Simulated Universes and the Nature of Consciousness

Researchers in Europe have completed the first phase of what may be the largest computational physics experiment in history: They built and ran a simulated universe through 14 billion years of development. The experiment used up 25 million megabytes of memory, and the biggest supercomputer in Europe for a month. The result was a “Cube of Creation” of 20 billion light years per side, containing 20 million simulated galaxies. Now they’re studying it to see what evolved. They hope to gain insights into the function of black holes, and other cosmological principles. This is an amazing piece of work — definitely the future of cosmology research.

In previous articles, I’ve speculated that our own universe might also be such a simulation, perhaps run by a much more advanced civilization in a meta-universe outside ours. But in fact, I think our universe is probably quite different from a mere computer simulation (despite how cool it would be if it were a computer simulation!) — because I don’t believe we can explain everything there is in terms of information and computation: I think consciousness doesn’t fit in that model.  After exploring this issue for more than 20 years from the perspectives of computer science and physics, philosophy and religion, I’ve come to believe that consciousness cannot be reduce to, or emerge from, information or computation. As far as I can tell, it’s something at least as or more fundamental than space, time, matter and energy. I would even go so far as to say that we won’t ever really understand what the universe is or how it develops or functions without first understanding consciousness much more deeply.

There are basically two fundamental, mutually exclusive camps on the issue of consciousness that have been sparring for millennia. Either you are in the camp that believes consciousness is something that emerges from the physical universe, or you are in the camp that believes that the physical universe is something that emerges from consciousness. (Note: Even the Buddhist theory of interdependent origination, which says that physical phenomena and consciousness arise in co-dependence at the same time, rather than one from the other, can still be reduced to a version of Camp #2 because in that theory, interdependent events take place by virtue of a primordial unification of mind and phenomena that is equivalent to what I mean when I say “everything emerges from consciousness” — in other words, nothing is truly separate from consciousness)

I am a Camp 2 person. I believe that consciousness is more fundamental than anything else.  The example of a dream can be used to illustrate my view on consciousness: Although everything in a dream is a projection of consciousness, nothing in a dream is conscious. For example if you dream of Sue that is not really Sue: that dream-image of Sue is not a really a conscious person, it’s just a projection of your consciousness. Similarly, in a dream, if you find yourself interacting with a dream-image of Sue, your dream body in that dream is also not conscious, it is equally just a projection of your consciousness.

Even if you experience your dream from the perspective of being a particular character, looking through their eyes, thinking their thoughts, etc., that which is actually having that experience — the consciousness that is dreaming the dream — is outside the dream. It doesn’t appear anywhere within it, it cannot be measured within it, and it has no form or location. But still, as the one having the dream, it is undeniable that there is a dream appearing and an experience of that appearance. Furthermore, the nature of consciousness itself is self-aware — it can realize its own capacity of cognizance — the fact that it is aware, even though nothing to grasp as “consciousness” can actually be located anywhere. This self-awareness, in my view, is not a function of the brain or the body, or any physical system, rather it is completely beyond material phenomena  — beyond all possible universes in fact.

So who or what is projecting the universe in a manner of a dream? Is the universe nothing more than a dream in fact? This question cannot be answered by physics — it can neither be disproved or proved. Even various religions disagree about how to answer it — some label consciousness as soul, or universal or eternal Self or as God, while other systems, such as Buddhism instead argue that it is in fact so completely transcendental that it is entirely empty of self-nature and therefore cannot be reified as one or many, something or nothing, self or other, or truly-existent or non-existent.

Please note that when claiming that everything comes from consciousness, and using the example of a dream to illustrate that, I am not suggesting the philosophical view of solipsism, which posits that everything is just in my own mind, or some cosmic mind perhaps. Nor am I proposing an eternalistic argument that claims that “all is one” or that there is an ultimate, truly-existing soul, or that there are or are not really other beings. From my perspective, which comes largely from my studies of the Buddhist theory of dependent-arising and emptiness, what I am calling  “consciousness” cannot really be conceived of — because it is literally beyond thoughts, and even beyond the universe; is not a thing. Therefore, there is no way within this universe to frame or express the nature of consciousness. All we can do is use analogies, which are just shadows of the real thing, not the real thing itself. However, although we cannot describe consciousness, we can directly experience it as it really is, without using concepts or analogies, because we are it.

There are a number of difficult subtleties that have to be carefully sorted out when you really go deeply into this view of consciousness. In particular, regarding the question of whether other beings exist, or whether there is really a universe “out there” apart from your own mind (whether there is actually a sound when a tree falls and there is nobody there to hear it, for example). My opinion is that it is certainly possible for there to be multiple beings with their own experiences — and furthermore that is certainly what appears to be taking place. Yet to be precise,  we cannot prove that what appear to be other beings are truly-existent “out there” nor can we prove that there are no other beings apart from ourselves — in fact, we really cannot decide one way or the other about this question, at least if we want to be hairsplittingly precise. Therefore, from a philosophical perspective, the best thing to do is to simply not take a position on that question.

There is no way to prove that “everything is a dream” or that “everything is not a dream,” and so we simply have to avoid forgetting that we really don’t know which position is correct. Most people err on the side of thinking “everything is not a dream” and so they get totally absorbed in the intricacies of of daily life and the material world — they become mindless materialists. On the other hand, those who err on the opposite side of thinking that “everything is just a dream” tend to fall into the extreme of being spaced-out spiritualists. So our task, as rational observers of reality is to try to be as true to what we really can observe for ourselves as possible — meaning we have to avoid becoming either mindless materialists or spaced-out spiritualists. To be most true to what we can observe, we have to take the “middle road” and avoid falling into any extreme philosophical viewpoints. This means, in particular, that we should not fall into a an overly materialistic view of thinking that everything that seems to be “out there” really truly exists apart from our own minds, nor should we fall into a nihilistic view of thinking that there is only ourselves or that there is nothing at all.

From the philosophical view of Tibetan Buddhism (which happens to be my favorite), the most accurate way to portray consciousness might be to say that it, and in fact anything else we can label, is neither nothing, one, nor many — and so therefore we avoid falling into the extremes of eternalism and nihilism. Eternalism is materialism — it is the belief that phenomena truly-exist on their own — that they can be decomposed to irreducible particles. Western science is basically materialism. Nihilism is the extreme opposite of materialism — it posits that nothing exists at all. Nihilism leads to all sorts of delusions and bad behavior but is fortunately quite easy to refute: indeed, the very fact that anyone is able to hold the belief that they are a nihilist refutes their belief in nothingness.

I should also mention that while I am definitely a Camp 2 person, I don’t discount the utility of science for explaining how the material world appears to function, I just don’t think that it can explain what the material world really is, nor what consciousness is. I think that science is ideally suited to explaining the dynamics of matter and energy in time and space — the various physical patterns that we observe. But at the same time, I think that to really explain everything — a theory also has to explain consciousness, and I don’t think there is a material, scientific explanation for that because consciousness is not simply a pattern in the physical world — it is completely transcendental.

Some scientists try to use the fact that consciousness cannot be located or measured like physical phenomena to be proof that it doesn’t exist at all, but that argument is fallacious. Just because no scientist has ever isolated consciousness or measured it doesn’t mean it’s not there, it just means it’s beyond the scope of their measurement tools. For example, if our only measurement tool is a microscope we cannot prove that galaxies don’t exist simply because we cannot see them through it; for if we later have a telescope we definitely can see galaxies. In the case of consciousness the situation is even simpler: no material measurement tool can measure consciousness, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist because everyone, including every scientist, directly knows that they are conscious. So in a sense we could say that the only “measurement tool” that can detect consciousness is consciousness itself. There’s another interesting fact that is worth mentioning here: no scientist has ever directly seen or measured space, energy, or time (all measurements of these are in fact indirect and inferential)  — but for some reason they are willing to believe in those phenomena. Why are scientists willing to believe in their inferences about the nature of space, time and energy but not consciousness? I find this puzzling.

Science began as what was called “natural philosophy” — it wasn’t confined to the material domain but actually was a much broader undertaking, an attempt to explain everything. Natural philosophers, such as Sir Isaac Newton, for example, were interested in all the dimensions of experience, including the mind, soul and even the possibility of God. They truly wanted to understand the world, and they considered anything observable to be within the scope of science. Gradually, however, this open-mindedness was lost and science became increasingly limited in focus. Today science is incredibly myopic and close-minded — it has in fact become institutionalized to the point where, to succeed and be respected by their peers, scientists must specialize and conform to the point of losing almost all originality and intellectual freedom. A side-effect of this is that scientists have gotten so focused on trying to observe what everyone else observes, that they no longer notice what they themselves observe — they no longer consider their own minds, consciousness, or their own experiences to be valid subjects of observation, nor do they consider themselves to be qualified observers of their own minds, consciousness and experience.

This belief comes from the mistaken idea that it is impossible objectively to observe one’s own experience. Modern science is built on the notion that only observations which can be demonstrated to, and repeated by, other scientists are considered valid. The problem is that all observations, whether of one’s own mind or of some external experimental result are ultimately subjective. So in fact, although scientists like to think that their methods are not subjective, in fact, to be precise they are subjective. Because ultimately all observations are subjective, observing one’s own mind directly is really no more subjective than observing any external physical experiment or phenomena: We cannot really demonstrate anything objectively, whether internal or external, to anyone because ultimately we all sense things subjectively.

If this isn’t enough to hammer in the point that self-observation of the mind is a valid pursuit of science, there is another argument: If consciousness is truly fundamental, then it is not conditioned by anything it observes and so it is perfectly objective in nature. Of course, here we have to be very careful to make a clear distinction between consciousness itself and the many layers of thoughts that may obscure it (thoughts are not consciousness). Using consciousness (without thoughts) to look directly at consciousness is perhaps the most objective scientific experiment possible!

Therefore, just because nobody can demonstrate their consciousness to anyone else doesn’t mean that consciousness doesn’t exist or that it is unscientific to study it by direct self-observation. In fact, the only way to directly study consciousness is by direct self-observation — that is the best measuring device for the job, so to speak. Furthermore, it is indeed possible to “demonstrate” one’s own observations of consciousness to others in a repeatable manner — simply: if they follow the same steps and end up observing the same things about their own consciousness, then your experiment has been repeated successfully. So in fact the direct study of consciousness is valid, objective and repeatable. In short, it is and should be within the scope of scientific study.

Until scientists discover this fact and look inwards at their own minds, they are never going to make real progress in the scientific study of consciousness, because this is the only way to actually study consciousness. (Note for the brain scientists in the audience: merely studying the physical brain is not really studying consciousness itself — consciousness is not a brainstate but is rather that which is capable of knowing or being. In fact, consciousness itself has no content — it is not a set of thoughts or sensations. Brainstates may represent the content of consciousness at a given moment just as a frame on a movie film print represents the content of that particular moment of the movie, but in this analogy consciousness is the light in the movie projector, not the film or the patterns on the film. Don’t mistake the content of a given frame for the light of the movie projector!).

So, I hope I’ve made the point by now that from the perspective of what we can directly observe, for ourselves, it actually makes more sense to start with the hypothesis that consciousness is fundamental — since nobody has ever directly experienced any phenomena outside the scope of their own consciousness. As far as anyone can directly observe, wherever phenomena are found there is also an observer of those phenomena at that very moment. Furthermore, as far as anyone can measure, there is no way to establish that phenomena actually exist “out there” when they are not observed. So from a truly rational, scientific point-of-view, consciousness appears to be fundamental in that it is ever-present in our experience of the universe, and as or more necessary to having that experience, as are space, time and energy.

It is in fact more rational and scientific to hold that consciousness is fundamental until proven otherwise than to hold the reverse hypothesis. After all, as far as we ourselves can observe, our experience of the universe is mediated by consciousness and there is no way to establish that the universe we perceive is separate from our consciousness. All the evidence seems to indicate the contrary: that the universe is not separate from our consciousness. Many scientists who pride themselves on their rationality in all other areas, seem to overlook this fact (are they literally “blinded by science?”). They think of consciousness as some kind of process within the physical brain. Some even attempt to “explain away” consciousness as some sort of epiphenomenon (e.g. an illusion that can be reduced to something physical), or worse, as a mathemagical result of “complex enough” computation (the absurd but oft cited, “someday the computer just gets sooooooo complex that it suddenly wakes up” argument). But none of these approaches to consciousness can account for the actual experience (what the philosopher, John Searle calls “qualia”) of being conscious — an experience which each of has direct and undeniable access to.

I am skeptical that any computer will ever be able to simulate, let alone embody, the actual experience of consciousness. Since our universe and everything material, is in my opinion, emergent from consciousness, not vice-versa, it is not possible to cause consciousness to emerge from physical things: I don’t think you can build a machine that will become conscious. I don’t think we can synthesize consciousness — it’s already there and we don’t create it. We might be able to build very smart machines, but they still won’t be conscious in the same way that truly conscious beings are. In fact, I think the best and fastest way to make something conscious, if that’s what you want to do, is to just have a baby.

Consciousness is not a material thing, nor is it a result of a material process. It can neither be created nor destroyed and it never actually “inhabits” physical matter, which is why we cannot find consciousness anywhere in the brain or body when we try to measure it (i.e. the brain and body are within consciousness — they can be found within consciousness, but consciousness cannot be found within them). And if that’s the case, then no computer simulation will ever really contain actual consciousness — at best it will be merely a projection in the consciousness of whomever makes the simulation. Now why does this matter? Well for one thing it means that we will never succeed in creating artificial intelligence simulations that are conscious, and furthermore, that no simulation of any kind will be conscious. And it follows then that no simulated universe will truly be like our universe — because there won’t be any real conscious beings in the simulation.

My point here is that to really simulate our universe completely we would have to be able to make a simulation that contains conscious beings, but we can’t do that because we cannot make consciousness. And this is important because consciousness is not just some minor force in our universe — in fact it may have a vastly larger role in shaping our universe than we can presently see or understand. Some physicists even go so far as to postulate that if it weren’t for consciousness our universe wouldn’t exist, or alternatively, that our universe has evolved specifically to support conscious life (what is called the anthropic principle). But although we cannot prove or disprove such views at present, we can certainly see the effect that conscious life has had on our home planet: If consciousness can transform our planet from a jungle to a teeming metropolis in a matter of a few million years, then by extension it could do the same thing to entire solar systems, and perhaps over billions of years, interstellar civilizations of consciousness beings could literally transform galaxies. No simulated universe will be able to truly model or account for such effects.

Research into quantum mechanics is also arriving at the fact that consciousness plays an important, but not yet understood, role in shaping physical reality. It is clear that consciousness has a major impact on the outcome of certain types of experiments, for example. Whether you observe a particle or not determines how it seems to behave. Whether you observe a system, determines whether or not it is in one of various possible states. The act of observation seems to be the catalyst which collapses infinite possibility into a particular event. This can actually be measured experimentally on very small scales, but there is speculation that it operates similarly at larger scales too, in some circumstances. But even if merely at the very smallest scales, consciousness — “the act of observation” – is built-in to how physics works, then it follows that it has a emergent effect on the largest scale  — the whole universe. But who knows, maybe the effects of consciousness on the whole are direct, not merely emergent? We don’t know yet.

There’s another reason that consciousness may throw a wrench in computer simulations of the mind and universes alike: Free will. Given that consciousness is totally transcendental, it is not conditioned by anything material. Yet, since everything is a projection of consciousness, consciousness can affect the world. To understand this, we can go back to the dream analogy again: For example, a dreaming consciousness can sense its dream projections, and it is even possible to have a lucid dream in which the dreamer controls the content of the dream, but at no time does the content of the dream ever have the ability to limit or condition the dreaming consciousness. In other words, it’s a one-way interaction. Consciousness can condition what it projects, but projections cannot condition consciousness.

Note here that consciousness is at an entirely different level from thoughts and sensory experiences –they are just mere appearances, not consciousness itself. This means that ultimately conscious beings have free will: They can effect what appears to their consciousness, but what appears to them cannot ultimately effect their consciousness in return — consciousness remains basically free, empty, pure, unconditioned, and untarnished at all times, regardless of what projections currently appear to be taking place. And, if consciousness has free will, then no computer simulation will be able to model it. The reason for this is simple: Computers are logic machines that follow instructions. They don’t have free will, they just follow sequences of logical operations. Nowhere in a computer or computer program is there anything that is truly free. At best we might be able to simulate computer intelligences that act as if they are free, but in fact, their seemingly free behavior is still actually caused by an underlying computer program at some level. Even non-deterministic, “emergent computations” are still reducible to underlying programs. But real free will is irreducible — it is not a result of any programming and cannot be conditioned by any external forces. In other words, consciousness is not a computer program, it is inherently unconditioned and free. No computer program can replicate that freedom.

In conclusion, I think our present civilization is at least several thousand years from really understanding much about consciousness and how it fits into physics, or vice-versa, but if we keep going the way we’re going our civilization probably won’t last that long. So to save time, we could look more deeply into the cosmologies of earlier civilizations that were much more advanced when it comes to consciousness than we are (for example the Buddhist cosmology as represented in the Kalachakra system for example, or the Mayan cosmology, both of which are far more inclusive of consciousness in their explanations of the universe.) I’m not suggesting that those cosmologies are going to help us understand black holes — for that our modern cosmology is probably better — but they certainly could help us understand how consciousness fits in.

There’s a lot more that could be said about this view of consciousness, but I’m not enough of an expert on Buddhist philosophy to explain it all in detail. I should also add that it is possible that my view is not exactly equivalent to the Buddhist view, and if that is the case, then any differences or mistakes herein are my own. If you’re interested in going directly the source (which is by far superior than anything I could write), I would suggest that you start reading up on the philosophy of dependent-arising and emptiness, for example the work of the ancient Indian philosopher Nagarjuna, and then perhaps start reading about the Buddhist conception of mind. There are lots of good books available on these subjects, although some are quite scholarly and difficult for beginners. Another, more accessible approach is to discuss these issues with a qualified scholar and teacher of Buddhist philosophy.

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  1. Minding the Planet: Simulated Universes and the Nature of Consciousness

    Link: Minding the Planet: Simulated Universes and the Nature of Consciousness.