Monday, April 28, 2008

Common Sense: Both Wrong and Right

When it comes to our “folk” intuitions about the conscious self and free will, they can be wrong on the surface but still correct on a deeper level. I was reading Peter’s post on Conscious Entities about a neuroscientific paper on decision-making and conscious awareness (see additional discussion here). Like Libet’s work, the authors of the study appear to show that brain activity indicative of decision making precedes the subject’s awareness of making the choice. This again suggests the folk intuition that free will takes place at the level of reflective conscious awareness is flawed.

I concur with most of the commenters who expressed the view that this outcome has little bearing on the question of determinism and freedom at the metaphysical level. The human brain/body system is very complex and our higher order introspective awareness is a fragile construct embedded in this much larger context. And a simplistic division of the mind into a conscious and unconscious doesn’t do justice to the gradations of awareness.

When it comes to free will, our most fundamental theory of the natural world is indeterministic --it makes me wonder why we are even still debating determinism. There is no principle of quantum physics that states that indeterminism magically vanishes at macroscopic scales (the fact that we don’t observe macroscopic superpositions is not evidence that the large-scale world is described by classical physics). We may not be free in the way we think, but I think we are correct in viewing the future as open and believing that the sequence of natural events in which we participate is undetermined.

But does this imply that events are “just random”? Free choice on the part of a participating system would look like randomness from a third-person perspective. For a formal argument that there is a linkage between microscopic and human freedom, see this old post on the “Free-Will Theorem”.

[Update 4 June 2008: I changed the title of the post to the one I meant to have in the first place, swapping the order of 'right' and 'wrong']

Monday, April 21, 2008

More About Attention and Consciousness

A new paper by Christopher Mole, called simply “Attention and Consciousness”, is another careful analysis which attempts to deflate overly ambitious conclusions made by other authors when interpreting results in experimental psychology. (The online version is a draft that conforms closely to the version published in the latest Journal of Consciousness Studies).

Some researchers have used experimental evidence to argue that attention is necessary for consciousness (inattentional blindness studies). Others argue from different results (blindsight research) for the conclusion that consciousness is not necessary for attention. In opposition to both these views, Mole outlines the common sense account of the relation between attention and consciousness, which holds that attention requires consciousness (not the other way around), and one is conscious of more than that to which one attends. He argues that this common sense view is not threatened by the experimental evidence.

What makes this tricky is that it certainly is true that some instances and forms of consciousness do require attention. But nonetheless it is wrong to think this fact leads to a conclusion that attention is generally required for consciousness, is coextensive with it, or could exist without it.

One part of Mole’s paper discussing such a form of consciousness which appears to require attention I found interesting in light of the previous discussion in the post about Jason Ford’s paper. When speaking of the performance of subjects in an inattentional blindness study, Mole proposes that attention is required for the subject to deploy conceptual analysis of the experience in order to respond correctly to an experimenter’s question. This suggestion would support the contention that structured conceptual judgments about one’s experience (the kind which may introduce fallibility) are a derived outgrowth of a more extensive “raw” experience. (Note Mole doesn’t discuss this fallibility issue himself in this paper).

There is a good deal of interesting discussion in the paper. I’m sympathetic to Mole’s deflationary interpretations of some of these studies.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Group Field Theory and Emergent Space-Time

This paper by Daniele Oriti includes some ambitious ideas toward a theory of quantum gravity. In its first sections, he introduces his preferred formalism, called Group Field Theory (GFT). He shows how this formalism offers a framework general enough to incorporate aspects of other quantum gravity approaches. He then draws some lessons from these other approaches to suggest a path toward a successful theory by which space-time may be seen to emerge from a discrete quantum micro-structure using a GFT. Interestingly, in light of my last QG post, he takes inspiration from condensed matter theory in advocating his ideas. (My thanks to the anonymous commenter who suggested I look at this paper).

I had come across Oriti’s work before, and my first casual impression was that if GFT was a generalization of quantum field theory which hoped to incorporate gravity, then it might not be too interesting. I had taken to heart the criticisms that approaches which start by extending QFT (like the original string theory) were flawed by not being “background-independent”. Field theory is formulated against a flat space-time background, so how can you get space-time back out of it? As Oriti describes the formalism, while it is a true species of QFT, the way he uses it can be interpreted as modeling pre-geometric discrete quantum gravity elements. If so, then the QFT origin of the mathematical structure may not be an issue. In any case, I’m in no position to make judgments about the merits of the formalism, so I’ll just try to summarize here some the interesting ideas which arise as Oriti explores this framework.

He says the GFT can describe a quantum field in terms of fundamental variables which can be represented either as spin network vertices or elementary (d-1) simplices. Therefore he can draw connections to both the loop quantum gravity/spin foam and dynamical triangulations research programs. He says while there are open issues here, it appears that the GFT formalism can be seen to incorporate enough of these theories (and quantum Regge calculus as well) that he can draw some new lessons from examining certain features of these models from within the GFT framework.

Let me try to see if I can relate what he says the main lesson is (section 3.4 of the paper). These theories have tried to get dynamics from path integrals of the discrete structures they start with. Oriti says what results are the physics of (only) “few-particles”; these approaches lack a way to get interesting large –scale “many-particle” physics which would offer a chance to reveal an emergent space-time “continuum”. GFT offers a way to do a second quantization and field-theoretic analysis of the same starting structures in order to study the complex features which come in the many-particle regime. It is in this regime where we would hope to find an approximation of the continuum space-time described by General Relativity.

One exception to these perceived limitations of the other theories is the Causal version of Dynamical Triangulations (my post on this is here). In this approach, the micro-variables are stripped down to include only causally ordered ones, and the resulting path integral analysis has given interesting results in terms of an emergent four dimensional structure. Oriti suspects, though, that the strict limitations put imposed in CDT may lead one to again prefer analyzing the more general results which can come from using the GFT approach.

Oriti says that condensed matter physics shows the usefulness of field-theoretic and 2nd quantization approaches to studying the collective behavior and statistical properties of many-particle physics. He thinks we should consider quantum space-time as a condensed matter system, with the discrete structures of the GFT formalism as the atoms of space-time, and the continuum space-time as an emergent collective regime. General Relativity would be a hydrodynamic effective description of a quantum space-time fluid. Condensed matter techniques, themselves based on QFT, can point the way for how to research this possibility within GFT. Toward the end of the paper, Oriti offers a speculation that the Bose-Einstein condensate may be the specific analogue to look at (section 7 of the paper). His outline for how this would work is hard for me to follow. Some of the choices one makes in setting the terms in the GFT model seem important, but I can’t offer any opinions on this.

As I’ve said before, I like the idea of having a theory where a discrete quantum micro-physics leads to the space-time of GR in an emergent regime. So Oriti’s work is one I will try to follow as I have the other programs which have this feature. I also like that he wants to incorporate condensed matter physics as a guide to how this works. The parallels between condensed matter physics and fundamental physics are so suggestive that this link should be pursued. I still have a residual worry about the use of a field-theoretic approach which has space and time coordinates in the configuration of the micro-theory. I have this idea that a causal network of elementary quantum systems with absolutely no space-like metric would be a philosophically more appealing starting point. But perhaps this will turn out to be an unfounded worry. I look forward to reading more from Oriti in the future.

Emergent Quantum Gravity Research Series (in chronological order):

What’s New in Quantum Gravity
A section of Lee Smolin’s recent book discusses new approaches.

Causality First
Rafael Sorkin’s Causal Sets and Fotini Markopoulou’s Quantum Causal Histories.

Emerging From the Noise
More on Markopoulou’s approach.

Caution: Universe under Construction
The Causal Dynamical Triangulation program.

More papers from Markopoulou and colleagues.

In the Beginning was the Qubit
Seth Lloyd’s quantum computing-inspired take on quantum gravity.

Dreyer's Internal Relativity
Olaf Dreyer's approach to finding emergent gravity from a quantum mechanical base.

The Superfluid Universe
Grigory Volovik looks for the answers to fundamental physics in the surprising phenomena displayed in condensed matter physics.