The world as a cellular automaton or a simple definiton of consciousness

The question about what the consciousness is is probably as old as time, and the time itself somehow should be related to this phenomenon. Among the others, the religious tradition of Zen Buddhism contains probably the most profound insights on this account claiming that the consciousness is a some fundamental process of nature, but it does not answer the question itself. On the other hand, Roger Penrose offers the hypothesis that the consciousness may be a result of some non-computational physical processes in the depth of our neurons, because brain is somehow able to solve problems which are proven to be not solvable algorithmically (e.g. the halting problem). But actually, it may be a very simple process which differs from understanding and reasoning, and it closely related to the question about how our universe is constructed and what the time is. Let's see how Zen teaching combined with some scientific views of the universe may give an answer to this question and produce an interesting picture of the world.

 The Problem of Consciousness in Zen

Basically, the central problem of Buddhism may be expressed in the following words: there is suffering, and it's possible to cease it by reaching the enlightenment. Buddha also speaks about the reasons of suffering, and it's possible to distinguish at least two types of them: "personal" (illusion, craving, attachment and others) and "metaphysical" (the suffering caused by the circle of birth, life and death), so there are at least two approaches to enlightenment. The personal approach implies liberation from illusion and attachment by conscious observation of craving, so detachment from pleasure will break the circle of craving and satisfaction. Craving actually originates from the positive feedback loops controlled by the chemical receptors of brain, suffering and craving caused by these loops are a drive which makes us to search for pleasure, and it's impossible to completely dispose of them, so the constant conscious observation is necessary. The other approach is a metaphysical exit from the circle of life and death to Nirvana reachable through the proper way of living described in the noble eightfold path. The tradition of Mahayana (Zen is also a member of it) also puts the obligation on a personally enlightened being who uncovered the Buddha-nature (Bodhisattva) to help all other living beings to break the circle of samsara and reach nirvana.
Being mostly practical Chinese branch of Buddhism Zen puts emphasis on the personal enlightenment; the traditional Buddhism of Mahayana is a mostly ethical system which is focused on the metaphysical dharmic way of enlightenment. In the view of the consciousness (to achieve the personal enlightenment Buddhists train it along with the attention), the nature of illusion is the most interesting thing for us.

On the most basic level illusion originates from the fundamental imperfection of our perception, and liberation from the illusion in this context is a some mystical state in which perception is equivalent to knowledge. According to the modern beliefs this state is not reachable in principle, because theoretical knowledge originates not from perception, but from the associations between the abstract objects in the mind; the knowledge obtained in such way may match or not match reality and there is no reliable way to check if the knowledge completely matches it.
In the modern state of understanding we can also find less subtle but notable examples of the artificially created illusion on which society bases its consistence. These are the blocks and perceptual filters on the most powerful drives of an animal being such as sex and aggression (mental blocks and filters related to these matters may inhibit your thoughts and actions or distort and delay perception of the corresponding verbal or other information). There are also cultural stereotypes and taboo which a person gets during upbringing which also contributes to the illusion. In Buddhism the perception of the true nature of things which may harm the mental stability is balanced by ethics and specially trained compassion.
There are more practical aspects of illusion though, the two most notable are: the illusion of change (it emerges when the mind thinks that an object of the outer world is the same and acts accordingly, but actually it have changed, and the actions bring suffering) and the "wandering mind". The "wandering mind" wanders randomly and labels objects in the flow of consciousness with the tags from the past experience and cultural framework, so objects may seem what they actually are not (for example, you may think of white milk as normal and of yellow-colored milk as disgusting, because you might think that it's spoiled). One of the aspects of the Buddha-nature is the ability to see things as-is in their actual state, and Zen practices such as the constant maintenance of awareness (to be "here and now") or special meditation techniques (which are necessary to bring the randomly wandering internal attention focus under the conscious control) are aimed to reduce the effect of illusion on consciousness. But what Zen teaches about the consciousness itself?

It acts very tricky and interesting here. There is a Buddhist joke (it's attributed to Seung Sahn) in which Zen master asks a reporter: "Who are you?" The reporter answers: "I'm John Smith." Then the master says: "This is your name, who are you?" The reporter answers again: "I'm a reporter." The master says: "This is your profession, who are you?" In the end, the reporter isn't able to answer this question, and the master blames him for this. This reveals an interesting consequence, anything you could name is not your true nature. This means that the mind which provides the abstract framework of objects, the attention, the personality (which has a complex machinery by itself and includes the artificial cultural framework discussed earlier), the reasoning and so on are different things, and they are not equivalent to consciousness. So, what the consciousness could be? As the pattern suggests, it could not be described, and this is what is left after you have named all you're able to name. There are some metaphysical canons which view the personal consciousness as a stream in the high-order consciousness of the world comprised of the atomic elements of existence called dharma. The dharma as an element of existence in Buddhism actually reflects how our brain models the reality within itself by using graphs and networks of abstract objects comprised from images, but there is also an important interpretation of this term which implies the law of causality. It seems that this picture of consciousness as a stream of information inside the world governed by the law of causality is exactly what we need, but it's still very abstract. Are we stuck at the dead-end?

As we see below, all these insights are nearly-prophetical and may closely match the reality. But according to the prominent Zen scholar T. Suzuki, Zen teaching could not be completely formalized using language and this is why the paradoxical practical aspect of the doctrine held by masters is an integral part of Zen education. Moreover, according to Suzuki, to uncover the Buddha-nature and achieve the personal enlightenment you need to completely kill your usual mind, knowledge, your wishes and personality. Are you ready for this? There are some less radical westernized approaches to the "liberation from illusion" invented by Charles Tart or Fritz Perls, the both are based on the observation of your personality "here and now" and allow you to not to withdraw yourself from life. Nevertheless, the radical Zen monks pursue the same goal to be "here and now" to put an end to everything other than their consciousness, and this famous formula valued by Buddha (who noticed that people being "here and now" are not disturbed by thoughts about their past and future) may be a key to the most elusive illusion.

The Illusion of Time

There is a millennia-old debate on the nature of time, but the following question is the most important for us: is time (and space) something real and absolute (the famous point of view of Newton) or it emerges from the order of objects and events which conform to some rules of causality? 
In his special theory of relativity Einstein showed that Newton was wrong and time forms a continuum along with space (the four-dimensional space-time), so time slows down for moving objects (the general relativity also introduces the equivalence principle; according to this principle the accelerated movement is equal to the effect of gravity and time also slows down in the gravitational filed). This connection between space and time in the continuum is sometimes described as the following: all resting objects move in time with the speed of light, but moving objects with mass move in time with lesser speed (of course, relative to some frame of reference, Lorentz transformations justify constancy of the speed of light in all frames of reference), and massless objects, such as light, rest in time and move only through space with the speed of light. Such a description along with the ubiquitous image of light cone gives us the illusion that the past and the future actually exist somewhere in the continuum. This results in a gloomy picture of a solid four-dimensional relativistic world where everything is predetermined by causality but opens a tempting possibility of a time-travel through loops in space-time. There is a couple of problems with such a world: the grandfather paradox breaks the causality, and why we experience the arrow of time while the most of laws of nature are time-invariant? Of course, there are some explanations which justify these problems, such as the second law of thermodynamics which explains the arrow of time or an attempt for the theoretical prohibition for a time-travel on the macroscopic level by Stephen Hawking. 
But what if the past and the future actually do not exist [can you indeed say, are they exist or not?], so we exist only "here and now", and the continuum is just a handy mathematical abstraction? In this case the causality is intact because time-travels are impossible, there is also no need for the objective arrow of time; the time is subjective and appears only through causality in such a world. Is there some pattern which describes how this may be possible and how the consciousness may emerge?

The Pattern of Cellular Automaton

A cellular automaton is a discrete computational model which consist of the field of cells in different states where each cell interacts with neighbor cells according to some rules, so the current state of the automaton is simultaneously the data and the "command" for the next step of a computation. Researches in this field have noticed that the Universe may also be such an automaton on the most basic level. The quantum theory and the famous uncertainty principle suggest that this actually may be possible, because the space may be discrete at the scale of Planck length. The Universe appears to be self-similar on different levels of scale and abstraction, and the pattern of cellular automaton also often appears in nature from the patterns on seashells to the prenatal development which may implement some genetically programmed algorithm (a pattern on a seashell, for example, does not imply a particular algorithm because the process is potentially endless).
The model of cellular automata as-is is actually a very bad abstraction in this case, because it produces the illusion of an absolute background frame of space, but only a relative order of objects defines space in a relativistic world. Theories of discrete space such as the quantum loop gravity develop possible ways to build a discrete space in the absence of any background, but until the quantum theory and the relativity are finally merged, hardly anyone could say how this model should be adjusted to match the reality.
Four our purposes, though, to show how the consciousness may be a flow of information in the world governed by causality where the future and the past do not exist, it's enough to imagine that the world is a chessboard filled with the constant number of figures of energy which may express, for example, geometrical state of the cells. On the lowest level the rules of causality are the rules that define how energy may propagate from one cell to another (the phenomenon of emergency implies that the Universe is divided by many levels of abstraction with different sets of rules).

So what the consciousness could be on the most basic level?

To answer this question it's necessary to show how we may experience time in a world where the past and the future do not exist. In a such world we can experience time only due to memory and causality: if we know the rules and have ability distinguish objects at the images of the outer world, we are able to trace back the behavior of these objects or to predict it, and this works if the world is governed by the rules of causality we know. Thus, on the most basic level, the consciousness is an ability to categorize various differences between the image of the outer world and the memorized images of it [remember the illusion of change] associated with certain (previously learned) rules. That is it, you don't need quantum computations offered by Roger Penrose, only the massive parallelism of the brain is sufficient to analyze these images and match the obtained information against some rules from the previous experience. This information along with the tags attached by mind to objects [remember the "wandering mind"] comprises the flow of consciousness (which is used by mind to issue conscious actions).

In the cellular automaton of the Universe the past exists only as faint images of memories in an isolated part of the automaton. Humans are able to use imagination along with the textual information to "reconstruct" distant past by changing the state of their brain.
It's interesting, that the flow of information does not stop even if you're looking at an empty wall in a Zen monastery. Some images pop out from the unconsciousness (which contains wast arrays of images from the prior experience) and project at the interior screen of imagination. This gives us the ability of the abstract reasoning, and the flow of information reflected from the screen of imagination is also a part of consciousness. But the most powerful tool of the abstract reasoning - the intuition, works out of the borders of consciousness; because of this you see only the result of the work of intuition but not the process itself. By using the massive parallelism of the brain it may randomly construct networks of theories from the images and gradually choose only from those theories which closely match the problem. And what if you completely stop the flow of consciousness? Who knows, you probably just would be "here and now" or would become a Buddha.

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