The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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

 Tripartite Idealism

The US physicist Henry Stapp elaborated on ideas already advanced in previous decades by John Von Neumann and Eugene Wigner that, basically, consciousness creates reality.

Stapp’s theory of consciousness is grounded in Heisenberg's interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, that reality is a sequence of collapses of wave functions, i.e. of quantum discontinuities. Of all interpretations of Quantum Theory, this is also the closest to William James's view of the mental life as "experienced sense objects".

Stapp’s view harks back to the heydays of Quantum Theory, when it was clear to its founders that "science is what we know". Science specifies rules that connect bits of knowledge. Each of us is a "knower" and our joint knowledge of the universe is the subject of Science. Quantum Theory is therefore a "knowledge-based" discipline. This view was "pragmatic" because it prescribed how to perform experiments, and it separated the system to be observed from the observer and from the instrument.

Von Neumann introduced an "ontological" approach to this knowledge-based discipline, which brought the observer and the instrument into the state of the system. Stapp describes Von Neumann's view of Quantum Theory through a simple definition: "the state of the universe is an objective compendium of subjective knowings". This statement describes the fact that the state of the universe is represented by a wave function which is a compendium of all the wave functions that each of us can cause to collapse with our observations. That is why it is a collection of subjective acts, although an objective one.

Stapp basically achieves a new form of idealism: all that exists is that subjective knowledge. Therefore the universe is not about matter: it is about subjective experience. Quantum Theory does not talk about matter, it talks about our act of perceiving matter. Stapp rediscovers George Berkeley's idealism: we only know our perceptions (observations).

Stapp's model of consciousness is tripartite. Reality is a sequence of discrete events in the brain. Each event translates into an increase of knowledge. That knowledge comes from observing "systems". Each event is driven by three processes that operate together:

·   The "Schroedinger process" is a mechanical, deterministic, process that predicts the state of the system in a fashion similar to Newton's Physics: given its state at a given time, we can use equations to calculate its state at a different time. The only difference is that Schroedinger's equations describe the state of a system as a set of possibilities, whereas Newton’s equations described it as just one certainty.

·   The "Heisenberg process" is a conscious choice that we make when we decide to perform an observation. The formalism of Quantum Theory implies that we can know something only when we ask Nature a question. This implies, in turn, that we have a degree of control over Nature. Depending on which question we ask or not ask, we can affect the state of the universe. Stapp mentions the “Zeno effect” as a well known process in which we can alter the course of the universe by asking questions (it is the phenomenon by which a system is "frozen" if we keep observing the same observable very rapidly). We have to make a conscious decision about which question to ask Nature (which observable to observe). Otherwise nothing is going to “happen”.

·   The "Dirac process" gives the answer to our question. Nature replies with an “observed” quantity, and, as far as we can tell, the answer is totally random. Once Nature has replied, we have learned something: we have increased our knowledge. This is a change in the state of the universe, which directly corresponds to a change in the state of our brain. Technically, there occurs a reduction of the wave function compatible with the fact that has been learned.

Stapp's interpretation of Quantum Theory is that there are many knowers. Each knower's act of knowledge (each individual increment of knowledge) results in a new state of the universe. One person's increment of knowledge changes the state of the entire universe, and, of course, it changes it for everybody else too.

Quantum Theory is not about the behavior of matter, but about our knowledge of such behavior.

"Thinking" is a sequence of events of knowing, driven by those three processes.

Instead of dualism or materialism, one is faced with a sort of interactive "trialism", all aspects of which are actually mind-like. First, the physical aspect of Nature (the Schroedinger equation) is a compendium of subjective knowledge. Second, the conscious act of asking a question is what drives the actual transition from one state to another, i.e. the evolution of the universe. And, finally, there is a choice made from the outside, the reply of Nature, which, as far as we can tell, is random.

Stapp revives idealism by showing that Quantum Theory is about knowledge, not matter. The universe is a repository of knowledge, that we have access to and upon which our consciousness has control.

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