Can Qualia Be Simulated?

January 19, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments

My response to this Quora question:

The Integrated Information Theory claims, that a computer simulation of a brain would produce the same behaviour, but wouldn’t have any qualia. If qualia don’t make any difference, does it mean, they don’t exist? Is it a contradiction?

There are several considerations upon which the answer to this question hinges:

  • The nature of simulation and behavior.
    1. The term simulation is an informal one. I don’t place a high value on discussing the definition of words, but I think that it is essential that if we are talking about something that exists in the world, we have to understand what that thing is supposed to be. I would say that the contemporary sense of ‘simulation’ goes back to early applications of computer software, specifically Flight Simulator programs. We have since become accustomed to using video ‘simulations’ of everything from fighting on a battlefield to performing surgery. Does it make sense to ask whether a flight simulator is producing the same behavior as an airplane? If it did, would we say that the program had produced a flight from Rome to New York? If the flight simulator crashed, would we have to have a funeral for the simulated passengers? I would say no. Common sense would tell us that the simulation is just software…the airplane isn’t real. This takes us to the next consideration, what is real?
    2. The term real is an informal one as well. We talk about ‘reality’ but that can refer to some abstract truth that we seem to agree on or to a concrete world that we seem to share. To understand why there may be an important difference between a simulation and the ‘real thing’ that is being simulated, we should approach it in a more rigorous way. Flying a real airplane involves tons of physical matter, as well as countless causal links to the world/universe. The real airplane is the result of billions of years of accumulated change in the physical universe, as well as the evolution of numerous species and societies to engineer flight. There is a common comparison of the flight of an airplane to the flight of a bird or insect, where we are meant to think of both types of physical acts as ‘flying’, even though that flight is accomplished in quite different ways. I think that this comparison, however, is misleading. I would look to the famous quote by Alfred Korzybski, “The map is not the territory” instead when relating to simulating consciousness. Whether it is a literal geographical map or some other piece of graphic ‘art’ that ‘maps’ to a potentially real (in the concrete, worldly sense) place, the idea is that just because something appears visually similar to us does not mean that there is any other deep connection between the two. I’m not a photograph of my face. I’m not even a video of myself talking. This understanding is also expressed in the famous Magritte painting “The Treachery of Images”.
  • The nature of qualia.
    • Properly understood, what the term ‘qualia’ refers to exists by definition. It can get a little mystical if we rely on descriptions of qualia such as “what X is like” or “what it is like to feel X”, so I think it adds clarity if we look at it this way: Qualia is what is experienced. Information is a concept. Matter is a concept. Concepts are experienced also, but what the concept of matter refers to should/must be divided into the idea of matter as defined by the Standard Model (which has to do with exotic elementary “particles/waves” such as bosons and fermions which make up slightly less exotic atoms). Physical matter is made of atoms on the periodic table.
    • What we experience directly is not physical matter. What we experience are aesthetic presentations with tactile/tangible qualities such as shape, position, weight, texture, etc. We can dream of worlds filled with tangible objects, and we can interact with them as if they were physical matter, but these dream objects are not composed of the elements on the periodic table. The question of whether these objects are real depends on whether we are able to wake up from the dream. If we do not ever awaken from a dream, I don’t see any way of evaluating the realism of the contents of the dream. To the contrary, when we do awaken from a dream, we are often puzzled by our acceptance of dream conditions which seem clearly absurd and impossible.
    • That fact is very important in my view, as it tells us that either it is impossible to ever know whether anything we are experiencing is real, or it tells us that if we can know reality when we truly experience it, then experience must be anchored to reality in way that is deeper than the contents of what is experienced. In other words, if I can’t tell that I’m dreaming when the pink elephant offers me a cigarette, and if I can have dreams which include false awakenings, then I can’t logically ever know that I’m not dreaming. If, however, actual awakening is unmistakable as it seems, then there must be some capacity of our consciousness to know reality that extends beyond any sort of empirical symptom or logical deduction.
    • Qualia then, refers to the inarguably real experience of the color red, regardless of whether that experience is associated with the excitation of physical matter producing visible-wavelength electromagnetism in our physical eyeballs, or whether that experience is purely in our imagination. If we want to say that even imagination is surely the product of physical activity in the brain, we can make that assumption of physicalism, but now we have two completely different sources of ‘red’. They are so mechanically different, and the conversion of either one of the sources into ‘experienced red’ is so poorly understood, that all that physicalism can offer is that somehow there must be some mathematical similarity between the visible EM in the eyeball and the invisible neurochemistry scattered in many different regions of the brain which will eventually account for their apparent unity. We do not seem to be able to define a difference between red that is seen in a dream and red that is seen through our eyes, and we also are not able to define how either a brain or photon produces that quale of experienced red. The hard problem of consciousness is to imagine a reason why any such thing as experienced red exists at all, when all physical evidence points only to biochemical changes which are not red.
  • The nature of information, physical matter, and qualia.
    • Now that we have separated qualia (aesthetic-participatory presentations) from matter (scientific concept of concrete structures in public space), we can move on to understanding information. This is a very controversial subject, made more controversial by the fact that many people do not think it is controversial. There is a popular view that information is physically real, and will cite factual relationships with concepts of physical theory such as entropy. To make it more confusing, there is a separate concept of information entropy, based on the work of engineers like Claude Shannon who studied communication. Depending on how you look at it, information entropy and thermodynamic entropy can be equivalent or opposite.
    • In any case, the concept of entropy seems to blur together the behavior of physical structures and the perception of groups of structures and appearances into ‘systems’. This whole area is like intellectual quicksand, and getting ourselves out of it requires a very disciplined effort to separate different levels of sensation, perception, ‘figuration’ or identification, attention, and understanding. Because of my experience of having learned to read English as a child, I no longer have access to the raw sensation or perception level of English writing. I can’t look at these shapes on my screen and not see Latin characters and English words. Even upside down, I am still ‘informed’ by the training of my perception to read English. This would not be the case for someone who had never read English, however most adults on Earth would be able to identify the look of them as words in the English language, even though they can’t read or pronounce them. Anyone who does read English could at least try to phonetically sound out other European languages, but they may not be able to even attempt that for other languages that don’t use the Latin alphabet.
    • All of this to say that there may be no such thing as information ‘out there’. The degree to which we are ‘informed’ is limited by our capacities for both sensing and making sense. There may be no such thing as a ‘pattern’ which is separate from a conscious experience in which an aesthetic presentation is recognized as a pattern. This was a heavy revelation for me, and one which transformed my view of nature from an essentially computationalist/physicalist framework based on pattern to one based on an aesthetic-participatory framework in which nature is made of a kind of universal ‘qualia’.
    • If my view is on the right track, information does not produce qualia at all, rather information is one minimalist presentation of qualia which is perceived as having a quality of potentially ‘re-presenting’ another conscious experience. This too is a major revelation, since if true, it means that machines like computers don’t actually compute. They don’t actually input, output, or store numbers, they just serve as a physical mechanism which we use to modify our own conscious experience in a very precisely controlled way. If we unplug our monitors, nothing changes as far as the computer is concerned. If we are playing a game, the computer will continue to execute the program in total darkness. We could even plug in some kind of audio device instead of a video screen and now hear a cacophony of noises that doesn’t resemble a game at all. The information is the same from the computer’s point of view, but the change in the aesthetic presentation has made that information inaccessible to us. My hypothesis then is that perceptual access precedes information. If information is a “difference that makes a difference” then perception is the “afferent” phenomena which have to be available for an “efferent” act of comparison and recognition as “different”.
  • The assumption of emergent properties.
    • The idea that the integration of information produces qualia such as sights, sounds, and feelings depends on the idea of emergence. This idea is, in turn, is based our correlation between our conscious experience and the behavior of a brain. We have to be convinced that our conscious experience is generated by the physical matter of the brain. This alone provides us with the need to resort to a strong emergence theory of consciousness simply being a thing that brains do, or that biology does, or that complex, information integrating physical structures of any sort do (as in IIT).
    • Balanced against that is the increasing number of anomalies that suggest that the brain, while clearly having a role in how human and animal consciousness is made available, may not be a generator of consciousness. It may be the case that our particular sort of consciousness has conditioned us to prioritize the tangible, visible aspects of our experience as being the most real, but there is no logical, objective reason to assume that is true. It may be that physics and information ‘emerge’ from the way a complex conscious experience interacts with other concurrent experiences on vastly different scales. Trying to build a simulation of a brain and expecting a personal conscious experience to emerge from it may be as misguided as building a special boat to try to sail down an impossible canal in an Escher drawing.

 

  1. Marcus David
    January 27, 2019 at 4:51 pm

    What is a contact force with no centric-matrice of spin…(virtual integument)
    Our Universe is a Mirror Image of One That Existed Before …
    Without motion of change, how can qualia exist, the theory of spin mediation
    as conscious articulation.

    • January 28, 2019 at 1:32 pm

      I think that change is always a change in qualia.

      • Marcus David
        January 29, 2019 at 6:43 pm

        Pitching an idea for a docuseries about human consciousness/unconsciousness, why is there an adequate definition of awareness, perception, human consciousness?
        (What makes the frequency for quantum of radiation?)
        How does time integrate an interplay with size variables among ultimate constituents?

        Entropy and the Nature of Time with Edwin C. May
        5:55

        Addressing change is always change in qualia, how does Bose-Einstein Condensate allow thousands of atoms to behave as one atom, what happened to redundancy?

        Does the era of 1 Planck time seem ridiculous, (Big Bang Singularity). How can this be reality that complex numbers and geometry provision everything in creation now and forever more within the light cone diagram showing the worldline of a moving observer?

        Does this look like simplicity? Of course, I don’t realize how a mathematical equation is an elegant representation for physical matter within space-time. If there is an answer to anything, it’s found within space-time!

        The Doom of Space Time (Dinner at the University of Oxford) – Nima Arkani-Hamed

        Proton-to-electron mass ratio

        Human are constructed from atoms; how important is this fact for understanding human consciousness/unconsciousness?
        Thank you.

  2. Marcus David
    January 30, 2019 at 7:41 pm

    Also, before you make any completions to the above reply, I found something you will like.
    https://www.hedweb.com/quora/2015.html
    How can physics explain qualia?

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