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Consciousness Emerges at the Border Between Order and Chaos
How Jordan Peterson’s meta-mythology and John Vervaeke’s relevance realization are in alignment with the modern science of consciousness.
“God is how we imaginatively and collectively represent the existence and action of consciousness across time”. — Jordan Peterson
In 1954 the Jungian psychologist Erich Neumann published a strange book entitled The Origins and History of Consciousness. Neumann claimed that the fundamental hero myth found in disparate cultures all over the world was in fact a narrative and symbolic description of the development of consciousness. More recently, Jordan Peterson made a similar claim in his 1999 book Maps of Meaning. In that book Peterson outlined a process he calls the meta-mythology, which is the general pattern underlying mythological narratives, as represented by the figure below.
This meta-mythology, Peterson claims, is essentially characteristic of the development of consciousness. As he put it:
The meta-mythology of the Way portrays the manner in which specific ideas about the present, the future, and the mode of transforming one into the other are initially constructed, and then reconstructed in their entirety, when such transformation becomes necessary. This meta-myth provides the deep structure linking other classes of myths, including those describing the current or pre-existent stable state, those that portray the emergence of something unexpected into that state, those that represent the dissolution of paradise, in consequence, and those that describe the regeneration of stability. This cyclic pattern is essentially characteristic of the development of consciousness, of the capacity to act and represent – which is regarded from the mythic perspective as akin to the creation of the world. (p. 226)
In this post I will argue that modern consciousness science supports Peterson’s claim. As I discussed in a previous post, some characteristics of the meta-mythology are that it: a) emerges at the border between order and chaos, b) has the same structure as an insight, and c) is the process by which relevance realization occurs. I will show that all of these properties are related to modern advancements in the scientific study of consciousness.
What even is consciousness?
Within the scientific and philosophical study of consciousness, there is not even basic agreement on what consciousness is. This makes it difficult to make progress since two different frameworks for studying consciousness may in fact be studying two entirely different phenomena. In this essay I am solely concerned with phenomenal consciousness, which is simply experience. Any experience, no matter how basic or fuzzy, is an instance of phenomenal consciousness. This is contrasted with self-consciousness, or the awareness of one’s self as an entity. It is sometimes thought that an animal must be able to pass the mirror test (i.e., recognize itself in a mirror) in order to be conscious. The mirror test may very well be an adequate test for self-consciousness but it has nothing whatsoever to do with phenomenal consciousness. There is no reason to think that an animal that cannot recognize itself doesn’t feel pain, pleasure, longing, and a whole suite of emotions. The scientific literature I review below is concerned with phenomenal consciousness rather than self-consciousness.
Consciousness emerges at the border between order and chaos
In this section I will review scientific evidence that phenomenal consciousness emerges at the border between order and chaos in the brain. A number of literatures have converged on this idea, including: a) theoretical work around Integrated Information Theory, b) empirical work on Global Workspace Theory, c) the entropic brain hypothesis and related empirical work on the effects of psilocybin mushrooms, and d) the cognitive science of insight. Each of these literatures will be briefly explained below.
a. Integrated Information Theory (IIT)
Giulio Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory (IIT) argues that phenomenal consciousness is identical to integrated information. For our purposes it is enough to note that for proponents of IIT a system is conscious to the degree that it is simultaneously differentiated and integrated. Simultaneous differentiation and integration is a prominent definition of complexity. Thus, as a system becomes more complex, it becomes more conscious. There are other requirements that have to be met for consciousness to be present, however. For example, a supercomputer might be highly complex but that doesn’t mean it is conscious since it lacks “intrinsic existence”. A full explanation of the requirements for consciousness according to IIT is, however, outside the scope of this essay.
IIT implies that cognitive complexification is equivalent to the development of consciousness. This kind of complexity is represented by Φ (phi). Phi is a mathematical measure of the extent to which a system has emergent properties that make it more than just the sum of its parts, i.e., the extent to which a system has intrinsic existence. Tononi and his colleagues argue that phi is equivalent to phenomenal consciousness.
Mathematical models have shown that phi is maximized at the border between order and chaos. As I discussed in a previous post, self-organized criticality has become an important concept in cognitive science. Self-organized criticality refers to the tendency of complex systems to self-organize to the narrow window between order and chaos. Mathematical models have shown that systems at this critical state exhibit maximum phi. In a 2020 paper entitled “The Emergence of Integrated Information, Complexity, and ‘Consciousness’ at Criticality”, Popiel and colleagues said that:
In contrast to sub-critical regimes which can become completely uniform due to their strong coupling (high integration, low differentiation), and super-critical regimes which can become completely noise-driven (low integration, high differentiation), critical systems sit at the cusp of integration and differentiation; generating non-negligible Φ that is maximally susceptible to the perturbations of its environment and its own state[…] At this point of criticality, the ‘conscious experience’ as defined by IIT 3.0 is the most ’conscious’; criticality exhibited by the neural network motif leads to the ‘best’ conscious experience. (p. 9)
A little later:
… the evidence in this paper demonstrates that by defining consciousness with IIT[…] ‘consciousness’ undergoes a phase transition at criticality in the investigated neural network motifs. This, when combined with evidence that the brain may be critical, suggests that ‘consciousness’ may simply arise out of the tendency of the brain to self-organize towards criticality. (pp. 9-10)
Popiel and colleagues’ model indicates that consciousness arises out of the tendency of the brain to self-organize to the border between order and chaos. A 2019 paper by Kim and Lee entitled “Criticality as a Determinant of Integrated Information Φ in Human Brain Networks” came to the same conclusion:
In this paper, we demonstrated empirically explicit relationships between criticality, integrated information, and consciousness at various levels of human consciousness modulated with a general anesthetic, and also performed a computational model study to understand how the brain at a critical state facilitates the development of a large amount of integrated information at a network level. (p. 10)
In sum, multiple studies have shown that consciousness (defined as phi or maximal integrated information) emerges at the border between order and chaos.
b. Global Workspace Theory (GWT) and the ignition event
Global Workspace Theory (GWT) is an older theory of consciousness which argues that consciousness acts as a kind of “global workspace” that allows the brain to share information across disparate networks. In this view, consciousness is doing something like higher-order relevance realization. It is taking aspects of experience that are relevant to a current task and combining them in such a way that they can be manipulated as a coherent whole. In his 2014 book Consciousness and the Brain, neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene put it this way:
What kind of information-processing architecture underlies the conscious mind? What is… its functional role in the information-based economy of the brain? My proposal can be stated succinctly. When we say that we are aware of a certain piece of information, what we mean is just this… Among the millions of mental representations that constantly crisscross our brains in an unconscious manner, one is selected because of its relevance to our present goals. Consciousness makes it globally available to all our high-level decision systems. We possess a mental router, an evolved architecture for extracting relevant information and dispatching it. (Dehaene, 2014 p. 163; emphasis added)
I have my problems with this formulation but I think Dehaene is right that consciousness is involved in “extracting relevant information and dispatching it”, i.e., relevance realization. Although there are some differences between GWT and IIT, the idea from GWT that consciousness is “brain-wide information sharing” is of course highly concordant with IIT’s identification of consciousness with integrated information.
Empirical work around GWT has identified some neural signatures of consciousness that may be able to separate conscious brain states from unconscious ones. The one I will focus on here is called the “ignition event”. When a stimulus is presented subliminally (i.e., in such a way that the person is not consciously aware of it), brain activity remains localized. For example, if a visual stimulus is flashed so quickly that the person is not consciously aware that they saw it, there will be localized activity in the visual cortex, but not large-scale brain-wide activity. By contrast, if the visual stimulus is consciously noticed, there is an “avalanche” of brain activity such that nearly the entire brain becomes active. This avalanche is referred to as the ignition event.
In Consciousness and the Brain, Dehaene argues that the ignition event is similar to a phase change (sometimes referred to as a phase transition) in a dynamical system:
This collective phenomenon resembles what physicists call a “phase transition,” or mathematicians a “bifurcation”: a sudden, nearly discontinuous change in the state of a physical system… Most physical self-amplifying systems possess a tipping point where global change happens or fails depending on minute impurities or noise. The brain, we reasoned, may be no exception. (p. 131)
The “tipping point” that Dehaene refers to here is equivalent to criticality because phase changes occur at criticality (i.e., the border between order and chaos) in complex systems. The connection between the ignition event and criticality was made explicit by Enzo Tagliazucchi in a 2017 paper entitled “The signatures of conscious access and its phenomenology are consistent with large-scale brain communication at criticality”. Tagliazucchi shows that, despite their very different backgrounds and assumptions, GWT and IIT have both converged on the idea that criticality is the mechanism by which consciousness emerges in the brain:
The objective of the present work is to propose a mechanism based on the global workspace model that is compatible with the proposal that high values of Φ are indicative of conscious awareness. In doing so, we also put forward a mechanism based on simple physical principles by virtue of which a system can attain high values of Φ. In other words; we aim to show that both theories [GWT and IIT] are compatible when considered as theories of conscious access and the phenomenology of consciousness, respectively. The mechanism we propose to fulfill our objective is the propagation of information in the brain at the “edge of failure”, i.e. at the critical point at which activity becomes self-sustained. (p. 137)
Thus, empirical evidence from Global Workspace Theory is convergent with IIT in suggesting that consciousness emerges at the border between order and chaos.
c. The entropic brain and psilocybin mushrooms
As many people are aware, there has been a recent explosion in scientific research on psychedelic drugs. One of the most prolific authors in this area has been Robin Carhart-Harris who has mostly worked with the active chemical from psilocybin mushrooms. In a 2014 paper entitled “The entropic brain: a theory of conscious states informed by neuroimaging research with psychedelic drugs”, he and a group of colleagues published their theory on the mechanism of action underlying the psilocybin experience.
The psilocybin experience is sometimes described as an “expansion” of consciousness. If we take this description at face value, we might expect to find that criticality has something to do with the experience, given the studies reviewed above indicating that consciousness (defined as phi) is maximized at criticality. That is, in fact, precisely what is argued by Carhart-Harris and colleagues.
They argue that there is a range of brain states around criticality that can support conscious awareness. Most people are near the bottom of this range during normal waking consciousness, meaning that most people are slightly sub-critical (i.e., tilted towards “order”) during normal waking consciousness. Entropy can be considered a mathematical measure of disorder or uncertainty. Carhart-Harris and colleagues claim that psilocybin works by increasing entropy in the brain, thereby moving people closer to true criticality. By contrast, most sedatives work by decreasing entropy in the brain, pushing people closer to “order”. Outside of the critical range, people become unconscious, which is how sedatives work. Because people are normally slightly sub-critical, a proper dose of psilocybin should actually make people more conscious, or at least increase the intensity of the conscious experience. The figure below is meant to convey these relationships.
Carhart-Harris and colleagues support their contention with reference to a number of imaging studies that show an increase in the entropy of brain states after consuming psilocybin. A 2018 paper by Carhart-Harris updates the theory with reference to more recent studies, which he argues have provided increasing support for the entropic brain theory.
There is clearly some important connection between psychedelics and phenomenal consciousness. The phenomenal state under the influence of psilocybin is so strange that most people consider it to be ineffable. “Intense” is a pretty good descriptor of it in my opinion. Carhart-Harris and colleagues’ entropic brain theory provides a plausible mechanism for this increase in the intensity of conscious experience. Psilocybin (and presumably other classic psychedelics) function in part by moving brain states closer to the border between order and chaos.
d. The cognitive science of insight
The literature on psychedelics, and especially psilocybin, has repeatedly shown that these drugs have the capacity to facilitate personal transformations. For example, 60% of people who had a mystical experience on psilocybin were able to quit smoking cigarettes for more than a year. That’s about twice the efficacy of the most effective smoking cessation drugs. Many people claim to experience insights about both themselves and nature at large while under the influence of psilocybin. They often claim that these insights lead to personal transformation (this is not a full-fledged endorsement of psychedelics — increased entropy comes with risk as well as opportunity).
The entropic brain hypothesis adequately explains this connection between psilocybin and insight. As I discussed in a previous post, cognitive scientists have argued that insight is equivalent to a phase change in a dynamical system and is therefore a self-organized critical phenomenon. In other words, insights emerge at the border between order and chaos (I won’t rehash that research here, since you can go back and read my previous post if necessary). This is also in accordance with the phenomenology of insight, where people often experience a “flash” of conscious awareness at the moment of an insight. We indicate this in images by putting a lightbulb over somebody’s head when they’ve had an insight. The “lights came on”, as they say, indicating that there is some temporary increase in the intensity of conscious experience at the moment of an insight.
Thus, the phenomenology and cognitive science of insight also supports the idea that consciousness emerges at the border between order and chaos.
Relevance realization and the development of consciousness
The cognitive scientist (and my collaborator on a recent paper) John Vervaeke has spent much of his academic career trying to understand the immeasurably complicated process by which cognitive agents like us are capable of intelligently ignoring irrelevant aspects of the world while zeroing in on the relevant aspects. He calls this process relevance realization.
In a 2013 book chapter, John Vervaeke and Leo Ferraro conceptualized relevance realization as a process of cognitive development and complexification. Relevance realization, they argued, is equivalent to the process by which we become more cognitively differentiated and integrated. As we cognitively complexify, so also do we become better at zeroing in on relevant aspects of the world. The opponent processing relationships that characterize relevance realization cash out in cognitive complexification over the course of development (see the figure below from Vervaeke and Ferraro’s 2013 chapter).
Given the relationship between this kind of complexity (i.e., simultaneous differentiation and integration) and consciousness as posited by Integrated Information Theory, we might then say that relevance realization is a theory about the development of consciousness.
As such, the significant overlap between relevance realization and Jordan Peterson’s meta-mythology is telling. I won’t go over that relationship again in detail here (see my previous post about this). Given this relationship it should be no surprise, then, that there is also significant overlap between Vervaeke’s work on relevance realization and the scientific research on consciousness described above. As with consciousness, relevance realization a) emerges at the border between order and chaos, b) is is related to the experience of insight, and c) is associated with cognitive complexification. Furthermore, according to Global Workspace Theory, the function of consciousness is something like higher-order relevance realization.
I argued in a previous post that John Vervaeke’s relevance realization and Jordan Peterson’s meta-mythology are essentially the same process being described at different levels of analysis. It is no coincidence, then, that they both have such a substantial overlap with modern scientific research on consciousness. Both relevance realization and the meta-mythology are characteristic of the development of consciousness.
Narratives and phase transitions
Jordan Peterson’s meta-mythology is a generalized representation of multiple mythological narratives from different civilizations over the course of human history. In Maps of Meaning he relates the meta-mythology to the Babylonian story of Marduk, the Egyptian story of Horus, the story of the Buddha, and the Christ narrative. Given the research I have reviewed in this post, what could possibly explain the overlap between ancient mythological narratives and modern consciousness science? Should we chalk it up to some quasi-mystical connection or perhaps dismiss it as mere coincidence? In fact, I think there is a perfectly rational explanation for the overlap between mythological narratives and the scientific study of consciousness.
The “ignition event” discussed earlier in the context of Global Workspace Theory was argued to be equivalent to a phase change in a complex system. A phase change in a complex system consists of a sudden reconfiguration of the set of options available to that system (these options are also known as its attractor landscape). This is also what happens in an insight or a sudden personal transformation. When an alcoholic suddenly has a religious conversion and quits drinking, he has gone through a phase change.
In the final chapter of her 2000 book Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System, the philosopher Alicia Juarrero explains why narratives are the only appropriate form of explanation for phase changes in complex systems. Normal scientific explanations rend the object of study from its context and attempt to provide general laws that explain its behavior regardless of the particulars of a situation. Phase changes resist being explained in this way because the form they take is always highly contingent on context and the particulars of the situation. Narratives are the only form of explanation that give proper respect to context and particulars and are therefore necessary to understand phase changes. As Juarrero put it:
Phase changes embody essentially incompressible information. That is, there exists no law or algorithm more concise than the process itself that can capture and describe what happened. That is why fiction and drama, Bible stories, fairy tales, epics, novels, and plays will always be better than deductions or formulas for explaining personal transformations of this sort. (p. 235)
This connection between narrative and phase changes also explains the connection between the meta-mythology and consciousness research. Mythological narratives are a generalization of many different particular narratives. If there is a general pattern to phase changes, then we should also expect there to be a general pattern to mythological narratives, given that narratives often represent and explain phase changes. That general pattern is the meta-mythology, which has the same basic structure as a phase change.
The figure I used in my previous post to show the structure of an insight could equally be used to describe the structure of any phase change in a complex, far-from-equilibrium system. All phase changes of this kind involve a temporary increase in entropy (i.e., a descent into chaos) followed by a decrease in entropy such that there is even less entropy than before. That decrease in entropy is accompanied by an increase in complexity (i.e., a simultaneous increase in differentiation and integration). The development of consciousness is also characterized by these kinds of phase changes (often experienced as insights), thus explaining the overlap between the meta-mythology and consciousness research.
As above, so below
In a conversation with Ben Shapiro and Dave Rubin, Jordan Peterson outlined his understanding of God. Here are some select quotes from his response (I’m using the edited version of the quote from this Akira the Don music video):
It’s as if there’s a spirit at the bottom of things that is involved in the bringing to being of everything…
He then goes on to outline the process by which men have been selected for certain characteristics throughout human evolution. I have a future post planned about that so I won’t go into detail about it here. After detailing that process he says this in reference to it:
But then there’s another possibility too, which is that that’s actually reflective of a deeper metaphysical reality that has to do with the nature of consciousness itself. I think that’s true. I believe the biological case and I believe the biologically reductive case but I don’t think that exhausts it. There’s a metaphysical layer underneath that that the biology is a genuine reflection of. And that’s the macrocosm above and the microcosm below. We are really reflective, including in our consciousness, of something about the structure of reality itself. And that might involve whatever it is that God is.
I think he’s right. That “spirit” (which can be regarded as something like an eternal pattern) at the bottom of things is equivalent to the process of complexification that underlies the ongoing creation of reality itself. Phase changes are the mechanism by which nature is continuously creating itself. Through far-from-equilibrium phase changes, new properties emerge that were not inherent in the parts of the system undergoing the change. In this way, true novelty emerges through this universal self-organizing process.
Cognitive neuroscientist Bobby Azarian, in his 2022 book The Romance of Reality: How the Universe Organizes Itself to Create Life, Consciousness, and Cosmic Complexity argues (with reference to the last 30 years or so of advancements in complexity science) that the universe is engaged in a self-organizing process of complexification through phase changes and that this process can be considered the process underlying creation itself. In relation to the role of phase changes, he explains that:
… although we can roughly predict when such a transition is likely to occur, predicting the properties of the new phase is often difficult if not impossible, as the process is as chaotic as it is orderly. This means that as long as energy is flowing throughout the cosmos, nature will always present us with interesting surprises, designed by the delicate dance between order and chaos that produces emergence. (pp. 38-39)
As Azarian suggests, these phase changes occur at the border between order and chaos and are the mechanism underlying the emergence of novelty in the universe at large. Our participation in that process is therefore not only our participation in the development of our own consciousness, but equally our participation in the process of creation itself. This means that our enactment and embodiment of the process that John Vervaeke calls relevance realization is simultaneously our enactment and embodiment of what Jordan Peterson referred to as the “spirit at the bottom of things that is involved in the bringing to being of everything”.
In a future post I will detail out the cosmological and ontological implications of this idea. I will argue there that “We are really reflective, including in our consciousness, of something about the structure of reality itself. And that might involve whatever it is that God is.”