It’s not enough to have a brain. Consciousness—a hallmark of humans, mammals, birds, and even octopuses—is that mysterious force that makes all those neurons and synapses “tick” and merge into “you.” It’s what makes you alert and sensitive to your surroundings, and it’s what helps you see yourself as separate from everything else. But neuroscientists still don’t know what consciousness is, or how it’s even possible.
So MIT’s Max Tegmark is championing a new way of explaining it: he believes that consciousness is a state of matter.
By “matter,” he doesn’t mean that somewhere in the deep recesses of your brain is a small bundle of liquid, sloshing around and powering your sense of self and your awareness of the world. Instead, Tegmark suggests that consciousness arises out of a particular set of mathematical conditions, and there are varying degrees of consciousness—just as certain conditions are required to create varying states of vapor, water, and ice. In turn, understanding how consciousness functions as a separate state of matter could help us come to a more thorough understanding of why we perceive the world the way we do.
Most neuroscientists agonize over consciousness because it’s so difficult to explain. In recent years, though, they’ve tended to agree that a conscious entity must be able to store information, retrieve it efficiently, process it, and exist as a unified whole—that is, you can’t break consciousness down into smaller parts. These traits are calculable, Tegmark says. A case in point? We put labels on the strength of our current computer processing power. While they’re not human, some of our computers can operate independently, and we can use our knowledge of artificial intelligence to push these machines to new limits.
Tegmark calls his new state of matter “perceptronium.” From the Physics arXiv Blog on Medium:
Tegmark discusses perceptronium, defined as the most general substance that feels subjectively self-aware. This substance should not only be able to store and process information but in a way that forms a unified, indivisible whole. That also requires a certain amount of independence in which the information dynamics is determined from within rather than externally.
So if consciousness is a state of matter, he concludes, we might be able to apply what we know about consciousness to what we actually see:
[...] the problem is why we perceive the universe as the semi-classical, three dimensional world that is so familiar. When we look at a glass of iced water, we perceive the liquid and the solid ice cubes as independent things even though they are intimately linked as part of the same system. How does this happen? Out of all possible outcomes, why do we perceive this solution?
In other words, quantum mechanics dictates that the world we see is just one of an infinite number of possibilities. But why? Tegmark doesn’t have an answer, but his ideas demonstrate that there might be a more dynamic relationship between consciousness and other states of matter—that our ability to perceive the world is both a means to an end and also an end (an “object”) in itself.