The Riddle of Existence

Section Eight

Here Be Monsters

"How can we know why something is (or should be) a certain
way if we don't know why there is anything at all?"

Robert Nozick

Yet how on earth are consciousness, mathematics and the quantum field(etc)-theoretic ontology of mainstream physics be brought together in practice? Chanting the mantra "All Is One" may make an excellent aid to meditational discipline, particularly for the sort of meditation which aims to empty the mind of thought rather than sharpen it. Yet what's it got to offer serious philosophy of science?

In Naturalistic Panpsychism and most recently Cosmic Consciousness for Tough Minds, it is argued that - in the light of our current level of ignorance - the mathematical formalism of contemporary physics should provisionally be treated as topic-neutral. The "physical" in physics isn't doing any real scientific work. So provisionally let's discard it. The topic-neutral approach is implicitly adopted when one uses Newton's still widely serviceable laws, Maxwell's equations and so forth, since one discounts their original baggage of a classical ontology of atomic "billiard balls" or a luminiferous ether etc. [The analogy breaks down because one knows the formalism of classical physics is strictly speaking wrong; whereas it is quite possible that the formalism of QM is right]. I argue that classical, mind-independent material objects - in the hazily ill-visualised contemporary sense - don't exist outside mind/brains. Instead, a field etc-theoretic what-it's-like-ness - ordinarily quite minimal and uninteresting - is the very stuff of the world. The solutions to the equations of physics yield the different values of what-it's-like-ness. Pure maths encodes everything there is, including mystical epiphanies, Auschwitz, my writing this sentence and the WWW, because it describes the interrelationships between different values of subjectivity.

Three key assumptions of this approach are:

  1. QM is mathematically complete [yes, there are Gödelian complications here]. There is nothing in the world, including the different values of what-it's-like-ness, that isn't mathematically encoded in the relativistic field etc-theoretic equations and which couldn't, in principle, just be "read off", if only we knew how. [This bald assertion isn't aimed at pre-empting a tantalisingly glimpsed "Theory of Everything". It merely reiterates the view - now held by perhaps a majority of quantum cosmologists - that there is no dynamical principle in Nature beyond the continuous, linear, unitary evolution of the Universal Wavefunction (John Baez: "Get CLUEd up") and distinguishes it from the belief of Penrose et al in (gravitationally-induced or otherwise) "collapse of the wave function" - which is also supposed to explain consciousness. When theorists talk of QM's "completeness" they are denying the claims of "hidden variables" theories and asserting that any unified field/string/n-brane etc theory will have to be consistent with the principles of QM (e.g. see Stephen Weinberg's "Dreams of a Final Theory")]

  2. Physics gives us, as Hawking acknowledges, literally "no idea of what breathes fire into the equations and makes there a world for us to describe". In our ignorance, the formalism can be taken topic-neutrally - not because it is genuinely topic-neutral, but because we don't know enough to treat it as being otherwise. The radical implications of Hawking's remark are commonly but illicitly defused by (alas untenable) direct perceptual realist stories (or, more commonly, implicit and unargued presuppositions) about the nature of our access to putative classical and mind-independent macroscopic objects.

  3. Michael Lockwood's argument (in the ominously entitled Mind, Brain and The Quantum) that introspection and phenomenal awareness of our mind/brains do give us a uniquely privileged insight into the intrinsic, noumenal nature of the stuff of at least one tiny part of the world - as it is in itself and not at one remove. (Micro)qualia are the "fire in the equations". If minds are identical with brains, then the brain does not "cause" or "produce" consciousness because identity is not a causal relationship.
I argue that what breathes fire into the QM equations is field-theoretic what-it's-likeness: "microqualia" to use a philosopher's term of art. The different values of the solutions to the ultimate physical equations exhaustively yield the abundance of different values of subjectivity. There is no room for dualism; "nomological danglers"; causally inert epiphenomena; classical, porridge-like lumps of otherwise insentient but magically mind-secreting matter, etc. There is no "explanatory gap" because there aren't any material objects - not even brains or nerve cells as commonly (mis)perceived. Instead, over millions of years, non-equilibrium thermodynamics and universal, (neo-)Darwinian principles of natural selection have contrived to organise a minimal and self-intimating subjective sludge of microqualia into complex functional living units. Initially, these units have taken the form of self-replicating, information-bearing biomolecular patterns. Eventually, selection-pressure has given rise to complex minds as well, albeit as just one part of the throwaway host vehicles by which our genes leave copies of themselves. Conscious mind, on this proposal, is a triumph of organisation: our egocentric virtual worlds are warm and gappy QM-coherent states of consciousness. Contra materialist metaphysics, sentience of any kind is not the daily re-enactment of an ontological miracle. Moreover the idea that what-it's-like-ness is the fire in the equations is (at least) consistent with orthodox relativistic quantum field theory - because the theorists' key notions (e.g. that of a field, string, brane, etc) are defined purely mathematically. In other cases, they readily lend themselves to such a reconstruction. Using the word "physical" doesn't add anything of substance. Its invocation is essentially empty rhetoric.

Even suspending disbelief in such a conjecture, what sense does it make to speak of experience cancelling out/adding up etc to 0? How in general does this cancelling out process occur? The quantum vaccuum may be the physical expression of the logical principle that there can be no net properties to the world; but how can the principle apply to the varieties of experience? I'm not sure. Perhaps one might consider an analogy with one particular sort of experience, namely colour. The colours of the spectrum, if all combined, yield colourless (= 0) white light, which can nonetheless be again prismatically decomposed into its colourful constituent wavelengths; and then combined to white light (0?). It's possible that a generalisation of this principle applies to experience as a whole. Possibly, the all-important variable of what-it's-like-ness itself expresses the decomposition of 0. Insofar as the equations of physics and their solutions embody the sovereign 0 principle, and those equations describe fields etc of differently valued what-it's-likeness ("qualia"), then the values of what-it's-like-ness cancel out to 0 too.

This admittedly amounts (for now, at any rate) to even less of an explanation than the posited centrality of 0 in maths and physics. Even if experience is amenable to (non-arbitrary) numerical encoding, and the numbers do cancel out etc to 0, this doesn't at our current level of ignorance enable us to read off the ineffable greenness of green. But this principle exploits the presumption that the alleged unquantifiability of experience, and the vagueness and inexpressibility of its disparate textures, is a reflection of our intellectual limitations. It doesn't betoken a radically new non-mathematical principle at work in the world. Even one's sense that much of our consciousness has a weird and ill-defined amorphousness reflects, on this approach, a Reality in which purely subjective feeling is as mathematically well-defined as everything else.

What would be really nice, and very deep, would be if we could derive and explain the precise but ineffable texture of green etc in terms of the precise textures of every other mode of subjective experience - just as the properties of the number, say, seven (and crucially, I argue, 0), are exhaustively explained by the properties and structural relationships of all the other numbers; and just as the properties of one "fundamental" particle (superstring harmonic etc) are exhaustively explained by the properties and relationships of all the others [Olympian detachment from the fray lets one issue some very generous promissory notes - in this case some sort of superholographic principle]. If the values of the solutions of the TOE (derived from the properties of zero) are the values of consciousness, then these values are non-arbitrary. Thus if a particular scent of lilac, or an evanescent, uninteresting 'micro-tickle', didn't have the value it did, and if it weren't numerically encodable as such, then (impossibly, incoherently) everything wouldn't cancel out to zero. Were this so, something substantive would stand in need of explanation. Of course, why any particular phenomenal property has the exact texture it does is not something we presently know how to "read off" even the solutions to equations that exhaustively encode them. But granted that their particular texture is, in principle, non-arbitrarily formalisable, then hypothetically the totality of phenomenal properties cancels to zero too. If it were to be the case that, say, a hue of red was even slightly different, or absent altogether from the world, then this outrageous anomaly would be like 2+4 coming to something different from 6 i.e. logically impossible.]

Cataloguing the varieties of experience, then, should be no more like stamp-collecting than doing maths or physics. This undertaking, however, is beyond any conceptual scheme we currently envisage.

The proposal that every variety of consciousness can be mathematically formalised is certainly counter-intuitive. Yet something akin to a part of the proposal, at least, is entailed by physicalist orthodoxy. For if one acknowledges some (quasi-computational functionalist etc) version of a mind/brain identity theory, then one is already implicitly committed to the notion that what-it's-like-ness is described by a set of equations simply in virtue of the postulated identity of conscious mental episodes with states of a QM-describable brain. The difference, in the context of this paper's proposal, is that here QM is taken to be complete in a much more full-blooded sense than is commonly understood, since the formalism is posited numerically to encode the co-extensive values of all the world's what-it's-like-ness. It's no good pretending we have even the germ of a so-called Theory Of Everything (TOE) if its notional solutions leave out all the exact values ("textures") of consciousness and their (non-classical) compositional arrangement; in David Chalmers' terminology, a TOE must explain why its precise values not just naturally supervene, but logically supervene. For a generic "explanation" of sentience, even were it on offer, is no more impressive than a generic explanation of insentience. If the research program set out here is well-conceived, the messy textural diversity of everyday life in all its ineffable subjectivity is logically coded by numbers and their interrelationships in every respect too. Unfortunately, we just don't know how to crack the code and bring the varieties of consciousness into the realm of mathemetical science.

Moreover, bringing qualia within the realm of mathematical science potentially solves an otherwise baffling mystery: what we may call the "information paradox". The information paradox is that the QM wave function or state vector of a system encodes all the information that can ever be known about that system [as noted earlier, in the zero ontology the totality of descriptions the formalism encodes is equivalent to zero information] If this is so, then what on earth fixes the values of its constituent (micro-)qualia? If quantum mechanics is a true theory of the world, then the wave function of a system contains all the information about the system's physical state - position, momentum, energy, etc. So the assumption that this fundamental physical principle is true entails there is no additional information that could ever be extracted from the wave function by means of the appropriate mathematical operator to specify the values of all the different textures of its qualia. On the monistic idealist ontology explored here, however, no additional information is needed or even possible. The solutions to the relativistic generalisation of the Schrödinger equation which describes a system yield the values of its constituent qualia. "More is different": quali(a)tatively different.

This ambitious marriage of subjectivity and physics still - apparently - leaves the problem for a zero ontologist of how logic-cum-mathematics could have causal efficacy. Surely they can't. Thus whatever the nature of the world it describes, no logico-mathematical principle can bring the world itself into being. Hence a truly radical monism, and a search for ultimate simplicity of explanation, seemingly fails. Tempting as the notion may sound, it's impossible to generate existence - and derivatively the universe - simply from a variant of the principle of non-contradiction.

Or is it? Perhaps the problem as stated above is ill-posed. It's not that logic caused the Big Bang, or indeed anything else, any more than logic causes +2 plus -2 to cancel out to 0 rather than, say, 7. It's rather that the Multiverse - acausally, ubiquitously, tenselessly - simply is; and as a (suitably interpreted) unification of General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics attests, the ensemble acausally, ubiquitously and tenselessly amounts to 0, i.e. exactly zero properties - the details are left as an exercise for the reader.

NEXT: Section 9