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Consciousness in the Wolfram Physics Model

Posted 21 days ago
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I recently read this article from Stephen Wolfram about consciousness in relation to the physics project, and I have some further reflections on the topic. I have some background in the study of religion, philosophy and also as a meditator, so what follows is drawn on those experiences, and isn’t very rigorous in a scientific sense. But I hope these thoughts add something.

First, I think it’s important to distinguish between consciousness and the contents of consciousness. It’s not accurate to say that thoughts, sensations, and so on are “consciousness.” They are actually the objects of consciousness, something like reflections in a mirror. You can’t “see” a mirror separately from the reflections it produces, but the mirror is not identical with the images of people and landscapes which might show up inside it. I would go as far as to say, in the framework of the Wolfram Physics Model, things like “thoughts, feelings, emotions and sensations are spatial objects, while the “knowing of” or “experiencing of” them is what I would refer to as consciousness.

A conscious state has a “what it’s like to for you-ness” - the specific texture experiencing of the sound of a note on a violin, a glass crashing on the floor. This is not quite the same as the semantic meaning of the event, the identification of the violin or the glass we experience, or the discursive thoughts about an experience. Physically speaking, a verbal thought is just the firing of certain neural pathways which are part of our hearing system. This in turn produces something like a representation of a certain sound sensation, itself representing a word (this "representing" or about-ness has to do with what some people call "intentionality"). These physical phenomena are what make up the verbal thought at the level of the body and are basically spatial or material phenomena. However, consciousness of the thought is just the present-moment awareness of the thought object arising and updating right now. The experiencing or knowing of spatial phenomena constantly updating in “the present moment” is consciousness.

It’s interesting to note that consciousness is always consciousness of the present. Memory, or thoughts of future moments in time are always mental representations - spatial events happening in the brain - that occur in the present experience of consciousness. We can only experience these representations in the “now” and derive a concept of time from judging where the present moment sits in relation to the order we stored our representations of the past (this happened, then this happened, and so on). Consciousness is just the experience of the most recent update, which is always happening right now.

The nowness of consciousness makes me think it may be possible to say that the causal relation or the notion of temporality in the Wolfram physics model, and consciousness are two sides of the same coin. The physics model seems to describe two fundamental attributes of our universe - spatiality and temporality. When a causal update happens on a very small scale - say two particles collide with one another, a single particle’s state update is a registration of its previous state, and the previous state of the particle which collides with. At this level it is conceptually very difficult to distinguish between the “registration of the previous causal state by the acted upon object” and “time passing.” What is really the difference between saying something has "happened" and that it has had a causal effect? Perhaps a single update event is something like a discrete unit of consciousness, operating at a very low level, which is just part of the fundamental fabric of our universe. A thread of consciousness may be nothing more than one of the branching threads of time - which run in parallel but are not “happening” in each other's present, and therefore invisible to one another. Because the different threads of different observers can be causally invariant, we can have many discrete observers who have agreement on a common reality.

Of course humans bodies are much more complex spatial relationships than a particle, so the scope of our registrations of updates happening in the present is much more vast and complex than the “perception” a particle has of its present update. In a sense, our consciousness as humans is the knowing of the modifications happening to our body. All of our sensations are mediated through the sense organs, which include the entire body, ears, eyes, nose, mouth and the brain - which mediates thought objects. Consciousness is basically an awareness of the present state of the body, as it constantly updates in time - from which all the diverse experiences of music, ideas, social interactions and so on emerge.

This view of consciousness and spatiality as the fundamental aspects of our universe has been discussed for hundreds, if not thousands of years. It is sometimes described as dual-aspect monism as in Spinoza’s Natura Naturans - a concept of God / The Universe as a vast, constantly evolving causal network, which is fundamentally made of materiality and consciousness, two “aspects” of the same fundamental "substance."

There is an intuitive appeal to the idea that if consciousness is not just something that emerges out of certain complex spatial configurations, that it may just be a basic aspect along with spatiality of our universe system.

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