Stephen Hawking’s recent death caused many to glance regretfully at the unread copies of A Brief History Of Time on their bookshelves. I don’t even own one, but I did read The Grand Design, written with Leonard Mlodinow, and discussed it here. It’s a bold attempt to answer the big questions about why the universe even exists, and I suggested back then that it showed signs of an impatience for answers which is characteristic of scientists, at least as compared with philosophers. One sign of Hawking’s impatience was his readiness to embrace a version of the rather dodgy Anthropic Principle as part of the foundations of his case.
In fact there are many flavours of the Anthropic Principle. The mild but relatively uninteresting version merely says we shouldn’t be all that surprised about being here, because if we hadn’t been here we wouldn’t have been thinking about it at all. Is it an amazing piece of luck that from among all the millions of potential children our parents were capable of engendering, we were the ones who got born? In a way, yes, but then whoever did get born would have had the same perspective. In a similar way, it’s not that surprising that the universe seems designed to accommodate human beings, because if it hadn’t been that way, no-one would be worrying about it.
That’s alright, but the stronger versions of the Principke make much more dubious claims, implying that our existence as observers really might have called the world into existence in some stronger sense. If I understood them correctly, Hawking and Mlodinow pitched their camp in this difficult territory.
Here at Conscious Entities we do sometimes glance at the cosmic questions, but our core subject is of course consciousness. So for us the natural question is, could there be an Anthropic-style explanation of consciousness? Well, we could certainly have a mild version of the argument, which would simply say that we shouldn’t be surprised that consciousness exists, because if it didn’t no-one would be thinking about it. That’s fine but unsatisfying.
Is there a stronger version in which our conscious experience creates the preconditions for itself? I can think of one argument which is a bit like that. Let me begin by proposing an analogy in the supposed Problem of Focus.
The Problem of Focus notes that the human eye has the extraordinary power of drawing in beams of light from all the objects around it. Somehow every surface around us is impelled to send rays right in to that weirdly powerful metaphysical entity which resides in our eyes, the Focus. Some philosophers deny that there is a single Focus in each eye, suggesting it changes constantly. Some say the whole idea of a Focus with special powers is an illusion, a misconception of perfectly normal physical processes. Others respond that the facts of optometry and vision just show that denying the existence of Focus is in practice impossible; even the sceptics wear glasses!
I don’t suppose anyone will be detained for long by worries about the Probkem of Focus; but what if we remove the beams of light and substitute instead the power of intentionality, ie our mental ability to think about things. Being able to focus on an item mentally is clearly a useful ability, allowing us to target our behaviour more effectively. We can think of intentionality as a system of pointers, or lines connecting us to the object being thought of. Lines, however, have two ends, so the back end of these ones must converge in a single point. Isn’t it remarkable that this single focus point is able to draw together the contents of consciousness in a way which in fact generates that very state of awareness?
Alright, I’m no Hawking…
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