Consciousness as the Cause of Physics?

Theoretical Physicists, and the hobbyists and fans who follow at home,  all know the physical world is built from a number of beautiful mathematical structures. But why? Why is our reality built on beautiful structures – such as the spherical harmonics underlying electron orbitals, or even simpler things like the fundamental theorem of calculus? Shouldn’t we expect the mathematics underlying the physical universe to be a set of equations as sterile and void as most regions of space?

The Hopf Fibration. Illustration by Niles Johnson.

I have a hunch as to what the answer is.  I think the reason the mathematical structures that underlie physics are so beautiful is simple: awareness comes before physics. There’s a part of me that doesn’t believe ‘base reality’ is some subset of a mathematical structure which just so happens to support life AND be wildly beautiful.  This part of me believes that the base of reality is conscious awareness, and that awareness naturally moves along a gradient of what is interesting and beautiful.   If awareness exists, a priori, and follows ‘interesting and beautiful’ gradients a priori, (as the linked paper argues) then any awareness would eventually discover these beautiful mathematical structures, and upon exploring them, realize there’s an entire universe contained in them, and thus continue exploring those mathematical structures

The exploration of the laws of physics, by a pre-existing intelligence, would eventually give rise to intelligent beings looking around the internals of these laws of physics, asking “why are we here?”

It seems like such a simple answer that there’s a compelling feel to it. I’m not totally on board with it, though – if anything, I generally try to avoid thinking about this theory. Intuitively, something seems wrong about it, but I haven’t figured out what. The rigorous part of me is actually more on board with this theory; there’s just this intuitive squeamishness I have in saying anything is more real than material stuff, because of how ridiculous this sounds to most people.

Here’s why I kind of believe consciousness is more real than matter: this theory replaces two separate, hard questions, that currently have no great answers, with one question that we are already asking ourselves. I don’t totally believe this, and I’m not really sure why. I can’t give good arguments against the idea; I simply don’t find myself intuitively convinced.  At some level, it’s much easier to continue believing that the world is made of stuff, and that everything else follows from that fact. But this “stuff comes from consciousness” idea has remained too long in the background of my thoughts for me to avoid feeling a cumpsulion to share it.

Materialists, believe that material reality is the ground truth. Materialists believe this reality exists outside of our minds, independent of us, and that consciousness is a byproduct of something the physical reality is doing. Materialism gives rise to two natural questions, which currently have no satisfying answers:

  1. Why are the laws of physics what they are? And why do they happen to be based on such beautiful mathematical structures?
  2. How do unconscious bits of matter give rise to consciousness? (aka the hard problem of consciousness)

Question 1 is usually answered with ‘the anthropic principle’, and question 2 is usually answered with ‘we’ll get there eventually’.

If you axiomatically take conscious awareness as the base reality, the second question  (how does consciousness come to be?) ceases to exist. Problem solved! The first question becomes, instead, “why would conscious awareness explore the space generated by the mathematical laws of physics?” 

This question is then immediately answered by the fact that the mathematical rules themselves are painfully beautiful and deeply interesting – and so is being alive in this physical universe.   So the answer is, “Consciousness gives rise to these laws of physics, because these laws of physics are the result of interesting mathematical patterns, and consciousness gravitates towards what is interesting.” Done!

Of course, this leaves open the question of what consciousness is, how it works, and why, but that’s a space that we already believe it’s worth exploring anyhow. 

Is this Scientific?

At this point, many skeptical readers will think this “consciousness existed before physics” theory is ridiculous. Scientific thinking requires evidence. Don’t we have far more evidence for physical reality than we do for  consciousness?

The answer, I think, is no. We have more consensus on evidence of physical reality than consciousness. Different people can more easily agree on the weight of a rock than they can on how a person feels in the moment. But don’t mistake consensus on evidence for evidence.    You have more evidence for consciousness than anything else, whether you realize it or not.

The total consensus on material reality is what I think prevents me from fully embracing the idea that consciousness predates matter. I’d look really silly, to a lot of serious people. That’s the best argument I can come up with as to why I shouldn’t believe consciousness causes matter. It’s not really an argument, as much as a heuristic, but the ‘stick with consensus reality’ heuristic is strong enough to have convinced me at an intuitive level.  Yet I can’t logically shake off this “consciousness is more real than matter” belief because there’s just so much more evidence for consciousness.

Every single piece of evidence I have about the material world is presented to me through consciousness.  I can’t know how hard a rock is without feeling hardness, which I do via consciousness. I can’t measure the brightness of stars without vision, which arises in my consciousness. I can’t measure the length of an orbit without consciousness.  If I build machines to make these measurements for me, those measurements, or their results, must still enter into my conscious awareness in order for me to believe them. Literally every piece of evidence I could possibly be aware of, for anything at all, is presented to me through consciousness. So why shouldn’t “consciousness exists” be the highest weighted concept in my world model?

Literally everything you believe is mediated through your consciousness. Therefore, every piece of evidence you have for anything in the world must also count as evidence for your own consciousness.

You can never, in any moment, conclude that you aren’t experiencing consciousness.   Shouldn’t you have have stronger bayesian priors for something which, as far as you can tell, is always true?   Of course, you can realize that at times you have been unconscious – but these realizations only happen after the fact, and they’re still mediated by consciousness. What you’re really doing is realizing that there have been times where you weren’t conscious – and yet you have more evidence for your own consciousness than you do for time. 

Maybe experiencing periods of unconsciousness is enough to explain my hesitation to fully embrace this “physical reality is caused by consciousness exploring mathematical structures” belief. I’m fairly confident (but not yet certain) there’s a difference between “my consciousness” and “consciousness itself”, and that it might be more accurate to say that consciousness of some kind always exists, even if my personal experience doesn’t. Well, what’s the limit of my own consciousness, and what differentiates mine from yours? I don’t know, but that’s a question we’re interested in answering, anyhow. 

Now, you might object that this is unscientific. How can someone who believes in science consider that perhaps consciousness existed before the big bang?  Well, how is it “more scientific” to take the thing that is, from your perspective, always happening, and you can’t experience being away from, and say “well I can’t explain this, but I can explain things I’m never going to encounter and will never have any bearing on my life, such as black holes, or the distribution of elements resulting from big bang nucleosynthesis?”

Science means choosing the theory that best fits all of the evidence. If we have two theories, and one discards a large body of evidence that the other accounts for, we should lean more towards accepting the theory that includes all of the evidence.  The materialist worldview takes the one phenomena for which we have more evidence than anything else – consciousness – and then says “i’ll explain this later.” In addition to failing to explain that for which we have the most evidence, materialism also posits that the world runs on top of these wildly beautiful mathematical structures, and provides no real answer as to why they should happen to be so beautiful.

The best explanation, thus far, is the anthropic principle, which would say something like “only physical systems based upon beautiful mathematical laws are capable of generating consciousness” – which, again, demands its own explanation.  Why? Most computer code looks like garbage, as if raccoons were coaxed with marshmallow treats to drag wires through a jungle gym. Why should there be elegant symmetries in the source code for reality?

Putting conscious awareness at the base, underneath and leading to physics, still leads to all the same predictions and explains exactly the same evidence as assuming physics is at the base. Conscious awareness at the base goes farther, though, and accounts for some additional evidence that we currently can’t explain with a materialistic base: consciousness.  Putting consciousness at the base of your reality model doesn’t say why consciousness exists, anymore than a materialist explanation of the universe explains why physical material exists. Both of these worldviews just posit a base and say “everything flows from this.” One of them – the one with consciousness at the base – leads to fewer unanswered questions.  Does this make it a better base?

New – And Yet Still Old – Questions

Using awareness as the base un-asks the questions “how can matter give rise to consciousness” (it doesn’t) and provides a plausible answer for  “why are the laws of physics what they are?” (because they are interesting and beautiful), and then leads us to ask other questions which have always seemed relevant:

  1. What is beautiful and why? Don’t tell me something like “E8 appeals to me, aesthetically, because I’ve evolved in a certain biological environment.” I don’t believe that.

    My best answer is that there is something here involving broken symmetry. Something which is totally symmetric doesn’t strike us as beautiful as something which is almost, but not completely symmetric. For example, I think the reason there’s a law of thirds in visual art is because three is the smallest possible number of equal elements which can exhibit broken symmetry.  The law of thirds isn’t an appeal to evolved mammalian instincts, or a quirk of Earth’s properties; my guess is that aliens from a distant planet would have stumbled on this same property of three as well, because three is the same wherever you go.

  2. What is interesting, and why?

    My best answer here is that ‘interestingness’ has to do with compressibility. Something is interesting if what looks like, on the outside, a myriad of complex possibilities, can end up being compressed into something elegant and simple.

    An early reader of this post found this paper, which provides a more mathematical definition of interestingness and beauty, still rooted in compressibility.
  3. How does consciousness work? How can it be improved? Can it be divided and combined? Are there separate consciousnesses or just one?

    My best answer here is “I still haven’t explored consciousness without the concept of a ‘self’ dividing and chopping up perception, so I’ll have to get back to you on that.”

Of course, this model is unsatisfying and undeveloped. But let’s develop this further! We already wanted to do that anyhow.  Saying “the world is made of stuff following mathematical laws” opened the door to tremendous insights into the world. What kind of insight would we develop if we explored the nature of consciousness with the same level of energy and enthusiasm?

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