Eleven years ago, I posted a philosophical problem, which
I called “The House of Pleasure,” on various online forums, such as this. (The complete problem is copied at the end of
this post.) I posted this long before my
foray into the philosophy of physics and consciousness, beginning in 2018, and
I just realized how incredibly insightful it was, particularly regarding my
recent innovations and realizations about the impossibility
of physical reversibility (also here
Physically reversible systems can only be made so large –
and that threshold is significantly smaller than a cat, Wigner’s Friend, or any
reasonably useful quantum
computer. (That de facto
threshold is what renders impossible the scalability
of quantum computing.)
Essentially, the House of Pleasure (“HOP”) problem asks
what you would consciously experience if, after a four-hour intensely
pleasurable event, your brain and body are returned to their exact physical
state just prior to the event. I
realized, correctly, that you would not consciously experience the event at
all; you would consciously experience “skipping over” the event as if it hadn’t
happened. Therefore, if you did
consciously experience the event, you could be certain that your brain/body
would not later be returned to their physical state prior to the event.
As it turns out, this insight parallels the actual
reasoning for why macroscopic physical systems are irreversible. For instance:
In a system (that has evolved from state Ψ(t1)
to Ψ(t2)) that is time reversed back to state Ψ(t1),
there remains no physical evidence of the existence of the system in state Ψ(t2);
thus from a scientific standpoint, the system never evolved to state Ψ(t2)
in the first place.
Time does not pass/progress in a system that ostensibly
evolves Ψ(t1)à Ψ(t2)à Ψ(t1). Any and every internal clock of the system
(including, but not limited to, radioactive decay, entropy increases, quantum
collapse events, the ticking of an actual clock, etc.), when the system is in
state Ψ(t1), states the time as t1, even if external
observers would disagree.
A conscious measurement by Wigner’s Friend is
impossible as a logical contradiction.
(I’ve argued that in lots of papers and posts,
Physical Review Letters paper makes an incredibly similar point.)
In other words, by the time an event has been consciously
experienced, it is already too late to turn back time and return your physical
state to an earlier state. I’ve argued
that irreversibility happens long before conscious awareness – and therefore
does not cause collapse of the wave function – but one’s conscious
awareness of an event is sufficient evidence that the possibility of
reversibility has been foreclosed.
Having said that, I’ll analyze the original HOP problem
and point out an error. First, the
intent of the thought experiment was to give a logical argument for the
existence of an afterlife
(specifically, eternal consciousness).
When you leave after four
hours, your brain will be scanned again.
It will be returned to the exact physical state it started in when you
first entered. In other words, your
memory of the experience will be completely erased.
It’s true that returning your brain/body to their exact
physical states prior to entering HOP implies a complete and permanent erase of
memories; however, the converse (that a complete and permanent erase of
memories implies returning your brain/body to their exact physical states prior
to entering HOP) is not necessarily true.
I correctly concluded that my conscious experience of HOP
precludes the possibility of my brain/body being returned to their exact
physical states prior to HOP. (My
“problematic” intuition that my “perception of the experience depends on what
happens afterward” is not actually problematic; it simply indicates the
impossibility of physical reversibility after my conscious observation of
HOP.) However, the argument (as presented)
did not properly conclude that my conscious experience of HOP precludes the
possibility of complete and permanent memory erasure. If it did, then the following argument and
conclusion would have been correct:
If my memory of a time period
will be permanently erased immediately after that time period, then my stream
of consciousness skips over that time period…
…implies that if I am
consciously aware right now (I am), then my stream of consciousness is not
skipping over this time period, and my memory of this time period will not be
immediately permanently erased…
…seems to imply eternal
There is a correspondence between the history dependence
inherent in physical state evolutions (that prevents physical reversibility)
and the history dependence of conscious state evolutions. In this post
post (among others), I discuss the history dependence of conscious states,
which implies that a person cannot re-experience an earlier conscious
state. (I came to a related conclusion –
that special relativity requires that conscious states cannot be physically
copied or created de novo – in this
paper.) Therefore, not only does my
experience of HOP preclude the possibility of returning my body/brain to an
earlier physical state, it also precludes the possibility of my
returning to an earlier conscious state.
A couple of questions then arise:
Is there a way to permanently and completely
erase one’s memories of an event without returning the person’s body/brain to
their exact physical state prior to the event (which is impossible)? Without returning the person to their exact
conscious state prior to the event (which is likewise impossible)?
Why the fixation on memories? I used the HOP example because it’s so hard
to imagine having an otherwise very memorable and intense 4-hour orgasm and
then to immediately and permanently forget it.
But maybe the memory created by a conscious experience need not be the
kind of explicit visualization we often associate with a memory (like
envisioning the faces of the people who yelled “Surprise!” on your birthday),
but rather something that affects future conscious experiences. This notion is much more consistent with my insight
that conscious states are history dependent (and embed their own history).
Imagine that my first conscious state was C1. Whatever existed before that… let’s call it C0,
which is certainly a state of no consciousness.
If it’s impossible to return to an earlier conscious state, then it’s
impossible for me to return to state C1. But what about C0? And wouldn’t any state of no consciousness be
identical to C0? In some
ways, I think this is just another way of saying that it’s impossible for me to
(consciously) experience a state of unconsciousness, which seems both obvious
and circular. On the other hand, this
may underscore the deeper insight that a conscious perception cannot
subjectively end because there is no time at which that end is subjectively
That begs a deeper conundrum about the nature of
“now”: what is now, why is it now, and by whose observation?
“The House of Pleasure”
It’s a Saturday night and a guy is walking to a party. On the way, he notices something he hasn’t
seen before: a neon sign obnoxiously blinking “The House of Pleasure.” Intrigued, he approaches the doorman.
“That’ll be $100, sir.”
crazy! What is this place?”
“Oh,” the doorman says with a glimmer in his eye, “you’ve
never been to The House of Pleasure? Let
me explain. After you pay me and walk
in, your brain will be scanned to identify everything that you subjectively
enjoy: physically, sexually, emotionally, and intellectually. You’ll then spend the next four hours
experiencing pure, untainted pleasure based on your personal desires. Whatever you enjoy most about life, you will
experience intensely and without interruption for four hours. Think of it as a four-hour spiritual orgasm.”
“However,” the doorman warned, “there’s a catch. When you leave after four hours, your brain
will be scanned again. It will be
returned to the exact physical state it started in when you first entered. In other words, your memory of the experience
will be completely erased. Also, your
body will be returned to its original state, so any feelings of physical
euphoria will likewise be eliminated.”
Should the man enter The House of Pleasure? Assuming he could have spent the evening at a
party where he would have formed lasting memories, there is both a time and a
memory cost to the HOP. Further, does
the entrance fee affect whether or not the man should enter?
My take on it is this.
If he enters HOP, his stream of consciousness experiences walking
through the entrance and then immediately walking out the exit, four hours
later. In essence, his consciousness
perceives nothing; it’s as if no time has passed. He walks in and then out feeling exactly the
same way, as if it never happened, except that he is out $100 and four hours’
But my intuition, if correct, is problematic, because his
perception of the experience depends on what happens afterward. That his stream of consciousness seems to
skip over the time at HOP depends on an event (the erasure of his memories)
that occurs after leaving HOP.
My intuition further seems to imply the following oddity: If
my memory of a time period will be permanently erased immediately after that
time period, then my stream of consciousness skips over that time period. Equivalently (contrapositive), if my stream
of consciousness does not skip over a time period, then my memory of that time
period will not be permanently erased immediately after that time period.
The above statement is strange in part because it implies
that if I am consciously aware right now (I am), then my stream of
consciousness is not skipping over this time period, and my memory of this time
period will not be immediately permanently erased. But, if true, I can never reach the moment
just before my conscious death, because that conscious moment just before my
conscious death requires that that final glimpse of consciousness not be
immediately permanently erased. In other
words, my intuition regarding the House of Pleasure seems to imply eternal