Consciousness, Neurons
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We Can Only Imagine: The Consciousness of Physics

Physicist Ulf Danielsson’s The World Itself pins the powerful, slippery imagination and its impressive ideas about consciousness to matter’s messy, impermanent state.

The World Itself: Consciousness and the Everything of Physics
Ulf Danielsson
Bellevue Literary Press
February 2023

The subtitle of The World Itself by Ulf Danielsson – Consciousness and the Everything of Physics – captures the notion at the heart of this book. Danielsson, a Swedish physicist, urges a “new way of understanding the physics of the universe”, arguing that physics is “a theory of everything, by definition”, and therefore physics must be broadened to include the “first-person perspective”, meaning consciousness.   

The author’s primary adversary is ‘dualism’, the philosophy that minds are one type of thing that exists, and matter is entirely another. The human mind is pure consciousness, essentially different from physical brain matter and outside the laws of physics, while human bodies (including their brains) are no more than natural-born machines subject to those laws.  

Danielsson argues that the 17th-century dualist philosopher René Descartes (“I think, therefore I am”) “based his conclusion on his ability to imagine a subjective consciousness outside the body.” Danielsson counters, “I do not agree that something has to be true just because I can imagine it.” However, Descartes was trying to find one proposition that was true beyond all doubt to erect his philosophy on a bedrock of certainty. Descartes was not saying that imagining something makes it true; rather, the fact that, beyond all doubt, he can imagine something (that is, he can think) proves his existence beyond all doubt. 

Despite The World Itself‘s valuable attributes, discussed below, the author tends to state various thinkers’ positions, asserting that they are wrong rather than showing why they are wrong, why the positions are “crazy’ or “nonsense”, as he puts it.  In other instances, his description of another’s view is not entirely accurate.

Danielsson focuses at length, for example, on contemporary philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett’s holding that “consciousness is a secondary, emergent phenomenon that arises as a result of any sufficiently complex information processing.” Human consciousness is, for Dennett, simply what it is like to have a normally functioning human brain.  

Despite both Danielsson and Dennett’s holding that consciousness is necessarily physically brain-bound, the author is critical of Dennett. Dennett argues that consciousness consists of real sensations emerging from the functioning of a sufficiently complex brain, but Danielsson erroneously dismisses Dennett as holding that “consciousness is merely an illusion.”  

Danielsson, attempting to determine what consciousness is, asserts that even an infant has some sense of ‘self’ and the one thing infants can do is move: “Instead of assuming that the presence of self is solely due to intelligence, including mathematical or linguistic ability, a more fruitful starting point for a discussion of consciousness may be movement.” However, a paralyzed person can surely be conscious – and worms, whom some argue have no consciousness, can move. Thus, movement is suspect as a marker of consciousness.

Crucially, however, Danielsson does not need to define consciousness at all. Danielsson’s thesis is only that we need to expand the notion of physics to include consciousness. Because he defines physics as the science of all matter in the world, and since consciousness must be matter-bound regardless of how it is ultimately further defined, he concludes that physics must be broadened to encompass consciousness.

This central argument flirts dangerously with being circular since the premise is that physics is the science of everything (including consciousness) “by definition“, so physics must include consciousness.  The premise, by definition, assumes the conclusion.

The World Itself‘s value, however, lies not in Danielsson’s particular arguments but in his addressing a panoply of issues where science meets philosophy, including quantum computers and simulations, free will, genetics, evolution, consciousness and the mystery at the heart of quantum physics, the role of mathematics in science, set theory and its paradoxes, and much more. In particular, Danielsson highlights questions surrounding artificial intelligence. In light of the increasingly human-like ability of AI to process complex information and converse with us, for example, should we conclude that AI bots may become sentient and therefore entitled to respect and rights?  

Danielsson is clear-eyed about another central theme: the need to distinguish reality from the physicist’s mathematical models of reality arguing that there are really no Laws of Nature governing the world. For example, the formalistic math that is used to model planets’ motion in their orbits is not a Law of Nature that forces the planets to move as they do; mathematics does not have an independent reality with agency in the world but rather is merely a tool devised by humans to describe how the planets move.  Newton’s Law of Gravity does not force the apple to fall from its tree; it merely describes mathematically how the apple falls (Einstein will go on to explain why the apple falls, but that is another story).

The significant value of The World Itself resides in its thought-provoking treatment of an array of issues at the frontier of science and philosophy.  Danielsson provides an accessible framework within which non-scientists and non-philosophers may explore these matters. It is well worth our attention.

Additional Resources

Bostrom, Nick. “What If A.I. Sentience Is a Question of Degree?The New York Times. 14 April 2023.

Neeley, Brian. “Silicon Valley Confronts the Singularity“. The New York Times. 11 June 2023.

Voss, Chris. “The Chris Voss Show The World Itself: Consciousness and the Everything of Physics by Ulf Danielsson”. YouTube. 22 March 2023.

RATING 7 / 10