Engineering consciousness

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Do we consider consciousness as a matter of physics or rather—engineering?

I read a nice post by Sean Carroll: Feynman on Initial Conditions, Evolving Laws, and What We Consider Physics.

Consciousness is the obvious candidate of what we might consider physics one day.

Well, let’s just assume consciousnes will be understood one day (as far as science can go and understand things). Will it be part of physics? A part of physics like the value of the refractive index of water is a part of physics—I am not talking about the mere existence of such an index. I am referring with this example to Feynman’s little note on the history of physics. There was a time, where this value, the very number 1.3330, was considered a matter of chemistry rather than physics (see ~7:10 in the video linked from Carroll’s post)?

The mere existence of such an index is, by analogy, the brain. The brain’s areas. The area’s networks. The network’s neurons. The neuron’s voltage excursions called spiking. The spiking’s open gates, which are large molecules. The molecule’s atoms. You got it.

While the actual value of the index is by analogy the consciousness state of the brain. If you see this state somehow hidden in the spiking pattern, you may (or still may not) agree that consciousness is made out of this pattern in a similar fashion as the value of the refractive index pops out of the disturbances of the electric field by each atom. (Hope, I make myself clear.)

So again, is it physics, or will it be—always assuming consciousness will be understood one day—part of another discipline? Consciousness, like the value of a refractive index, is a property of a substance. Which of these properties, in general, are part of chemistry, biology, psychology, and …—or is all physics at the end?

My take on this matter is that consciousness has a great deal in common with engineering. Control engineering.

If only control engineers had learned to deal with system with large sets of free parameters. Very large sets. (Being nonlinear might be considered an neglected issue, too, but “non-linearity” is rather another less obvious answer to the original question, what we consider physics. It occurs in systems far from equilibrium, so here we go again. Where do the initial conditions come from?)

I always have to think about engineers, when I hear any neuroscientist speak about consciousness. For me, it is far from clear that a (neuro-) physiologist, biologist, or a neurologist and psychiatrist even a neuro-computationalist … that all these neuro-people have any to say about consciousness just because of the methods they are trained in. For other reasons, yes, because they may thought about the origin of consciousness a lot. But not because of the methods they have learned in their respective discipline.

A control engineer talking about consciousness? At best one married to a pedagogist, because the feedback control loops go through teachers of all kind. Yes, you can’t look at the brain’s states without including the external feedback loops, a control engineer would tell you right away.

I would be listening with ears wide open to a control engineer talking about consciousness!

So far, its dead silent out there. And that’s a pity. Not so much because I think the day we understand consciousness would be much nearer. But because control engineers have a lot to say about the brain, in particular how we can fix the brain’s diseased states. We need to think out of the box labeled with “neuro”—and the rest is not always physics.


Markus Dahlem forscht seit über 20 Jahren über Migräne, hat Gastpositionen an der HU Berlin und am Massachusetts General Hospital. Außerdem ist er Geschäftsführer und Mitgründer des Berliner eHealth-Startup Newsenselab, das die Migräne- und Kopfschmerz-App M-sense entwickelt.

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