February 27, 2005

Enlightening as a Rock

I thoroughly enjoyed Winston’s talk, “Every Body is a Zombie”, this past Friday. As I understood him, Winston was trying to push against functionalism, using some argument from Putnam about functionalism entailing rocks are conscious. The basic idea had something to do with the "fact" (I put quotes because I find it an incredible claim but am in no position to challenge it) that for every possible function, there is some interpretation under which the random (or ordered) movement of molecules within a liquid or the brownian motion of stuff in a rock, or maybe the subatomic particles (I don't really know) will generate that functional state. Or something like that (I am not sure the proper way to describe it). So if consciousness is just a matter of computing functions, then the universe is replete with consciousness. There are minds (under some interpretations) inside the rocks and just about everything else.

I want to look more at this view because I don't buy it as a serious challenge to functionalism. But that strikes me as a straightforward scientific claim that I could investigate. Here are some challenges to the view that came up in the discussion. First, it isn't clear that the level of complexity for the functions that would characterize our consciousness (if there be such functions) is going to be present everywhere as is hypothesized. Second, there is this phrase 'under some interpretation' which might be smuggling in the result. The interpretation would likely have to be many, many orders of magnitude more complex than the actual system that is being interpreted, in order to get it to the function we want. Now, here it seems to me that the "consciousness" is being smuggled in through the interpretation. Now, I don't know how strong of an objection this is, but my intuition is that we have to tell some story about what it means to give an interpretation, where interpretations come from, who is doing the interpreting. I suspect these are incredibly serious question with big implications.

And that is why I am writing about this. I think this might be an important piece of the puzzle of my own view. I think there is a noumenal world out there that is a mind-independent material sort of thing (where ‘material’ is a more inclusive word so that it incorporates things like energy and fields and maybe some other stuff having to do with physics), but the noumena is nothing like the mind-independent world of "common sense". There is also this phenomenal world that is mind dependent and that is the world we "inhabit". Everything in the phenomenal world supervenes upon the noumena and that is why it seems so objective and mind independent. The noumenal world acts as some sort of external constraint that infuses our phenomenal worlds with a certain amount of objectivity. But the phenomenal worlds are really nothing like the noumena. The noumenal has nothing like time, movement, change, causation, etc. It is an Nth dimensional static object. All of that stuff is supplied by our consciousness, something about the way we order our experience of the noumena (can anyone say Kant?).

But of course, this is a crazy metaphysics and there are all kinds of problems. I want to claim that the phenomenal world is real, but I haven't a clue exactly what I mean by 'real'. In a sense, I want phenomena to have metaphysical substance but I don't want to be any kind of crazy dualist. My allegiance is solidly to naturalism. (I am afraid I might have to bring about some sort of phenomenal revolution to naturalism in order to make my crazy metaphysics work, because I won't give up the flag.) Anyway, I am left with all kinds of problems relating to the metaphysics of phenomena.

But there are other problems relating to explaining how phenomena arise out of the noumena. I have thought a lot about this question but haven't come up with anything I can articulate (though my head is teaming with a blooming buzzing confusion with just the right tenor to make me think there is a solution in there somewhere--if only I can find it). A couple of weeks ago I was talking to Richard and he sort of pressed me on this issue of how phenomena are "part" of my Nth Dimensonal static universe that isn't itself differentiated into parts.

But (boy I like starting paragraphs with that word) I am now wondering if Winston hasn't pointed me in the direction of a solution. Let's imagine for a minute that rocks are conscious. That is not to say that rocks are living, thinking things with their own thoughts and desires. It isn't like the rock is an organism or self aware. What is going on is that somewhere down in the substructure of the rock there is some configuration of molecules or particles or something that constitutes a mind. What is going on in that mind is dependent upon that configuration (or more likely, upon the interpretation I suspect). But the rock is full of consciousness. And who is to say what that consciousness is experiencing? Now let's take the example a step further. Take a suitably large body of water, Lake Titicaca for instance, and consider a single moment of time. You have this mass of water molecules, but no motion or movement. We are frozen in time. I am assuming the argument for conscious rocks can be applied here as well. There must be some interpretation under which the molecules form Jim (Winston's one-dimensional-mind-example-guy). If the body is big enough, then there may also be some interpretation under which we can find our own mind-functions in there (though I am sure for my mind we would need a much larger body of water :). And this might be just the picture I need for my ND static universe.

So we have this object, the universe, that has a particular shape. And within that shape there are patterns, and some of those patterns, under a particular interpretation are the functions of our minds. And that is what consciousness is. So now I just have to figure out the metaphysics of interpretation. I am sure that will be a piece of cake.

Also, I found this cool website with Conway's Life stuff: http://www.radicaleye.com/lifepage

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Blogger Winston said...

Hi Tucker - I realized today that if you push interpretations to the limit, they can do all the work you want, allowing you to interpret even a single particle as an implementation of any computer program. The interpretation need be only as large as the series of program states. I'll try to illustrate this with an example.

Suppose you have some program you want to run on a 1-D cellular automaton, with an initial state S0. Normally, you'd run the CA through state S1, S2, ..., Sn. Each of these states can be represented as a number, by simply taking the CA state and mapping the black cells to 0 and white cells to 1, giving you a binary number like 101110100.

Now, take the position of your vibrating water molecule at any arbirtrary times: p1, p2, ..., pn, so that it is not in the same position for any of these times. Here's where the interpretation does the heavy lifting: map the numbers S1, S2, ..., Sn to the postions p1, p2, ..., pn. Presto! Your water molecule has just "computed" the function that you were looking for -- you just needed an interpretation as big as the size of the program states.

Is it a cheap trick? Of course it is! The interpretation is done completely post-hoc. But what reason do we have to rule it out? That's the hard question. I'm not sure how to answer it. Or does leaving interpretations unrestricted help your program?

3/01/2005 01:35:00 AM  
Blogger Ang said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

3/06/2005 07:37:00 AM  
Blogger Ang said...


You present a neat way to map the states of a 1D CA to the movements of a single particle. If this is right, not only is every body a zombie, but every (moving) particle is a zombie.

Step 1: convert each CA state to a number. You end up with n numbers, S1...Sn.

Step 2: find a particle which moves through n positions, P1...Pn.

Step 3: assign S1 to P1, ..., Sn to Pn.

From this, we conclude that the particle's motion "computes" your CA.

But wait, you don't actually need to follow the particle for n positions. Suppose you've only got n/2 positions. Concatenate S0 and S1 to get the number S0S1. Concatenate S2 and S3 to S2S3, etc. This gives you half the numbers, with each number representing TWO states of the CA. So, the particle needs only to move through n/2 positions to compute the same CA.

It should be obvious where I'm going. Why not concatenate the *entire* ensemble of CA states into a single huge number, S0S1...Sn, and assign *that* to a non-moving particle. No movement necessary.

Now, if this is right, a universe containing a single particle, never moving, can be said to "compute" a conscious mind. And if you like, represent all the minds in China as CAs and concatenate them into a single number. Assign *that* number to the particle, and you can say that it "computes" all the minds in China.

Alternatively, each particle can be said to compute a (different) zombie in each infinitesimal moment of time. Or, with some more concatenation, each particle at each moment of time can be said to compute a billion zombies.

3/06/2005 07:48:00 AM  

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