Imagine a stream of consciousness...
Or a symphony of self-awareness. Whatever you call it, it might just be the greatest mystery in all of science. Why do we have this subjective experience of the world around us, when from all accounts, it appears that the machinery running the operations, the brain, is made from purely physical matter. Sensations and seasons, colors and cartoons, we can perceive reality in a way that extends beyond our dead building blocks, the atoms that make up the entire universe. Despite the enigma, we can examine the brain, with our brains, leading to theories on the before-mentioned mystery. One such solution, Integrated Information Theory, aims to explain consciousness through a mathematical approach.
When we study mathematics, it appears to be the explanatory force behind all of reality. Or, as Max Tegmark would have you believe, math is reality. In his book Our Mathematical Universe, he explains how the fundamental forces of physics are nothing more than math. As the logic of his theory proceeds, he shows how the universe is a mathematical structure, i.e., "…an abstract set of entities with relations between them." (p. 271) If that wasn't enough, the journey takes us to a multiverse made of four different levels, using inflation, quantum mechanics, and the mathematical structures as our tour guides.
If you stare deep enough into the abyss of the multiverse, you're bound to get chills at the idea of there being parallel versions of yourself; you begin to suspect that your reality is less unique than you would think. Ted Chiang's short story Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom explores this idea (minor spoilers ahead). In the story, people can communicate with their parallel selves, which leads to some of them ending up in therapy because they can't help but feel jealous or sad about their other selves living better lives than them. If every possibility exists as described by multiverse theories like Tegmark's, then how are we special? As Chiang and others have asked when traversing this theory, do our decisions even hold moral weight in such a universe?
This idea of infinite yous contributes to the notion that free will is a red herring in the equation of our lives. As I wrote in a recent essay, between the laws of physics, our biology, environment, and the technology we use, the outcomes of our lives are largely predetermined and beyond the scope of volition or control. This alleviates the scale of judgment on people's actions and decisions, making morality an illusion, especially if we are, in essence, conscious zombies.
A thought experiment, the Philosophical Zombies, asks you to question how you know that anyone around you is conscious like you are. It's possible that some people, or everyone, are 'zombies,' as in they think and talk and act like humans, but in actuality, they don't have awareness or consciousness; they are as dead as a MacBook Pro. Despite the inability to know for certain that other humans are conscious, we are confident that they are.
Unlike humans, we are less sure that other species on this planet have self-awareness. Yet, some animals like octopuses appear to have a form of consciousness, making it difficult to see the scale of the universe and not expect there to be advanced life in the infinite multiverse. Although science fiction authors have created imaginative alien life forms, they've only touched the surface of what may be possible, as they are making species from a human-centric model. We cannot escape our frame of reference. One day soon, though, we may be able to escape this cave hiding the truth, as artificial intelligence, the next evolution of consciousness, may bring us the answers we seek.
Imagine a new stream of consciousness
Imagine all the streams in the ocean of the cosmos.
The mind and math and multiverses. Aliens and artificial intelligence. These monumental mysteries are the life force of Multilarity. This week's newsletter, a stream of consciousness about an assortment of ideas that interest me, is a bit different from some of my more structured essays. Consider reading one of the recent ones:
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Photo by Hu Chen