Consciousness and knowledge
The motivating idea: all knowledge already exists. It’s just not in a form that’s amenable to consciousness.
I have a list of 100 numbers. To make it easy, let’s make it the numbers from 1 to 100.
I also know a procedure for producing the sum of a list of numbers—an algorithm: write down the first number as the partial sum, add the next number to the partial sum, and continue adding until you’ve reached the last number.
Now I have the total: 5,050.
Is that new knowledge? In some sense, it’s not.
That knowledge was implicit in the mechanical application of the algorithm to the list.
Consider this as a conscious activity.
I start being conscious of a list of numbers and of a procedure for adding them.
I am conscious that there is a number that is their sum, but I can’t be conscious of the actual number unless something happens.
That something else can be this: I can form an intention to add the numbers.
If I decided to act on that intention, I would become conscious of the first partial sum.
Then I will become conscious of each number, in turn, as I add it to the partial sum.
I repeat the process until the final sum appears, and then I am conscious of that number.
I could write a program that does the calculation.
In that case, I would need to be conscious of other things: the representation of the algorithm, the representation of the set of numbers, the procedure for running the program.
If I act on that intention by applying that knowledge, out pops the number that is the sum.
I can be conscious of that number without having been conscious of each of the individual numbers in the list.
Other ways of knowing and becoming conscious
Those are two ways of knowing the sum to be conscious of it,
Are there other ways?
As it happens, there are many.
One is the one that I used when writing this essay. The sum of the first and last numbers in the sequence—1 and 100 is 101. So is the sum of the second and next-to-last—2 and 99. And so on. There are 50 pairs of numbers, each adding to 101. So the sum of the numbers is equal to 101 * 50 or 5050.
To become conscious of 5050 that way, I did not have to be conscious of each number in the sequence. I did have to be conscious of that algorithm, that the paired totals were 101, that there were 50 such pairs, and then to do the math.
That’s a simpler way of knowing and becoming conscious of that number.
Are there other ways?
In fact, there are infinitely many ways, most of which are harder than adding up the numbers one-by-one, which in turn is more laborious than my algorithmic trick.
But are there even easier ways?
Of course, there are—once the necessary base knowledge is in place. A person sufficiently skilled at mental multiplication and knowing the short-cut algorithm could become conscious of the sum of a sequence of numbers as soon as they were told the bounds of the sequence.
Knowledge in this essay
Take this essay. I think it contains useful information that I intend to preserve as knowledge.
But where did that come from?
A physicalist would argue that everything required to produce this essay is already present in the physical systems that constitute my mind. By that, I mean: the physical structure of my brain, its current electrical and chemical state (both static and dynamic), along with any affordances outside my body, without which my mind would lose some of its operating capability. For example, things I have written on paper that I can access, and there’s stuff in the cloud I might refer to (based on what’s already in my brain.)
Whatever knowledge this essay contains must already have been present, but not in a form convenient to consciousness.
I was able to become conscious of the ideas that are in this essay by intending to write it and then sitting down and writing it.
And how did that happen?
Indeed, I sat down, and my fingers typed the words that became this essay. I reread the words and sometimes found them inadequate in some cases. Then my fingers typed other words that I express the idea more effectively.
Because I’ve written this, it’s more accessible to me. But the knowledge was there before I started writing.
Because I’ve posted it, it’s easier for you to become conscious of it. But their knowledge was there before I posted it.
You didn’t need me to write it.
The knowledge that led to this essay is not unique to me. It exists in countless other minds. My mind happens to be one that put the pieces together and produced this essay.
The knowledge in this essay existed elsewhere in the universe.
Instances of the necessary knowledge were incorporated into my systems.
Then the written form of that knowledge Shipyard.
All knowledge is everywhere
It must be true that every bit of knowledge that there will ever be expressed is already implicit in knowledge in other places in the universe.
And surprisingly, it must be true that every bit of knowledge is already present in every bit of the universe!
There’s only one wave function, after all, and that wave function is everywhere, and it must encode everything.
It’s just harder to pull specific bits of information out of some parts of the universe than others—sometimes almost impossibly harder.
But it’s always possible.
We humans are knowledge detectors and knowledge constructors. (And so are all other living things—with proclivities for detecting different kinds of knowledge. And so are other materials forms from which living things—themselves collections of information—emerge)
We experience the flood of information that surrounds us, and from it, we extract the knowledge that is most useful to us.
We assemble bits of knowledge we’ve collected, and we reorganize it and express it as “new knowledge.”
But it’s not new.
All new knowledge is implicit in already-existing knowledge.
Suppose you have a list of 100 numbers, and you have an algorithm for adding numbers. Then knowledge of the sum of those numbers is implicit in the list and the algorithm. If you carried out the algorithm, the knowledge would become explicit and more available, but it’s not new.
Same with the universe.
All the knowledge that there ever was or ever will be was present in the instant after the Big Bang. It might have seemed chaotic, but it was not.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that entropy—which measures the disorder of the system—always rises. So it must be the case that the early universe—which might have seemed chaotic—was more orderly than it is today!
The net disorder of the universe has gone up steadily while local systems—like the planet Earth or you or me—represent islands of concentrated. The orderliness of the universe goes down even as the local orderliness of small regions goes up.
That’s entropy for you!
This essay is a case in point.
It’s a bit of order in a chaotic universe.
It contains information that I think is useful enough to preserve—thus meeting David Deutsch’s criteria for knowledge.
But where did that knowledge come from?
Like the sum of my list of numbers, it was there all the long.
The knowledge was within me, but I didn’t know that I knew it.
Like adding a hundred numbers to get the knowledge that was always there, I wrote this to find out what I knew.
And if you read it, you’ll know, too.
That’s all very interesting, but I can already hear someone asking me, “Are there practical consequences?”
The answer is in the next blog post. Or will be.
The answer is “yes.”
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