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"OH WATERS, TEEM WITH MEDICINE TO KEEP MY BODY SAFE FROM HARM, SO THAT I MAY LONG SEE THE SUN." - Rig Veda
Six years ago I submitted a paper for a panel, “On the Absence of Absences” that was to be part of an academic conference later that year—in August 2010. Then, and now, I had no idea what the phrase “absence of absences” meant. The description provided by the panel organizers, printed below, did not help. The summary, or abstract of the proposed paper—was pure gibberish, as you can see below. I tried, as best I could within the limits of my own vocabulary, to write something that had many big words but which made no sense whatsoever. I not only wanted to see if I could fool the panel organizers and get my paper accepted, I also wanted to pull the curtain on the absurd pretentions of some segments of academic life. To my astonishment, the two panel organizers—both American sociologists—accepted my proposal and invited me to join them at the annual international conference of the Society for Social Studies of Science to be held that year in Tokyo.
I am not the first academic to engage in this kind of hoax. In 1996, in a well-known incident, NYU physicist Alan Sokal pulled the wool over the eyes of the editors of Social Text, a postmodern cultural studies journal. He submitted an article filled with gobbledygook to see if they would, in his words, “publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if it (a) sounded good and (b) flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions.” His article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” (published in the Spring/Summer 1996 issue), shorn of its intentionally outrageous jargon, essentially made the claim that gravity was in the mind of the beholder. Sokal’s intent was not simply to pull a fast-one on the editors, but to challenge the increasingly popular “post-modern” view that there are no real facts, just points-of-view. His paper made the bogus case that gravity, too, was a “social construction.” As soon as it was published, Sokal fessed up in another journal (Lingua Franca, May 1996), revealing that his article was a sham, describing it as “a pastiche of Left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense … structured around the silliest quotations [by postmodernist academics] he could find about mathematics and physics.”
We examine the hypothesis that consciousness can be understood as a state of matter, "perceptronium", with distinctive information processing abilities. We explore five basic principles that may distinguish conscious matter from other physical systems such as solids, liquids and gases: the information, integration, independence, dynamics and utility principles. If such principles can identify conscious entities, then they can help solve the quantum factorization problem: why do conscious observers like us perceive the particular Hilbert space factorization corresponding to classical space (rather than Fourier space, say), and more generally, why do we perceive the world around us as a dynamic hierarchy of objects that are strongly integrated and relatively independent? Tensor factorization of matrices is found to play a central role, and our technical results include a theorem about Hamiltonian separability (defined using Hilbert-Schmidt superoperators) being maximized in the energy eigenbasis. Our approach generalizes Giulio Tononi's integrated information framework for neural-network-based consciousness to arbitrary quantum systems, and we find interesting links to error-correcting codes, condensed matter criticality, and the Quantum Darwinism program, as well as an interesting connection between the emergence of consciousness and the emergence of time.
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.