Physics of Consciousness - Bernard Carr

Bernard Carr - Cosmology

Bernard Carr

Bernard J. Carr is a Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy at Queen Mary, University of London. His research interests include the early universe, dark matter, general relativity, primordial black holes, and the anthropic principle.

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Bernard
Carr

Mathematician and Astronomer, Univ. of London

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Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Bernard, a traditional approach to consciousness would be neuroscience, understanding the networks, the neurons in the brain. In recent times, physicists have been coming up with physical theories that you need to understand deeper levels to understand consciousness. Let's start a little bit earlier in terms of the importance of consciousness to explain. Is it something that's an accidental emergence right now that needs to be just explained in the evolution of the brain and the mind in terms of biochemical systems or is there something more fundamental?

Bernard Carr:

Well, first of all, it is quite correct that the majority of physicists, the majority of scientists assume that consciousness is just something which is exuded by the brain and it's something which presumably arises when the universe has generated sufficiently complex systems, like brains, and that therefore it's limited by the functioning of the brain and, of course, there is no doubt whatsoever that our conscious, our mental processes are affected by the brain. That's completely clear. We know that our perception of the world is affected by the brain and if you, if you play around with the brain, then you distort people's perception, so there's no doubt whatsoever that our experience of the world is affected by the brain and most people would assume that if there was no brain, there would be no, would be no consciousness. However, to say that the consciousness is actually generated by the brain is a completely extra step, which isn't implied by that. I mean, merely, merely knowing that the experience of consciousness is affected by the brain is not the same as saying that the brain actually generates the consciousness and, and there is a different view which says that actually consciousness is, in some sense, more fundamental and that the brain is merely a mechanism through which the consciousness can observe the universe. And this is sometimes called the filter theory of consciousness or transmission theory of consciousness, which actually goes all the way back to people like William James. And of course, that's a very different perspective and it's not a popular perspective because the standard view is the reductionist, sort of materialist view which says that consciousness suggests an epiphenomenon generated by the brain...

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

An emergent phenomenon.

Bernard Carr:

An emergent phenomena. This is saying, no, actually, consciousness is more fundamental and the brain's role is actually almost the limit to your experience. So the consciousness is there, but when you see the world through these eyes and hear it through these ears, in some sense, the brain is limiting your experience, which is, on the face of it, that might seem a completely bizarre thing to say, but that, at least, is the alternative view, that the consciousness is not actually generated by the brain, but merely foresees the world through the brain.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Many scientists would say that is a pre-scientific way to think about consciousness. We would think that consciousness is this mysterious thing until we understood all about the brain. The more we understand, the more we understand how the brain can produce it. We don't understand the whole way. John Searle talks about biological naturalism, so when we ultimately have the full theory of the brain, we'll have a full theory of consciousness, just like when we have a full theory of the kidney, we'll understand how it produces urine.

Bernard Carr:

I think the, that's fine: that, of course, that's what we call a promissory materialistic view, that that will happen, but the trouble is, at the moment, no one has any idea whatsoever, neither physicist nor neuroscientist, how the experience of consciousness, first personhood, is actually generated. We know a huge amount about the correlations between our experience and what goes on in the brain, and of course, that's hugely important. I'm not saying that's not a crucial question, but what I'm saying is that this doesn't actually explain the experience of consciousness and first personhood in itself. Indeed, it seems to me that it's almost impossible, in principle, that anything physical, certainly classically physical, would be able to explain the experience of consciousness, because by its very nature, consciousness is a unitary phenomenon and I've always found it very hard to understand how that could be generated by a physical system.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

So how do you do it? What are some alternatives? I'm not saying you have to have the right answers, but what are some possible answers? What are some conceivable ways that you can achieve that?

Bernard Carr:

Well, I suppose the, the only way I can see this is by having a picture in which, in some sense, consciousness is primary, that consciousness is a fundamental element of the universe. It isn't...it isn't...in other words, it's not just generated as a result, the endpoint of physical processes. In some sense, it's there from the beginning. It's a primary, a fundamental component, rather than a secondary component of the universe.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

So, this is a view that some people have and it branches into different kinds. Some people would say that consciousness is the totality of reality and the physical reality is a manifestation of the consciousness. Others would say that consciousness is a, one of the fundamental features of reality, irreducible, along with the physical things and that sort of produces this kind of world. One might, you know, be some kind of cosmic consciousness or some type of a theological consciousness in a god, and the other is more of a panpsychist, where every physical thing has imbued some element of consciousness as well. Is that kind of the spectrum of possibilities?

Bernard Carr:

Well, the point is there are a huge spectrum of possibilities and I certainly, I mean, I'm not a panpsychist, so I'm not, I'm not advocating from this that everything is conscious. I'm not advocating that bricks are conscious or anything like that, though there are some people who might, and it does become, from a philosophical perspective, quite tricky to define precisely what you mean by consciousness anyway because it's very hard to define these terms, but it's just the argument, the sort of self-awareness is not something, by its very nature, which can be produced by classical physics, certainly. Now, the question of whether it's something which can exist in quantum physics is a bit more subtle, but I would say even quantum physics is not able to, to explain consciousness.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

So then in your view, what then can? If consciousness has to be fundamental, is it fundamental as the only primary thing or one of the primary things?

Bernard Carr:

Well, I mean, obviously I don't claim to know because there's been a huge philosophical debate over this for hundreds of years. I would at least say it was on a par, you know, whether one regards consciousness as primary and math as secondary or math as primary and consciousness as secondary, I mean, that's, you could debate that for a long time, but all I'm saying is that I would like, I would actually see them on a par because I feel that the final picture of the world has in some sense got to marry both matter and mind. So, in some sense, they come together. And so the question of which is primary, I'm not sure it actually makes sense, even, because I prefer a picture in which matter and mind, in some sense, co-exist right from the beginning, but when I use the word mind there, you have to be a little bit careful. I'm using mind with a capital M, rather than the mind with a little M, which is generated by my brain. Clearly, the mind with the little M is generated, you know, is the result of physical processes because my brain, before my brain existed, Bernard Carr didn't exist, but I'm really talking about mind with a big M, you know, if you like consciousness with a big C, in some sense, when I talk about it.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Can you say anything more about your big M mind?

Bernard Carr:

Well, of course you can ask the question well, why does one believe the big M mind exists at all? And the trouble is that, when you start, I mean, the evidence for the big M mind, I would say, is a range of phenomena which most scientists are rather skeptical of. So I'm referring to, obviously, phenomena like telepathy, which suggests there's a connection between minds, and I suppose the experiences, mystical type experiences which people might have when they feel they've transcended their normal physical body and experienced the universe in some broader way, or even the more sort of mystical experiences, like out of body experiences. There's a whole range of phenomena which many scientists don't take seriously at all, but which nevertheless, those are the phenomena which are hard to explain in terms of the simple reductionist picture. You ask what is the evidence; I would say the evidence are these series of rather controversial phenomena.