Consciousness is Not a Computation

March 24th, 2012

In the previous article in this series, Is The Universe a Computer? New Evidence Emerges I wrote about some new evidence that appears to suggest that the universe may be like a computer, or least that it contains computer codes of a sort.

But while this evidence is fascinating, I don’t believe that ultimately the universe is in fact a computer. In this article, I explain why.

My primary argument for this is that consciousness is not computable. Since consciousness is an undeniable phenomenon that we directly experience, the universe has to be more than a mere computer, because a computer cannot create or simulate consciousness. No universe that is merely a computer or a computation can generate or account for consciousness. Below I explain this in more detail.

Consciousness is More Fundamental Than Computation

If the universe is a computer, it would have to be a very different kind of computer than what we think of as a computer today. It would have to be capable of a kind of computation that transcends what our computers can presently do. It would have to be capable of generating all the strangeness of general relativity and quantum mechanics. Perhaps one might posit that it is a quantum computer of some sort.

However, it’s not that simple. IF the universe is any kind of computer, it would actually have to be able to create every phenomenon that exists, and that includes consciousness.

The problem is that conscious is notoriously elusive, and may not even be something a computer could ever generate. After decades of thinking about this question from many angles, I seriously doubt that consciousness is computable.

In fact, I don’t think consciousness is an information process, or a material thing, at all. It seems, from my investigations, that consciousness is not a “thing” that exists “in” the universe, but rather it is in the category of fundamentals just like space and time. For example, space and time are not “in” the universe, rather the universe is “in” space and time. I think the same can be said about consciousness. In fact, I would go so far as to say consciousness is probably more fundamental than space and time, they are in “in” it rather than it being “in” them.

There are numerous arguments for why consciousness may be fundamental. Here I will summarize a few of my favorites:

  • Physics and Cosmology. First of all there is evidence in physics, such as the double slit experiment, that indicates there may be a fundamental causal connection between the act of consciously observing something and what is actually observed. Observation seems to be intimately connected to what the universe does, to what is actually measured. It is as if the act of observation — of measurement — actually causes the universe to make choices that collapse possibilities into specific outcomes. This implies that consciousness may be connected to the fundamental physical laws and the very nature of the universe. Taken to the extreme there are even physical theories, such as the anthropic principle, that postulate that the whole point of the universe, and all the physical laws, is consciousness.
  • Simulation. Another approach to analyzing consciousness is to attempt to simulate, or synthesize consciousness with software, where one quickly ends up in either an infinite regress or a system that is not conscious of its own consciousness. Trying to build a conscious machine, even in principle, is very instructive and everyone who is seriously interested in this subject should attempt it until they are convinced it is not possible. In particular self-awareness, the consciousness of consciousness, is hard to model. Nobody has succeeded in designing a conscious machine so far. Nobody has even succeeded in designing a non-conscious machine that can fool a conscious being into thinking it is a conscious being. Try it. I dare you. I tried many times and in end I came to the conclusion that consciousness, and in particular self-consciousness, lead to infinite regresses that computers are not capable of resolving in finite time.
  • Neuroscience. Another approach is to try to locate consciousness in the physical brain, the body, or anywhere in the physical world – nobody has yet found it. Consciousness may have correlates in the brain, but they are not equivalent to consciousness. John Searle and others have written extensively about this issue. Why do we even have brains then? Are they the source of consciousness, or are they more like electrical circuits that merely channel it without originating it, or are brains the source of memory and cognition, but not consciousness itself? There are many possibilities and we’re only at the beginning of understanding the mind-brain connection. However so far, after centuries of dissecting the brain, and mapping it, and measuring it in all kinds of ways, no consciousness has been found inside it.
  • Direct Introspection. One approach is through direct experience: search for an origin of knowing, by observing your own consciousness directly, with your own consciousness. No origin is found. There is no homunculus in the back of our minds that we can identify. In fact, when you search, even mere consciousness is not found, let alone its source. The more we look the more it dissolves. Consciousness is a word we use, but when we look for it we can’t find what it refers to. But that doesn’t mean consciousness isn’t a real phenomenon, or that it is an illusion. It is undeniable that we are aware of things, including of the experience of being conscious. It is unfindable, yet it is not a mere nothingness either – there is definitely some kind of awareness or consciousness taking place that is in fact the very essence of our minds. The nature of consciousness exemplifies the Buddhist concept of the “emptiness” in a manner that we can easily and directly experience for ourselves. But note that “empty” in this sense doesn’t mean nothingness, or non-existence, it means that it exists in a manner that transcends being either something or nothing. From the Buddhist perspective, although consciousness cannot be found, it is in fact the ultimate nature of reality, from which everything else appears.
  • Logic. Another approach is logical: Recognize that all experience is mediated by consciousness — all measurements, all science, all our own personal experience, all our collective experiences. Nothing ever happens or is known by us without first being mediated by consciousness. Thus consciousness is more fundamental than anything we know of, it is the most fundamental experience, even more fundamental than the experience of space and time, or our measurements thereof. From this perspective we cannot honestly say that anything ever can exist apart from consciousness, from someone or something knowing it. In fact, it would appear that everything depends on consciousness to be known, and possibly to exist, because we have no way to establish that anything exists apart from consciousness. Based on the evidence we have, consciousness is therefore fundamental. The universe appears to be in consciousness not vice-versa: This is in fact a more logical and more scientific conclusion than the standard belief that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain, or that it is a separate phenomenon from appearances. In the extreme, this investigation leads to a philosophical view called solipsism. However note that the Buddhist view (above) transcends solipsim because, in fact there is no self in consciousness – anything you can label as “self” or “I” is actually just an appearance in consciousness, not consciousness in pure form. Since there is no self, you cannot claim that you own consciousness, or that everything exists in “your” consciousness – because there is no way to assert a self that owns or is consciousness that contains everything else, nor can any “other” be asserted either. Since consciousness is more fundamental than self, or the self-other dichotomy, the view of solipsism is defeated. Instead consciousness transcends self and other, one and many.
  • Unusual experiences. Yet another approach is to observe consciousness under unusual or extreme conditions such as during dreaming, lucid dreaming, religious experiences, peak experiences, when under the influence of mind-altering drugs, or in numerous well-documented cases of apparent reincarnation, and well-documented near-death experiences. In such cases there is a wealth of both direct and anecdotal evidence suggestive of the idea that consciousness is able to transcend the limits of the body, as well as space and time. Whether you believe such evidence is valid is up to you, however there is an increasing body of careful studies on these topics that are indicative that there is a lot more to consciousness than our day-to-day waking state.

Beyond Computation

Because of the above lines of reasoning and observation I have come to the conclusion that consciousness transcends the physical, material world. It is something different, something special. And it does not seem to be computable, because it has no specific form, substance or even content that can be represented as information or as an information process.

For example, in order to to be the product of a computation, consciousness would need to be comprised of information — there would need to be some way to completely describe and implement it with information, or an a information process — that is, with bits in a computer system. Information processes cannot operate without information – they require bits 1′s and 0′s, and some kind of a program for doing things with them.

So the question is, can any set or process of 1′s and 0′s perfectly simulate or synthesize what is to be conscious? I don’t think so. Because consciousness, when examined, is found to be literally formless and unfindable, it has no content or form that can be represented with 1′s and 0′s. Furthermore, because consciousness, when examined is essentially changeless, it is not a process – for a process requires some kind of change. Therefore it is not information or an information process.

Some people counter the above argument by saying that consciousness is an illusion, a side-effect, or what is called an “epiphenomenon” of the brain. They claim that there is no such thing as actual consciousness, and that there is nothing more to cognition than the machinery of the brain. They are completely missing the fundamental point.

But let’s assume they are right for a moment – if there is no consciousness, then what is taking place when a being knows something, or when they know their own knowing capacity? How could that be modeled in a computer program? Simply creating a data structure and process that represents its own state recursively is not sufficient – because it is static, it is just data – there is no actual qualia of knowing taking place in that system.

Try as one might, there is no way to design a machine or program that manifests the ability to know or experience the actual qualia of experiences. John Searle’s Chinese Room though experiment is a famous logical argument that illustrates this. The simple act of following instructions – which is all a computer can do – never results in actually knowing what those instructions mean, or what it is doing. The knowing aspect of mind – the consciousness – is not computable.

Not only can consciousness not be simulated or synthesized by a computer, it cannot be found in a computer or computer program. It cannot magically emerge in a computer of sufficient complexity.

For example, suppose we build up a computer or computer program by gradually adding tiny bits of additional complexity — at what point does it suddenly transition from being not-conscious to being conscious? There is no sudden transition to consciousness — I call that kind of thinking “magical complexity” – and many people today are guilty of it. However it’s just an intellectual cop-out. There is nothing special about complexity that suddenly and magically causes consciousness to appear out of nowhere.

Consciousness is not an emergent property of anything, nor is dependent on anything. It does not come from the brain, and it does not depend on the brain. It is not part of the brain either. Instead, it would be more correct to say that brain is perhaps an instrument of consciousness, or a projection that occurs within consciousness.

One analogy is that the brain channels consciousness, like an electrical circuit channels electricity. In a circuit the electricity does not come from the circuitry, it’s fundamentally the energy of the universe – the circuit is just a conduit for it.

A better analogy however is that the brain is actually a projection of conscious just as a character in a dream is a projection of the dreaming mind. Within a dream there can be fully functional, free-standing characters that have bodies, personalities and that seem to have minds of their own, but in fact they are all just projections of the dreaming mind. Similarly the brain appears to be a machine that functions a certain way, but it is less fundamental than the consciousness that projects it.

How could this be the case, it sounds so strange! However, if I phrase it differently all of a sudden it sounds perfectly normal. Instead of “consciousness” let’s say “space-time.” The brain is a projection of space-time, space-time does not emerge from the brain. That sounds perfectly reasonable.

The key is that we have to think of consciousness as the same level of phenomena as space-time, as a fundamental aspect of the universe. The brain is a space-time-consciousness machine, and the conceptual mind is what that machine is experiencing and doing. However, space-time-consciousness is more fundamental than the machinery of the brain, and even when the brain dies, space-time-consciousness continues.

For the above reasons, I think that consciousness proves that the universe is not a computer — at least not on the ultimate, final level of analysis. Even if the universe contains computers, or contains processes that compute, the ultimate level of reality is probably not a computer.

But let’s, for the purpose of being thorough, suppose that we take the opposite view, that the universe IS a computer and everything in it is a computation. This view leads to all sorts of problems.

If we say that the universe is a computation, it would imply that everything — all energy, space, time and consciousness — are taking place within the computation. But then what is the computation coming from and where is it happening? A computation requires a computer to compute it — some substrate that does the computation. Where is this substrate? What is it made of? It cannot also be made of energy, space, time or consciousness — those are all “inside” the computation, they are not the substrate, the computer.

Where is the computer that generates this universal computation? Is it generating itself? That is a circular reference that doesn’t make sense. For example, you can’t make a computer program that generates the computer that runs it. The computer has to be there before the program, it can’t come from the program. A computation requires a computer to compute it, and that computer cannot be the same thing as the computation it generates.

If we posit a computer that exists beyond everything – beyond energy, space and time — how could it compute anything? Computation requires energy, space and time — without energy there is no information, and without space and time there is no change, and thus no computation. A computer that exists beyond everything could not actually do any computation.

One might try to answer this by saying that the universal computation takes place on a computer that exists in a meta-level space-time beyond ours — in other words it exists in a meta-universe beyond our universe. But that answer contradicts the claim that our universe is a computer – because it means that what appears to be a universe computer is really not the final level of reality. The final level of reality in this case is the meta-universe that contains the computer that is computing our universe. That just pushes the problem down a level.

Alternatively one could claim that in fact the meta-universe beyond our universe is also a computer – So our universe computer exists inside a meta-level universe computer. In this case it’s “computers all the way down” – an infinite regress of meta-computers containing meta-computers containing meta-computers. But to claim that is a bit of a logical cop-out, because then there is no final computer behind it all – thus there is no source or end of computation. If such infinite chains of computations could exist it would be difficult to say they actually compute anything since they could never start or complete, and thus this claim is not that unlike claiming that the universe is NOT a computer.

In the end we face the same metaphysical problems we’ve always faced – either there is a fundamental level of reality that we cannot ever really understand, or we fall into paradoxes and infinite regress. Digital physics may have some explanatory power, but it has its limits.

But then what does it mean that we find error correcting codes in the equations of supersymmetry? If the fundamental laws of our universe contain computer codes in them, how can we say the universe is not a computer? Perhaps the universe IS a computer, but it’s a computer that is appearing within something that fundamentally is not computable, something like consciousness perhaps. But can something that is not computable generate or contain computations? That’s an interesting question.

Consciousness is certainly capable of containing computations, even if it is not a computation. A simple example of this would be a dream about a computer that is computing something. In such a dream there is an actual computer doing computations, but the computer and the computations depend on something (consciousness) that is not coming from a computer and is not a computation.

In the end I think it’s more likely that ultimate reality is not a computer – that it is a field of consciousness that is beyond computation. But that doesn’t mean that universes that appear to be computations can’t appear within it.

“Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.” — Chuang Chou

Further Reading

If you are interested in exploring the nature of consciousness more directly, the next article in this series, Recognizing The Significance of Consciousness, explains what consciousness is actually like, in its pure form, and how to develop a better recognition of it for yourself.