July 15th, 2012

Warning: amateur Sunday philosophising ahead!

The media reports of CERN’s experimental confirmation of the Higgs hypothesis have framed it as all about the particle not the field. The particle is incredibly rare: CERN made half-a-dozen by smashing nuclei together at energies not seen elsewhere in the universe since the first moments of the Big Bang and they decayed in trillionths of second. The same may have happened in Klingon accelerators, but that doesn’t affect my point.

The thing that’s there all the time and everywhere is the Higgs field, described as a molasses that slows down some everyday elementary particles – the fermions (protons, neutrons, electrons), giving them mass, and leaves bosons (photons) alone to zip around weightless. (Corrections welcome. The “slowing down” is presumably a loose metaphor, as there’s no such thing as absolute motion, and a proton stationary in some inertial frame would still have mass.) All particles are oscillations in quantum fields; the Higgs particle is a rare oscillation in the Higgs field, which spends its working aeon giving mass to fermions.

Which brings me to consciousness. Philosophers bash their heads against a brick wall by asking what it is. Beyond “you know it when you have it”, the project does not seem to advance. “Qualia” is just a pretentious label for “WTF, unsolved problem”. The most fruitful current line of inquiry is “how does consciousness come about in the brain? What is its the neurological correlate?” That looks soluble in principle by ordinary scientific methods. But there’s another question, the way the schoolmen and Descartes looked at it: “what stuff can be conscious?” Technically, of what substance is consciousness the accident or attribute?

There are two options, and neither is appealing. Dualists say consciousness is an attribute of mind-stuff. This can be conceived as a soul-sized packet – I have one, you have another, Fido may have one -, or pantheistically as a single universal mind.

  • Objection 1: the mind-stuff has never been observed. But then, neither has the Higgs field, which we are now invited to believe in; this has also only been inferred indirectly, by a long chain of inference and related observations. Not conclusive.
  • Objection 2: how can the mind-stuff be causally affected by matter, for instance by a photon striking a receptor in the eye and generating an electrical signal in the brain? Matter must have some mysterious property enabling it to give rise to conscious experience. Dualism does not solve the problem to which it’s supposed to be an answer, which is the implausibility of matter being conscious.

Materialists say that it’s the matter that’s conscious, stupid, and laugh at the myth of “ghosts in the machine”. However that commits them to a strange view of matter. The physical properties of all instances of an elementary particle are identical. But some, a tiny proportion, support consciousness, by mechanisms not yet elucidated but, it is assumed, following the standard models of natural law. So all elementary particles (or possibly all particles of a particular common type; it may be the electrons or the protons) are consciousness-capable. If not, the materialist answer to the “what substance?” question is handwaving.

The natural physical mechanism for this would be, it seems to me, another invisible universal quantum field. [Update: see comment by John Casey below.] The rarity of the consciousness interaction is not a decisive objection. Conscious brains are much rarer in the universe than similar-sized lumps of rock, but much more common than Higgs particles.

So materialists should line up with Spinoza. The universe as a whole supports mind, and in a sense is mind.

Thank you, class, for your attention, You may now return to documenting the failings of the presidential candidates.

Baruch Spinoza 3-in-1

Image credit. The Warhol stuff has no hidden meaning and doesn’t actually jibe with Spinoza’s rigorous monism, but it’s pretty.

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31 Responses to “Higgs and Spinoza”

  1. dave schutz says:

    Teilhard de Chardin rolled around with this some in Phenomenon of Man. He talked about emergent properties: atoms when stuck together in molecules do things you’d never expect from knowing the properties of the atoms, molecules aggregated the same (here is the consciousness, us as aggregated molecules), and then people aggregated making culture. Schelling’s views on tipping, when large numbers of people get together and decisions emerge which no one specifically intended are on point, too.

    • James Wimberley says:

      Emergence is fair enough. The clearest example is the way DNA carries (genetic) information, without changing in any way the chemical properties of the amino acids and polysaccharides that compose it. Still, the information is something new. Many of us are I guess OK with the idea that information is a distinct realm of nature. The information seems to be a non-physical property of the physical DNA. But information itself is abstract, like number. Consciousness doesn’t feel like an abstract property; pain is concrete experience.

      The word doesn’t answer my questions. Emergence from what? and how? You’d agree that any carbon atom, caught up in your DNA, is capable of bearing genetic information. Caught up in your neurons, it’s capable of bearing consciousness. So all matter has these potentials. If you wan tho describe the atom or its components completely you have to include this.

  2. matt wilbert says:

    I don’t see the problem. One water molecule isn’t wet. A whole lot of them together are.

    • James Wimberley says:

      Physical wetness can be completely reduced to a statistical property of large number of water molecules. The sensation of wetness can’t.

  3. Blah says:

    Not all Bosons are photons, not all bosons zip around massless.

    • James Wimberley says:

      Sure. My example was incomplete. But they are SFIK all massless. You are not likely to encounter a gluon in the ordinary way of business, unlike billions of photons every minute.

      • Finn says:

        The Ws and Z are massive bosons. In fact, it is because they are massive that the Higgs mechanism was posited. Neutrinos, which are Fermions, may be massless as well.

        • James Wimberley says:

          Time for an update to the Wikipedia articles! Or did I just read them sloppily?

          • Frank says:

            It would seem to be a sloppy reading. Anything that obeys Bose-Einstein statistics is a boson, this includes (as mentioned in the wiki for Bosons) Helium-4 which is certainly not massless. A photon is an example of an oscillation in an Electromagnetic field, which is why it is massless, it also happens to be a boson. The notion of having mass and being a boson or fermion are independent of one another.

    • CharlesWT says:

      The Higgs Boson is of crucial importance to the Catholic Church.

  4. eb53 says:

    When you say that … “Conscious brains are much rarer in the universe than similar-sized lumps of rock”, how do you know this?

    • James Wimberley says:

      Do the math. A human brain is about 1.2 litres, so 8,000 to the cubic meter, 8 million to the cubic kilometre. The volume of the earth, a smallish rocky planet, is >10exp12 cubic km according to Wikipedia, or >10exp18 brains. The current world population provides around 5 x 10exp9 brains, so the earth could hold 1.5 billion times those of the population. Add conscious animals on one side, and the other inner planets on the other. We can be pretty sure Mars doesn’t have conscious brains by exploration, and Venus, Mercury and the asteroids from general principles – too hot or too cold or in the case of Mercury, both. I’ll allow you that the giant planets aren’t strictly speaking rocky, though it’s extremely unlikely they support conscious life based on some totally exotic chemistry.

      • eb53 says:

        What I was getting at is exactly what you call “extremely unlikely”. I myself have no idea of the probability of some totally exotic chemistry supporting something like what we think of as conscious life.

        But consider the possibility that other forms of consciousness may exist and function on a somewhat different time scale (to pick one aspect) than our own. If a star harbored intelligence, but required ten thousand years to formulate a thought, and another million years to communicate that thought to a fellow star, we humans might have trouble discerning that intelligence.

        Or at the other end of the scale, it’s possible that complex civilizations of extremely (by human standards) quick-thinking microscopic organisms have arisen and expired in my lower intestine while I’ve been typing this. I wouldn’t place a large bet on that being so, but can you absolutely rule it out?

        The point I am trying to make is that our knowledge of the universe is rather considerably short of complete. I wouldn’t argue with your math when applied to familiar size and time scales, but I do dispute the underlying presumption that these are the only ones in which thinking and consciousnesses might occur.

        • James Wimberley says:

          It seems reasonable to extrapolate from the sort of life and consciousness we know about, viz. a very thin layer of pond scum on the wet surface of a biggish rock.

          Frank Herbert wrote two SF novels based on the idea that stars are sentient. That would make conscious matter the norm. The stars have not however phoned.

  5. Allen K. says:

    I’d give “fire” as another example. I really don’t understand your objection

    “However that commits them to a strange view of matter. The physical properties of all instances of an elementary particle are identical. But some, a tiny proportion, support consciousness, by mechanisms not yet elucidated but, it is assumed, following the standard models of natural law. So all elementary particles (or possibly all particles of a particular common type; it may be the electrons or the protons) are consciousness-capable.”

    Some electrons are currently involved in fires, some not.

  6. BrianP says:

    The supposed “mystery” of consciousness is over rated. There is already a purely physical, neurology-based model in cognitive neuroscience (the global neuronal workspace model) around which a consensus is being formed and it explains the “mystery” of qualia as wide-spread activation of information content throughout the brain. Well, it says a lot more than just that, but this is the sound bite version. If you want a good introduction to the model and an explanation of how the global neuronal workspace model explains what consciousness is, Daniel Dennett’s paper “Are We Explaining Consciousness Yet?” is available online.

    • James Wimberley says:

      I’ll check out the Dennett, but I expect from your description to find a theory about how consciousness comes about in the brain, which does not address either the insoluble question what it is, or the one I raised, of what substance is consciousness a property?

      The counterattack I was expecting but that nobody has made is that the substance-accident duality is not fundamental, just a convenient fiction (Hume). Things (substances) are just arbitrary bundles of properties. You then have to engage Kant’s riposte, that it’s a synthetic a priori truth without which we can’t think at all.

  7. larry birnbaum says:

    To my way of thinking, you touch on the way we’re going to get our hands around this in passing, through your reference to “accident.” In general I don’t think it’s a good idea to start by assuming that psychological phenomena are accidents. The way we understand them best is by understanding how they relate to, stem from, are necessary for, the carrying out of important mental functions. So, not what substance is consciousness an attribute of, but what function(s) is it related to.

    As to whether consciousness is an accident, if you think it is, then I’ll happily accept that your consciousness is an accident. A special case of a principle that helps me keep my balance in these kinds of discussions: Whatever your theory of the mind, or human intelligence, might be, I’m prepared to believe that it’s true of you.

    • James Wimberley says:

      I didn’t use “accident” in the sense of “fortuitous event” but in the old-fashioned scholastic sense, equivalent to “attribute” or “property”.

  8. Eli says:

    I always return to Richard Hofstadter, who in his book, I Am A Strange Loop, came up with some fascinating metaphors for consciousness, based both on what we know as well as what we might infer (and a good deal of pure speculation).

    But he had a system he called the Hunecker scale, which measured consciousness, based on the principle that consciousness is ultimately about a series of feedback loops. One on the scale would be the simple mechanism of a toilet ballast which, sensitive to the amount of water filling up in the tank, receives feedback and stops the water flow. At the other end of the scale would be a sort of omnipotence, in which all future possible events are known. Humans would land somewhere in between, with lower forms of life occupying places further down the scale.

    One of the things I like about this is that it seems to illustrate how just this sort of gap between the material activity of the physical world and the elusiveness of consciousness. (Hofstadter spends considerable time in the book exploring different ways thinking about this problem.) I’ve always been struck by how ridiculously mechanistic people tend to be. Maybe it was the acid I took in my youth, but I’ve always felt we tend to anthropomorphize people too much.

    So animal-like, we are mostly the only self-aware creatures on the planet. But this fact of supposed self-awareness seems only marginal to the larger complexity of our brain, the rest of which we have in common with most mammals, etc. I say “supposed” because in reality we aren’t very self-aware at all. Mostly we are incredibly un-self-aware, most of the time. And yet this tantalizing illusion that we are little Gods walking around thinking ourselves original, responsible and all the rest, this or that behavior somehow designed by us, that we are somehow in control of our lives, is such an – ironically – ego-feeding enterprise that we just can’t seem to quit it.

    Yet as best as I can tell, this little ego-box in which we fly, strapped to fate no less than Mitt Romney’s crated Irish setter, is only along for the ride, pretending to run the show instead of merely enjoying it. Animals without much self-awareness surely experience all the same qualias. Yet what kind of consciousness do we assume in them? And as we travel down the brain-chain, what do we see but decreasing neural complexity? Hunecker after hunecker, myriad network dynamics shrink until we reach creatures that could hardly be described as thinking at all. Rather, they are mechanisms.

    Apparently the enlightenment didn’t kill God, but merely made him human. An ironic reversal indeed. He ought to be finished off entirely.

    • James Wimberley says:

      “Only along for the ride?” My image for this hypothesis is looking out of the rear window of the bus. The main objection to it is Darwinism. The brain we have is enormously expensive metabolically – and creates SFIK the most dangerous childbirth in nature. It would be contrary to everything we know about evolution to think that such consequential and high-priced developments as the self-aware, reflective brain come about for no adaptive reason.

      • Eli says:

        I see your point, and I’m not saying it isn’t enormously useful. The angst alone has resulted in plenty of remarkable achievements. But as a part of a feedback loop, it’s hard to think of anything as a driver – even self-awareness. With a lower animal, the stimulus is unreflective and external, and easy to think of as automatic. With humans, it’s partly reflective, the stimulus being regurgitated through higher-order thinking processes such as compare/contrast, ordering, mathematics, prediction, etc. We facilitate in our young the development of highly complex identities that integrate all of these skills into an amazingly efficient and sophisticated platform for stimuli interaction. (You should see the way I interact with my children! I kid. I realize this all sounds absurdly cold. But it’s only a framework for understanding.)

        And yet, sophisticated as it is, there seems no reason to think of it as other than a feedback loop, operating according to laws of cause and effect, constrained by time itself, flowing from past to future. We learn from our past and the future is changed. Our agency in all of this seems entirely dependent upon past events, how our biological systems have integrated external stimuli. The idea of the ego as crate, as I have described it, is an attempt to get at this transcendent notion of the self not as superfluous, or useless – indeed it is the greatest thing ever created in the universe. But rather that it seems, as a thing *of* the universe, a mistake to assume that it is somehow a thing apart.

        I’m reminded of the notion that, as creatures of a particular time, space and scale, we are biased to view the universe from a very particular perspective. We see a limited spectrum of light. We feel a particular gravity. We have a particular relationship with atomic particles. Yet, there exists a great range of electromagnetic waves we can’t see directly. If we were 100th of our size, our weight would feel very different. If we could experience atoms at the atomic level, we would see a particles made up mostly of space. Our “common sense” experience would be completely different. An everyday example of this is how we still talk about the sun rising and falling, because it makes more *sense* to think of it that way. Relative only to us, it actually is rising and falling.

        In this way, it seems we are trapped in a common sense view of consciousness in which we are the final agents of our agency. Yet clearly, we are highly developed beings that have spent years achieving this particular state of agency. And still, there are God knows how many forces (emergent or otherwise) at work on our every thought, pulling strings from deep within our psyche, like the dark matter of space, creating the context within which our thoughts enter our awareness. So how is it that our agency is not simply a manifestation of everything that has thus far come?

        But now that we are here, in this final platform configuration, one might ask, are we not free then to go forward, to use all of this sophisticated mental equipment to do our bidding? My response would be: but from where does that “bidding” come? Again, we face the dark matter problem. Any bidding we would seem to choose has to arise from somewhere. And unlike galaxies that appear to have nothing around them, yet seem to exist in some miraculously ordered context, our bidding – our desire to choose – is surrounded not by nothing, but rather embedded deeply within an organic mechanism highly ordered and designed by the complex history of the individual, highly traceable and quantifiable – even to some extent predictable.

        But not enough, right? This is the rub. The resolution on consciousness fantastically dim. In theory, by knowing every possible angle and trajectory of every particle one could determine the exact thoughts that might arise. But then you get into quantum problems and problems in constructing a model of emergence itself and it all seems so.. well, hopeless. But in the aggregate, people are incredibly predictable. Psychology, sociology and economics for instance tell us an enormous amount about human behavior. Animal behavior is even easier, right? When specific molecules attach to certain smell receptors, huge arrays of neuronal networks become very predictable. Just because we can’t yet make the physical models for this process, can’t we pretty safely assume there is a purely physical mechanism at work.

        And much of this can be applied to humans. Place a bacon molecule in my nose and I will salivate. So far so mechanistic. Ditto for pornographic imagery. Violence. Food, sex, fear – all pretty simple, so to speak.

        And then comes reflection. Consciousness. Higher-order thinking, memory, emotional regulation. While we can measure some of this stuff, the paths become infinitely more complex. Add to this the very real sense we have that we design our own thoughts. However, just because the sun comes up, it does not follow that the sun spins around the Earth. When I eat someone’s sandwich from the lounge refrigerator and they get mad at me, I feel guilty. I feel like “I” did something wrong. “I” made a mistake. “I” am useful to myself as a thing, a thing to mold and correct, to improve upon going forward in the world. But whether a dog in a crate, or a spinning gyroscope, am “I” more than a device useful to the platform that is me, yet still utterly dependent on contextual forces that imprint memories? Neuroscience describes the way in which myelin sheaths around neurons serve to reinforce pathways of thought. Apparently they are underdeveloped when we are young, so as to facilitate creative thinking and the laying down of new avenues of thought. Yet as we age patterns become ingrained, and the sheaths thicken. Arterials become freeways. Rudimentary, but another piece of evidence towards a mechanistic understanding of conscious thought.

  9. Since corrections are welcome: the Higgs in particular gives mass to the W and Z bosons, which “carry” the weak nuclear interaction in the same way that the photon “carries” the electromagnetic interaction. In fact, the whole point is that the photon, W, and Z particles are all slices of “the same thing”, so why do three (two Ws and the Z) have mass and one (the photon) doesn’t? The masses of these bosons are related to the observed masses of other weakly-interacting particles, and then there’s binding energy and a whole lot of other stuff, so this is hardly where all mass comes from.

    As for the molasses/shag carpet/frictional analogy, it’s really terrible. But it’s what everyone else is using, so it’s understandable that it would be the only one you’ve seen.

    If you’re really interested — and not afraid of a little math — I’m starting a four-part series this morning at my weblog that will try to explain a toy version at a classical level of what’s going on.

    • James Wimberley says:

      Thanks! I’ll give it a go, and invite other readers to join me. Fortunately my philosophical query does not depend on the details of the Higgs mechanism – a great and important discovery, no question.

  10. John Casey says:

    I have two comments:

    1. There is a leap of Grand Canyon wall-to-wall proportions between your 4th paragraph from the end and your 3rd from the end. I expected to see a missing step: ‘Here a miracle occurs’.

    2. You are not allowed – no one is allowed – to posit a quantum field without you have done the math that describes it, and constrains its properties. The Standard Model is a very long, very complex equation that, when appropriately manipulated and solved, gives solutions that equate to the observed elementary particles. Waving the hands and chanting ‘universal quantum field’ is not the same thing.

    • James Wimberley says:

      I should not have said “quantum”, especially as consciousness seems to arise not in individual atoms or elementary particles but in large networks of electrochemical signals, involving millions of atoms and electrons. But I’ll stick with some sort of field.

    • James Wimberley says:

      Your first point is fair. I do try to cross the Grand Canyon on a frayed high wire. This is that universal fields seem to my limited knowledge to be the standard way modern physics describes the fundamental properties of matter, using the Higgs field as just the latest example. The hypothesis, to give my speculation a grand name, can’t be formalised (even if I had toe equipment to try) because we have no idea how it works – yet.

  11. Craig says:

    I don’t know if all materialists would want to defend the proposition that “elementary particles…are consciousness-capable.” It doesn’t seem to have the right flavor in my mouth. I wouldn’t exactly want to say that “elementary particles are supernova-capable,” although of course what you need for a supernova is a large number of elementary particles, arranged in the right sort of way. My sense* is that the same sort of thing is true with respect to consciousness.

    *Kantian footnote: My materialist beliefs are with respect to the empirical realm of phenomena. No volume of empirical evidence can resolve questions about the ultimate nature of things, if any.

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