The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

Algorithms and Automata

Cybernetics implied a paradigm shift from the world of continuous laws to the world of algorithms. Physical sciences had been founded on equations that were continuous, but Cybernetics could not describe any feedback-based process with one continuous equation. The most natural way to describe such a process was to break it down into the sequence of its constituent steps, one of which refers (“feeds back”) to a previous one.  Every mechanical process could then be interpreted as a sequence of instructions that the machine must carry out. Indirectly, the complex clockwork of a watch is carrying out the sequence of instructions to compute the time. The watch is, in a sense, an automaton that performs an algorithm to compute the time.

The effect of an algorithm is to turn time’s continuum into a sequence of discrete quanta, and, correspondingly, to turn an analog instrument into a digital instrument. A watch, for example, is the digital equivalent of a sundial: the sundial marks the time in a continuous way, the watch advances by seconds.

The digital world (of discrete quantities) differs from the analog world (of continuous quantities) in a fundamental way when it comes to precision. An analog instrument can be precise, and there is no limit to its precision. A digital instrument can only be approximate, its limit being the smallest magnitude it can measure (seconds for a watch, millimeters for a ruler, centigrades for a thermometer, etc.). For the purpose of “recognizing” a measurement, though, a digital reading is often better: while two analog values can be so close that they can be confused, two digital values are unambiguously either identical or different.  In the context of continuous values, it is difficult to decide whether a value of 1.434 and a value of 1.435 should be considered as the same value with a little noise or two different values; whereas in the context of binary values (the binary universe being a special case of digital universe), a value is unambiguously either zero or one. This feature has been known even before compact discs replaced vinyl records (the Morse code was an early application of the concept). An analog instrument will probably never measure a one as a one or a zero as a zero (it will yield measurements that are very close to one or very close to zero), whereas a digital instrument cannot measure anything else than a zero or a one because its scale does not have any other value (e.g., a digital watch cannot measure 0.9 seconds because its scale is in seconds). This limitation often translates into an advantage.

What is implicit in a cybernetic scenario is that the world is driven by algorithms, rather than by continuous physical laws. Similar conclusions were reached in Linguistics (a “generative grammar” is run by an algorithm) and in Cognitive Science (a production system is run by an algorithm).

An algorithm is a deterministic process in the form of a sequence of logical steps.  A computer program simply implements an algorithm. Reducing the laws of nature to algorithms is like reducing nature to a world of automata.


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