Can A Quantum Field Theory Ontology Help Resolve the Problem of Consciousness?

In Siddheshwar Rameshwar Bhatt (ed.), Quantum Reality and Theory of Śūnya. Springer. pp. 13-26 (2019)
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The hard problem of consciousness arises in most incarnations of present day physicalism. Why should certain physical processes necessarily be accompanied by experience? One possible response is that physicalism itself should be modified in order to accommodate experience: But, modified how? In the present work, we investigate whether an ontology derived from quantum field theory can help resolve the hard problem. We begin with the assumption that experience cannot exist without being accompanied by a subject of experience (SoE). While people well versed in Indian philosophy will not find that statement problematic, it is still controversial in the analytic tradition. Luckily for us, Strawson has elaborately defended the notion of a thin subject—an SoE which exhibits a phenomenal unity with different types of content (sensations, thoughts etc.) occurring during its temporal existence. Next, following Stoljar, we invoke our ignorance of the true physical as the reason for the explanatory gap between present day physical processes (events, properties) and experience. We are therefore permitted to conceive of thin subjects as related to the physical via a new, yet to be elaborated relation. While this is difficult to conceive under most varieties of classical physics, we argue that this may not be the case under certain quantum field theory ontologies. We suggest that the relation binding an SoE to the physical is akin to the relation between a particle and (quantum) field. In quantum field theory, a particle is conceived as a coherent excitation of a field. Under the right set of circumstances, a particle coalesces out of a field and dissipates. We suggest that an SoE can be conceived as akin to a particle—a SelfOn—which coalesces out of physical fields, persists for a brief period of time and then dissipates in a manner similar to the phenomenology of a thin subject. Experiences are physical properties of selfons with the constraint (specified by a similarity metric) that selfons belonging to the same natural kind will have similar experiences. While it is odd at first glance to conceive of subjects of experience as akin to particles, the spatial and temporal unity exhibited by particles as opposed to fields and the expectation that selfons are new kinds of particles, paves the way for cementing this notion. Next, we detail the various no-go theorems in most versions of quantum field theory and discuss their impact on the existence of selfons. Finally, we argue that the time is ripe for a rejuvenated Indian philosophy to begin tackling the three-way relationship between SoEs (which may become equivalent to jivas in certain Indian frameworks), phenomenal content and the physical world. With analytic philosophy still struggling to come to terms with the complex worlds of quantum field theory and with the relative inexperience of the western world in arguing the jiva-world relation, there is a clear and present opportunity for Indian philosophy to make a worldcentric contribution to the hard problem of experience.

Author's Profile

Anand Rangarajan
University of Florida


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