Sarfatti Measures Consciousness: A Critical Joie d'Espirit
by Michael Rossman
Any joke that takes an explanation longer than itself to say why it's funny is surely lame. But this is a beast of a different kind, and I don't mind saying that I'm proud of the puppy. Indeed, this little mongrel may be the first work of its peculiar species ever published, at least in English. So bear with me, as I explain why it shouldn't be taken simply as an elegant fart.
In the world of theoretical physics, there is a vital tradition of gedanken-experiment -- of "thought experiment" as a means of exploring and testing theories. The most celebrated example involves Ernest Schrodinger's Cat. In 1932, this co-founder of quantum mechanics imagined a cat imprisoned in a closed box, along with a poisoning apparatus triggered by an atomic decay that had precisely even odds of occuring or not while the box was closed. On opening the box, of course one observed either a live cat or a dead one. Yet until then, Schrodinger maintained, the cat -- i.e., its quantum-mechanical wave-function -- existed simultaneously in two "superposed" states, both alive and dead. Only when it was observed did its superposed states collapse into one and not the other. All this was clear from the consistent mathematics of description. But what did a superposed wave-function mean, what could you do with one? And how did the miracle of collapse into familar reality take place, what did our observation and consciousness have to do with making the world happen?
By the end of the century, pondering such quantum considerations had led practical scientists on through the development of solid-state physics to Silicon Valley, the Web, and the verge of actual quantum computing, which bids to revolutionize this revolutionary medium in our lifetimes. Meanwhile, the conundrums of quantum consciousness remained hardly explored for two generations, less from lack of funding than because of their slippery depths. In the cultural opening of the late Sixties, some young physicists joined the few of quantum's Old Guard still mulling this mystery, invigorating a serious quest to develop a physical theory of consciousness, and inciting an audience for their speculations. Thirty years on, this had become an almost-respectable frontier of science, a richly-populated inquiry; and a score of Young Guard physicists had morphed seamlessly between theorizing and popularizing "New Age" physics.
One such was Jack Sarfatti, who at the turn of the millenium centered an intense, prolonged list-serve conversation swirling around his (rather egotistical) quest to construct a physical theory of consciousness. He brought to this task a truly impressive armament of physics-theoretic tools, drawing on edge research from several domains of physical and biological science; and produced some surmises which, though not as world-shaking as he proclaimed, were still genuinely interesting, or at least provocative. A number of very fine minds from various fields of consciousness-research were actively involved in pondering and responding to the issues he raised. As an amateur participant in this list-conversation for a year or so, I asked some serious questions myself, trying to keep a straight and sober face in virtual public. But when Sarfatti kept insisting that his evolving quantitative theory proved that a dachshund’s brain was too small for the dog actually to be conscious, I just lost it.
Alas, the details of his theory are too complex and esoteric to cite explicitly here in support of my claim. But I assure you that what follows, though dressed-up as a burlesque, is a gedanken-experiment incorporating a precise and fatal critique of his theory. Most of its flourishes are references to specific details of his theorizing, as well as to his vitriolic bluster in defending it – extending to political invective inspired by his right-wing Svengali, Stephen Schwartz, and to his habitual holding-court in Vesuvio's Cafe in San Francisco. But though I do rag on him for this, I am genuinely gracious at the end, beneath my mockery pointing him towards considerations that might actually breathe new life into his line of inquiry.
As the aspiring Nobel laureate strides into the chic Italianate cafe, the muted clicks of paparrazi's digital cameras crescendo like a soft bee-swarm. Dazzled by the random synchrony of flashes, Sarfatti fails to notice the ragged, aging hippie crouched beside a table in his path until a deft toe-trip sends him sprawling in the aisle, his flailing hands tipping a drink down the quantum chanteuse's bodice. In superposed embarrassment and rage, he scrambles up and whirls on his impediment. Decoherence follows almost instantly from the photons striking his retina, or his parsing of their pattern, which evolves swiftly in quantal leaps.
"You numbskull, you fricking klutz! That was deliberate! Rossman, what are you doing here?"
"Conducting a gedanken-experiment." The hippie gasps, his eyes flaring as they focus behind Sarfatti's left ear. The physicist's head whirls left, but nothing's there. By the time it snaps back, the hippie's looking to his right, saying urgently, "She's leaving." Stifled lust whirls the physicist's gaze in that direction, but the chanteuse is merely mopping at her breasts. This superposition decays as rapidly, as signals from his damaged knee return him to counter-attack.
"You Stalinist! The Serbs set you up to this! Or was it Nazi Nick? Whoops, you asked me not to call you capitalized names, and I agreed because I'm a gentleman and you deserve an occasional bone of graciousness. Okay. You numbskull, you degenerate dachshund! No, don't chide me, you can spell it without a cap, it's passed into common usage, like kleenex, xerox, genius, like sarfatti will some day."
"Whew, it takes a quick ear and deft mind to follow you! You're sputtering at six words a second."
"Don't trouble me with real numbers."
"How come? You juggle them okay. What's twelve times thirteen?"
"One fifty six," Sarfatti spits out scornfully, in schoolboy reaction to challenge.
In joint impulse, they segue into duet: "Anything you can do I can do better." When their syncopated noyoucant-yesIcans peak, the cafe crowd applauds, obliging them to take a bow before their spirited dialogue resumes with the machine-gun rapidity of a Sicilian kitchen argument.
"So what are you trying to prove?"
"You tripped over my intention."
"I tripped on your foot. I mean you tripped me."
"You mean I tricked you. My intention was material."
"What do you mean?"
"It was mean of me. But a pratfall is meaningful."
"You always put things like that, too densely to follow in haste, so I just say you're talking nonsense."
"That's because your consciousness works so slowly."
"It works faster than yours!"
"That's just because you've got a swelled head. Even so, N(Sarfatti)/N(Rossman) ~ 1, so mine works about as fast as yours even in your terms. Actually, 1/T(Rossman) << 1/T*(Sarfatti), so it works much more rapidly than yours. And has more fun too."
"Whaddayamean? I enjoy toying with you, you yapping dachshund!"
"Yes, but you can't describe your enjoyment or yourself as 'conscious' in our interaction here, at least in the Sarfattian sense."
"There you go, babbling about 'species of "consciousness"' again. There's only one kind of consciousness, and I'm the one who's pinned down how it works!"
"Since your kind ticks on a 0.68 second schedule, it can't possibly be responsible for your clever repartee, your lightning calculations, your quick shifts of attention and perspective, the flickering distractions of embarrassment, lust, and rivalry assailing you as you notice the chanteuse tittering at your unbalanced flailing. But mine surely works at least as fast as all this requires, multi-tasking to boot."
The physicist hesitates, as insight hovers and threatens. Can it be that he -- or at least, his public act -- is actually the caricature of automated, unconscious reactions and programmed responses implied by his theory? But dawning superposition and incipient coherence decay instantly as photons from the irridescent pasties on the chanteuse's nipples trigger patriarchial circuitry.
"Nonsense, you cretin! You don't understand the first thing about consciousness! The critical threshold complexity N* for the generation of consciousness in the DeBroglie-Bohm pilot wave mind-field is computed from h ~ (2pe^2/hc)(mc^2/H)(1/N*^2) ~ (1/137)(mc^2/H)(1/N*^2). Rewrite this as two rates 'impedance matched' to form a 'mind-matter resonance' or what Bohm and Hiley call the 'two-way relation between wave and particle' mc^2/h ~ 137 N*^2H . . ."
While those still unfamiliar with the derivation attend enthralled to its ingenious unfolding, the chanteuse and Rossman scat softly in the background, "doobbie doobbie doobbie do," confident that the physicist cannot pause to decipher the coded relevance beyond the first level, until his inexorable logic concludes forty lines further on, ". . . the actual consciousness rate dC/dt is much slower, it is dC/dt ~ NH ~ (N/4)x10^-17 Hz with a relative probability P(N). So there! You hear me?"
"Sorry, I was ontologizing. Does that mean your 'consciousness' works fast enough to be here now?"
"You asshole! You haven't even quoted my latest derivation, that one just gives 1/T* = dC/dt = 2.5 Hz."
"It was too slow already before you pedaled backwards. But maybe you're as unique as you think, maybe Sarfattian consciousness does work at 1.5 Hz. I'm still waiting to see how long you take to grasp that a function working so slowly can be at best loosely and indirectly connected to control of all the varieties of what ordinarily is called 'consciousness' that you've exhibited here -- with a looseness that varies over a scale of >10^7 in the mammalian order, per my figures in your e-wastebasket if you haven't emptied it recently. Surely grasping this must be a function of 'higher consciousness' unconnected with mathematical comprehension, biological experience, and ordinary wit, else you'd have gotten it by now."
Rossman pauses, aware less that he's ranting than of the Sarfattian scorn creeping into his voice. Flustered to appear mean-spirited to eyes he'd hoped to charm, he thinks, "Geez, I'm just making it worse by putting it this way, ripping my whole facade." He looks up. All he can see is sycophants glaring, the chanteuse is gone. A big goon is sidling swiftly through tables towards him, must be the cafe's bouncer -- no, wait, it's Schwartz, Sarfatti's ideological mentor! He knows how to handle a Stalinist in front of pseudo-hip liberals!
"Hey, Savio-lover, how much C.I.A. gelt do you get for pestering Sarfatti? Don't tell me you were never on the take."
Caught off-guard, Rossman gasps, "How'd you know about that? It was thirty years ago, I thought no one knew."
"I know everything that matters about you. Just ask Jack, it follows from his theory. Why did you do it?"
"For a lark. I mean really, the USIA wanted to commission a magazine piece on education from a certified campus rebel, just to show contested territories how liberal it was? To be printed just as I wrote it, for a big chunk of change? Damn right, I chortled as I put my analysis and heart on paper. All I got was a kill fee, of course, but it did help to pay for the baby."
Babbling on, he realizes how cleverly he's been had. Folks are still crowding into the cafe, shoving him toward the back, the door, he can hardly see Sarfatti beyond them. Hoping to make amends, he yells, "Hey, but it's really clever anyway, your theory, it sure ought to describe something! Maybe Krishna Consciousness?" Schwartz growls, and beckons helpers. "No kidding. Somewhere in Vedic scriptures -- perhaps near those prodigious estimates of the length of universe-cycles, which afforded us such mirth at superstitious ignorance when first translated from ancient Sanskrit, before our own estimates expanded towards rivalry -- deep consciousness is described as time-quantized, winking on and off at frequencies as impossible to entertain before our own devices strode their way in exponential leaps, towards peeping into quantum foam. Here universe-age may indeed be coupled with consciousness-flow, dC*/dt, howsoever discontinuous. Here in resonant engagements occasioned by meditative and chemical means may lie coherent states of N progressively larger in scale, to account for inner quickenings of dC*/dt from 1.5 Hz (or whatever) for the private N = 10^18 adult human brain towards Vedic frequencies. Throw in the right cosmological fudge factors and predictive sense may beckon, of a sort more precise than tautological use of the term 'consciousness' supports. Here is open ground for coltish theories like yours to explore. Why be pig-headed, can't you see that I'm trying to help? And get a grip on biological reality, on your own being. What functions of your material behavior and your inward flickering sense of self can be mediated by processes as slow as 1.5 Hz, save a racing heart?"
It's no use, they're pushing him out the door as the glitzy party resumes. The night is dark, gauzy with rain; he starts at the soft hand on his shoulder.
For she who dances