// +Mark Bruce's original thread has a fascinating discussion, and I'm really sorry I haven't participated more. I have so much to say... 

I basically agree with +Linas Vepstas's  characterization of consciousness as:

> Unless I am severely mistaken, the Tegmark definition would ascribe 'consciousness' to any system that is relatively isolated from the outside world, yet is able to perceive the outside world and build an operational model of some part of it.

// Just to complete the view, "self-consciousness" would be any system that has an operational model of itself, in the same way it models other parts of the world. Not particularly special, but human beings have an overdeveloped neural architecture for handling selves so we think it's pretty important. 

In any case, the trick with Tegmark's view is the weasel-word "relatively" in the definition above. The core of the problem is a tension between the principle of integration and of independence.

But before I talk about that, I want to criticize a methodological failing in Tegmark's view, which is this: consciousness is not the only example of an emergent system, and in fact it is pretty significantly different from the simple "state of matter" example given in this lecture. I would like to see this analysis (of emergent integration/independence) applied to other emergent systems where we have a better handle on the science; specifically, I'd like to see this analysis applied to the emergent pattern of life. On first pass there's a lot of ways in which the theory breaks down with respect to a living system. For one thing, parts of living organisms might be relatively disconnected (in both space and time) from other parts; in other words, integration isn't always so obvious, if it exists at all. And second, living systems are porous: a cell is 'relatively' independent of the environment, but there is no separating the organism from its environment. The life of the cell occurs in its exchange with its environment, not merely in the integration and independence of it's parts. The two are necessarily understood in terms of one another, but on Tegmark's view the environment drops out entirely. I take this to be a small part of +Boris Borcic's concern. 

I suspect I need to know more math to analyze Tegmark's view in detail, but this is precisely the problem of consciousness, and as far as I can tell that he fails to address it, much less resolve it. If consciousness were a cell, Tegmark's view is that consciousness is the pattern of relationships between the cell's scattered parts. Okay... but which parts? Everything inside and including the membrane, but that's a fuzzy border; but how the cell behaves has a hell of a lot to do with its surroundings. For that matter, there may be a lot of junk within the cell that is actively hostile and that the cell is actively trying to remove. Does that hostile component get included in the integration of parts? Why or why not? In general, how do we decide which parts (at which scales) must be integrated for the system to count as alive/conscious/whatever? Surely the answer to this question will decide how independent and well-integrated we take the system to be. 

The pattern of integration matters, no doubt; but in philosophy this idea is at least as old as Kant, and probably traces through Hume even farther back. This claim isn't a breakthrough, or even very original. I'm with Tegmark to the extent that I believe the potential for breakthrough does lie in the mathematics of complexity and information theory, but Tegmark's conceptual reconstruction of the problem isn't up to the task and rather weak philosophically. I mean he's right about patterns and materialism but we already knew that

So let me try to help: consciousness isn't a state of matter, like a solid or a liquid. Consciousness is a liminal phenomenon: it is the bleeding edge of a continuous process of neural/mental activity. Your body and brain are in an incredible variety of states at many different scales, and among other things your brain is attempting to integrate these states into a coherent and persistent whole. Your experience of consciousness is not the experience of being in any particular state; your experiences are of your ongoing, active attempts at integration. Consciousness is your experience of moving through the space of mental states; it is a ripple in the field. The movement of the ripple matters more than it's internal structure; since we're talking about emergent phenomena it should be obvious that the pattern of integration isn't the whole story.

Consider again the analogy to the cell: life is the ongoing process that keeps that cell metabolically active given a continuously changing environment. Life isn't simply about standing in some particular pattern of integration among components, because those patterns can vary quite dramatically depending on what the environment will support. For example: an ant might wander arbitrarily far from its colony, and yet both it and the colony can continue being alive despite arbitrarily low (up to zero) interaction between it and the rest of the colony. Life is an emergent phenomena, but these systems count as alive despite their lack of ongoing integration. Maybe the single ant won't live long, but it's life does continue despite the failure to integrate. So we're not just looking for a fact of integration, we're looking for a pattern of developing integration over time. 

Life just is that process of continued integration in response to a changing environment. If we're skeptical about the consciousness of the driverless cars, it's because we're skeptical of the tightness with which it integrates with it's environment-- does it know what we know about where things are, what the rules and conventions are, and what the norms/ethics/etc are about the environments in which it acts? If not, then it's mentally closed off from the very things we think are important about the world: we judge it to not be conscious, at least of the things we care about. 

This, I think, is the kernel of truth in Boris' worry that consciousness is fundamentally social: consciousness exists in our actions and reactions in a world where there are other actors and reactors. My conceptualizing myself as a self in the thoroughly modern way that I do is a product not just of my raw experience; it is mediated by my education and social environment. When I'm alone, I still carry around that cultural baggage along with me; and we know children raised feral never develop anything near the kind of reflexive self-understanding of even a socialized child. So I do think we can defend the claim at least that consciousness would be radically different absent a social reality to construct it.

Or more technically (and back to Kant): our conscious experience is structured around our intuitions of space and time; and social spaces are real spaces that we can see and react to as powerfully as gravity. Our social spaces literally distort our perceptions of the world, like a lensing effect. So if space and time constitute our fundamental understanding of the structure of the world, then the structure of the world is fundamentally social. I don't think this amounts to panpsychism because I don't think all emergent phenomena are conscious. But I do think they are all locked in a cooperative dance; in other words, I think our perception of a fundamentally social reality is more or less accurate. 
Might it be that we already have all of the ingredients we need to solve the problem?

I've been a Max Tegmark fan pretty much since the first talk I saw him give. I especially enjoyed this very recent, short, succinct exposition on the hard problem of consciousness - the mechanism of subjective awareness - that Max gave as part of a TEDx event. Consciousness is what it feels like for information to be processed in a certain way, and Consciousness is another state of matter, and There is nothing particularly special about consciousness are all statements that - individually - may be swiftly dismissed by some. But if you allow Max to add some meat to these concepts and weave a descriptive narrative to link them together you might very well find his thesis compelling. I certainly do, and have been pursuing similar lines of thought for some years now. 

I originally came across this talk on Google+ but can't remember who originally shared it to my stream, having saved it to "Watch Later" a week or two ago. Whoever it was: thank you :)

For anyone interested in adding to their "Watch Later" list, I've dug up another of Max's talks from a couple of years ago that I also found particularly interesting: Max Tegmark on "The Future of Life: a Cosmic Perspective" at Singularity Summit 2011 

#consciousness   #hardproblem   #perceptronium  
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