Consciousness – the hardest problem in science

A Surrey scientist claims to have an answer to what is often considered to be the hardest problem in science (sometimes just known as the “Hard Problem”): why we are aware.

Johnjoe McFadden, Professor of Molecular Genetics at the University of Surrey, has previously proposed that consciousness is generated by the brain’s electromagnetic field, the cemi field. The cemi field theory – that our thoughts are electric fields in the brain – has generated a lot of interest both in the UK and across the world. In McFadden’s theory nerve signals – the wires of the brain – are responsible for driving our unconscious actions (like walking or driving to work every day, when our conscious mind seems to be elsewhere) but our conscious thoughts are the electric fields that ebb and flow through the brain. Nerves and wires can only encode (know) ones and zeros but fields can encode the complexity of our thoughts.

Now, in a paper published in the latest issue of Journal of Consciousness Studies (Johnjoe McFadden, 2002 “The Conscious Electromagnetic Information (Cemi) Field Theory: The Hard Problem Made Easy?”) McFadden proposes an answer to the hard problem, claiming that awareness is electromagnetic field information, viewed from the inside.

Many apparently very different phenomena in physics are really the same thing, viewed from different frames of reference. For instance an electromagnetic field may be experienced as an electric field from one frame of reference (stationary) but a magnetic field from another frame of reference (moving). Similarly, in relativity theory, space and time are the same phenomenon – spacetime – viewed from different perspectives.

From the outside, information in the brain may be seen as patterns of neural firing or electrical field strengths. But from the perspective of those photons that comprise the brain’s electromagnetic field (our conscious mind), information is experienced as awareness.

In this view, awareness is a fundamental property of information. But only the information in the electromagnetic field of complex brains is capable of communicating (and has anything interesting to say). Consciousness is awareness that can talk.

The theory has huge implications for our understanding of mind and the design of artificial intelligence. McFadden claims that conventional computers, no matter how fast or complex, will never have conscious thoughts. They (like the neurons in our brain) think through wires rather than fields. They can only know (be aware of) ones and zeros. But it may soon be possible to build a revolutionary new kind of computer, one that uses electric fields to compute. An artificial conscious mind may not be so far away.

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