Synopsis of YHouse Consciousness Club Talk September 13, 2017
Speaker: Piet Hut
Location: WeWork 110 E. 28th St. NYC
Title: The Nature Of Reality
Following introductions of YHouse by Sean Sakamoto and of Piet by Ed Turner,
Piet began noting that his topic included everything in the Universe, but he would focus on the Nature of Consciousness and Cognition. Although he is a scientist he would be influenced by his reading of both Western and Eastern Philosophy, areas he has been deeply involved in for decades.
Forty or fifty years from now, those of you alive may see our current decade as a unique period in history. These few years would mark the crossover of Science as Knowledge of the World to Knowledge of Knowledge. Computers can now do reasonable translations from English to Chinese, something that could not be done before. Self-driving cars are another example of the products of Deep Learning. Such progress has made AI a Growth Industry.
Consciousness and Cognition are properties of Autonomous Agents. Four billion years ago, life on Earth began as the first Autonomous Agents. Between Four Hundred Thousand and Forty Thousand years ago, with the appearance of fire, speech, and the first cave paintings, human Culture began to produce organized structures as a second type of Autonomous Agents. Only Forty years ago it became possible for computers and AI to become the third form of Autonomous Agents on Earth. These milestones reflect both the accelerating rate of change and the three types of cognition: Natural, Cultural, and Technological.
YHouse consists of Five Modules: The first three mirror these origins of Nature, Culture, and Technology. The fourth module is Philosophy. The fifth module is Action, recognizing the need to apply our discoveries in the first four to problems such as the Environment. Once we have models of how cognition occurs, we will need to provide a language for applying that knowledge, illuminated by past philosophical wisdom. We currently identify the Biosphere, including all life on Earth, and the Ecosphere, including all non-living aspects of the environment. We need to combine those realms for the Health of the planet. We must remain grounded in Natural Science, Culture, and Technology. Our dream is to make YHouse an Institute comparable in size and scope to the Institute For Advanced Study, where Piet directs the Program in Interdisciplinary Studies.
Piet’s view is that Science is going through a fundamental change at present. For Galileo in the 17th century, Science tried to describe the natural world. But now we have the beginning of understanding of how the human brain works, and with that the ability to investigate our internal world. The Mind/Body problem has a long history in Philosophy. The current consensus among neuroscientists assumes that consciousness arises from the neural activity of the brain. Clearly the brain correlates with consciousness. But correlation is not causation. What would it mean for the brain to generate consciousness? Now we say consciousness Emerges from brain activity. But maybe consciousness is different from brain activity. We don’t know. We can have both scientists and philosophers attack this problem together. If you start with the world, you see you have a body and a brain. But if you start with your Experience, that I see, hear, analyze, and I meet others who report their own experiences, then you must conclude that the only way you can interpret matter is by your experience of that matter. So from an operational or epistemological point of view, you could argue that Experience is fundamental and the material world is derived from experience. Any belief or doubt you have about this possibility is also an experience. Natural Science started with the Empirical approach to experience. In fact, empirical means experience. Galileo believed if many people simplify the questions, experiment and observe, and compare notes in order to come to conclusions, then that provides an objective description of reality. His started with the Subject and the Object. But the object is the low hanging fruit. It is much harder to look at the subject. Two hundred years ago, William Blake argued that the world is Not a clock-work structure. Fortunately, physicists ignored this view and continued to explore the world, with miraculous results such as moon landings and cell phones. But quantum physics argues that the interactions of subject and object are not independent. One depends on the other. A materialist may believe in Matter, but remains unable to describe matter at the smallest or largest scales. In the future – perhaps twenty years from now, perhaps two hundred years - science may model the brain more exactly and combine machine learning allowing us to understand all three aspects of subject, object, and the interaction and give us a new understanding of Reality.
Piet concluded his prepared talk at this point and began the question and answer portion of the discussion.
Q: Not a question but a supporting observation. Not only quantum physics but also relativity shows us that each subject sees reality from a unique referential framework.
A: Yes. Classical mechanics explained a lot, but turned out to be wrong on extremely large and small scales.
Q: pertained to Information being outside of the material world.
A: Information is independent of material, but is encountered only through a medium - an information bank, computer memory, etc. You can copy Information only by copying matter. Maybe matter is fundamental and information is derived. But perhaps matter and information can be equally fundamental. In a recent blog, Piet discussed magnetic monopoles and the mind. Maxwell’s equations show a symmetry of electricity and magnetism neither of which is greater. It just happens that magnetism always has both a north and a south pole while electricity can be carried by ionic particles with positive or negative charges (electrons, protons). Even though the equations allow for magnetic monopoles, we don’t find them in nature. Maybe matter and information will turn out to be two sides of the same coin only one of which is realized in the universe.
Q: Piet is asked to expand on Culture.
A: Evolution of biology is similar to cultural evolution. Entities change over time. The city of New York persists under different names over time. In an earth-quake the building falls down but the bricks are ok and can be reused. On the contrary, in biology the cells may die but the organism survives. Similarly, the world-wide enterprise of science is much more persistent than any particular theory of science. This topic was also expanded in a recent YHouse blog by Piet.
Q: How is it possible to mass-produce identical objects if there is no reality?
A: Reality is a single word but it is composed of a story and also of a framework. The framework is our collective experience.
Q: Aren’t there natural laws that describe reality?
A: In society we have Laws. In science we have natural laws. The law of gravity and chemistry are objective and are the same anywhere in the universe. Laws in society may be arbitrary and may vary from one location to another. But if you break a social law in a country with capital punishment, you can be killed as surely as the law of gravity can kill you when you fall off a cliff. So that affects reality.
Q: What evidence is there that consciousness is not from the brain?
A: With the discovery of quantum mechanics we found the more extreme the framework and scale, the less classical mechanics applies. Perhaps we will discover consciousness is equally fundamental as space and time in the universe. Panpsychism is now taken seriously by some of the leading neuroscientists, but perhaps we have to be more radical: maybe consciousness is another dimension along with space and time. (Expanding this idea, Time was always thought to be a separate and distinct entity somehow interacting with space until Einstein and relativity discovered the relationship and gave us the concept of a single entity of space-time. In a similar way, maybe consciousness can be thought of as an additional meta-dimension and it is only the fact that we do not understand the interaction between consciousness and the material world that makes them incompatible. Perhaps with greater understanding consciousness and space-time can be united in a way analogous to the way space and time were seen to be elements of a single entity. MJS) The challenge of science is to investigate without either believing or disbelieving your own theories. Science is like learning a maze – finding blind ends, trying a different way, and eventually making progress.
Q: Can you define consciousness?
A: “There is no rigid definition of rigid.” We have no definition of life. We have no absolute definition of consciousness.
Q: While we have evidence supporting consciousness as an emergent property of the brain, we do not have any evidence that does not allow for the alternative approach, that consciousness is outside the sphere of what we can observe with scientific method.
A: Piet discussed Experience, Appearance, and Matter. Reality is the presence of experience that we have learned from appearances, that we have derived from subject/object interactions. Science and technology should try to incorporate the wisdom of ancient traditions and remain open to possibilities that we have not yet imagined.
This concluded the presentation and we broke into smaller groups for further discussions.
Michael Solomon, MD