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Given that just about everything in the universe at a non quantum level is deterministic, what does this say about free will and consciousness? Are these likely to be a result of randomness at the quantum level, or simply complexity beyond our comprehension (or chaos) at a larger scale. If the former, does this mean will we only ever see true general AI in quantum computers, or if the latter, what level of complexity is likely to be needed before we would hope to see consciousness and free will emerge in a conventional computer?

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  • $\begingroup$ You might want to ask this on Phil.SE. $\endgroup$ Mar 27 at 13:35
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This is a more of a philosophical question rather than one about physics simply because there is no consensis on the matter as far as the physics goes, and even what constitutes consciousness, though one outstanding characteristic is qualia, quiddity, intentionality and telos.

Wigner speculated on connections between consciousness and quantum mechanics pivoting on the collapse postulate on QM and Schrodinger was in later life interested in advaita philosophy where consciousness is the underlying reality of the world, though I don't know whether he made any connections with this and physics. Penrose more recently has also made some speculations between consciousness and quantum mechanics in the brain.

None of these speculations have anything to do with 'chaos' or 'random processes' per se.

You're probably better off asking this on Phil.SE where they tackle these more speculative questions.

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    $\begingroup$ The question is speculative and I don't think it has an answer as of yet, but it's definitely a scientific question that will in principle be answered when/if we learn enough details about the functioning of the brain. Might be better suited in a neuroscience stackexchange (if there is one), but it is not a purely philosophical question. $\endgroup$
    – Pedro
    Mar 27 at 13:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Pedro: in my opinion, you are just a machine that acts (for example, here on physics stack exchange) on the basis of your pre-programmed behaviors and intellectual prejudices. I am not. Otherwise, prove the contrary. If that is not a philosophical discussion between me and the projection of the robot that I call you, I don't know what is. $\endgroup$
    – oliver
    Mar 27 at 13:53
  • $\begingroup$ @pedro: I disagree, whilst we've learnt a great deal about neurons and how the brain itself functions and how the body relates to the brain, we've learnt very little about how exactly the mind itself is manifested from all this neuro-biology. This is why I tend to think of it as philosophical: there is no method here, as in scientific method; instead, lots of philosophical mysteries and obscurities. $\endgroup$ Mar 27 at 13:55
  • $\begingroup$ If we agree that, whatever consciousness is, it is some kind of physical process happening in the brain (perhaps a minority position, but probably a majority for physicists), then the OP's question seems to be equivalent to asking if the brain is a chaotic system, which to me looks like a pretty much scientific question. $\endgroup$
    – Pedro
    Mar 27 at 13:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Pedro: suppose you knew that physics eventually turned out to be completely deterministic (just hypothetically). Would that mean that consciousness is impossible? Note that I am not talking about free will. Free will actually can be scientifically investigated. If you can perfectly predict what a person does next, he/she cannot have free will. But consciousness? Is it even a defined term? $\endgroup$
    – oliver
    Mar 27 at 14:05
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Although it is an interesting question, the question about the connection between consciousness and physics can never be a scientific one because consciousness is entirely subjective. It has been remarked by other scientists (I think somebody of the early QM guys, or maybe someone of the AI guys, I don't remember), that every physical process of human life can be imagined to happen exactly in the same way with or without the subject possessing consciousness. I think you think you have a consciousness, but can I be sure? Just because you react much in a way that I would react to things, does not mean that you have a consciousness like I have.

Note that this is not directly related to free will or whether physics is deterministic or not. It has often happened to me in the past, that I had been doing things, that, in hindsight, I considered predictable myself. Nonetheless, I have felt conscious when I did them. So, generally, I would not boldly claim, that consciousness in a (hypothetically) deterministic world is impossible. Conversely, I have sometimes been doing pretty creative things, while I can hardly remember being intensely conscious at the time, to my own surprise!

Always remember that, reportedly, sometimes people do things without knowing about them afterwards, for example when they are drunk, or under the influence of other substances, or when they have brain tumors, schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder, or when they are sleepwalking. And yet, they often appear to be at least marginally conscious when they are doing these things. This teaches us that there is at least a very complicated relationship between consciousness and memory. Let alone physics...

Things really seem to get complicated when you take death into account. Physically, all your thought processes will end when you die, together with all your conscious memories. Does this mean, you will never have existed consciously?

This illustrates that, although I am pretty sure that there are some scientists who have tried to measure consciousness, they only could have measured physical phenomena that appear to indicate consciousness in the majority of cases, presumably. But in the end, only you know if you are actually conscious, and only I know if I am actually conscious, at the moment.

Although many people are pretty stupid, I think humanity as a whole cannot be so stupid that it created religion out of no reason at all. The fact that religion still exists, despite the ever-growing dominance of science in everyday life, tells us, that there are questions and conceptions that are simply non-sensical/not well-defined with respect to science, and religion fills these blind intellectual spots (independent of whether religion is right about things or not, certainly no offence against anybody's beliefs).

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    $\begingroup$ "It has been remarked by other scientists (I think somebody of the early QM guys, or maybe someone of the AI guys, I don't remember), that every physical process of human life can be imagined to happen exactly in the same way with or without the subject possessing consciousness" - I think this is known in the business as a 'philosophical zombie.' $\endgroup$
    – Rococo
    Mar 27 at 14:25
  • $\begingroup$ Now that you say it, I think I remember that term, yes. $\endgroup$
    – oliver
    Mar 27 at 14:26