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A different Difference Engine

Consciousness as organised energy is the basis of a new theory offered by Robert Pepperell; the full paper is here, with a magazine article treatment here.

Pepperell suggests that we can see energy as difference, or more particularly actualised difference – that is to say, differences in the real world, not differences between abstract entities. We can imagine easily enough that the potential energy of a ball at the top of a slope is a matter of the difference between the top and bottom of the slope, and Pepperell contends that the same is equally true of the kinetic energy of the ball actually rolling down. I’m not sure that all actualised differences are energy, but that’s probably just a matter of tightening some definitions; we see what Pepperell is getting at. He says that the term ‘actualised difference’ is intended  to capture the active, antagonistic nature of energy.

He rejects the idea that the brain is essentially about information processing, suggesting instead that it processes energy. He rightly points to the differing ways in which the word ‘information’ is used, but if I understand correctly his chief objection is that information is abstract, whereas the processing of the brain deals in actuality; in the actualised difference of energy, in fact.

This is crucial because Pepperell wants us to agree that ‘there is something it is like’ to undergo actualised difference. He claims we can infer this by examining nature; I’m not sure everyone will readily agree, but the idea is that we can see that what it is like to be a rope under tension differs from what it is like to be the same rope when slack. It’s important to be clear that he’s not saying the rope is conscious; having a ‘what it is like’ is for him a more primitive level of experience, perhaps not totally unlike some of the elementary states of awareness that appear in panpsychist theories (but that’s my comparison, not his).

To get the intuition that Pepperell is calling on here, I think we need to pay attention to his exclusion of abstract entities. Information-based theories take us straight to the abstract level, whereas I think  Pepperell sees ‘something it is like’ as being a natural concomitant of actuality, or at any rate of actualised difference. To him this seems to be evident from simple examination, but again I think many will simply reject the idea as contrary to their own intuitions.

If we’re ready to grant that much, we can then move on to the second part of the theory, which takes consciousness to be a reflexive form of what-it-is-likeness. Pepperell cites the example of the feedback patterns which can be generated by pointing a video camera at its own output on a screen. I don’t think we are to take this analogy too literally, but it shows how a self-referential system can generate output that goes far beyond registration if the input. The proposal also plays into a relatively common intuition that consciousness, or at least some forms of it, are self-referring or second order, as in the family of HOT and HOP theories.

Taken all in all, we are of course a long way from a knock-down argument here; in fact it seems to me that Pepperell does not spend enough time adumbrating the parts of his theory that most need clarification and defence. I’m left not altogether seeing why we should think it is like anything to be a rope in any state, nor convinced that reflexive awareness of our awareness has any particular part to play in the generation of subjective consciousness (it obviously has something to do with self-awareness). But the idea that ‘something it is like’ is an inherent part of actuality does have some intuitive appeal for me, and the idea of using that as a base for the construction of more complex forms of consciousness is a tantalising start, at least.


Posted in Conscious Entities.