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.

 

“The Physical” and Consciousness: One World Conforming to Different Descriptions

My aim in this essay is to briefly explain a crucial aspect of David Pearce‘s physicalist idealist worldview. In particular, I seek to explain how a view can be both “idealist” and “physicalist”, yet still be a “property monist” view.

Pearce himself describes his view in the following way:

“Physicalistic idealism” is the non-materialist physicalist claim that reality is fundamentally experiential and that the natural world is exhaustively described by the equations of physics and their solutions […]

So Pearce’s view is a monist, idealist view: reality is fundamentally experiential. And this reality also conforms to description in physical terms. Pearce is careful, however, to distinguish this view from panpsychism, which Pearce, in contrast to his own idealist view, considers a property dualist view:

“Panpsychism” is the doctrine that the world’s fundamental physical stuff also has primitive experiential properties. Unlike the physicalistic idealism explored here, panpsychism doesn’t claim that the world’s fundamental physical stuff is experiential. Panpsychism is best treated as a form of property-dualism.

How, one may wonder, is Pearce’s view different from panpsychism, and from property dualist views more generally? This is something I myself have struggled a lot to understand, and inquired him about repeatedly. And my understanding is the following: according to Pearce, there is only consciousness, and its dynamics conform to physical description. Property dualist views, in contrast, view the world as having two properties: the stuff of the world has insentient physical properties to which separate, experiential properties are somehow attached.

Pearce’s view makes no such division. Instead, on Pearce’s view, description in physical terms merely constitutes a particular (phenomenal) mode of description that (phenomenal) reality conforms to. So to the extent there is a dualism here, it is epistemological, not ontological.

The Many Properties of Your Right Ear

For an analogy that might help explain this point better, consider your right ear. What properties does it have? Setting aside the question concerning its intrinsic nature, it is clear that you can model it in various ways. One way is to touch it with your fingers, whereby you model it via your faculties of tactile sensation (or in neuroanatomical terms: with neurons in your parietal lobe). You may also represent your ear via auditory sensations, for example by hitting it and noticing what kind of sound it makes (a sensation mediated by the temporal lobe). Another way, perhaps the clearest and most practical way for beings like us, is to model it in terms of visual experience: to look at your right ear in the mirror, or perhaps simply imagine it, and thereby have a visual sensation that represents it (mediated by the occipital lobe).

[For most of us, these different forms of modeling are almost impossible to keep separate, as our touching our ears automatically induces a visual model of them as well, and vice versa: a visual model of an ear will often be accompanied by a sense of what it would be like to touch it. Yet one can in fact come a surprisingly long way toward being able to “unbind” these sensations with a bit of practice. This meditation and this one both provide a good exercise in detaching one’s tactile sense of one’s hands from one’s visual model of them. This one goes even further, as it climaxes with a near-total dissolution of our automatic binding of different modes of experience into an ordered whole.]

Now, we may ask: which of these modes of modeling constitute the modeling we call “physical”? And the answer is arguably all of them, as they all relate to the manifestly external (“physical”) world. This is unlike, say, things that are manifestly internal, such as emotions and thoughts, which we do not tend to consider “physical” in this same way, although all our sensations are, of course, equally internal to our mind-brain.

“The physical” is in many ways a poorly defined folk term, and physics itself is not exempt from this ambiguity. For instance, what phenomenal mode does the field of physics draw upon? Well, it is certainly more than just the phenomenology of equations (to the extent this can be considered a separate mode of experience). It also, in close connection with how most of us think about equations, draws heavily on visuospatial modes of experience (I once carefully went through a physics textbook that covered virtually all of undergraduate level physics with the explicit purpose of checking whether it all conformed to such description, and I found that it did). And we can, of course, also describe your right ear in “physics” terms, such as by measuring and representing its temperature, its spatial coordinates, its topology, etc. This would give us even more models of your right ear.

 

The deeper point here is that the same thing can conform to description in different terms, and the existence of such a multitude of valid descriptions does not imply that the thing described itself has a multitude of intrinsic properties. In fact, none of the modes of modeling an ear mentioned above say anything about the intrinsic properties of the ear; they only relate to its reflection, in the broadest sense.

And this is where some people will object: why believe in any intrinsic properties? Indeed, why believe in anything but the physical, “reflective”, (purportedly) non-phenomenal properties described above?

To me, as well as to David Pearce (and Galen Strawson and many others), this latter claim is self-undermining and senseless, like a person reading from a book who claims that the paper of the book they are reading from does not exist, only the text does. All these modes of modeling mentioned above, including all that we deem knowledge of “the physical” are phenomenal. The science we call “physics” is itself, to the extent it is known by anyone, found in consciousness. It is a particular mode of phenomenal modeling of the world, and thus to deny the existence of the phenomenal is also to deny the existence of our knowledge of “physics”.

Indeed, our knowledge of physics and “the physical” attests to this fact as clearly as it attests to anything: consciousness exists. It is a separate question, then, exactly how the varieties of conscious experience relate to descriptions of the world in physical terms, as well as what the intrinsic nature of the stuff of the world is, to the extent it has any. Yet by all appearances, it seems that minds such as our own conform to physical description in terms of what we recognize as brains, and, as with the example of your right ear, such a physical description can take many forms: a visual representation of a mind-brain, what it is like to touch a mind-brain, the number of neurons it has, its temperature, etc.

These are different, yet valid ways of describing aspects of our mind-brains. Yet like the descriptions of different aspects of an ear mentioned above, these “physical” descriptions, while all perfectly valid, still do not tell us anything about the intrinsic nature of the mind-brain. And according to David Pearce, the intrinsic nature of that which we (validly) describe in physical terms as “your brain” is your conscious mind itself. The apparent multitude of aspects of that which we recognize as “brains” and “ears” are just different modes of conscious modeling of an intrinsically monist, i.e. experiential, reality.

 


The view of consciousness explored here may seem counter-intuitive, yet I have argued elsewhere that using waves as a metaphor can help render it less unintuitive, perhaps even positively intuitive.

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