The first article of this series described consciousness as the capacity to have an inner experience based on sensations and feelings, what philosophers call qualia, and highlighted the characteristics of the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual qualia. The second article explored the basic properties of qualia, perception, and comprehension that allow us to experience life and get meaning and purpose out of conscious living. This article will make the case for consciousness being a fundamental property of nature. I will argue for a new interpretation of the core assumptions of physics with the potential of reconciling the existence of consciousness from the beginning of time.
Before leaving the subject discussed in the previous article, I would like to consider the relationship between knowing and meaning. Knowing was defined as the process that constantly increases comprehension by the integration of new understandings to the previous comprehension. But what does it mean to know?
To know is to get the meaning of what is known. We know through mental pictures (qualia) that carry the meaning. The meaning is strictly subjective and private. It cannot be known by any other person than its owner. For someone else to know that meaning, it must be conveyed with symbols that can be understood by the recipient. Examples of symbols are: spoken words, gestures, pictures, or physical models. Symbols that are already understood by both sender and receiver can be communicated nearly automatically and can be recognized without conscious intervention. The problem arises when there is a new meaning for which no symbol or combination of symbols was ever before created. It is here that the capacity of consciousness to both create and understand new symbols in the context of its previous comprehension is fundamental. It takes intuition to understand the new meaning and create a new symbol, and again, intuition is necessary for the receiver of a new symbol to understand its meaning.
The translation of a new meaning into symbols, like a new idea or an invention, is neither automatic nor immediate, and may also require the intervention of conscious reasoning. Reasoning utilizes existing mental symbols through which meaning and symbolic representation can be honed via logical and analogical thinking. Once perfected, the meaning can be communicated more precisely. This process can work only if the new meaning is within the reach of the comprehension of the receiver, in which case the new symbol functions like a “mental enzyme,” by lowering the barrier to understanding of another person. Nonetheless, the residual barrier still requires intuition to be crossed. After the new understanding has occurred, similar symbols can be recognized automatically without requiring consciousness, just like what happens with artificial neural networks trained with many examples. In the human case, however, only one presentation of the new symbol may be sufficient to learn the brand new meaning and later recognize all similar symbols.
Artificial neural networks can only discover the statistical correlations that must already exist in a large number of training examples to learn something new. This learning constitutes a blind kind of “knowing” because it involves no conscious understanding. Computers can only translate a symbol, or a class of symbols, into another symbol. They perform a typical transduction, not a conscious understanding (cognition) followed by a re-cognition like we do. Meaning does not exist for computers; it is a fundamental property of consciousness that requires a certain amount of intuition.
The case for consciousness being fundamental
Physics assumes the existence of matter, energy, space, and time (MEST) with certain properties and seeks to derive all other observable properties by using a mathematical theory based on relationships between those fundamental properties. These relationships define the basic laws of physics that are held to be universally valid and immutable. The soundness of this approach is predicated on the experimentally verifiable predictions made by the theory when applied to any phenomenon. The basic assumptions, however, are considered true without proof.
And herein lies a problem, because the existence of our conscious inner reality is impossible to explain with the current “matter-first” theories. Consciousness cannot arise from matter devoid of it any more than electricity and magnetism could emerge from elementary particles devoid of electrical charge and magnetic spin. The current “scientific” explanation that consciousness arises from complex organizations of unconscious matter is completely inadequate because complexity has nothing to do with consciousness. The only reasonable possibility to make progress is to postulate that consciousness is an irreducible property of nature.
If the assumption that consciousness is fundamental could lead to making falsifiable predictions that could be experimentally verified, it would have enormous impact on our worldview and on the future of humanity. It is too early to know if this approach is sound, but we must insist on this line of inquiry, given the impossibility of explaining the phenomenon of consciousness in any other way. The payoff will be a new model of reality describing a meaningful universe instead of the current worldview in which meaning is totally absent.
The physical world is holistic
Classical physics (CP) started by studying celestial bodies and the macroscopic objects of our ordinary experience. In this case, just like in the case of machines made of parts that can be taken apart, materialism and reductionism work very well to describe their behaviors. Yet, the fact that the operation of our machines can be described by the reductive and deterministic laws of classical physics cannot be used as evidence that reality itself is a machine made of separable parts. In fact, elementary particles cannot be described with deterministic laws, requiring instead the probabilistic laws of quantum theory.
In a machine, we carefully design each macroscopic part so that its unwanted interactions with the environment are reduced to insignificance, but this is valid only regarding the function the machine is designed to perform. There are many other strong interactions between parts and environment that, without hampering the function, may substantially reduce its efficiency. These “parasitic” interactions represent the extent of the real but functionally unimportant connections of the parts with the whole. In practice, machines work as designed only in relatively narrow ranges of environmental conditions (temperature, pressure, and so on) because the parasitic interactions cannot be eliminated and can indeed stop the machine from working if it is run outside its operational range.
Quantum field theory (QFT) is the best theory we have. It describes physical reality as arising from the interactions of 17 fundamental quantum fields forming an undivided wholeness. The world described by QFT is indeed holistic because the fields that compose the whole have no boundaries and cannot be taken apart from the whole. Reductionism, the idea that separable parts like classical particles exist, provides a simpler model of how reality works. However, reductionism excludes a priori the existence of holistic properties such as consciousness and has been superseded by QFT.
According to QFT, elementary particles like electrons, for example, do not exist as objects. Electrons are, instead, states of the quantum field of electrons, inseparable from the field like a wave is inseparable from the ocean in which it waves. Therefore, the quantum fields are the ontological entities, not the particles. The idea of a tiny, hard, bounded, and separable particle belongs to Newtonian physics, also known as classical physics, which is valid only as an approximation. Within QFT, elementary particles, atoms, molecules, proteins, living cells, etcetera comprise successive hierarchical levels of organizations of states that belong to the quantum fields. These fields are irreducible and inseparable from spacetime which is shared by all of them. By interacting with each other, the quantum fields create everything that exists in the physical world. In our universe, everything is interconnected, even if faintly.
Although QFT provides strong evidence that reality is an undivided wholeness, most molecular biologists still cling to the classical worldview when studying living organisms. They claim that QFT is true only for elementary particles, atoms, and molecules, but we exist in a world that is explained quite well by CP, in which the weirdness of quantum physics can be accounted by semi-classical reductionist laws. Therefore, the reality of living organism is ipso facto declared to be classical. This view is deceiving, especially when we wish to understand intelligence and consciousness which are overall system properties rather than local ones.
Holism means that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. Moreover, in a holistic system there are no separable parts, therefore the concept of part must be replaced with a new concept: a part-whole, something that cannot be separated from the whole—thus sharing the properties of the whole—and yet must have some unique and enduring attributes that can distinguish it from the other parts-whole. This is certainly the case with QFT because each quantum field is a part-whole with special properties that uniquely identifies it. All the fields share spacetime, which represent what they all have in common, their shared wholeness.
When a holistic system is reduced to the sum of its seeming parts, perhaps because that is all that can be mathematically handled, we may be throwing away the “baby” with the bath water. The baby in this case is what joins all the parts together, the inner reality that consciousness represents. Having rejected inner reality, the invisible holistic “glue” that connects all from the inside, we can only describe the outer aspects of reality by the interplay of its apparent forms. In so doing we have erased the essential and irreducible union of our inner reality with the infinite nature of reality that behind the scenes plays a fundamental role in quantum physics and in living systems alike.
Consciousness is a property of the fields
I think that consciousness is a fundamental property of the quantum fields not yet acknowledged by physics. What I mean is that each quantum field is a conscious entity, with an inner reality and free will, communicating with the other conscious quantum fields. The elementary particles we observe are then simply the outer evidence of communications between fields. Through these communications, conscious entities also produce combinations of themselves, which are fields of fields, new conscious entities that appear symbolically as combinations of particles, what we call atoms, molecules, and so on. In other words, the fields, of which physics considers only their outer symbolic aspects, have also an inner semantic reality represented by their individual consciousness and free will.
Consciousness does not exist in the particles, atoms, or molecules, but in the fields and the fields of fields of which particles, atoms, and molecules are states. Thus, the fields are conscious, not the states. According to physics, the classical properties of an object we observe are averages of the quantum properties of the huge number of individual states, states of states, and so on that form the object. Though the individual particles behave probabilistically, their averaged behaviors appear to us as deterministic classical properties.
The situation changes dramatically when we consider living organisms. Here the individual quantum properties of particles, atoms, and molecules are important for the overall functioning of the living cells. Cells are quantum-classical systems, not classical system as we have been told. Their essential interdependence with the environment is another clue that they have not lost their individual connection with the wholeness of the quantum fields, that’s why I think living cells are conscious, though their consciousness is likely very different from our own. It takes trillions of intimately organized living cells to form a complex body, and that structure is organized by explicit use of quantum properties to a level unlike any machine we have ever created. I will return to this crucial subject in a later article when comparing living organisms with computers.