Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

The Physics of Symbols Evolved before Consciousness

Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

The Physics of Symbols Evolved before Consciousness

Article excerpt

A strategy of basic physics research is to thoroughly understand the simplest case before attacking the hardest case. I have found that by exploring the meanings of subject and object, symbols, and phenomena at the level of the cell, their meanings can be more clearly understood at the higher evolved levels (Pattee, 1969, 1982).

This strategy means that to understand the foundations of human consciousness, one should first understand awareness, which requires understanding the senses, which in turn requires understanding the fundamental subject-object relation and the origin of phenomena and symbols (Pattee, 2015). Full understanding must also involve their origins and evolution. There are other reasons I do not find human consciousness as the most instructive, productive, or dependable level to begin a study of foundations.

First, from an evolutionary perspective consciousness, as understood at the higher levels, does not appear to have any necessary role in any individual organism being alive. (1)

Second, there is very little knowledge, and certainly no agreement, about when or why any level of self-awareness or consciousness first evolved. Third, the cognitive sciences now provide convincing evidence that the phenomena that appear to our conscious mind are only a small fraction of the brain's unconscious perceptual and cognitive activity. There are many levels of consciousness, and what appears at any conscious level is under the control of the unconscious brain. We have no dependable subjective access to any of the preconscious processing that results in conscious phenomenon (e.g., Churchland, 2002; Changeaux and Dehaene, 2011).

Fourth, most of our basic sensorimotor activities are unconscious, such as grasping, walking, gesturing, etc. At higher cognitive levels there is also good evidence that great discoveries in mathematics, physics, and creativity in the arts arise in the unconscious mind by unknown abductive search and incubation processes that appear in consciousness as a sudden epiphany. (2)

Fifth, conscious attempts at introspection are often deceptive and always reach a dead end.

Sixth, there is no fundamental physical theory that involves a conscious observer. This includes quantum measurement.

Finally, in context of the long-term evolutionary future of our species, the adaptive value of phenomena appearing to human consciousness is far from clear. The expressions of conscious thought, which include reason, religion, the arts and sciences are certainly impressive, and are considered as the species' greatest accomplishments. On the other hand, they are also responsible for deadly ideological conflicts and Promethean technologies that over evolutionary time scales have no certain or obvious survival value. So far, the lower species that lack the human level of consciousness have a far longer record of survival.

The phenomenologist's first objection to this approach is to point out that all our knowledge, including theories of evolution, physics, and the neurosciences, is still ultimately derived from subjective human phenomena, which are our only source of experience. This is obviously the case, but to the physicist this raises the most interesting problem. The interesting problem is how these subjective phenomena correspond to what does not depend on subjective experience. Physics call this objective knowledge. Any concept of subject or self implies the existence of an object or non-self. For physics the relation of subject to object has always been the fundamental problem.

Of course this problem implies an epistemology that recognizes the subject/object distinction, and that is the issue I am going to discuss first because it is the basis of the interpretations of quantum mechanics.

Interpreters of quantum mechanics very often do not distinguish the unique quantum mechanical problems from the general epistemic problems that apply to all knowledge. …

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