The Nature of Consciousness

In the essay titled “What is consciousness?”, I have stated that the existence of qualia is not explainable based on the current scientific theories. I have also argued that the capacity to comprehend seems to be even more difficult to explain than qualia.
by Federico Faggin
by Federico Faggin
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Disegno di Viviana Sardei

Consciousness is fundamental

In the essay titled “What is consciousness?”, I have stated that the existence of qualia is not explainable based on the current scientific theories. I have also argued that the capacity to comprehend seems to be even more difficult to explain than qualia.

Physics assumes the existence of matter, energy, space, and time (MEST) with certain fundamental properties and seeks to derive all the other observable properties by using a mathematical theory founded on relationships between those properties. The validity of this approach is based on the experimentally verifiable predictions of the theory as it applies to any physical phenomenon. The postulates are of course exceptions since they are considered true without proof.

The existence of our conscious inner reality, however, cannot be explained with the current theories in which inert matter comes before consciousness. Therefore, I think that the only sensible possibility to make progress is to postulate that consciousness is an irreducible property of MEST, like the electrical charge or the spin of elementary particles, rather than emerging somehow from complex organizations of unconscious matter.

If this assumption could lead to testable predictions that are experimentally verified, the ensuing change would have vast consequences on our worldview and on the future of mankind. It is too early to know if such approach is correct, but we cannot afford to neglect this line of enquiry since it would result in a new theory capable of describing a universe in which meaning exists, something that is currently absent in physics.

The physical world is holistic

Quantum field theory (QFT) is the best physical theory we currently have. It tells us that physical reality is an undivided wholeness. The classical idea that separate parts exist is just an approximation intended to produce a simpler model of how reality works. The world instead is not made of separate parts because there are no real boundaries between the parts and the whole.

            Within QFT, an elementary particle does not exist as an object. It is instead an excited state of a quantum field. Therefore, the fundamental entities are the quantum fields, not the particles. The idea of​​ a small, bounded, hard, and separate particle belongs to classical physics, to Newtonian physics.

A particle appears localized in a small volume of space only when it is “observed,” i.e., when there is a specific interaction with another “part” of wholeness – another field. A “particle appearing in space and time” is the way we conceptualize an interaction between fields by using the obsolete language of classical physics. Everything is interconnected in our universe, even when we pretend that the weak connections do not exist as an expedient to compute our predictions.

            According to QFT, elementary particles, atoms, molecules, proteins, living cells, and animals constitute successive hierarchical levels of organizations of states of the quantum fields. These fields are irreducible and inseparable from space and time, and by interacting with each other, they create all that exists in the physical world.

Reductionism works well to describe the macroscopic bodies that are the objects of classical physics. However, the fact that our machines do work reductively cannot be used as evidence that reality itself is reductionist.

A machine is a classical system in which each part has been carefully designed so that its unwanted interactions with the rest of the world are minimized, but only regarding the function it is intended to perform. There are many other strong interactions between the parts and the environment that do not hinder the function, though they may substantially reduce the efficiency. These “parasitic” interactions represent the impact of the real but inevitable interconnections of the parts with the whole. 

In practice, machines work as designed only in narrow ranges of environmental conditions (temperature, pressure, and so on) because the parasitic interactions cannot be eliminated and may interfere with the function outside the operating range.

           Despite the evidence provided by QFT that reality is an undivided wholeness, most scientists still cling to the Newtonian view of reality in which separate parts exist even though this idea has been repeatedly proven false. They say that QFT is true only for elementary particles, atoms, and molecules, but we exist instead in a world that is explained quite well by classical physics where the weirdness of quantum physics plays no role. Therefore, reality is declared to be classical.

This view may give us a sense of control over the world, but it’s false and self-deceiving.

Holism means that the whole is more than the sum of the “parts”

In a holistic system, a separate part cannot exist. Therefore, we need to introduce the new concept of a part-whole: something that cannot be separated from the whole since it shares the properties of the whole, and yet possesses some properties that uniquely identifies it from the other parts-whole.

In the case of the QFT, each quantum field is a part-whole with unique properties that identifies it. All the fields share the space and time that we perceive as the “container” of the fields when they represent instead the common wholeness we do not yet recognize as such.

When we reduce a holistic system to the sum of its apparent parts, perhaps because that’s all we can deal with mathematically, we are throwing away the “baby” with the bath water. The baby in this case is consciousness and the inner reality that it represents.

In so doing, we can only describe the outer aspects of reality. Consequently, having rejected the inner aspects, the “glue” that holds everything together, we lose everything that is associated with the infinite nature of reality. In other words, in the definition of what we call reality, we have excluded that irreducible and infinite portion that behind the scenes plays a fundamental role in quantum physics as well as in all living systems.

Consciousness is a property of the fields

I hypothesize that consciousness is a fundamental property of the quantum fields not yet acknowledged by physics. This property is essentially invisible in the macroscopic inanimate objects of classical physics because a typical object is a random aggregation of atoms and molecules in which the averages of their individual quantum properties become the deterministic properties of a classical object.

The quantum properties of atoms and molecules are instead important for the functioning of living cells and therefore could explain the obvious presence of consciousness in living organisms. Living cells are quantum systems, not classical system as we have been told, because they manipulate one atom at a time. Their essential interdependence with the environment is another clue that they have not lost their individual connection with the wholeness of the quantum fields. And trillions of intimately organized living cells form a body that is exponentially more complex than any machine we have ever created.

These quantum properties reflect the consciousness of the quantum fields and become integrated into hierarchical structures that increase the level of consciousness of the entire living organism in ways we have yet to understand. This exponential buildup of consciousness is impossible to achieve within the random structures of inanimate objects. This point will be further explored in a forthcoming essay entitled, “A living organism is not a machine.”

I expect that the consciousness of a living organism has exponentially higher comprehension than the sum of the comprehensions of its elementary parts because, when two or more lower-level conscious entities form a higher-level entity, its new consciousness is an integrated part-whole far more complex that the sum of the components’ consciousness.

The consciousness units

           In the conceptual framework I am developing, the elementary ontological units, the fundamental “components” of reality, are called consciousness units (CUs). Each CU is a field, similar to the quantum fields, but more fundamental than them.

Each CU has an inner semantic reality and an outer symbolic reality indivisible from the first. The CUs combine to create higher-order selves, just like the quantum fields combine to create atoms, molecules, macromolecules, and so on.

A CU is a conscious self with a unique identity, free will, and the capacity for action, and each quantum field is composed of various organizations of CUs. In this model, a quantum field is a conscious self, a part-whole, while the quantum fields described by physics represent only the outer symbolic aspects of the selves.

The properties of the CUs will be further discussed in the essay, “The fundamental nature of reality” that will appear on this site on May 31, 2019.                                                                                           © Federico Faggin, May 2019