Consciousness: a Cosmological Perspective (Sharpening the Simulation Argument)

The following is an excerpt from Principia Qualia, Appendix F. I put it at the very end as a special, unexpected treat for people who read everything- but as it could provide independent support for the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV), it deserves scrutiny.

Essentially, the following argument ties together three mysteries into a unique, falsifiable solution:

(1) The ‘Simulation Argument:’ or whether our universe has the hallmarks of being created through some intentional process;

(2) The ‘fine-tuning problem‘ in physics: why various physical constants such as the speed of light, weight of the electron, etc seem delicately tuned to support a certain sort of complexity;

(3) The ‘Problem of Evil:’ why suffering exists, and why it seems so common compared to goodness.

On this last topic, I come to a much more optimistic conclusion than most. Usually philosophers find themselves justifying why we find ourselves living in a bad universe dominated by suffering– my argument suggests instead that it can be reasonable, rational, and even plausible to be hopeful about the cosmic ledger.

Consciousness: a cosmological perspective

We tend to think of consciousness, and theories of consciousness, on a human scale. This seems reasonable, since it’s the only context for consciousness that we know anything about. But if we aim to have a well-defined, truly frame-invariant understanding of consciousness, we need to bite the bullet and accept that it should apply equally at non-human scales as well.

But things get strange very quickly when we consider theories of consciousness such as IIT & Perceptronium at cosmological scales. Humanity seems to think that they are the lone candle of consciousness, flickering in the surrounding void of inert matter– but what if the opposite is true? I submit it would be surprisingly difficult to fully-formalize a plausible theory of consciousness where the biological life of Earth constitutes the majority of the universe’s qualia.

Where else could qualia be found, if not humans? List your preferred frame-invariant condition for consciousness (integrated information, decoherence, “complexity”, etc), then consider how much of this consciousness-stuff the following cosmological phenomena might have:

The Big Bang: presumably, packing everything in our observable universe into an area smaller than an electron would have produced an incredible amount of integration (etc) with incredibly fine spatial & temporal grain. So much so that it seems plausible that >99.9% of the universe’s total qualia (in a timeless sense) could have happened within its first ~hour.

To put this poetically- perhaps we are qualia godshatter, slowly recoalescing ~14 billion years after the main event.

Eternal Inflation: inflationary cosmology- the idea that the early universe underwent an exponential expansion during the Big Bang- is “an ingenious attempt to solve some of the major puzzles of cosmology, most notably the flatness problem, the homogeneity (horizon) problem, and the monopole problem.” (Penrose 1989) First proposed in the 1980s, it’s still considered the best hypothesis we have for understanding why our universe has the distribution of mass & geometry it does.

An important implication of the inflation model is that, due to the math involved, it never quite stops. Sean Carroll notes that:

Most — “essentially all” — models of inflation lead to the prediction that inflation never completely ends. The vicissitudes of quantum fluctuations imply that even inflation doesn’t smooth out everything perfectly. As a result, inflation will end in some places, but in other places it keeps going. Where it keeps going, space expands at a fantastic rate. In some parts of that region, inflation eventually ends, but in others it keeps going. And that process continues forever, with some part of the universe perpetually undergoing inflation. That’s how the multiverse gets off the ground — we’re left with a chaotic jumble consisting of numerous “pocket universes” separated by regions of inflating spacetime. (Carroll 2011)

If this eternal inflation model of the universe is right, this inflationary process is almost certainly creating an infinite amount of qualia.

Our Future: it seems possible that- if we don’t kill ourselves first- our future could hold much more consciousness than the present. Kurzweil puts this possibility as “The Universe Wakes Up” and becomes conscious, thanks to our intervention.

Planck Scale phenomena: Perhaps the virtual particles continually popping in and out of existence in a quantum vacuum, or a quantum vacuum itself, involve a very small amount of integrated information. There’s a lot of stuff happening at the Planck Scale, so if it generates any qualia, it would be a huge amount of total qualia.

Megastructures: what would it feel like to be a black hole? Are black holes Bose-Einstein condensates, and if so does that imply anything about their qualia or their ability to store&process information? Is there any integrated information in a quasar?[1] We don’t generally talk about megastructures as having complex structure, but that may just be limitations on our models & measurements.

Partitions of reality we can’t see: as Max Tegmark notes in his Perceptronium paper, we experience a certain partition of Hilbert Space as reality. He argues that there might be other partitions of Hilbert Space that could support consciousness, too. Likewise, there may be other multiverses (Levels I, II, III, and IV, in Tegmark’s framework) that support consciousness. And so it seems easily possible that the majority of qualia being generated is outside of our particular partition and/or multiverse.

The above comments likely come across as a type error: ‘black holes can’t be conscious, and it couldn’t have felt like anything to be the Big Bang- don’t be ridiculous!’ – but, I would challenge those who would object to explain why in a formal way. As noted above, I think we’d be hard-pressed to define a fully frame-invariant theory of consciousness where the above sorts of cosmological events wouldn’t involve consciousness. So I think we have to bite the bullet here.

Finally, I end with some low-probability (<10%) speculation that I won’t ask my readers to bite the bullet on. I offer the following less as an argument, and more as an optimistic- and somewhat whimsical- exploration.

Hypothesis: many of these cosmological events may involve high- and sometimes extreme- amounts of symmetry. Status: unrepentantly speculative. Dependent upon many nested assumptions.

We can now move on to the next sort of question: “if it felt like something to be the Big Bang, what did it feel like?”; “if a black hole has qualia, what qualia does it have?

Obviously, I don’t know the answer. But some of these cosmological events are notable for having an extreme degree of symmetry, which- if the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV) is correct- means they should feel pretty good.

The Big Bang & Eternal Inflation are probably the best understood example of a high-symmetry cosmological event. The rapid inflation of our universe, which cosmologists are fairly certain describes our past, requires an extremely low-entropy starting point in order to happen (something close to a de Sitter space, which is the ‘maximally symmetric solution of Einstein’s field equations with a positive cosmological constant’). There are huge unknowns here: e.g., is low-entropy here the same as high-symmetry? What is the measure we should use for symmetry-which-is-relevant-for-valence? Why did the universe start with such a low-entropy state to begin with? But the Big Bang probably had, and the ongoing Eternal Inflation probably has, an extremely high amount of whatever the symmetry relevant to valence is.

Also of note, Max Tegmark has suggested that the Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics may imply substantial symmetries that are ‘hidden’ from observers like us:

[In the Level III multiverse] the quantum superposition of field configurations decoheres into what is for all practical purposes an ensemble of classical universes with different density fluctuation patterns. Just as in all cases of spontaneous symmetry breaking, the symmetry is never broken in the bird’s view, merely in the frog’s view: a translationally and rotationally quantum state (wave functional) such as the Bunch-Davies vacuum can decohere into an incoherent superposition of states that lack any symmetry. (Tegmark 2007)

If these high-symmetry ‘birds-eye views’ of a Many Worlds reality can support qualia, and of course assuming my hypothesis about valence is correct, the qualia would plausibly be very pleasant.[2]

My point here is that there could be a lot of very pleasant qualia laying around, under certain not-implausible assumptions about consciousness and valence. Perhaps an amazingly huge amount.

Bostrom’s Simulation Argument:

One last piece of the puzzle: Nick Bostrom’s Simulation Argument (SA) suggests that at least some advanced civilizations will make universe simulations, and if they do, they will make lots of such simulations. This implies we are statistically likely to be living in a simulation. More technically, Bostrom argues that:

At least one of the following propositions is true: (1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. (Bostrom 2003)

Bostrom’s argument as stated relies on consciousness being substrate-independent: he assumes that “it would suffice for the generation of subjective experiences that the computational processes of a human brain are structurally replicated in suitably fine-grained detail, such as on the level of individual synapses.” I think there are very good reasons to doubt this, as noted in Appendix C and (McCabe 2005).

But I think Bostrom doesn’t need this assumption of substrate-independence for his argument. I suggest the following middle ground: as Bostrom notes, we could be living in a simulation. But as McCabe argues, if we are in a simulation, it wouldn’t really ‘count’ as being a metaphysically separate reality. Instead, we would simply be living in a weirdly-partitioned view of basement reality, since a simulation can’t take on any strong emergent properties over and above the hardware it’s being run on. Importantly, this means the underlying physical rules for consciousness would be the same for us as they would be for the entities running our simulations. But in practice, the simulation could present these rules to us very differently than they would be presented in unfiltered basement reality.

Why simulate anything?

At any rate, let’s assume the simulation argument is viable- i.e., it’s possible we’re a simulation, and due to the anthropic math, that it’s plausible that we’re in one now.

Although it’s possible that we are being simulated but for no reason, let’s assume entities smart enough to simulate universes would have a good reason to do so. So- what possible good reason could there be to simulate a universe? Two options come to mind:

(a) the simulation has instrumental value, e.g. using the evolution of the physical world to compute something, or

(b) the simulation has intrinsic value, e.g. something to do with creating valuable qualia.

In theory, (a) could be tested by assuming that efficient computations will exhibit high degrees of Kolmogorov complexity (incompressibility) from certain viewpoints, and low Kolmogorov complexity from others. We could then formulate an anthropic-aware measure for this applicable from ‘within’ a computational system, and apply it to our observable universe. This is outside the scope of this work.

However, we can offer a suggestion about (b): if our universe is being simulated for some intrinsic purpose, it seems plausible that it has to do with producing a large amount of some kind of particularly interesting or morally relevant qualia. The one quale that seems particularly interesting and especially morally relevant is positive valence.[3]

–> Hypothesis: the universe could be being simulated to generate lots of positive valence. Let’s call this the Teleologic Simulation for Valence (TSfV) Hypothesis. It implies that all contingent facts of our universe (e.g., all free variables in the Standard Model) are optimized for maximizing total positive valence.

Evidence/predictions for TSfV:

The way to test this would be exploring whether we live in a universe which seems improbably likely to support lots of positive valence, and if we can’t explain contingent features of our universe without assuming this. I.e., can the TSfV hypothesis make successful predictions that mere anthropic reasoning can’t? Likewise, if we can find a single contingent physical constant not optimized for the maximization of positive valence (more strictly, consciousness*valence*intensity, per Section X[4]), this would disprove the hypothesis.

The clearest argument for this TSfV hypothesis revolves around the initial low-entropy state (a ‘quasi’ de Sitter space) which allows Eternal Inflation. How this state came about is currently an unsolved problem in cosmology, and if it (or something upstream of it) is contingent and we can’t explain it in any other way, this would be strong evidence. Here’s Sean Carroll:

Although inflation does seem to create a universe like ours, it needs to start in a very particular kind of state. If the laws of physics are “unitary” (reversible, preserving information over time), then the number of states that would begin to inflate is actually much smaller than the number of states that just look like the hot Big Bang in the first place. So inflation seems to replace a fine-tuning of initial conditions with an even greater fine-tuning. (Carroll 2011)

Many other arguments could be made, particularly, surrounding the four other topics I identify above, but there are too many unknowns to say very much with confidence. Progress here will depend on better understanding the physical representation of the symmetry that ‘matters’ for valence, connecting this with various definitions of entropy, calculating expected qualia & valence of various cosmological events, and general progress on cosmological models.

Leibniz famously argued that we live in the best possible world, based on the following argument:

God has the idea of infinitely many universes.

Only one of these universes can actually exist.

God’s choices are subject to the principle of sufficient reason, that is, God has reason to choose one thing or another.

God is good.

Therefore, the universe that God chose to exist is the best of all possible worlds. (Leibniz 1710 (1989))

This argument fell into disfavor due to the problems of evil and suffering, the triumph of evolution & empirical science over theology & reasoning from first-principles, and ambiguity over what makes a universe ‘good’.

I don’t know if there’s something here or not. But it may be time to revisit this argument from the perspective of the Simulation Argument[5] and the physics of qualia & valence. Likewise, any serious treatment of the Simulation Argument absolutely must pay attention to qualia & valence.


[1] Cosmology has put a lot of effort into studying “standard candles”, or stars which have a precisely predictable energy output due to transitions which happen at precisely known mass thresholds. Is the qualia-relevant microstructure of standard candles also similar across a given class? E.g., do all type Ia supernovae feel fairly similar?

[2] Likewise, Tegmark notes that different Level II multiverses can support “different ways in which space can be compactified, which can allow both different effective dimensionality and different symmetries/elementary articles (corresponding to different topology of the curled up extra dimensions).”

[3] I am not claiming valence is necessarily the only quale of moral relevance, merely that it is the quale that is most obviously morally relevant.

[4] E.g., we should look for optimization for high symmetry, but not perfect symmetry everywhere and everywhen, since this presumably wouldn’t allow room for the sort of complexity which gives rise to consciousness (or the passage of time).

[5] This may also offer somewhat of a basis for a probability measure for Tegmark’s set of Level IV multiverses.