Blog about geeky stuff, computers, physics and life.
Created on Tue, 18 May 2021
The Random (or destiny, God, Universe, luck) has crossed my life path these days with an unlikely person that makes me think outside of my box. It is possible of course that I make myself think outside of the box, or the box got smaller, or my thinking larger. It is also possible that I'm reinventing the wheel, getting more bored at work or COVID/knee injury isolation is making me nuts. But it's kind of romantic to think it's a person. And isn't it almost always a certain somebody that makes you think strange things and change your direction in life? Anyways.
I lose some sleep every once in a while thinking about a certain great asymmetry that science around me never seems to talk about (or I am not in those circles at least). Not physics, not biology or chemistry.
Why am I experiencing stuff from this exact brain/body?
Sure, I understand that my brain interprets serotonin, dopamine or oxytocin as pleasure (or I would understand if I actually studied the brain and not just watched educational YouTube videos or read a pop-sci books). In any case, there is some process that is, I believe, fairly well studied and if I asked or dared to learn and get a degree in neurochemistry I would be able to fairly accurately describe the paths, the neurotransmitters and the hormones at play.
The Hard Problem
But what is pleasure? This is part of the hard problem of consciousness. The description of what pleasure is or how pleasure gets delivered or what brain activity is associated with pleasure is the easy problem. The hard problem is more about the experience that I know I have, that you know you have but you don't know whether I have it and I don't know whether you have it. I believe that other humans or living beings experience sadness and pain, pleasure and happiness but I can't know for sure. I can test their brains, I can measure their voltages between certain regions, I can see them light up in one of these big medical machines. But I cannot know whether they really experience it.
In any case - why this exact brain? There are about 7 Billion or so roughly equivalent brains on the planet even if we limit experiences to human. Although - we don't have to. The 1% difference (or whatever - depends how you measure it) in DNA to monkeys can't possibly exclude them from the potential pool of possibilities I (whatever I is) could have "attached" to. I don't have accurate statistics, but isn't it possible that the smartest monkey is smarter than the dumbest human? I'm talking babies or some degenerative/psychiatric human brains compared to the "Einstein" of chimpanzees? Isn't there some overlap? And if we go down the same logic - maybe some dogs, cats or rats, dolphins, magpie (also addorably known as Pica Pica) or cockroaches (there are some insanely smart bunch out there). Why this brain? Why this particular body?
Is it the atoms that make it? Or the cells? If this is not one of these common misconceptions, I'm pretty sure all atoms/cells have been changed one by one since my birth ala the Ship of Theseus. So there is some continuity in my existence even though it may not be material.
But if soul is the answer, based on what we know about the physical world so far - it is a free rider on the physical wave of existence. If soul is somehow non-materialistic (i.e. either not found out by current physics or impossible to find by any scientific method (the later would make it quite philosophical in existence)) then how much can the soul really do? It seems our brain and neuron structure is governed by fairly simple laws of chemistry and biology, creating the illusion that it's magic only because it's so much of it.
I mean, looking at the Internet, it can be kind of magic - there are so many computers, so many cables, each computer - a Universe by itself. And yet, it is governed by a handful of protocols, created and managed by humans. You don't notice the Internet how brilliantly and seamlessly it works. Until, of course, it doesn't work. Then you notice it. Then you call the Internet Service Provider (ISP) or the electricity company. Or the ISP calls their upstream provider's support and so on until they find and fix the problem (sometimes literally by laying down new cable).
But the Internet is not really magic. It's complicated, messy, sort-of evolved by trial and error, not really intended to be what it is today. It is impossible for single human to comprehend it and it's probably impossible to even properly map it out, even with computers. Yet, it works.
And as far as we know, so is our brain. But because we didn't create it and we have "just" started understanding (in the past some-hundreds of years, depending on how you count) we still don't know each cabling where it goes and what it does. But whenever we poked at one specific part of it, we understand it from bottom to top, all the way. We haven't mapped it out yet, but there is no indication that there will be some hidden region in it called "soul". We don't understand it because it's so huge, it's an Internet in our heads evolved for about 4 billion years - cabling has went everywhere. But we will get it. We will explain every part of it eventually - I have no reason to doubt it.
And when we do, we will be able to trace every single decision down to the neuron or neurons that started it. We will have a complete history of what vision or sound created which electrical signal. We will play the favorite game of Robert Sapolsky - get down to the nanosecond before the decision, then play it backward to the last minute, hour, day, month, year, decade all the way to our parents and grand-parents genes, our ancestors way of life and the evolution that made them.
The fact that we can't do it is an engineering problem, not a principal science problem. Then where is the free will? What made me take that decision - there doesn't seem to be space for it, not in our material world.
Types of soul
But if it is the soul - does the soul obey our laws of nature? If it does - then it "rides" on the laws of physics, perhaps giving us a solution to the hard problem - the soul is what experiences the physical world. But it's a "read-only" kind of soul - it can experience but it can't possibly influence decisions. So this kind of soul does not provide space for free will. But maybe it provides this asymmetry that keeps me up at night. Somehow this soul is attached to these ever-changing physical characteristics of my body for some time. It doesn't matter that it chose this brain/body but does every brain/body has some soul like this? Do more "complicated" pieces of matter have more/less soul? Do dogs, cats, ants and cockroaches have some soul that experiences? Do trees, mushrooms, bacteria and viruses have soul? Do rocks? Stars? Galaxies? Atoms? Quarks? Is there a limit, a quantity? Of course, all of these questions assume some eventual discoverability of such a soul - I'm leaving the completely philosophical kind of soul for my third year of quarantine - then I will go completely crazy.
What if it's another kind of soul - a read/write kind of soul? Can it influence the physical world? A common place where people hearing about some effects of the quantum world try to put such kind of soul is the entanglement or in the measurement problem. The randomness of the quantum world.
Some caveats - these effects are magnitudes smaller than a brain, smaller than neurons, organelles in the cell, or even the DNA. MAGNITUDES. As in 5-6 magnitudes, meaning 1 with 5-6 zeroes, meaning 10,000-100,000; meaning if a quantum effect is a fluctuation happening at the scale of a bean (1 cm), the scale of a neuron will be roughly 1-10 km.
And these are RANDOM - meaning if this was the case that gives us souls, we wouldn't have thoughts - we would start moving a piece of our mouth, then choke, start a letter of a thought, then twitch a finger or stop our heart. Nothing would make sense if, as far as we know, the quantum effects are really random.
But this is the only place where some unpredictability happens. And OK - small effects, "butterfly effect" (doesn't apply here, it's not (necessarily) chaos really), loads and loads of handwaving - I know I'm talking some bollocks in this post, science friends - if you haven't switched off long ago, probably you want to do it now - I know this will be wrong, but enjoy the ride if you decide to. I don't want to feed wrong ideas to the wrong kind of people - I know they are wrong. Please don't cite me. I'm dreaming and exploring here.
Maybe it's not random - we don't have enough data. Maybe it's random just at first sight, but if you take the whole Universe, we will discover the pattern. Or the pattern is something beyond human comprehension... Although it is: all measurements of random seem to be perfectly happy - we can test if something is random and how random it is. For example AAAAAAAAA is much less random than EUXMQPFHN and even this is not a random string of bytes but all capital, printable, ASCII/English characters. In any case, quantum is quite random. But maybe this seemingly random thing is not random and bubbles up 6 magnitudes to create something like a soul.
Then of course the question is, as with every God explanation - what controls the soul? If there is something more complicated outside of our Universe, doesn't it also deserve explanation? If God created the soul, who created God? Are we back to "turtles all the way down"?
Entanglement is cool and all but hard to keep it. The brain is too "hot and wet" for Entanglement to exist for too long time or for too many particles. But some respectable scientists like Penrose seem to be going in this direction, looking at this with some smart anesthesia folks. I don't think he is right, but also I don't want to say a Nobel prize winner is not right, so - keep at it, maybe we find out something new.
The measurement problem is interesting as well - what counts as measurement? What actually disturbs the quantum states? Doesn't the equipment that measures become part of the quantum system? Doesn't the person and brain reading the measurement also then become part of the system? What exactly collapses the wave-function?
There are a few states where this type of soul/consciousness seems buggy - and as the analogy with the flaky Internet goes, and as real scientists, we should poke there. The times of sleep. The time of a coma. The time of a general anesthesia. Drunkenness. Mushrooms. Other forbidden or less forbidden stuff. Yoga. Meditation. These stuff some claim provide different experiences. And some of them I've never experienced, I can't deny that they exist for some people. It's like if I was blind to deny that some people see. Or if I never experienced happiness to deny some people can. It's basic politeness and the whole soul/hard problem depends on politeness - otherwise I can just postulate that everything is a hologram put by the Devil and only I can experience stuff, the whole Universe is a hoax.
As many of the links, videos (and laziness to include all other links) shows - none of this is new or original, of course. But this is my blog. And these are my thoughts these days. Losing sleep. Thinking why am I in this particular brain and not in another. Giving in into the slippery slope of mysticism perhaps? Looking at some of my previous writings and the speed with which I wrote this one, having previously read and thought on a lot of these topics - it's probably not (just) the romantic thing.
But she definitely sparked it (back).