A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Consciousness and the Poised Realm

I recently attended a talk by Dr. Stuart Kauffman on a possible new space ‘between’ classical physical space and quantum mechanical space.  In other words, reality may not be a choice of ‘A’ or ‘B’, but may include ‘possibly A’ becoming ‘possibly B’.  Classical physical space is all ‘A’ or ‘B’ while quantum mechanical space is the probability of either ‘A’ or ‘not A’ and ‘B’ or ‘not B’.  But there has been a frustrating lack of understandable communion between these two theory systems that clearly are part of one fully contiguous functioning reality.  Dr. Kauffman is proposing a semi-hypothetical mechanism that ties them together.  At least… this is how I have understood his talk and the several bits of his writing I have read both before and after listening to him.  I have not read his books, but will. 

As I understand Kauffman’s ideas, when quantum mechanical “substance” (I use this form because we don’t have any idea what this is, only that we can measure behaviors in this realm) is functioning, a condition of coherence – a wave condition that allows for the self-organization of some, if not all, wave properties – presents primary “substance” behaviors in forms atypical to human experience: non-locality (EPR based experiments), particle/wave transposition (double slit experiments) and wave behavior in general. 

On the other hand, there is the particle behavior of normal experience which, in Kauffman’s system, occurs without coherence and thus both coherent wave behavior and decohered particle behavior function in primary substance at different times; when decohered, we recognize it as matter with classical deterministic behaviors.  I am sure that I have missed important parts of this and will try to clarify it with study, but I believe it to be close to what we were told in the presentation. 

Not addressed and only briefly mentioned was the question of agency – what makes it go and the nature of change.  Agency at this level is utterly unclear.  The only suggestion was that coherence evaporates in 10-15 seconds unless somehow reinfused with _______(? information, some captured coherence, agency?).  This “evaporation rate” was given without explanation and only passing reference.

These are an incredibly evocative set of ideas.  Our two best sets of ideas about how the universe works don’t work together.  Since they work quite well in their own domain and are hopeless in the other suggests that there must be some communicating design of which we are unaware.  The idea of being able to flip back and forth between the quantum condition and the classical condition through a possibility (not probability) dimension, while making not a lick of sense to me yet, sounds terribly fecund. 

The next steps are more problematic.  The speculated vital principle of life and consciousness/awareness are supposed to lie in the intervening space/process between the quantum mechanical and the classical.  Organic evolution is supposed to have captured, in molecular structure, the capacity to manipulate aspects of this “Poised Realm” and so to have infused organized classical order (clockworks) with the agency potentialities coherent in quantum order.

On the face of it this is the old game placing some notion of vital life principle and/or consciousness and agency into the newest discoveries and speculated discoveries.  Our more general comprehensions are improved by this process, though a vital principle for life, consciousness and what we call freewill remain as unexplained as ever. 

I remember struggling with a similar fuzziness from David Bohm, seeking after conscious agency in quantum mechanical esoterica.  And it may be there – it has to be somewhere – but for now we are still stuck with making measurements and ultimately having not the slightest idea what it is we are actually measuring. 

We don’t know what a quantum mechanical wave is, no idea, but we can measure, operate wave equations and predict material behavior with great and compelling accuracy.  We have no idea what matter is, but our knowledge of the motion of billiard balls and the predictions of the calculus are nigh unto flawless. 

We don’t even have a real clue to any vital life principle (though a number of unreal ones), but our understanding of physiological process and organic evolution is increasingly comprehensive.  And we are totally flummoxed by consciousness and awareness, but, I believe, that as we begin to see these as system processes, we will adjust to understanding them without the need to first discover the basis of agency in them just as we have done with the study of biology.

Of course, we need to think deeply about agency and try to figure it out in responsible ways, but my intuition is that the solution will come from the most unexpected places.  This is not a dramatic insight, it is only that we have been looking everywhere with great intensity for a very long time. 

Note: there was a disturbing moment in the talk when Dr. Kauffman told of having applied to patent the “Poised Realm.”  It is unclear to me how this is possible and it seems violently opposed to my view of intellectual community property.

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