The Big Questions

The other day I mused on Twitter about three big origin questions: the origin of the universe, the origin of life, and the origin of consciousness. Which isn’t to say they are related, just that they’re all interesting and important (and currently nowhere near solved). Physicists have taken stabs at the life question, but (with a few dramatic exceptions) they’ve mostly stayed away from consciousness. Probably for the best.

Here’s Ed Witten giving his own personal — and characteristically sensible — opinion, which is that consciousness is a really knotty problem, although not so difficult that we should start contemplating changing the laws of physics in order to solve it. Though I am more optimistic than he is that we’ll understand it on a reasonable timescale. (Hat tip to Ash Jogalekar.)

Anyone seriously interested in tackling these big questions would be well-served by acknowledging that much (most? almost all?) progress in science is incremental, sneaking up on major discoveries by a series of small steps rather than leaping right to a dramatic new paradigm. Even if you want to understand the origin of the universe, it might behoove you to think about some more specific and tractable problems, like the nature of quantum fluctuations in inflation, or the emergence of spacetime in string theory. If you want to understand the origin of consciousness, it’s a good strategy to think about something like our perception of color, with the idea of working your way up to the more challenging issues.

Conversely, it’s these big questions that attract crackpots like honey attracts flies. I get a lot of emails (and physical letters) from cranks, but they never have a new theory of the branching ratio of the Higgs boson into four leptons; it’s always about the nature of space and time and everything. It’s too easy for anyone to have an opinion about these big questions, whether or not those opinions are worth paying attention to.

All of which leads up to saying: it’s still worth tackling the big questions! Start small, but think big. Because they are so hard, it’s too easy to make fun of attempts to solve the biggest questions, or to imagine that they are irreducibly mysterious and will never be solved. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we had quite compelling pictures of the origin of the universe, life, and consciousness within the next hundred years. But only if we’re willing to tackle the big problems seriously.

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71 Responses to The Big Questions

  1. Joan Hendricks says:

    Didn’t consciousness evolve like all the other senses? I have trouble seeing why this would be a mystery. Self-awareness is not limited to humans but exists in many other well-developed species. Maybe it started with pain – which surely developed as a life saving sense. Is consciousness deemed a mystery because of human hubris like so many other things in the past?

  2. Jshobe says:

    Judging from the numerous admonishments in this post, you’ve been getting heaps of crank notes, posts, letters… hopefully not phone calls. Starting small, I’d say get some rest. The big questions drive everyone, the answers will come.

  3. Simon Morley says:

    Perhaps science doesn’t have all the answers because some fundamental questions aren’t necessarily “science” question’s
    But could you possibly countenance such an idea?? It would mean ‘thinking outside the box’ for you…

    For example, Time is merely a word (an abstract) – and so semantics can explains Time entirely – something that simply eludes science utterly, though you keep trying!

    …Or stay trapped by the limits of the science cognitive envelope

  4. Wilhelmus de Wilde says:

    and WHAT about the WHY ?

  5. Arko Bose says:

    Yes Sean, the points you make are really important and I thank for making them. Let us start by eschewing falsifiability from science so that the cranks may not get a free rein!

  6. So the issue concerning whether or not there are sorts of questions that are too fundamental ever to be analyzed is not addressed. Not to say that physical explanations may or may not lie at the root of these things (that is another argument) but that human consciousness due to limitations inherent in the nature of the universe and consciousness is not capable of fully reducing them. For example the “cause” of the big bang might be such a problem for reasons of universe history and the reality of time. We simply cannot do other than speculate about what might have been before the conditions under which we analyze and reduce phenomena came to exist. There is nothing in the present laws and conditions that serves as a marker for what laws and conditions might have existed before the present ones. Life may or may not be such a question, but consciousness itself might very well be. All of this analysis and reduction of which science speaks is done through consciousness! It might be that it is impossible, epistemologically speaking, to fully reduce consciousness through consciousness!

  7. Kasuha says:

    Consciousness is in my opinion the process of observing the world around us, modelling events of that world to anticipate future, comparing these anticipations with reality and updating the model for better future function.
    I believe consciousness is logical result of evolution. An organism with a model of the universe running in its brain that’s warning it about potential hazards before they actually happened has much better chances to survive than an organism that doesn’t have one. And I believe there’s little doubt that large animals are conscious. Following the line down the evolution ladder, there is no single point where we can say consciousness has disappeared. Just the complexity of the “model” goes down many orders of magnitude until we end up at the very definition of what is life.

  8. kashyap vasavada says:

    Before understanding consciousness, we have to understand quantum mechanics. As you found out in connection with MWI , there is no consensus even after 90 years of debate! Like it or not most of the interpretations are bordering on metaphysics!

  9. Neil says:

    Consciousness is software. It is the brain’s internal dynamic and constantly updating model of the organism interacting with its environment. It is used for planning and for processing novel sensory input when the brain’s “autopilot” (which relies on expected states) is not sufficient. To function, the model constructs notions of self, agency, focused attention, intentionality and all those other concepts that philosophers angst about. The qualia are like the imaginary buttons and levers on my computer screen–subjective phenomena that make the model user friendly to the organism.

    The joy of big open questions is that anyone, even I, can pose answers.

  10. Sandra Wilde says:

    I know a lot of people – not cranks but New Agey types – who are convinced that fields like quantum mechanics have “proven” stuff like “we create our own reality” and the validity of ESP. What do you think is the best single response to them? ( a little off-topic, but seems connected).

  11. Justin Loe says:

    Long comment: (perhaps excessive)

    I’m familiar with some of the putative explanations for consciousness: (incomplete list)
    1. physicalism: variants of quantum mechanics: Roger Penrose (quantum coherence in microtubules), Henry Stapp, Karl Pribam (based on Bohm’s theory of QM)
    2. physicalism: emergent complexity: Murray Gell-Mann
    3. dualism: Descartes: consciousness is explained by an immaterial domain which interacts with the brain via the pineal gland
    4. physicalism: Antonio Damasio: consciousness is simply the product of brain tissue activity, dualism is false, materialism is the primary explanation. His well-known book is Descartes’ Error.
    5. physicalism: Marvin Minsky: consciousness is the product of computation, the brain is a computer, functionalism explanation. A brain could be simulated on any computer.
    6. dualism: David Chalmers: opposed to materialism explanations of consciousness. He favors dualism. Consciousness cannot be explained by physicalism. (his arguments are much more complex than this of course)

    Most scientists favor physicalism over dualism. My sense would be that most philosophers would favor physicalism over dualism. David Chalmers is a serious philsopher, who raises significant questions for physicalism. Among all of these explanations, the dualist explanations leave consciousness out of the domain of science for the forseeable future if not permanently.

    Of the physicalist explanations, Invoking quantum mechanics to explain consciousness has not been useful (for the time being), and hasn’t contributed to any current explanations of brain function. Most would argue that there is currently no evidence for quantum mechanical effects in the brain. Penrose’s arguments have not been accepted. The computational explanation has been advocated for some time. There are some strong reasons to believe that it is true, but no proof.

    Damasio as I recall, does not advocate a particular mechanism underlying the physicalist explantion (i.e. that brain tissue alone accounts for consciousness). The evidence for physicalism is strong in the sense that damage of brain tissue is directly connected to disruptions of brain function. It is hard to argue that brain tissue does not produce brain function. However, that is as far as we can go at the moment. We don’t understand how a set of neurons produces brain function. We don’t understand whether consciousness can only be produced by neurons or whether it could be produced on a sufficiently powerful computer. If consciousness is an emergent property, where does it emerge? How much complexity produces consciousness? Does a single cell have some level of consciousness? Are x number of neurons required? Perhaps 1 million, etc?

    Overall, I vote against the computational explanations. I vote against the quantum mechanical explanations. Descartes explanation of a dualism that interacts with the pineal gland is no longer credible. Among the explanations listed, emergent complexity of the physicalist theories is the most persuasive for me, and Chalmers is the most persuasive among the dualist theories.

    I prefer the emergent complexity approach, but, overall, there is a very,very long way to go in the area of consciousness research. We’re not very close just yet.

    My summary opinion:
    I personally don’t find quantum mechanical explanations of brain activity to be useful. Although various people have presented arguments in this area are extremely well-qualified, no strong evidence has emerged to support their positions. So, it is currently premature to advocate QM as an explanation for consciousness.

    Any of the physicalist explanations may yet turn out to be true. It may also turn out that Chalmers is correct, and that mental properties, i.e. qualia operate outside of currently understood physical laws.

    Chalmers explanation is unsatisfying because it again suggests that there is a domain that is outside of possible scientific explanation. That may be true, but past experience suggests that it is unlikely.

    It would be puzzling that one property that we observe, i.e. our own experience of being consciousness, cannot be understood by science, while everything else that we observe can. Consciousness does not lie outside the domain of science, in my view, whatever its underlying mechanisms may be.

  12. Ray Gedaly says:

    As a self-admitted “crank,” I would still like to express my opinions.

    1. The standard interpretation of QM implies a relationship between the origin of the universe and the origin of consciousness. That it seems so nonsensical is what drives alternative interpretations.

    2. We may have a better understanding of the origin of consciousness within the next twenty years. As computers continue to increase in sophistication, we may learn that consciousness is an emergent property of a sufficiently large number of neural pathways and interconnections. Or if computers with neural networks equal to those of the human brain show no signs of consciousness, then that sets limits on the possible nature of consciousness.

    3. It seems to me that we’re missing some fundamental process or catalyst that’s required to get life started. We need to consider that it should be far easier to artificially create life in a laboratory than for it to get started on its own. The only “known” missing ingredient we cannot duplicate is time. But time is mostly significant to getting random processes or ingredients to come together naturally; if we’re deliberating trying to create life, the time element shouldn’t be a factor. But since we’re not able to cook up life, I suspect we’re missing something very basic. And when we figure it out, it may be so something so simple and obvious that we’ll wonder why we didn’t recognize it sooner.

  13. darrelle says:

    I have yet to come across a valid argument, or any reasonable evidence, to suppose that consciousness can not be usefully investigated and eventually modeled by using the methods of science. Such arguments always seem to boil down to arguments from ignorance or incredulity, and almost always reveal a prior committment to the idea of human specialness, in some magical sense, to one degree or another.

  14. Brent Meeker says:

    Theoreticians like to think they are on the cutting edge of solving problems, but it’s not always so. In many cases problems have to wait for technology and they are “solved” by engineers. Theoreticians just come around and tidy up. I suspect consciousness may be like that. As aritificially intelligent autonomous machines are developed, as planetary probes like Mars rovers for example, they will behave more and more like conscious beings. And we will understand how to make a machine that is more or less aggressive, or resolute or artistic or humorous or philosophical. We will integrate perception of IR, gravitometers, and internal states. Creation of narrative memories will be part of learning algorithms. It will be realized that there are many different possible kinds of thought and consciousness. Questions about what is consciousness and Chalmers hard problem will be seen as misconceived, like biologists asking for where the elan vitale resides. The problem of consciousness won’t be solved, but it will be dissolved…into thousands of technical subquestions.

  15. mark says:

    Consciousness is just the complexity of the human feed-back loop, no? See: Douglas Hofstadteer, “I Am a Strange Loop.” No need to bring quantum mechanics or the big bang into it.

  16. Simon Packer says:

    It is debatable whether incremental progress in ‘cosmological seeding’, AI and biochemistry relating to abiogenesis is really occuring at all. These fields are not throwing up any real leads at all on the relevant origins. There is no incremental progress on these issues, just no answers at all. Science has made great progress in recent centuries, but not on these issues.

    Our whole cognitive framework and language set, our whole ability to say ‘true’ or ‘false’, is necessarily constrained by a whole set of preconditions implicit in our human ‘hardware’; who and what we are. Our computers just do our own simplistic things very fast. Our machines extent our observational and computational capacities but we remain constrained by their interactions with own limitations.

    We are organisms, or machines if you wish, with finite and probably pre-limited capacities for perception, cognition, deduction and conceptualization. These limitations are our starting point, and we cannot change them. Our individual and corporate model of reality is constrained by who we are. There is no guarantee whatsoever that determined and continuing pursuit of an accurate concept of reality will ever converge with the totality of reality itself.

    The scientific method relied upon for accurate ultimate answers is the unjustified veneration of human sensory modes and mind.

  17. Reginald Selkirk says:

    Here’s Ed Witten giving his own personal — and characteristically sensible — opinion, which is that consciousness is a really knotty problem, although not so difficult that we should start contemplating changing the laws of physics in order to solve it…

    I have to point out that Witten is not a neuroscientist. Why not find someone more qualified to opine on the topic?

  18. Reginald Selkirk says:

    Simon Packer, upon whom I will not waste much time this go-around: It is debatable whether incremental progress in … biochemistry relating to abiogenesis is really occuring at all. These fields are not throwing up any real leads at all on the relevant origins. There is no incremental progress on these issues, just no answers at all. Science has made great progress in recent centuries, but not on these issues.

    2009: RNA world easier to make

  19. John Barrett says:

    If all of science was solved and completed within the next 100 years, it would just mean that science was wrong and something in it prevented the advancement of new discoveries. It would just be a start of a new age were progress stood at for a very long time. Good science or correct science would always be able to be advanced upon one day after another.

  20. Not Sean Carroll says:

    Witten says “… quantum mechanics kind of has an all-embracing property, that, to completely make sense, has to be applied to everything in sight, including, ultimately, the observer. But trying to apply quantum mechanics to ourselves makes us extremely uncomfortable, especially because of our consciousness…”

    This seems somewhat connected to your ideas about self-locating on branches, in the many-worlds interpretation. Would you care to make any comments about this? Thanks!

  21. Adam H says:

    Sandra Wilde on March 5, 2015 at 8:52 am
    I know a lot of people – not cranks but New Agey types – who are convinced that fields like quantum mechanics have “proven” stuff like “we create our own reality” and the validity of ESP. What do you think is the best single response to them? ( a little off-topic, but seems connected).

    Best response is that they are cranks.

  22. James Gallagher says:

    What ever is there on the macro scale, evolution probably discovered it (restricted to Earth conditions)

    Over 4 billion years, evolution probed reality for us (restricted to Earth conditions).

    So maybe we should wonder if we, dumb scientists, have missed anything, that it took an even more dumb guy 4 billion years to discover

    We don’t have telepathic cats and levitating birds for a good reason – it’s not possible

  23. John Barrett says:

    @Not Sean Carroll

    According to Sean Carroll we are just all monkeys typing away on typewriters. Then there are only a select few of us that just happen to have anything legible due to statistical probabilities. There would be fewer of us still that just happen to be randomly thinking about what we are typing fluently, just creating the illusion that we actually know what we are doing. Wow! I must be one of the luckiest people alive! Here I thought I always had bad luck…

  24. Brent Meeker says:

    James Gallagher says: March 5, 2015 at 2:56 pm

    “What ever is there on the macro scale, evolution probably discovered it (restricted to Earth conditions)

    Over 4 billion years, evolution probed reality for us (restricted to Earth conditions).”

    But it’s hard to attribute consciousness to evolution because natural selection can’t “see” consciousness. It can only select for intelligence. So consciousness must either be a necessary aspect of intelligence or a spandrel.