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Physicists Suggest Consciousness is the Sixth State of Matter

Sunday, September 18, 2016 7:40
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In researching my next book on spirituality and consciousness I just stumbled onto a fascinating article, video, and theory – that just maybe – consciousness arises from a certain complex arrangement of matter; and that being dead or alive or conscious or unconscious are states that are no more fundamentally different from each other (physically) than the water molecules in ice, water, or steam.

Ice has no wetness unless its surface melts into water; steam has no wetness unless it cools and condenses as water onto something else… yet the different phases of H2O all share the same molecules – just in different patterns. Does the quality of wetness appear from the ether to manifest in liquid water, or is wetness a physical quality of the structure and arrangement of liquid water?

Now imagine while playing a game of Tetris, when a block from above is made to fit into all fall into place with the blocks below. Does consciousness descend into matter from the spiritual “above” when the pattern fits? Or is consciousness an inherent quality, a feature matter can exhibit itself when arranged a certain way? This theory doesn’t take away or deny the unique spirituality or beyondmerematter-ness of consciousness – but the theory may help explain how consciousness works.

From yesterday’s article: This physicist says consciousness could be a new state of matter

“Consciousness isn’t something scientists like to talk about much. You can’t see it, you can’t touch it, and despite the best efforts of certain researchers, you can’t quantify it. And in science, if you can’t measure something, you’re going to have a tough time explaining it. But consciousness exists, and it’s one of the most fundamental aspects of what makes us human. And just like dark matter and dark energy have been used to fill some otherwise gaping holes in the standard model of physics, researchers have also proposed that it’s possible to consider consciousness as a new state of matter.

To be clear, this is just a hypothesis, and one to be taken with a huge grain of salt, because we’re squarely in the realm of the hypothetical here, and there’s plenty of room for holes to be poked. But it’s part of a quietly bubbling movement within theoretical physics and neuroscience to try and attach certain basic principles to consciousness in order to make it more observable. The hypothesis was first put forward in 2014 by cosmologist and theoretical physicist Max Tegmark from MIT, who proposed that there’s a state of matter – just like a solid, liquid, or gas – in which atoms are arranged to process information and give rise to subjectivity, and ultimately, consciousness. The name of this proposed state of matter? Perceptronium, of course.

As Tegmark explains in his pre-print paper: “Generations of physicists and chemists have studied what happens when you group together vast numbers of atoms, finding that their collective behaviour depends on the pattern in which they are arranged: the key difference between a solid, a liquid, and a gas lies not in the types of atoms, but in their arrangement. In this paper, I conjecture that consciousness can be understood as yet another state of matter. Just as there are many types of liquids, there are many types of consciousness. However, this should not preclude us from identifying, quantifying, modelling, and ultimately understanding the characteristic properties that all liquid forms of matter (or all conscious forms of matter) share.”

In other words, Tegmark …proposes that consciousness can be interpreted as a mathematical pattern – the result of a particular set of mathematical conditions. Just as there are certain conditions under which various states of matter – such as steam, water, and ice – can arise, so too can various forms of consciousness, he argues. Figuring out what it takes to produce these various states of consciousness according to observable and measurable conditions could help us get a grip on what it actually is, and what that means for a human, a monkey, a flea, or a supercomputer.

The idea was inspired by the work of neuroscientist Giulio Tononi from the University of Wisconsin in Madison, who proposed in 2008 that if you wanted to prove that something had consciousness, you had to demonstrate two specific traits. According to his integrated information theory (IIT), the first of these traits is that a conscious being must be capable of storing, processing, and recalling large amounts of information. “And second,” explains the blog, “this information must be integrated in a unified whole, so that it is impossible to divide into independent parts.” This means that consciousness has to be taken as a whole, and cannot be broken down into separate components. A conscious being or system has to not only be able to store and process information, but it must do so in a way that forms a complete, indivisible whole, Tononi argued.

If it occurred to you that a supercomputer could potentially have these traits, that’s sort of what Tononi was getting at…. “if consciousness is defined by the amount of integrated information in a system, then we may also need to move away from any form of human exceptionalism that says consciousness is exclusive to us.”

*Solids, liquids, and gases are the three states of matter we know best.

*Plasma is the fourth (and most abundant) state of matter, a superheated, superconductive ionized gas-like collective in which electrons are stripped from individual atoms and shared collectively. We see plasma in stars and neon signs.

*A Bose-Einstein condensate is generally viewed as the fifth state of matter in which individual atoms collapse into the same space. Such condensates exist very briefly under rare and artificial supercooled conditions.

*What if consciousness is a characteristic of another unique pattern of matter? Could this lead to understanding ourselves better, or to creating artificial intelligence?

*Because I am currently writing a book on such subjects, I ask you, dear readers, for extra input and opinions on these topics. Please comment on this blog article with your opinions and any links to other books or research you know about. (Or comment here at BIN)  Thank you for your input – which often makes its way into my books

Here’s Tegmark’s TED talk on consciousness as a mathematical pattern:



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