“All reality is virtual” — Terrence McKenna
This is Part II of my article “The Global Brain is About to Wake Up” — about the realtime Web and how it relates to the emerging Global Brain.
Here I focus mainly on thorny philosophical and scientific speculations about the nature of consciousness, the role it plays in the universe, and whether or not the Web can ever be said to be conscious in its own right. Beware — this content may not be of interest to most of my readers. It’s certainly in the “wild speculation” category.
Will the Web Become Conscious?
As the realtime Web gets faster and richer, it will begin to appear to be more cohesive and collectively intelligent. It will begin to appear like an actual, unified Global Brain, rather than just a crowd. Instead of being just a collection of interacting parts we will be able to see it as a functioning whole — a kind of entity in its own right. We will also be able to see this collective “entitiness” emerge for subsets of the whole Web? For example will nations, organizations, markets, industries, enterprises, workgroups and teams start to seem more intelligent? The Web will get smarter and faster, at every level of collective cognition but will it ever actually become conscious?
Yes and no.
It will become collectively more intelligent, and the consciousnesses of individuals around the Web will be more connected and potentially synchronized. But the Web itself won’t actually have it’s own new consciousness, unique from the consciousnesses of the people who participate in it. Still it will seem more conscious than it was before, simply by virtue of the human consciousnesses within it being more connected and focused.
I don’t think the Web will actually develop or have its own meta-level consciousness however. It won’t evolve some new form of Web-scale consciousness that is totally separate from the individual consciousness of the people on the Web. A Web-scale sentient entity that is unique and separate from the humans minds on the Web will never exist. That will never happen. Instead, the Web as a whole will evolve to better utilize the human consciousness that is already present within it — the consciousness that we human beings already have.
The Irreplaceable Role of Humans in the Web
As conscious entities, we humans play a unique and irreplaceable role in the realtime Web and the Global Brain. We provide the only consciousness the Web will ever have. Machines may be able to sense and measure what is going on, and even make sense of it for us in ways that transcend the abilities of the individual human brain, but they won’t be able to be conscious of what is going on the way that we humans can be.
We human beings are the consciousness of the Web — that is our special role. No machine or set of machines can replicate consciousness, not even the entire Web as a single machine. However there is a distinction to be made between consciousness and intelligence.
Machines can certainly be made to be intelligent, and that applies even to the entire Web as a machine as well. The Web is getting more intelligent, and as this happens it is becoming our Global Brain. But it’s not becoming more conscious. Rather, we humans are becoming more conscious of the Web and what is going on within it. Humans are becoming able to be more conscious of the Web, but the Web itself is not becoming conscious at all, let alone more conscious. This is a key point to keep in mind.
Until recently humans have been watching the Web in slow motion. We can only see small glimpses at a time. The individual human brain cannot comprehend the vast patterns that are taking place on the Web, and there are few software tools that can make sense of them for us either. It’s just too big and complex a system, and the patterns which comprise its collective thoughts — the thoughts of the Global Brain — are too spread out in time and space.
We humans are barely able to be lucidly conscious in our little nows — which are really just spans of a few square meters, and a few minutes, at a time — but the collectively intelligent processes and patterns out on the Web cover thousands of miles and can span days, weeks, months or even years. They just don’t fit in our little human nows. The solution is to find a way to visualize them so we can digest them in our little nows. That’s the only practical approach — unless someone figures out how to expand the individual human now.
Fortunately, there are several trends that are going help with this process. As the Web gets faster, processes that used to take too long for us to follow them will become short enough for individuals to watch them play out in reasonable timespans, without getting lost or overwhelmed. The collective thoughts of the Web are starting to happen fast enough for our human minds to see them emerge, change, and interact on our human timescale of minutes and hours. Instead of watching memes develop and spread on the Web as if in slow-motion, we are starting to see and measure them in our timescale, at our speed.
In addition as the Web gets more computationally powerful — computers and software will be able to help us see what is going on beyond the limits of our human nows — larger volumes of data changing over larger spans of time than we can grasp on our own. This too will help to compress and visualize patterns and processes that were previously beyond our comprehension in ways that we can make sense of as individual human observers with our small brains and short nows.
Both of these trends will enable individual human minds to comprehend larger and more complex processes and patterns within the Web. And as individuals become able to be conscious of larger and more complex patterns taking place within the Web, they will be able to react and adapt to those patterns in their own individual behavior. This feedback loop will give rise to increasingly intelligent collective adaptation and behavior. And thus the Web as a whole — the Global Brain that includes humans, machines, software, and all our infrastructure — will appear to become increasingly smart.
Humans drive this process by simply being conscious observers of the Web, and by making intelligent decisions, adding content and taking actions online. But we’re not the only ones. Software will also play a role in this — adding intelligence and content, but not consciousness, to the process.
How Important is Consciousness Anyway?
But how important is human consciousness to the Web, and the Global Brain? One might wonder whether human consciousness really matters in all this, or whether it’s enough just to have non-conscious but intelligent machines?
Would the Global Brain be different without humans there to witness it? If there were no humans in it, but just non-conscious artificially intelligent software that simply follows rules or uses statistics and algorithms — would the Global Brain be more or less conscious or intelligent?
This is actually an absurd question. Without humans there would not be a Web, let alone a Global Brain. But let’s just suspend that for a moment and ask the question in a different way. Suppose that at some time in the distant future, all humans die, but the Web remains. Would the Web still contain any consciousness on it’s own?
I think the answer is no. This ultimately goes back to John Searle’s concept of Qualia. In a nutshell, there is nothing on the Web, apart from humans, that is capable of experiencing qualia — the actual knowing of any experience. So there is nothing on the Web that is capable of being conscious, apart from the humans who participate in it. Without the humans, there could be no consciousness in or on the Web.
There is a difference between being conscious of the qualia of something, and simply measuring data about something. Qualia is special — as strange and potentially hocus-pocus at that may sound. I just don’t believe qualia is something that can be synthesized in a machine or by any algorithm. Being conscious of the Web is not the same as simply measuring data flows. I believe there is a distinct quality of “knowing” or “being aware” that is the hallmark of actual consciousness and which simply cannot be synthesized in a computer.
From what I can tell, qualia is something unique to being sentient, in other words, aware. And awareness is something special as far as I can tell — I think it might be fundamental like space and time, not something we can create or synthesize, and not something emergent. Again this just my opinion — but I think it’s a defensible one.
The Unexplainableness of Consciousness
I’ve spent decades thinking about the question of consciousness, and whether machines can ever be conscious, and I have never found it plausible to make conscious machines.
Quite the contrary — the more I have examined this question, the more clear it has become to me that consciousness is special — it is something that simply cannot even be described, and literally cannot be found — yet it is undeniably taking place. Ontologically consciousness is similar to space and time — we cannot find space or time, we cannot isolate them or grasp their substance, yet they are undeniably taking place. Consciousness seems to be just like that. Unexplainable, yet undeniable.
I’m something of a mystic with regard to consciousness — but not in a blind way. I’ve come to this view only after really trying to avoid it — through very thorough and painstaking investigation from just about every perspective on it — neuroscience, cognitive science, artificial intelligence, linguistics, philosophy, physics, cosmology, and religion and spirituality.
Consciousness appears finally to be something we just cannot explain, let alone synthesize, and I’d be willing to bet that it’s always going to be beyond our reach. In fact I have made such a bet at the Long Bets project: You can read more about this in my article, “Why Machines Will Never be Conscious.”
Given that I view consciousness as something primordial and beyond physics, from my perspective at least, I don’t think we can manufacture it. I also doubt it will simply magically emerge on the Web, apart from individual human minds.
Consciousness is Neither Emergent Nor Reducible.
But wait. Certainly there is a case to be made that if consciousness can emerge within the human brain, then why not within the Web? The human brain is essentially a more complex Web after all. Why is one kind of Web any more or less qualified to be conscious?
My present answer to this is that I don’t think consciousness ever emerges through some physical process — it’s never created or destroyed, and even when said to be present it’s not “there” like other kinds of things. It doesn’t appear as something, it has no form, shape, color, etc. It cannot be found or grasped at all. It is similar to space in these respects.
Space is never created or destroyed — at least as far as we can tell from within this universe. Similarly, consciousness is never created or destroyed as far as we can tell as conscious observers. That’s just how the universe is — it’s a mystery that is bigger than us. We’ll never be able to comprehend it fully from inside it. Consciousness seems to have the same ontological status as space. The difference is that while space is inert, incapable of observing or knowing, consciousness seems to have a quality of knowing that is quite unique.
My point is actually that the human brain is NOT special. I don’t actually think consciousness comes from the brain or is inside the brain, or running like some kind of software on the hardware of the brain.
If consciousness were merely some physical phenomenon that depended on the brain, then it would be no problem to synthesize it, not just for AI but for the Web as a whole as well. But that’s not the case, in my opinion.
I don’t think consciousness is a material thing, nor is it an emergent phenomena. I think it’s fundamental to the nature of the universe — like space and time — or perhaps even more fundamental than space and time. We can’t create it. We’ll probably never fully understand it. It just is there from the start. It’s the very basis of the entire phenomena of the universe, it’s not merely something that evolves and emerges within the universe. Indeed, I would venture to state that without consciousness — at least in primordial form — no universes would even be possible or would ever arise.
In my view, material things like the physical universe and the human body and brain, emerge from consciousness, rather than consciousness emerging from material things. Consciousness, whatever it is, is primordial and fundamental. Whether or not you reify it as a fundamental first-cause or ultimate thing, or you take the Buddhist view that it is also empty of any entity or nature and therefore not a thing, it is still at least totally primordial.
This isn’t just speculation — it’s something that can both be observed and is entirely logical as well. For example, if you really look closely at what you or anyone can possibly ever observe, it appears this is the only tenable answer we can find. Why? Because we cannot observe anything prior to being conscious ourselves — consciousness is necessary to be an observer. We can’t even ask such questions if we are not conscious in the first place. Consciousness is assumed, and must already be there, as soon as we even start looking for it.
Furthermore, the example of dreams proves that incredibly real virtual worlds, entire universes, can indeed appear and take place within the sphere of an individual dreaming consciousness — and they are indistinguishable (while they occur) from waking experience. Dreaming illustrates the power and scope of consciousness — it shows that it is not absurd to think that the our own so-called waking experience could be appearing like a dream within our own fields of consciousness. Waking experience, like dreaming, happens within the sphere of consciousness. It’s impossible to have waking experience without being conscious.
We have no evidence of there being anything beyond the sphere of consciousness and we cannot possibly observe anything without resorting to consciousness in the process to make the observation. There is no way to logically establish that there exists anything beyond or before the scope of consciousness. Anything we attempt to prove or observer is mediated by our own observing consciousness.
For this reason, as far as I or anyone can ever discern, it is reasonable to posit that each of our unique perspectives — each of our minds — contains the universe from one perspective. It’s similar to a hologram — where each piece of the picture contains the whole picture from a different angle. In the case of consciousness, each individual consciousness is one unique perspective on the universe. And the universe itself cannot be found apart from all these conscious perspectives on it. It’s not “out there” as some separate physical thing that these consciousnesses are simply watching from afar — it is literally a manifestation of these consciousnesses, there is no duality between observer and what is observed at the quantum level.
All the evidence points to consciousness being prior to everything else. There is in fact no evidence that indicates otherwise. As a result I don’t believe consciousness is emergent or reducible. I don’t think it is created or destroyed. And even when present it is not actually findable, because it is basically an axiom of the system we are in. It’s primordial and so we cannot sense it or detect it, other than with consciousness itself. There’s nothing more fundamental to break it down into, or to compare or contrast it against.
Consciousness and the Quantum Substrate
From what I can discern so far, I believe that human consciousness — actual sentience, not simulated sentience — is fundamentally related to the fabric of space-time. It is woven right into the quantum substrate of reality.
At that level of reality there is not clear distinction between mind and matter, it’s some kind of whole that we barely understand. While computers may be able to simulate aspects of this, they do not actually interact directly with the quantum substrate the way that human consciousness does.
This is a big difference between machine minds and human minds: Human consciousness is directly connected to the fundamental quantum nature of the universe, and quite probably plays a role in creating or at least conditioning observed reality. Computer programs — no matter how sophisticated — are not connected to the quantum substrate in the same way — they are not capable of being true quantum observers.
There is at least some evidence for my view of consciousness: On a quantum level, observation and measurement seem to have an impact on what is actually found to occur. The observer affects the experiment. All forms of observation eventually seem to require a human — or equivalently conscious — observer at some point in the process — there’s no escaping that. Without such an observer, the universe remains in an indeterminate quantum state. So it appears that human consciousness — or at least authentic actual consciousness whether human or not — is required to cause the quantum field to actually crystallize into particular events.
On the other hand, there is no evidence that computers can ever be conscious; no evidence that synthetic sentient observers can be created, and even if we created them, there would be no way to prove that their powers of observation were equivalent to our own. Any observations they made of them would ultimately be observed by us humans, and so we would always be the final conscious observers in the chain.
On a quantum level, our observation of our machines, would cascade downwards, causing their observations of reality to have an effect. Without our observing them, machines would not be able to actually affect the quantum level of reality. And indeed it would be difficult to try to prove otherwise, because a human observer is necessary to observe any such proof or system we can devise (and in fact, quantum observer effects have been shown even to propagate backwards in time from a later act of observation to an earlier experiment). So there’s just no way to take human consciousness out of the loop.
We cannot prove that human consciousness isn’t necessary for our universe to appear. We cannot prove that machines can function as independent quantum observers, separate from human observation, and we probably cannot devise any experiment or device which could prove that therefore. There’ s really no evidence to suggest that machines could synthesize this function — all the evidence in fact says otherwise. And this applies by extension to the Web as a whole, and thus to the Global Brain.
As a result, I think human consciousnesses play an absolutely crucial role in the universe, the Web, and in any eventual Global Brain or form of collective intelligence. Our consciousness is the only actual authentic consciousness in the system. And it plays an important and necessary role at a quantum level in shaping reality through quantum level acts of observation.
By the way, it’s worth noting that consciousness is not exclusively the domain of human beings — animals are also conscious for example. But human beings are at least the most intelligent conscious things that we know of, so I’m limiting this discussion of the Global Brain to humans. In any case, there is no substitute for actual consciousness. It can’t be synthesized. It comes only from humans. At best it can perhaps be aimed, funneled or maybe amplified.
But that doesn’t mean that machine intelligence won’t play a very important enabling and catalyzing role in making the Global Brain smarter. There’s a difference between consciousness and intelligence. In fact, machine intelligence is critical to the Global Brain waking up — because it makes the vast complexity of the Global Brain (in both space and time) comprehensible, digestible, and accessible to the individual human consciousnesses that observe it.
Although humans posses consciousness, our minds are limited in scope — we simply cannot see or make sense of patterns that are above a certain level of scale or complexity in space and time. We need help with that — and that’s where computers enter the story, with their vast abilities to calculate, sort, collate, correlate, and organize masses of data.
Computers essentially increase the scope of human consciousness, by enabling us to observe things and do computations that are beyond the abilities of the individual human brain. It is by making the vast patterns within the complex whole — the entire Web – more visible and understandable to the observers within it — the human consciousnesses within it — that the Global Brain actually becomes smarter, more reflexively-aware, and more collectively conscious.
By connecting individual human consciousnesses to the vast intelligence and knowledge of the growing global computing network, we will get the best of both: a Global Brain that gets increasingly collectively aware and intelligent.