Thinking of Consciousness as Waves

First written: Dec 14, 2018, Last update: Jan 2, 2019.

 

How can we think about the relationship between the conscious and the physical? In this essay I wish to propose a way of thinking about it that might be fruitful and surprisingly intuitive, namely to think of consciousness as waves.

The idea is quite simple: one kind of conscious experience corresponds to, or rather conforms to description in terms of, one kind of wave. And by combining different kinds of waves, we can obtain an experience with many different properties in one.

It should be noted that I in this post merely refer to waves in an abstract sense to illustrate a general point. That is, I do not refer to electromagnetic waves in particular (as some theories of consciousness do), nor to quantum waves (as other theories do), nor to any other particular kind of wave (such as Selen Atasoy’s so-called connectome-specific harmonic waves*). The point here is not what kind of wave, or indeed which physical state in general, that mediates different states of consciousness. The point is merely to devise a metaphor that can render intuitive the seemingly unintuitive, namely: how can we get something complex and multifaceted from something very simple without having anything seemingly spooky or strange, such as strong emergence, in-between? In particular, how can we say that brains mediate conscious experience without saying that, say, electrons mediate conscious experience? I believe thinking about consciousness in terms of waves can help dissolve this confusion. 

The magic of waves is that we can produce (or to an arbitrary level of precision approximate) any kind of complex, multifaceted wave by adding simple sine waves together.

 

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Sine waves with different frequencies.

 

In this way, it is possible, for instance, to decompose any recorded song — itself a complex, multifaceted wave — into simple, tedious-sounding sine waves. Each resulting sine wave can be said to comprise an aspect of the song, yet not in any recognizable way. The whole song is in fact a sum of such waves, not in a strange way that implies strong emergence, but merely in a complicated, composite way.

Another way to think about waves that can help us think more clearly about emergent complexity is to think of a wave that is very small in both amplitude and duration. If this were a sound wave, it would be an extremely short-lived, extremely low-volume sound. On a visual representation of an entire song file, this sound would look more akin to a dot than a wave.

 

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A dot.

 

And such simple sound waves can also be put together so as to create a song (for instance, one can take the sine waves obtained by decomposing a song and then chop them into smaller bits and decrease their amplitude). It will just, to make a song, take a very great number of such small waves superimposed (if the song is to be loud enough to hear) and in succession (if the song is to last for more than a split-second).

 

The deeper point here is that waves are waves, no matter how small or simple, large or complex. Yet not all waves comprise what we would recognize as music. Similarly, even if all physical states are phenomenal in the broadest sense, this does not imply that they are conscious in the sense of being an ordered, multifaceted whole. Unfortunately, we do not as yet have good, analogous terms for “sound” and “music” in the phenomenal realm — perhaps we could use “phenomenality” and “consciousness”, respectively?

The problem is indeed that we are limited by language, in that the word “conscious” usually only connotes an ordered, composite mind rather than the property of phenomenality in the most general sense. Consequently, if we think all that exists is either music or non-sound, metaphorically speaking, we are bound to be confused. But if we instead expand our vocabulary, and thereby expand our allowed ways of thinking, our confusion can, I think, be readily dissolved. If we think of the phenomenality of the simplest physical systems as being nothing like consciousness in the usual sense of a composite mind but rather as a state of hyper-crude phenomenality — i.e. “phenomenal noise” that is nothing like a song but more akin to a low, short-lived sound; and yet unimaginably more crude still — then the problem of consciousness, as commonly (mis)conceived, seems to become a lot less confusing.**

Avoiding Confusion Due to Fuzziness

A more specific point of confusion the wave metaphor can help us dissolve is the notion that consciousness is so fuzzy a category that it in fact does not really exist, just like tables and chairs do not really exist. As I have argued elsewhere, I think this is a non sequitur. The fact that the categories of tables and chairs are themselves fuzzy does not imply that the physical properties of the objects to which we refer with these labels are inexact, let alone non-existent. The objects have the physical properties they have regardless of how we label them. Or, to continue the analogy to waves above, and songs in particular: although there is ambiguity about what counts as a song, this does not imply that we cannot speak in precise, factual terms about the properties of a given song — for instance, whether a given song contains a 440 Hz tone.

Similarly, the fact that consciousness, as in “an ordered, composite mind”, is a fuzzy category (after all, what counts as ordered? Do psychotic states? Fleeting dreams?) does not imply that any given phenomenal state we refer to with this term does not have exact and clearly identifiable phenomenal properties — e.g. an experience of the color red or the sensation of fear; properties that exist regardless of how outside observers choose to label them.

And although our labels for categorizing particular phenomenal states themselves tend to be fuzzy to some extent — e.g. which part of the spectrum below counts as red? — this does not imply that we cannot distinguish between different states, nor that we cannot draw any clear boundaries. For instance, we can clearly distinguish between the blue and the red zones respectively on the illustration below despite its gradation.

 

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A linear representation of the visible light spectrum with wavelengths in nanometers.

 

Just as we can point toward a confined range of wavelengths which induce an experience of (some kind of) red in most people upon hitting their retinas, we can also, in principle, point to a range of physical states that mediate specific phenomenal states. This includes the phenomenal states we call suffering, with the fuzziness of what counts as suffering contained within and near the bounds of this range, while the physical states outside this range, especially those far away, do not mediate suffering, cf. the non-red range in the illustration above.

Thus, by analogy to how we can have precise descriptions of the properties of a song, even as an exact definition of what counts as a song escapes us, there is no reason why we should not be able to speak in factual and precise terms about the phenomenal aspects of a mind and its physical signatures, including the “red range” of wavelengths that comprise phenomenal suffering, metaphorically speaking. And a sophisticated understanding of this notional range is indeed of paramount importance for the project of reducing suffering.


* Note that these seemingly different kinds of waves and theories of consciousness can be identical, since connectome-specific harmonic waves could turn out to be coherent waves in the electromagnetic quantum field, as would seem suggested by a hypothesis known as quantum brain dynamics (I do not necessarily endorse this particular hypothesis).

** Another useful analogy for thinking more clearly about the seemingly crazy notion that “everything is conscious” — or rather: phenomenal — is to think about the question, Is everything light? For in a highly non-standard sense, everything is indeed “light”, in that electromagnetic waves permeate the universe in the form of cosmic background radiation, although everything is not permeated by light in the usual sense of visible electromagnetic radiation (wavelengths around 400–700 nm). We may thus think of consciousness as analogous to visible light (they can also both be more or less intense and have various nuances), and electromagnetic radiation as analogous to phenomenality — the more general phenomenon that encompasses the specific one.

 

Explaining Existence

First written: Aug 2018, Last update: Nov 2018.

 

“Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.”

(“Nicht wie die Welt ist, ist das Mystische, sondern dass sie ist.”)

Ludwig Wittgenstein

 

Why is there something rather than nothing? How can we explain the fact of existence?

This most fundamental question may be worth pondering for various reasons. Such pondering may help sharpen our thinking about the nature of the world, our place within it, and the scope of our understanding. And it may also just lead us to some significant answers to the question itself.

Is Non-Existence Coherent?

I would argue that the key to (dis)solving this mystery lies in questioning the coherence of the idea that there could be nothing in the first place — the notion that non-existence could exist. For existing is, after all, exactly what non-existence, by definition, does not. Non-being, by definition, cannot be. Yet, in asking why there is not nothing, we are indeed, somehow, imagining that it could. Essentially, what we are asking is: why is there not “non-isness“? Why could non-being not have been? The answer, I submit, is that the being of non-being is a contradiction in terms.

If existence were not the case, this would imply non-existence being the case, which is an incoherent notion. More specifically, to say that non-being could be is to contradict the principle of non-contradiction, as one then asks for something, or rather “nothing”, to both be and not be at the same time.

As David Pearce put it:

“One can apparently state the epistemic possibility of nothing having existed rather than something. But it’s unclear how it could make cognitive sense to talk of the epistemic possibility of nothing-or-other having even been the case. For the notion of something-or-other being the case is about as conceptually primitive as one can get. For just what is the (supposedly non-self-refuting) alternative with which one would be contrasting the generic notion of existence – in the sense of something-or-other being the case – that we have at present? The notion doesn’t seem to make any sense. It’s self-stultifying.”

Why Does Anything Exist“, section nine.

Philosopher Bede Rundle made a similar point: “We cannot conceive of there being nothing, but only of nothing being this or that” (p. 113).

Furthermore, even if we were to assume that non-existence could be the case, we would still end up with the conclusion that it actually cannot. For if non-existence were the case, then its being the case would, quite obviously, be a truth, which implies that this truth would at least (also) exist. And yet this truth is not nothing. In other words, it implies the existence of (more of) something. And such a supposedly empty state would in fact imply other properties as well, such as the property of being one (not two or more, as it contains no separation, nor zero, since it does exist by assumption), as well as the property of being free from contradictions (genuine contradictions could not possibly exist in any possible state of existence, much less one that is purportedly empty). Thus, even the notion of a state with no properties other than its mere being is incoherent.

Another way to realize that there could not possibly be nothing, even if we were to pretend that the notion is coherent, is to think in terms of necessary and contingent facts (following the reasoning of Timothy O’Connor found here). For the suggestion that there might have been nothing amounts to the claim that existence might merely be a contingent, not a necessary fact. Yet the fact that we are here proves that existence was, at the very least, a possibility. In other words, the reality of (at least) the possibility of existence is undeniable. And yet the reality of the possibility of existence is not nothing. It is, in fact, something. Thus, even if we assume that the fact of existence is merely contingent, we still end up with the conclusion that it is in fact necessary. The existence of the mere possibility of existence necessarily implies, indeed amounts to, existence in full, and hence the suggestion that existence may merely be contingent, and that there could instead have been absolutely nothing, is revealed to be impossible and indeed incoherent in this way as well.

This may be considered an answer to why there is something rather than nothing: the alternative is simply incoherent, and hence logically impossible. Only “something” could conceivably be the case. And thus, contra Wittgenstein, the real mystery to explain is indeed how the world is, not that it is; to explain which properties the world has, not that it has any. And part of this mystery is to explain why we ever considered the existence of non-existence — as opposed to a very different state of existence — a coherent possibility in the first place, and, by extension, why we ever considered the non-existence of non-existence any more mysterious than the non-existence of square circles.*

No Purpose or Reason Behind Existence, Only Within

The all-inclusive nature of existence implies that, just as there cannot be a mechanism or principle that lies behind or beyond existence, there could not be a reason or purpose behind it either, since behind and beyond existence lies only that which does not exist. And hence there could not possibly be an ultimate purpose, in this sense at least, behind our being here.

Yet this by no means implies, contrary to what may be naturally supposed, that reasons and purposes, of the most real and significant kinds, do not exist within existence. Indeed, it is obvious that they do. For instance, the ability to pursue purposes and act on reasons has clearly emerged over the course of evolution. Beyond that, it is also clear, at least to me, that some states of the world — especially states of extreme suffering — are truly more disvaluable than others, and hence, I would argue, that we have truly normative reasons to act so as to minimize the realization of such disvaluable states. Indeed, I would argue that this endeavor is our highest and ultimate purpose; how to best pursue it our highest and ultimate question.

 


*And if, and that arguably is a huge if, existence is identical with what we call “physical existence”, then the argument above shows that a physical world must exist, and that its absence is incoherent. Again, this is provided that we assume existence to be identical with “the physical”, which is just an assumption, although I believe one can make a decent case that we have no strong reasons to believe in such a thing as non-physical existence, and hence no strong reasons to doubt this assumption. And if one then further believes that “the physical” is identical with “the mental” — in other words, if one holds a monist ontology that considers both physical and mental descriptions of the world equally valid — then the argument above shows the necessity of the existence of this monist reality. And all that would then be left to explain, if this assumption happened to be true, is “just” what particular properties and relations that exist within this monist reality.

Beyond that, one can also use the contingency-versus-necessity argument we used above to argue for the necessity of physical existence without assuming that physical existence is coterminous with existence. For the claim that the non-existence of the physical world could have obtained also amounts to claiming that its existence is merely a contingent fact: a possibility that could have not obtained. Yet the fact that the physical world does exist proves that its existence is necessarily (at least) a possibility. Thus, by this reasoning, there must necessarily exist (at least) a potential for the physical world as we know it to emerge. And yet such a potential is not nothing, nor is it non-physical proper, at least not in the widest sense of the term “physical”, which includes not only physical actualities but also physical potentials, provided they exist.

One may here object that the notions of contingency and necessity ultimately do not make sense, or that they are just human ideas that we cannot derive deep metaphysical truths from. Yet it should then be noted that the notion of contingency is exactly what a claim such as “physical reality might not have been” itself rests upon. So if these terms and the argument above make no sense or have no bearing on the actual nature of reality, then neither does the problem that the argument is trying to address in the first place.

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