“Cogito ergo sum” and Nonequilibrium Dynamics

“I think, therefore I am”, as Descartes once postulated. Just as a reminder, if you are not familiar, this is not to be taken for a logical derivation. The point of the statement is that something that thinks can not be non-existent (if it doesn’t exist, how would it be able to think?). One of the reasons that brought Descartes to this conclusion was the doubt in one’s senses. This had been know long before Descartes: all our senses are prone to confuse us and therefore can not be absolutely reliable. Especially, one can not rely on them when addressing the question of existence. The things get funnier when one imagines the senses (at least, some of them) to “turn off” — sensory deprivation. As far as I remember, the historic background for the Descartes’ idea was the following. He served as a soldier in a French army, and once in the winter he had to sleep in a big stone oven — a central part of some houses of those times. Well, the house was burned down, the oven was the only remaining part of it and… it was cold outside — that’s why.

While lying in a comfortably warm oven, Descartes noticed that his senses started getting deprived: thick stone isolation removed all the outside noises, it was dark inside, so the vision was not really useful to the body, the temperature was just fine — neither cold, nor warm. You can experiment with a partial sensory deprivation yourself in various ways — that is not too difficult — just go to a bath in a body-temperature water, turn off the lights, and put your earbuds on. I believe that such sort of experiments has also been done by various physiologists/psychologists in a more precise and controlled way. In any case, after a while, you’ll realize that the only thing that make you be aware of your existence would be your thoughts.

Now, the question is where will those thoughts bring you? Under certain conditions, the sensory deprivation has a funny effect changing the person’s mind (some get crazy, or just enter an affect state, in which they can’t really control themselves or find it very hard to change things). Also, I wouldn’t be surprised that our organism will go into a “sleep” mode. Literally. So, if you experiment in a bathtub, be careful — don’t drown! In that state, we still think, or even think that *we* think. Just remember your night dreams — have you realized that it was just a dream? Most likely no — you would still think that all you have experienced there was real (well, there are some techniques how circumvent this, but it is a bit off topic). So then it is logical to ask oneself a question: “what does exist”? Or where exactly do you exist? In which space? Here, by space I imply an abstract thoughts space. The original state of our mind changes! What used to exist when *that* was thinking is now different, so a new “thinking thing” exists, but not the old one. The latte does not. This, of course, doesn’t break the “cogito ergo sum” rule — the thing that thinks still does exist. It is just a different thing. In other words, the new look just raises a question of the identity of the thinking object.

Lets look at the second part of the title — nonequilibrium dynamics, — and will try relating it to the above discussion. You might have heard that the life itself is a intrinsically non-equilibrium process. And this is true, especially if you recall your college thermodynamics course, especially the second law of thermodynamics. The latter deals with the quantity called entropy — something that measures the degree of an order/disorder (and also the information) in a given system. According to the second law of thermodynamics, all spontaneous processes are driven by the increase of entropy. Simply stated, things can only get worse, more messy, by themselves. Taken to extreme, this means dying. On the contrary, to build something organized, a work must be done. The work needs energy — that’s why we need to eat if we don’t want to die. To obtain energy, we interact with the environment (everything around us), which provides all sources of input to our body… and to our mind. In the language of a thermodynamicist, every one of us as living organism constitutes an open system. In the thermodynamics, the openness means the possibility of the mass and energy exchange. When the mind is concerned, we should extend this list with another quantity — information. Remember, entropy is also related to the information, so one can work out quite a quantitative theory.

Ok, so we are the open systems. In addition to that, we are non-equilibrium systems. This means that there are fluxes (currents) of mass, energy,… and information. A system can be isolated, in which case the fluxes across the system/environment separation boundary vanish, so it will then just a matter of time to wait until the internal fluxes will become zero as well. The system will reach its equilibrium state — the most probable one it can maintain on its own, without a external energy and mass supply. Just imagine you don’t eat — the biological processes that are going on in your body will simply stop and you’ll no longer be able to function. Well, it will no longer be you — just a dead body.

The same situation occurs with the information fluxes. The sensory deprivation is an analog of the body starvation. But where, does it lead? Well, it doesn’t lead to a physiological death, provided we maintain the fluxes of the energy and mass in the body to keep it running. Also, imagine that the food and water we supply to our hibernated organism does not carry any information input (which is a big approximation!). Under such circumstances, the internal neuronal fluxes (currents) that biologically realize the thinking itself would equilibrate to some zero-flux state. Basically the neurons that realize our thinking will not be firing as usual, will not be sending any signals. (other than to maintain the internal processes of the body, but lets make another approximation — just forget about this, at least for now). The thinking will stop. Because, the thinking is a non-equilibrium process. The thinking exists in currents.

The longer we experience the sensory deprivation, the closer we get to the “ground state” of our thinking. We would experience a sequence of changing states of our mind, our different identities. The “I” as it exists under the normal conditions will no longer exist. Here, I have introduced the “ground state” term — this is in analogy with the quantum mechanics terminology. In quantum mechanics, the lowest energy (and hence the infinitely stable) state is called a ground state. All other states are the excited states, and there is always a way for the excited states to decay into the ground state (the excited states are usually short-lived). Following this terminology, our everyday “I” state is an excited state. Sometimes this is quite literal — don’t you get excited (positively or negatively) when you read news or watch a movie? In a situation of the absent information flux, the mind will downgrade (relax) to a lower “energy” state — more easily realizable state, that doesn’t depend on the inputs we have lost.

Above, I have stated that the ground state of our thinking is the one where the currents do not exists. Well, this may be refined. In principle, it may be possible to converge to a certain minimal cyclic thinking. You might even have experienced a light form of it — when thinking about a single topic for a long time, you may be caught in a cyclic thoughts that do not lead anywhere. Hey, and do you remember how you get out of it? Just get excited — change something, let new information come in. It may be that the cyclic ground state thinking is very primitive, but it likely possible to have one, as an alternative to a zero information flux model for a ground state of a mind.

Another addition to this topic concerns the input of the information together with the mass and energy. Like I described above, to keep you body in a hibernated, but physiologically alive state, one would need to provide food and water to the body. There may be fluctuations in their properties: temperature, salinity, taste, even the ionic composition and pH. We can hardly sense the tiny differences of these parameters in our normal state. They would likely be hugely amplified and meaningfully interpreted by out body in its “sleeping” state. So, this is the way, we may develop a qualitatively different type of mind from what we usually have. Likely, this would be a “food-analysis” type of thinking. Imagine the entire new way of thinking just based on the information coming to your body via only taste, food temperature, ionic content, etc. It is curious to think how such a mind might build a philosophy centered on the subtle information inputs it obtains from the food and water. Who knows, may this is already happening in this text above.