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a life of ideas

Neuro-Computational-Physics (Part I)

M Cline

The Color Green

When neural circuits are activated in a certain way, that activation produces a sensation of the color green.  But, there is no known mechanism by which a photon with a wavelength of 500 nanometers can be translated into the sensation of green.  Nor could such a mechanism, based on our current understanding of physics, exist. 

According to physics, the universe is composed of particles in motion and governed by the laws of physics.  That is, the objective / observable world around us can be described simply and exhaustively in terms of the properties and interactions of particles in motion - we no longer need to appeal to gods and magic.  While emergent properties of matter may surprise us, they are nothing more than the complex interactions of particles in motion.  It is not, as some suggest, that magical, otherworldly properties could suddenly arise.  The property of mass, by way of example, could not arise in a world in which mass does not exist, unless is nothing more than an expression of a property that does exist. 

But the sensation green is a magical, otherworldly property.  The sensation green not a property of matter itself, nor is it a description of matter in motion.  Thus, we must conclude that in a universe, comprised of nothing more than particles in motion and governed by the laws of physics, the color green cannot exist.  While I could be asleep, dreaming of a world made of atoms, I cannot dream of the color green, in a world composed only of atoms. 

Given our starting assumptions, the color green cannot exist - it is an issue of logical entailment.  Yet we know, from every day experience, that the color green does exist.  Therefore, we are forced to conclude that our traditional understanding of physics is incomplete.  Simply put, the laws of traditional physics cannot explain "green" anymore than the laws of gravitation can explain electromagnetism.  This does not mean that the color green does not exist, but that it is necessary to develop a new branch of  physics.  Color is not a secondary quality, as is often supposed. 

The Origin of Conscious-Awareness

Now turning to the topic consciousness, we see that, in a similar manner, conscious-awareness cannot arise in a world composed solely of atoms in motion.  If we stop for a moment and think about it, the idea that conscious-awareness (or the color green) magically arises from a configuration of atoms is absurd.  Conscious-awareness is not brought into existence by specific arrangement of matter, in a metaphysical sense, any more than it is brought into existence by a configuration of stars, a holy rite, or a witch's incantation - a lock of hair, toads legs, and a pinch of bat wings.  The potential for conscious-awareness is woven into the fabric of the universe.  By way of analogy, an electrical circuit does not create electrical conductivity, it simply utilizes it. 

To put our argument into computer science parlance, an application cannot use functionality that is not already embedded within the chip.  Functionality (consciousness) does not come from an application, but from within the computer hardware, itself (the physics of the universe).  An application uses existing functionality, it does not create it.  How could it be otherwise?  The brain, returning to the analogy of a musical instrument, is a structure which organizes the movement of particles, utilizing cause and effect relationships to trigger the activation of conscious states.

When we strum a guitar producing a vibration / sound wave, the vibration was not created, ex nihilo.  Strumming is the immediate cause of the vibration.  But, it is more accurate to say that the vibration is "caused" by underlying physics of the universe, by laws describing how atoms interact with each other.  Whereas, the "frequency of the vibration" is a function of the design of the musical instrument.  Thus, we see that conscious states are initiated by neural activity, but are created according to the laws of physics, and shaped by brain structure. 

In review, strumming the guitar initiates a cause and effect relationship, resulting in vibration.  But what is it that connects the immediate cause with the vibration?  It is the structure of the universe.  In this way, the universe is much like a giant computer, in which the computer hardware ties cause to effect. 

The Origin of Subjective States

For the sake of our discussion, let us imagine that the universe is a giant computer chip, carrying out calculations at each point in 3-dimensional space in parallel.  If so, we may ask, what would a computer chip "capable of higher order awareness of its basic states" look like?  That is, how would you design such a chip?  It is task that requires only a rudimentary understanding of circuit design. 

We may start by creating a computer circuit with three layers, like a cake with three layers.  The primary layer may be thought of your RAM.  It will be used to store data, in this case a 2-dimensional model of the world.  (We will use a 2-D model of the world, rather than a 3-D model, because it is easier to visualize.)  If we were able to look at the primary data layer, it would look like a drawing on a piece of paper, made of ones and zeroes. 

Below the primary / data storage layer would be a secondary layer designed to move the objects in the 2-dimensional world, a "physics engine."  Many popular video games use a software based physics-engine to simulate real-world gravity, inertia, etc.  An alternate approach is to embed the physics-engine within the chip's hardware.  Gravitational attraction, for instance may be translated into a basic operation within the hardware, itself.  In this way, the physics layer moves the objects in the primary data layer into proper position - fairly straight forward, at least in principle. 

If we look more closely at computer RAM, it may be noted that we see a similar two-layer architecture.  RAM does not simply store data, it needs a secondary layer of circuitry to constantly refresh the data at each memory location (which is why when you turn your computer off your memory is lost) and to read and write data. 

Finally, we could add a third layer, a layer of detectors to monitor and respond to activity within the data storage layer.  On a computer chip, detectors are activated when a threshold is reached, a voltage for instance.  Instead of using a traditional layer of detectors, we could use a layer of light emitting diodes.  When activated, the detectors/diodes emit light (e.g. red, blue, or yellow).

This analogy demonstrates how activity on the data layer may activate higher order states.  That is, it illustrates how the activity of particles (data) may, at least theoretically, trigger the production of subjective events - thus, reminding us of what happens in the human brain.  In the human brain, neurons are activated in a specific way, activating higher level awareness.  The sensation of the color green, is but one example.  Here it is important to emphasize that higher order states are subjective in the sense that they are not observable at the data layer, but that they are in fact objective states.  They are objective properties, emanating from the underlying circuitry of the universe. 

In summary, because we cannot see the underlying machinery of the mechanical universe, nor do we see a mechanism for the creation of sensation/awareness (we don't see an analog to light emitting diodes), it is necessary postulate two additional layers/mechanisms to account for the world that we observe.  What would look this look like if we were to build it on a circuit board with three layers?  The primary layer would be responsible for the storage of data, the position of various kinds of particles.  This is the external world that we see around us.  The secondary layer would be responsible for the physics.  And the third layer would be composed of detectors which would be activated by states in the data storage layer.  It is a view of a mechanistic universe, which has been extended to include both the underlying mechanisms of physics and the underlying mechanisms of consciousness.  Whether we are talking about electromagnetic attraction or the activation of the color green, there are underlying mechanisms.  Because we cannot expect to observe these additional layers any more than a piece of software can expect to observe the computer hardware on which it resides, the existence of these other layers and processes must be inferred.  While cannot observe the underlying structures of the universe, we can model them and test our models for predictive power. 

The Role of Consciousness

Circuit designers use detectors to monitor activity or to create complicated feedback loops, capable of performing sophisticated operations and providing incredible processing power and adaptability.  This suggests that the detector layer could play an important role in cognitive processing, and could provide insight into how objective and subjective states interact, that is, into the deeper structures of the universe. 

There is no reason why we should be surprised to see the evolutionary development of feedback loops between the data layer and the detector layer, and this model is consistent with our observations about the interplay of subjective and objective states - subjective states appear to influence physical states / human physiology.  Furthermore, if the brain is able to take advantage of feedback loops between the primary layer and the detector layer, it could be used to provide important command and control functions. 

The brain gathers and integrates data from different sources to create a 3-D image of the world, represented in terms of subjective states.  Clearly, the representation of the world in terms of subjective states is not an accidental byproduct of cognitive processing, but the final culmination of the data integration process.  A process which must precede the decision making process.  Without the generation of a 3-D model of the world, described in terms of subjective states, it is not clear how we could thread a needle.  Stop for a moment and move your hands as if you were threading a needle.  Are not the data integration process and the representation of sensory data in terms of 3-dimensional subjective experience essential to this task?

Of course, it may be argued that traditional cognitive processing is able to account for the brains full computational output and that subjective states do not truly influence cognitive states.  "What we really are seeing is that cognitive states, which produce subjective states, influence other physiological states."  But conversely, if cognitive processes are unable to intelligibly account for the data integration processes or for the brain's full computation output, then we may be able to infer and, moreover, to model feedback loops on the detector layer.

The starting assumption in cognitive science is that the brain is a computer (or more generally, that we live in a purely physical world), and it is hardly surprising that cognitive scientists reject the traditional notion of mind or soul.  Yet, a computer circuit provides a new conceptual model, clearly demonstrating that is it is possible understand the material world, the underlying mechanisms of physics, and subjective states, as different parts of an interconnected machine.  This perspective incorporates subjective experience within a greater whole, providing a plausible account of human consciousness and cognition, which is, at this point in time, unmatched by competing theories.