Showing posts with label afterlife. Show all posts
Showing posts with label afterlife. Show all posts

Saturday, July 20, 2024

Quelling the Fear of Death

My Mom, who is dying of pancreatic cancer, is at peace with dying, and I both admire and feel inspired by her calm.  Today’s post is my tribute to her bravery. 

Death is all around us on TV, the movies, and the news.  But we don’t seriously contemplate it or talk about it, in part because we’re too busy climbing the ladder and paying the bills and raising kids, and in part because it’s taboo.  We’re not really allowed, socially, to talk seriously about death until we’re directly faced with it, whether through loss of a loved one, a near death experience, or a diagnosis of a terminal illness.  OK, maybe the philosophers get a free pass on this, but for the rest of us, talking too much or too deeply about death is in poor taste.

Luckily, I’m a philosopher, and I don’t much care about having poor taste, but there are lots of other reasons I’ve been thinking deeply about death:

·       Mom. 

·       I’m 47, the perfect time for a midlife crisis.  I am, for the first time, witnessing the decay of my body.  I have significantly less energy and it feels like half of what I do is just to slow down the decay.

·       I am financially independent and no longer need to work to pay the bills.  My wife and I have no children, and I have few responsibilities, allowing me to be in the position that…

·       I think deeply about a variety of interesting problems in philosophy and physics, and one of those problems is, of course, death.

There are lots of reasons that it’s difficult to talk deeply about death, the most obvious of which is that it’s terrifying to many people.  We can see a skull at some historical site in Europe, or a beheading on Game of Thrones, or kids covered in fake blood on Halloween, because these are mere hints of death.  They’re not real, and even if they’re real, they’re not me.  I can imagine someone else’s death without having to imagine my own.

But death is nothing to fear.  Seriously.  OK, maybe there’s some justified anxiety about the unknown, the same a 16th-century European might have felt boarding a ship bound for the New World, leaving his worldly possessions behind and not knowing what to expect in his new life.  But an absolute terror of death is unjustified and I’ll explain why.  I laid out the logic more clearly in a previous post, but essentially it comes down to this.  Either:

a)     There is no afterlife – in other words, your consciousness permanently ceases at death; or

b)     There is an afterlife – in other words, your consciousness does not permanently cease at death.

These are the only two possibilities.  If a) is true, then there is nothing to fear at death because you cannot experience pain or sadness or regret or any other scary emotion if your consciousness has permanently ceased.[1]  But if b) is true, then the afterlife is only something to be feared if it’s a net painful place, like the Christian Fundamentalist notion of Hell.  If it’s not – that is, if the afterlife is not, on net, a painful or pleasurable place – then the afterlife will continue, like life, to consist of a variety of sensations and experiences, some of which will be happy, sad, pleasurable, painful, insightful, boring, confusing, scary, liberating, etc.

I’m more than a little bit skeptical of the Christian Fundamentalist notion of Hell.  In my early college book, At Least in Hell the Christians Won’t Harass Me, I laid out some good evidence, much based on logic and even mathematics, that such a Hell does not and cannot exist.  The same evidence rules out an eternally pleasurable Heaven, of course, leaving the only remaining option that one will experience a wide variety of emotions and sensations, some positive and some negative, in the afterlife.

Hence, I don’t know how I’ll feel or what I’ll experience immediately after death, but I have just as much reason to expect pleasure as pain.[2]  In fact, if I am experiencing chronic pain in this earthly body prior to death, it’s likely that death will bring relief.  Certainly, like a 16th-century explorer traveling to the New World, I’ll be sad about what (and whom) I’ll leave behind, but there is also good reason to be excited about what lies ahead.

Speaking of what I’ll leave behind, it’s important to realize that I don’t own anything, including the body in which I inhabit.  This body, my house, and everything around me will, in the blink of an eye, return to the earth as dust.  They are fleeting and ephemeral.  My wife’s body, the bodies of all my friends and family – they too are decaying and will soon be reabsorbed into the air and soil.  There is no saving them.  The face I see in a mirror will, very soon, look like an old man’s.  And soon I will no longer see out of these eyes at all, nor will I feel with this skin or hear with these ears.  They are not mine and they are not me.  I am my consciousness, my awareness.  I am my experiences and thoughts and memories.  I will continue to have thoughts and experiences and to make memories after this body has perished.  There is no reason to try to save what cannot be saved.  There is no reason to postpone the inevitable for the sake of postponement. 

Unfortunately, the fear of death and our general societal fixation on treating all human life as always worth living lead to cases in which life is irrationally extended even in cases of chronic pain and poor life quality.  Much of the suffering in the world is caused by the belief that any living – no matter what the conditions or how painful – is better than no living.  This belief causes people to increase their pain thresholds to be willing to endure almost anything, but to what end?  More pain, of course.  If people could rid themselves of their fear of death, then I posit there would be less suffering in the world.

Let me offer an analogy.  Imagine you’re at a party.  You’ve had a good time connecting with friends, dancing, whatever, but it’s getting late and you’re tired.  You’re not having fun anymore and it’s becoming positively painful to keep up the effort.  You’d leave, right?

Now imagine there’s a Magic Bus that takes you to every destination and event in your life.  As soon as you leave one event, you get on the bus and it takes you to the next one.  You don’t know what it will be – it could be home to sleep, another party, your niece’s high school graduation, a colonoscopy, your workplace, the DMV, a Nickelback concert, etc. 

Imagine again that you’re at a party.  You’ve had a good time but you’re tired and not having fun anymore.  You know that the Magic Bus is outside waiting to take you to your next (predetermined but unknown) destination.  You’d still leave the party, right?

Of course you would.  Why would you endure pain at Event A just to postpone the possibility of pain at Event B, given that: a) Event B is inevitable; and b) there is no evidence that Event B will be painful?

It’s the same with death.  Death is inevitable and there is no evidence that you’ll have a consciously painful experience after death.  It would be irrational to indulge your fear of the unknown and indefinitely postpone death at the price of, for example, chronic pain.

Having said that, we humans are irrational in many ways.  We often fear pain and loss more than we anticipate an equal amount of pleasure and gain.  For example, let’s say that someone is going to either give you $10 or take $10 from you based on the result of a coin flip.  It’s going to happen right now unless you pay a fee of $1 per hour to postpone it.  Rationally, you know it makes no sense to pay the “postponement fee.”  Now, change these win/loss values to something significant to you – for example, you’ll either win $100,000 or you’ll owe $100,000 – and you will probably be tempted to pay the postponement fee for at least a while.  Tempted or not, you know it’s a bad decision. 

Like my mother, I don’t want to fear death or irrationally extend life, paying a “postponement fee,” to procrastinate moving on to my next destination.  I want to get up in the morning because I am excited about living, not because I am terrified of dying.  I want to be prepared to die and even, ideally, looking forward to it, so that living is a courageous choice, not merely the default.  Life has to be good if it is to be worth living.

Of course, this isn’t an argument to leave the party the very moment you experience pain or discomfort.  Not every moment of a party is fun.  However, there does come a moment when you’re ready to go home, and that’s when it becomes irrational to stick around merely due to the fear of the unknown.

Mom is ready to go home.

[1] This is an awful mistake made by the entertaining but death-obsessed Game of Thrones.  In Season 6, Jon Snow is revived from death by priestess Melisandre.  She asks: “What did you see [in the afterlife]?”  And he replies: “Nothing, there was nothing at all.”  But this is nonsensical.  You cannot experience nothingness.  If there truly was no afterlife, then Jon’s experience, after dying, would have felt like instantaneously awakening upon his revival.  He would not say that the afterlife felt like nothing, because he would not experience the passing of time, or an awareness of nothing, if he was not consciously experiencing anything.

[2] There is actually much more legitimate scientific literature on Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) and Out-of-Body Experiences (OBEs) than I had expected, as in this article and this article.  One surprising observation is that the majority of those who have NDEs not only have a very lucid and positive experience, they also stop fearing death!  This is similar to the experience that some have while taking psychedelic drugs, like LSD or psilocybin, in therapeutic settings.  I talk about my own psychedelic awakening in this video.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

YOLO, Midlife Crisis, and Meaning

Either consciousness is eternal or it’s not.  If it’s not, then there will be a point in time at which the only remaining/lasting legacy of our existence, our decisions and choices, our pleasure and pain, will be nothing more than the distribution of atoms, in one way versus another, throughout a cold, lifeless, quiet universe.  How could that matter?  If there is no one to whom it could matter, then it truly is meaningless.


I am having an existential crisis.  I’m 44, so you might just say that this a midlife crisis, and maybe it is.  Not to minimize a midlife crisis, but I also think I’m in a fundamentally different situation from most people my age.  I am financially independent and don’t have children, so already I have significantly more time than most to wonder about purpose and meaning.  Add to that the fact I’ve spent the last few years thinking deeply about some of the hardest and deepest problems in philosophy and physics. 

It’s very hard to ruminate on deep questions about the universe without also contemplating the nature of existence itself.  For example, I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years contemplating whether the physical world is deterministic or reversible, whether quantum mechanics implies the creation of new information, whether we have free will and how free will might relate to quantum mechanics, whether a conscious state is entirely determined by the physical state within a local volume (like within a skull), whether consciousness can be physically duplicated or instantiated on a computer, and so forth.  It’s hard to do these things nearly full time, without the distractions of children and debt, at an age that many would regard as midlife, without also staring down the barrel of my own mortality.

There are times when I envy my friends who have children and jobs and debt and never-ending to-do lists.  These constant distractions are, in some sense, a luxury that allows people to divert their attention away from the ticking clock.  But I stare at it.  And it’s terrifying, particularly when I mindlessly accept this overarching and pervasive societal message: you have to live meaningfully but you have very limited time in which to do it.  Life matters, but you only have a few years.  That irritating acronym “YOLO” (You Only Live Once) may not come up much in polite conversation anymore, but its message is everywhere.  Change the world.  Leave a legacy.  Do what matters.  And do it now because you’re running out of time. 

No wonder the world is anxious.  I, for one, am experiencing incredible anxiety and insecurity about how I should spend my time.  After all, now that I know my time on Earth is (at best) half over, and that what I’m capable of will likely decay with time, it’s hard not to freak out about how to live most meaningfully in the time I have left.

But the YOLO message is actually a contradiction, and all contradictions are false.  Let’s break the message into Premises 1 and 2:

1)     You have limited time; consciousness permanently ends at death.[1]  (Logically, it could end at some time other than physical death, which wouldn’t affect the following argument.  But most people who believe Premise 1 believe that the human brain is entirely responsible for creating consciousness[2], in which case death of one’s brain would bring about an end to his consciousness.)

2)     What you do matters; how you spend your time matters.

I will argue that these two premises are contradictory.  Either or both are wrong.

Certainly most people want to believe Premise 2; I don’t know anyone who wants to believe that life is pointless.  Many people who believe Premise 1 and want to believe (or do believe) Premise 2 give this line of reasoning: “Sure, the things I do on Earth won’t matter to me after I’m dead, since I won’t exist anymore.  But they still matter to other people, and that’s what gave them meaning while I was alive.” 

In other words: “My life matters because it matters to others.”  This is the notion of legacy that people like to leave, such as through descendants, lasting impacts on the world, and so forth.  The problem is that there’s a circularity to the logic (and circular arguments are not valid).  The life of A has meaning, even after A is dead, because of his impact on B.  But why does B’s life matter?  Well, it matters, of course, because of B’s impact on C.  And C’s life matters because of her impact on D, and so on down the line.  But what if D’s life in fact does not matter?  Then neither can A’s, B’s, or C’s, because their meaning all depended on the meaning of D’s.

If one’s life is only meaningful to the extent of one’s impact on others, and if the lives of those others are only meaningful to the extent of their impact on still others, and on and on, then meaning is a metaphysical Ponzi scheme.  If true, the meaning of life would depend on an eternally unbroken chain of consciousness – that is, there must always be something conscious in the universe that is impacted by the previous lives of other conscious beings to justify the meaning in their lives.

The problem here is that physicists (who overwhelmingly believe Premise 1) would nearly unanimously agree that at some point in time the very last conscious being will die – i.e., that there cannot always be consciousness in the universe because the universe will not remain hospitable to life indefinitely.  Specifically, even if the “Big Crunch” or the “Big Rip” don’t kill off everything, the eventual heat death of the universe will.

So if no one’s life has meaning in and of itself – if any given person’s life matters only to the extent of his impact on others – then all life is indeed meaningless.  I’m certainly not saying that one’s children, or the process of leaving one’s legacy, can’t be deeply meaningful to a person.  I’m simply saying that that can’t be the entire source of life’s meaning, otherwise no life could have meaning at all.  If life does have meaning, it must have meaning at least to some extent for its own sake.  A person who believes in Premise 1 and really wants to believe Premise 2 cannot make them compatible simply by claiming that “My life matters because it matters to others.”  That won’t work.

In many ways, I’ve said something far simpler.  If the net result of all of our lives and decisions is just the scattering of dust in a cold, lifeless universe, then what’s the point of it all?  (Cue Kansas’ Dust in the Wind…)  In other words, if Premise 1 is true, then there is no meaning to life and nothing matters.  You cannot bootstrap meaning in your own life by mattering to others, because, if Premise 1 is true, there is also no meaning to their lives.  It doesn’t matter that you matter to others who don’t matter. 

Here’s my point.  Either what I do matters or it doesn’t.  Premise 1 implies that it doesn’t, which is in direct contradiction with Premise 2.  They cannot both be true. 

So if Premise 2 is true then Premise 1 is false.  If what I do matters, then my consciousness will not permanently end at death (or at all), in which case I have plenty of time to do what matters.  But if Premise 2 is false – if what I do doesn’t matter – then why the fuck am I so worried about running out of time?

As it turns out, I believe that my consciousness is eternal, but I have been very much acting as if everything I want to do or experience must be done in the short term.  That’s irrational.

I have not tried to be precise in this post with my language or argumentation.  What it means for something to “matter” or “be meaningful” is subjective, and I certainly don’t claim that this line of reasoning proves the existence of an afterlife or eternal consciousness.  I believe I have, in papers and previous posts, proven some important and very relevant facts, such as that a conscious state cannot be copied or instantiated on a computer and that a conscious state cannot be entirely determined by the information in a local volume (such as a brain), among other things.  For instance, if the information that physically produces a conscious state is not (and cannot be) contained entirely in the brain, then already there is good reason to doubt the zealotry of scientists who claim, with arrogant certainty, that brain death permanently erases consciousness.  They don’t know.  Nevertheless, though I believe my consciousness is eternal, my goal here is not to prove it, if such a proof were even possible.

Rather, my goal here is to point out that the YOLO dogma is bullshit.  We are told from every angle that we must amount to something, we must live fully and meaningfully, we must make a difference and leave a legacy – AND that we only have one lifetime in which to do it before the lights go out for eternity.  But that makes no sense.  Those messages are contradictory.  Because if my lights go out for eternity, then what I did on Earth certainly won’t matter to me, and if your lights go out for eternity, then they won’t matter to you either.  If there’s no me to regret having failed to make a difference and leave a legacy, then why put in all the effort to make a difference and leave a legacy?  Why worry about not having enough time to do everything I want to do?  Either I have plenty of time (because my consciousness survives death) or, when I die, I’ll no longer be conscious and capable of regretting.  If death is an eternal lack of existence, then any impact I leave on other people will necessarily be lost, enduring legacies are impossible, and nothing I do matters.  But if death is not an eternal lack of existence, then I’m not running out of time to live meaningfully!

That’s not entirely the end of the story.  First, I still don’t know whether or not what I do matters (or how much it matters).  Eternal consciousness does not tell me much about how much meaning my life and decisions have, just that meaning is possible.  For example, maybe free will is an illusion, in which case I cannot do anything meaningful because I cannot choose to do anything at all.  I think much more likely is that some of what I do is meaningful, but I vastly overinflate the importance of most of it.

Second, even if (as I believe) consciousness is eternal, physical death certainly happens and at that time I don’t know what I’ll perceive or experience, but it’s unlikely I will experience consciousness through a human body on Earth.  There probably are a lot of opportunities that will be foreclosed at that time, so if I want to make a positive difference on Earth, then I should do it now, while I’m here.  I also have no idea whether I will be able to continue my relationships with people in the afterlife, so I would want to enjoy those relationships now while I can.

[1] Note: Most people who believe Premise 1 don’t believe in God, and most who believe in God don’t believe Premise 1.

[2] I have shown this is false, but no one listens to me anyway.

Friday, February 4, 2022

Does the Brain Cause Consciousness? Part 3

Is there an afterlife?  Can a computer be conscious?  In Part 1, I pointed out that the popular science answers to these questions depend on the assumption that the brain causes consciousness.  In Part 2, I introduced two statements which, if taken together, imply that the brain does not cause consciousness.  I then explained why Statement 1 is true.  The two statements are:

1)     A brain can be copied.

2)     A person’s conscious state cannot be copied.

In today’s post, I’ll address Statement 2.  This statement is definitely more difficult to prove, which is why it’s so revolutionary.  The clearest explanation, I think, is this 23-minute video that I presented at the 2020 Science of Consciousness conference.  (There is also a more thorough video explanation here.)  The most detailed and precise explanation is in my paper.  But since my goal in this blog post series is to explain things to a lay audience without all the fancy bullshit, this post will (I hope) convince you of Statement 2 with a simpler explanation.

To convince you of Statement 2, I’ll start by assuming the opposite, and then show how it leads to a problem or contradiction.  So let’s assume that you’re in some conscious state that can be copied.  Let’s call that conscious state C1.  Since it can be copied, and we live in a physical world, there must be some underlying physical state that we can copy.  Maybe that physical state is the positions of all the atoms in your brain.  We don't have to know exactly what that physical state is -- the point is that there is some physical state that can be copied.  Let’s call that physical state S1.

Let’s be clear.  You are experiencing conscious state C1.  And that conscious state is entirely created by physical state S1.  So if we were to copy that state S1, and then recreate it somewhere else, then that copy of S1 would produce your conscious state C1.  That’s the whole point of the assumption.  If you are experiencing state C1, and we recreate state C1 on a distant planet in the Wazoo Galaxy (by copying the underlying physical state S1), then you would experience state C1 on that distant planet.[1] 

Now, let’s say we make a copy of physical state S1 (which produces your experience of conscious state C1).  We then recreate it on Mars (preferably in a habitable station), and then simultaneously kill you on Earth.  There’s no problem, right?  You would just experience being on Earth in one moment and then on Mars in the next.  It would just feel like you were teleported to Mars.[2] 

But what if we also recreate physical state S1 (which produces your experience of conscious state C1) on Venus?  What would you experience if there were two versions of you, both experiencing conscious state C1 created by underlying physical state S1? 

More specifically, what would you experience the moment after that?  Being alive on Mars and Venus would be vastly different experiences.  Let’s say that on Mars, your physical state S1 would change to S2M (which creates conscious state C2M), while on Venus, your physical state S1 would change to S2V (which creates conscious state C2V).  State C2M might be the conscious experience of looking out at a vast orange desert, while state C2V might be the conscious experience of looking out at a dark, cloudy, lava-scorched land.  I don’t know exactly what it would feel like, but certainly the two conscious states would differ.

Which conscious state would you experience, C2M or C2V?  There are only three possibilities:

·       Neither

·       Both

·       One or the other

Before proceeding, I should mention something important about physics: locality.  Generally speaking, you can only affect, or be affected by, things that are nearby (or “local”).  If you’re at a baseball game and worried about getting hit in the head with a fly ball, sit far away from home plate.  That way, you’ll have plenty of time to move if a fly ball is heading your way.  Even though the idea is simple, it’s an extremely important and fundamental feature of the physical world.  Einstein is famous for formalizing the concept of locality in his Special Theory of Relativity, which asserts that nothing, including information, can travel faster than the speed of light.

The speed of light is very fast (186,282 miles per second), but it is still finite.  Nothing that happens in a distant galaxy can immediately affect you, because it takes time for information of that event to reach you.  In fact, our own sun is about 8 light-minutes away, which means that if it exploded, it would not affect us for another eight minutes.  The only known violation of locality is quantum entanglement, but even quantum entanglement does not allow information or matter to be transmitted faster than light.

Getting back to the above example, when we recreate physical states S1 on Mars and Venus, those states are not local to each other, which means they can’t affect each other.  And Mars and Venus are far enough apart that subsequent physical states (S2M on Mars and S2V on Venus) also can’t affect each other.[3]

We already know that when we create state S1 on Mars (and kill you on Earth), you would experience being on Earth in one moment and then on Mars in the next, as if you teleported to Mars.  Your subsequent conscious states (C2M, C3M, C4M, and so forth) would change according to what you experienced on Mars.

And if we had instead created state S1 on Venus (but not on Mars), you would experience being on Earth in one moment and then on Venus in the next, as if you teleported to Venus.  Your subsequent conscious states (C2V, C3V, C4V, and so forth) would change according to what you experienced on Venus.

So what would happen if we create state S1 (which produces conscious state C1) on Mars and on Venus?  Which conscious state will you next experience, C2M or C2V?  As I said before, there are only three possibilities, which I’ll analyze below:

·       Neither

·       Both

·       One or the other

Neither.  Maybe it’s neither.  Maybe the universe doesn’t like it when we create multiple copies of a conscious state, so when you create two or more copies, they both get blocked or eliminated or something.  Here’s the problem.  When you are created on Mars, your conscious state cannot be affected by what is happening on Venus because the two events are nonlocal.  There is no way for your physical state S1 on Mars to “know” that state S1 was also created on Venus because it takes time for information to travel from Venus to Mars, even if that information is traveling at the speed of light.  Your physical state S1 will change to S2M (which produces your conscious state C2M) long before a signal can be sent to stop it.  Therefore, you will experience conscious state C2M, so the correct answer cannot be “neither.”

Both.  Maybe you will experience both conscious states C2M and C2V.  I certainly have no idea what it’s like to experience two different conscious states at (what I would perceive as) the same time.  Nevertheless, maybe it’s possible.  But here’s the problem.  Your conscious experience of C2M is created by physical state S2M, which is affected by stuff on Mars, while your conscious experience of C2V is created by physical state S2V, which is affected by stuff on Venus.  For example, if state C2M is your experience of looking out at a vast orange desert, it’s because light rays bouncing off Martian dunes interacted with your physical state S1 to produce S2M.  But information about that interaction is inaccessible to whomever is experiencing state C2V on Venus, once again because information does not travel fast enough between the two planets.  Therefore, whoever is experiencing state C2V on Venus cannot also be experiencing state C2M on Mars.  Therefore, maybe you’re experiencing state C2M or C2V, but you can’t be experiencing both.

One or the other.  The correct answer to the above question is not “neither” and it’s not “both.”  The only remaining option is that you experience either C2M or C2V.  But which one?  How could nature choose?  Maybe you experience the “first” one created.  The problem here is, once again, nonlocality.  Let’s say that, according to my clock on Earth, state S1 is created on Mars at 12:00:00pm, and state S1 is created on Venus at 12:00:01pm – in other words, one second later by my clock.  The problem is that there is no way for state S1 on Venus to “know” about the creation of state S1 on Mars (and to then prevent your conscious experience of state C2V on Venus), because it takes much longer than one second for information to travel between the two planets.[4]  Therefore, the universe cannot “choose” between C2M or C2V based on time.  And because state S1 on Mars is physically identical to state S1 on Venus, there is no other physical means by which the universe can choose one over the other.  If S1 changes to S2M (which produces C2M) on Mars and S1 changes to S2V (which produces C2V) on Venus, there is no known physical means for the universe to somehow decide that you will experience only C2M or C2V (but not both).  Therefore, you cannot experience just one or the other.    

We have ruled out all three possibilities.  What does this mean?  It means that the original assumption – that a person’s conscious state can be copied – is wrong.  Think about the logic this way:

          i.          If statement A is true, then either B or C or D must be true. 

        ii.          But B, C, and D are all false. 

      iii.          Therefore, statement A must be false.

In this case, statement A is “a person’s conscious state can be copied” and statements B, C, and D correspond to “neither,” “both,” and “one or the other,” like this:

       i.          If a person’s conscious state can be copied, then we can put copies on Mars and Venus.  Either the person will experience neither copy, or will experience both copies, or will experience one or the other. 

     ii.          I showed that none of these are possible (because they conflict with special relativity). 

   iii.          Therefore, a person’s conscious state cannot be copied.


If you recall, this conclusion is the same as Statement 2 at the beginning of this post:

1)     A brain can be copied.

2)     A person’s conscious state cannot be copied.

If I have convinced you of Statement 2 in this post, and of Statement 1 in the previous post, then what do they imply?  This is what they imply:


If a brain can be copied, but a conscious state cannot, then the brain cannot create consciousness.


Certainly the brain can affect consciousness.  If someone sticks electrodes in my brain, I have no doubt that it will probably affect my conscious experience.  But consciousness cannot be produced entirely by the brain.  In other words, conscious experience must depend on stuff (events and states) beyond the skull. 

This conclusion should be shocking, but taken seriously, by anyone who wants to understand and scientifically study consciousness.  Its implications are significant.  For example, getting back to the big-picture questions posed in Part 1, can a computer be conscious?  A digital computer has a state that can be easily copied.  If it didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to copy files, buy software, or even run software.  But as I proved above, a person’s conscious state cannot be copied.  Therefore, a person’s conscious state cannot be embedded or executed on a digital computer, because if it could, then the person’s conscious state could be easily copied.  A digital computer cannot be conscious because conscious states cannot be copied.[5]  Also, mind uploading is impossible because if a computer can’t be conscious, then there’s no way to upload or simulate a conscious mind on a computer.  Also, consciousness cannot be algorithmic.  An algorithm is a set of instructions that can be executed on any general purpose computer.  Once again, an algorithm can be easily copied but a person’s conscious state can’t, so consciousness cannot be algorithmic.

And what about the other question posed in Part 1: Is there an afterlife?  Well, my arguments here certainly don’t prove that consciousness continues after brain death.  However, the strongest (and perhaps only) scientific argument against an afterlife depends on the assumption that the brain causes consciousness.  But I’ve shown that’s false.  Further, I’ve shown that consciousness transcends the brain, at least to some degree.  The fact that what we consciously perceive is produced by something beyond our brains is at least circumstantial evidence that the existence of consciousness does not necessarily depend on whether a brain is alive.

The brain does not cause consciousness.  Much of what science tells us about consciousness, to the extent that it relies on an invalid assumption, is likely false. 

[1] If physical state S1 wasn’t sufficient to produce a conscious state of YOU – in other words, if physical state S1 is inadequate to produce your conscious identity – then consciousness must be produced in part by something nonphysical.  And that would be a real problem for scientists!

[2] If you weren’t also killed on Earth, this would be the “teleportation problem” that Nobel Prize winner Roger Penrose discusses in The Emperor’s New Mind.

[3] To use physics language, the creation of states S1 on Mars and Venus (and their subsequent evolutions to S2M and S2V, respectively) are spacelike separated events.  The argument I’m making here applies equally to timelike separated events, which I discuss in my paper.

[4] In fact, there is no such thing as “simultaneous” events when we are talking about spacelike separated events.  Even though my clock may say that S1 was created on Mars first, the clock of another observer may say that S1 was created on Venus first.  There is no objective fact about which event occurs first if the events are spacelike separated.

[5] Maybe this argument doesn’t apply to quantum computers.  However, as I’ve explained repeatedly, a quantum computer sufficiently large to create anything we might regard as intelligent is just as physically impossible as producing Schrodinger’s Cat or Wigner’s Friend. 

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Does the Brain Cause Consciousness? Part 2

Is there an afterlife?  Can a computer be conscious?  In Part 1, I pointed out that the popular science answers to these questions depend on an often unstated assumption:

Assumption: The brain causes consciousness.

I am going to show in this and subsequent posts why there is very good reason to doubt this assumption, and why it’s almost certainly false.  To do that, I’m going to try to convince you of two statements [1] which, taken together, imply that the brain does not cause consciousness:

1)     A brain can be copied.  (Even if it cannot be done today due to technological limitations, there is no physical law preventing the physical state of a brain from being copied.)

2)     A person’s conscious state cannot be copied.

In today’s post, I’ll address Statement 1.  First of all, I think most people, particularly scientists, would already agree with it.  And since my goal is to convince you, the reader, then if you already agree with it, there’s no need to read further.  Instead, just move on to the next post in this series, where I’ll address Statement 2.

Of course, no one thinks that a brain can be copied today.  But what physical law prevents copying a brain in the future?  The only known physical principle of which I’m aware is the quantum no-cloning theorem, which says that a quantum state cannot be copied.  And a brain, like all things in the universe, is presumably in a quantum state, so in that sense it can never be perfectly copied.  But that doesn’t matter as long as quantum effects are not relevant to the brain and its functions.  In other words, the only thing that would prevent a brain from being copied adequately to replicate consciousness is if consciousness depends on quantum effects. 

For example, if a conscious state depended on quantum entanglements with objects outside the brain, then there is inadequate information in the brain to specify a conscious state.  Quantum entanglement is “nonlocal,” which means that Object A can affect entangled Object B instantaneously, even if they are separated by a large distance, and the effect is not limited by the speed of light.  So if my current conscious state depends at least in part on an event in another galaxy (which we cannot detect until we receive light from the event), then consciousness is nonlocal.  This recent paper argues that consciousness is nonlocal, but I doubt many in the scientific community have taken notice.

Another way that consciousness may depend on quantum effects is if, to copy the brain, you’d have to measure the state of objects in the brain (like neurons) so precisely that the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle kicks in, and the measurement itself starts changing the brain’s physical state.  For example, Scott Aaronson suggests in this paper that if a brain is “unclonable for fundamental physical reasons,” then that unclonability could be a consequence of quantum no-cloning if the granularity a brain would need to be simulated at in order to duplicate someone’s subjective identity was down to the quantum level. 

In general, though, few scientists believe that consciousness or brain function depend on quantum effects, and most who discuss the possibility are quickly dismissed as mystics or pseudoscientists.[2]  As long as consciousness does not depend on quantum effects, then we don’t need to worry about quantum no-cloning, and there is nothing that would prevent a future engineer from scanning a person’s brain and then reproducing a functional duplicate with the same conscious state.

Are you convinced of Statement 1 yet?… that a brain can be copied in principle?  Maybe you’re still concerned about possible quantum effects.  OK, here’s another argument.

The amount of information that can be contained in a volume of space is limited.  This is called the Bekenstein bound.  It’s a ridiculously large number but it’s still finite.  For example, the Bekenstein bound Wikipedia page calculates that the maximum information necessary to recreate a human brain, including its entire quantum state, is on the order of 10^42 bits (where a single “bit” of information is either a 0 or 1).  That’s a huge number… it looks like 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, but it’s still much, much smaller than the number of particles in the universe.  Also, the Bekenstein bound for the brain is an upper physical limit that’s based on a brain so dense with information that it’s right on the verge of collapsing into a black hole!  I think it’s reasonable to surmise that we aren’t walking around with potential black holes in our skulls, so the actual information necessary to specify the quantum state of a brain is probably much, much, much, much smaller than 10^42 bits.  But it doesn’t actually matter.  Here’s why.

Even if we can’t in practice copy a human brain, the universe should be able to.  I’m referring to a Boltzmann Brain.  Physicists currently believe that essentially any physical state can be created by randomness (i.e., accident).  So even though it’s extremely unlikely, a physicist will say that there is some chance that atoms and particles will accidentally come together somewhere in the universe to create your brain.  And even if we include quantum effects, and even if that accidental collection of atoms has to specify the 10^42 bits that could potentially be specified in the physical state of your brain, there is some nonzero probability that it will occur. 

In other words, there is no known physical law that will prevent the exact recreation of your brain elsewhere.  The universe can copy your brain, even if your brain’s function depends on quantum effects.  Therefore, a brain can be copied.  Statement 1 is true.

In my next post, I’ll address Statement 2.  As for now, do you have any questions or concerns about Statement 1?

[1] As I mentioned previously, I would ordinarily try to be more precise with my words, arguments, and proofs.  But the purpose of this and subsequent posts is to write more colloquially without alienating lay readers.  Better precision can be found, e.g., in my papers.

[2] Don’t forget that consensus does not equal truth.  There is, and perhaps always has been, a bully culture in science, which is why scientific paradigms tend to be changed only by independent mavericks.

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Does the Brain Cause Consciousness? Part 1

I have spent so much time and effort trying (and ultimately failing) to successfully communicate with people in the physics and philosophy academies, using their complicated and abstruse language and math equations, that I’ve made many of my insights, discoveries, and contributions completely inaccessible to the rest of the world, including my own friends and family.

My close friend Adam recently asked me some important questions, like whether computers could be conscious.  Of course, I’ve answered this question many times, and in great detail, on this blog and in my papers (particularly this and this).  But I realized that I really only addressed people who already knew the language of quantum mechanics, computer science, philosophical logic, and so forth.  So in this and subsequent posts, I’m going to try to address some important questions in direct, ordinary language without all the bullshit jargon.

Today, I want to mention two such questions:

·       Is there an afterlife?

·       Can a computer be conscious?

Ask these questions of a physicist, biologist, or computer scientist, and probably the vast majority will answer firmly and with conviction: No, there is no afterlife; Yes, a computer can be conscious.  And if you probe them further as to why they are so certain of these answers, you’ll find that there is an (often unstated) assumption that pervades the scientific community about consciousness:

Assumption: The brain causes consciousness.[1]

Is that assumption true?  If it is, then it’s not unreasonable to believe that consciousness ends when the brain dies.  Or that someday we’ll be able to copy the brain and recreate a person’s consciousness.  Or that a person’s brain could be simulated in a computer, thus producing consciousness in a computer.

But again, all these popular ideas stem from that one assumption, and there aren’t many scientists who question it (or even acknowledge it as an assumption).  So that’s where I’ll start.  Consider, again, the assumption:

Assumption: The brain causes consciousness.

Several questions for you about that assumption:

·       Do you believe it?

·       If so, why?  What evidence do you have that it is true?

·       What evidence has the scientific community offered to support it?

·       Which beliefs depend on it?  For example, anyone who believes that consciousness ends with brain death necessarily makes the above assumption.  Anyone who believes that a computer will someday be conscious by simulating a brain also makes the above assumption.  Many, many other popular science beliefs depend on this assumption.

·       What if the assumption is incorrect?  Is it possible to prove that it is false?  How might it be disproven?  If the assumption could actually be disproven, how might that impact your beliefs?  How might it impact the popular scientific beliefs about consciousness?

Next in this series: Part 2
Last in this series: Part 3

[1] Note on this post: Ordinarily, I would try to be more precise with my words.  For example, the assumption is actually that a conscious state entirely depends on the physical state of a living brain, but this is where the eyes of ordinary readers start to glaze over.  So I won’t be so precise in this and related future blog posts.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Afterlife, Reversibility, and the House of Pleasure

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 and 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, but this 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 that consciousness 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 consciousness.

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 and this 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 experienced.

·       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.”

“What?  That’s 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.”

“Incredible!  This sounds great…”

“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’ time.

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 consciousness.