Picture: Richard M. Pico. Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff have famously suggested that consciousness is inextricably connected with quantum effects (albeit ones which we don’t yet understand). Richard M Pico, less famously so far, has invoked the other great pillar of modern physics: relativity.

What on earth has relativity got to do with it? If we had to sum up the theory set out in Pico’s book “Consciousness in Four Dimensions”, we might choose the slogan ‘life is a frame of reference’. Pico is not unique in emphasising the temporally-extended nature of life and consciousness – Steven Rose, for example, has put forward a more general version of that perspective, and Locke’s view that ‘Nothing but consciousness can unite remote existences into the same person’ seems very close to Pico’s central insight.

Pico describes the emergence of life in a story of how protocells may have turned into true life. Protocells, on this view, have a simple bubble-like wall inside which certain reactions go on. But the wall is not enough to defend them from changes in the environment; when the right circumstances come along they form, and when the physical or chemical environment, in one of its periodic oscillations, becomes unfavourable, they simply fall apart again. Eventually a lucky protocell comes up with internal reactions which, fortuitously, have a homeostatic effect – they regulate the internal environment of the cell, defending it from external changes to the point where the cell can survive through the regular cycles of change in its immediate environment.

This persistence, on Pico’s view, is what characterises life: more debatably, he characterises it as a ‘frame of reference’. It certainly establishes a kind of physico-chemical baseline within the cell, but that seems to bear only a metaphorical relation to the ‘frames of reference’ proposed by relativity. A frame of reference (if I’ve understood correctly) is a point of view from which a particular set of measurements of the world and a particular perception of the simultaneity of events holds good: but the view from inside the cell is surely much the same as the view from outside. You might, I suppose, say that time passes differently within the cell because the normal external oscillation, which in a sense beats out time, has been dampened or stopped: but that would be a loosely metaphorical version of relativity.

Be that as it may, Pico sees the emergence of consciousness as broadly recapitulating the emergence of life. The neurological details of the theory are set out with admirable clarity, and with a level of detail it is impossible to do full justice to here. Briefly, Pico believes the columnar structures of the prefrontal neocortex provide prefrontal integration modules (PIMs) which bring together a wide and disparate range of sensory inputs. Generally, the patterns formed are transient, each being swept away by a succeeding wave of inputs: but in the course of evolution some of these PIMs acquire new properties in more or less the way the true cells raised themselves above the level of the protocells. They become able to retain an echo of previous states, and hence provide the basis for true perception of time, and consciousness.

This idea has some appeal. It is a common insight that while animal behaviour is generally governed by conditions in the present moment, conscious thought allows us to address goals in the remote future, and adopt chronologically extended plans. It’s also true that if we want to include a Self in our theory, it somehow has to have a continued existence over the full period of the individual’s life. As a third bonus, it allows Pico a neat view about the ontological reality of consciousness, namely, that it is as real as life (and we might add, as elusive).

However, there are two big problems. First, as with life, this doesn’t really look like relativity in any but the loosest of senses. Second, and much worse, it just doesn’t seem to explain the nature of consciousness. All it tells us is that consciousness has homeostatic properties, and retains items from its past: but you could say the same about parts of the digestive system

It is a good and valid point, however, that a lot of scientific thought outside the confines of physics itself still operates on a Newtonian basis. At the back of most our minds is the Laplacean idea that if we could specify all the data about every particle in the Universe at a single instant, the whole future and past would be calculable. This way of thinking, I believe, lies behind the intuitive certainty which some people feel that consciousness must ultimately be a computational phenomenon. After all, if the Universe itself is essentially a discrete-state machine, with one state-of-affairs arising directly from the preceding state-of-affairs, then everything must be computable. But that begs the question; and in fact, relativity denies the possibility, even in principle, of an objectively correct time-slice containing a full description of every point in the Cosmos at a single given moment. There is no such thing as absolute simultaneity, and if we want our determinism to be computable, we really need a more sophisticated version.

All in all then, I think you could say that Pico is on to something; unfortunately the thing he’s on to is not, in the end, The Answer.

Leave a Reply