structure as believing in "God" influencing the universe in arbitrary ways. The difference is only in the labels people attach to it and to themselves. E.g. whether one thinks one's view is based on science or religion. Either way, we're in the field of religion if your model requires miraculous outside influences in order to hold together.

Ultimately the better model is probably some kind of synthesis. It isn't ultimately satisfying to just delegate the hard problems to some magical entity you can never understand, or to just deny that they even exist. Assuming that the Universal Intelligence is either entirely outside the universe, or that it doesn't exist at all - both fail to explain a lot of what we can experience here, and either one produces pretty depressing prospects for the future.

The more simple answer, to me at least, is that there's an infinite Omniverse there, and you're an integral part of it. It has the inherent capability to do everything that ever happened and ever will happen, and the scope of what can happen is infinite. Some of the inherent qualities are self-reflexive consciousness and the ability to evolve. It is vast, complex and mysterious, but ultimately completely logical and coherent. You can learn about it and understand it as deeply as you want, and it will readily divulge its secrets, but everything in it is connected with everything else, and all of it is continously evolving, so you'll probably never be done. And that's what makes it an infinitely continuing and expanding game.
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