The Intangible Mind
The mind is the source of all experience and the lens through which we see external reality. It is the greatest mystery of all because everything is contained within the mind in some sense. Our minds have an intangible aspect and a mechanistic aspect, but this does not imply Cartesian dualism at all–I will propose a view that is hopefully less offensive to the modern scientific paradigm by replacing the mind/world dualism with a mind/world duality.
With Cartesian dualism, we are asked to believe in an immaterial mind and a material external world, and this creates an unbridgeable gap between the mind and the physical world. This formulation is inherently unscientific, logically inconsistent, and it violates fundamental physical principles—e.g. how can a non-physical mind have a physical effect on the body? If something can produce a physical effect in the world isn’t it physical by definition?
Although dualism falls short as a theory of mind, it is somewhat understandable why people are tempted by it. Despite all of our modern scientific progress, the nature of our subjective experience remains elusive. The ‘hard problem’ of consciousness is to explain how physical processing can produce the rich internal subjective experience we all share, which philosophers refer to as qualia. There does seem to be a gap between subjective and objective reality.
A scientific paradigm describes the world in objective, quantitative terms that are true for all observers while subjective experience seems to be uniquely accessible only by the individual. How can I know that your internal experience is the same as mine? Is my experience of red the same as yours? Is there any information that can convey the sensation of seeing the color red to someone with total color blindness? How could the mind construct these raw experiences?
Mind/World Duality and the Multiverse
When one reflects on the nature of internal subjective experience, it seems self-evident (to me at least) that no external measurement can fully capture the richness of it. Any observation of electrical activity of the brain does not capture the internal experience of the mind, it is merely a projection.
From the outside, there is always an ambiguity in what the internal reality/experience is.
A metaphor for this is the quantum wavefunction: Any observation of a quantum system results in the wavefunction apparently ‘collapsing’ onto one of its eigenvectors. The full multidimensional nature of the wavefunction can never be seen by any measurement, it will always just show an aspect of itself that coincides with the choice of measurement basis.
There is a duality that exists between the internal and external reality. My own internal subjective experience is known to me but there is an ambiguity in what the underlying physical embodiment of my mind is. For example, I may really exist only within a computer simulation and my ‘brain’ could just be a computer process running somewhere here or anywhere else in the universe. If we take into account the multiverse, the possibilities become even more expansive, and there becomes an infinite number of physical ‘implementations’ or mind simulations that occur which are consistent with my subjective experience. In fact, the underlying physical encoding of my mind could be changing from moment to moment and the associated computational hardware could be scattered across the multiverse.
From the inside, there is always an ambiguity in what the external/objective reality is.
Subjective continuity results from having a sequence of correlated experiences and within the multiverse, the space of all variations, there is always an inexhaustible source of physical structures to encode any subjective experience and so subjective continuity of experience is supported.
Quantum Metaphor for Mind
This mind/world duality is the same type of duality that appears in quantum mechanics and Fourier analysis. For example, in quantum mechanics the momentum-basis and the position-basis are related via the Fourier transform, thus a well-defined position corresponds to a superposition (sum) of momenta and a well-defined momentum corresponds to a superposition of positions. Position and momentum are therefore complementary to each other and cannot both be simultaneously well-defined as we already know from the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Similarly, the time domain and frequency domain are complementary in signal processing, resulting in the inherent tradeoff in time vs. frequency resolution.
If we utilize a quantum metaphor for mind, then any subjective experience is a superposition of all possible physical objects and their states that can potentially encode the experience.
This means the internal subjective reality and the external objective reality cannot be simultaneously well-defined. Any attempt to measure the mind from the outside will only show an ‘observable’, i.e. it will detect only one component within the superposition, showing an apparent ‘physical’ aspect of the mind. In this metaphor, subjective experience is the wavefunction and the physical processes which potentially encode the mind are the possible eigenstates of the wavefunction. In physics, the wavefunction is generally regarded as a complete description of a physical system and so the quantum metaphor for mind merely adds the idea that this complete description encompasses the internal subjective experience for those systems complex enough to possess self-awareness. In the Many Worlds and other ‘no-collapse’ interpretations of quantum mechanics the wavefunction always exists in superposition and this is true for objects of any size, from electrons all the way up to the universe itself.
Another useful concept from quantum mechanics that may be employed is the idea of entanglement. Entanglement occurs when one or more quantum systems such as electrons or other particles interact in such a way that they become strongly correlated to each other. The resulting interdependency runs so deep that the particles can no longer be described individually but instead must be treated as a single ‘holistic’ system, i.e. the wavefunction can no longer be written as a tensor product of individual quantum states. The entanglement concept may provide some clues to the mysteries of qualia.
One of the pervasive themes in eastern thought is the idea of transcending the abstraction of logical thought and directly experiencing reality itself. Being told about the ocean and experiencing it yourself are two very different things. Our internal experiences are so rich and mysterious, raw, seemingly irreducible, and private that they are very difficult to quantify and place within a reductionist framework. Does the mind construct qualia? Or does it somehow ‘connect’ or tune in to a pre-existing external quality of experience?
If we continue with the quantum metaphor for the mind, then perhaps we can view qualia in terms of entanglement between the observer and the system being observed.
The superposition of all possible physical objects/states that potentially encode the subjective experience of the observer become irreducibly interwoven with the set of all possible physical objects/states that potentially encode the observed system.
Therefore, the subjective experience and indeed the identity of the observer itself become irreducibly interdependent with the observed system. The joint (observer+observed) system results in a new and expanded subjective experience and a new set of possible physical encodings. Therefore, qualia is the shared internal experience of the (observer+observed) system and so is not merely ‘constructed’ by the observer’s mind—indeed the experience does not have any definite spatial or temporal location due to the nonlocal encoding across the multiverse. There is nothing more direct than this complete and irreducible intertwining of the subjective and objective aspects of the observer and observed system to form a new and richer identity and experience.
The Boundless Mind
If there is any truth in these speculations then every aspect of our being and the world is truly awe-inspiring. Each thought represents no less than an infinity of supporting physical structures used to encode it and each experience weaves these together into a higher order of infinity so rich and complex that it defies any finite attempt to quantify it.
Perhaps we’ve always known this truth but have struggled to describe it in a way that stays true to our deepest intuitions as well as the pure light of reason and rational thought…
“If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite” –William Blake