Curiouser and curiouser! cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English).
For years, I have found myself strangely fascinated by the field of consciousness research.
What really is consciousness? This is a question that brings together all sorts of people - scientists, philosophers, mystics and interested bystanders - to try to thrash out some answers. Sometimes it is a dignified spectacle, with participants attentively giving respect to each others’ views. But mostly it’s more like tag-team wrestling, as proponents of different positions pound each other in academic articles, or on Twitter, Medium and numerous other platforms.
It’s become a big deal particularly in the world of science, with all sorts of big names and institutions competing to be the one that “gets it” - the one that finally works out what consciousness is and how it comes about. As science progresses, so fewer and fewer mysteries seem to remain. Consciousness is likely the biggest, and it has thus become a huge prize.
For the last few decades, the Materialist theory of consciousness has been absolutely dominant. This is the one that the majority of scientists subscribe to. It says that consciousness is the product of brain activity - that the mind is what the brain does.
Up until very recently, it has been going great guns. Neuroscientists have been tracking down pretty much every aspect of our conscious awareness and finding neural correlates in the brain. A colour that we experience in our field of view can be correlated with specific brain activity. The moment an experience manifests consciously in our mind can be tracked to certain, identifiable waves of brain activity. The end has most definitely looked to be in sight, with only the dreaded “hard problem” still there to be overcome.
The Hard Problem of Consciousness
The primary opposition to the Materialist theory of consciousness was eloquently summarised by Australian philosopher David Chalmers, back in the mid-90s, with his notion of a “hard problem” of consciousness. Chalmers was the first to articulate what was no doubt in the back of the minds of many who were skeptical of the Materialist perspective.
He identified two categories of issues that Materialists would need to solve and labelled them “easy problems” and “hard problems.” The “easy problems” were things like working out how the brain could discriminate between perceptual stimuli, how it could shift attention and how it could report upon experience. The “hard problem” related to experience itself.
How could mere neural activity account for the richness of our experience, Chalmers asked? Were we to accept that the experience of the colour blue, the sound of a piece of music, or the depth of feeling that arose on recognising one’s child were all just the result of neurons doing their thing? Explaining these phenomena, traditionally labelled “qualia,” Chalmers asserted, would remain unsolved long after all the easy problems were dealt with by philosophers and scientists.
That was back in 1995. Since then, just as he predicted, science has indeed gone on to unravel many of the “easy problems.” They have discovered many neural correlates to aspects of conscious experience. But how do we get from this neural activity, that correlates with the appearance in our mind of the colour blue, to the colour itself? How do we get to the actual experience? On this there has been apparently little progress.
This lack of movement has tempted a few scientists to drop Materialism and investigate other possibilities, most prominent among them Panpsychism and Idealism. This is, in some ways, quite a step back in time, as these theories of consciousness were popular some centuries ago, and meant to have been easily superseded by Materialism.
However, this lack of explanatory pathway between brain activity and experience has not proven a source of despair for all Materialists. Some have come to believe that perhaps this path does not, and indeed need not, exist.
In this piece, I will explain just why the Hard Problem may not exist, in clear simple language. The answer, however, may prove more mind-boggling than many fans of science and Materialism are really prepared for. Let’s get to it.
The belief that there must be something in between neural processing and subjective conscious awareness seems have arisen, and proven so intransigent, not because of consciousness itself.
Rather it is because of the power of our belief in an “experiencing self” - someone who is the recipient of experience. Most people have the sensation of someone looking out from behind the eyes. It seems as though there’s a “me” that is experiencing life. In fact, to many, it would seem that this notion is simply unchallengeable, that it is axiomatic to our existence.
Believing in this unchallengeable notion of an experiencer, it is thus quite natural to assert that a subjective experience - such as the colour blue - could not simply be processing. For we typically envisage processing to be a dull, mechanical thing happening in the midst of machines, not a visceral sensory experience.
However, recent advances in fields like cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary biology have begun to strongly undermine our typical notion of an experiencing self. We have worked out how the brain creates a sense of selfhood to aid its functioning. We have found actual mechanistic pathways involved in this process. We have learned how natural selection may have forged the brain’s ability to create certain “useful illusions” to help us achieve our primary evolutionary goal - the continuance of our genes into the next generation.
Our dualistic notion of being an “observer” or an “experiencer” of life may well be just such an illusion. And because this illusion has proven so useful to our ancestors, our brains may have evolved cognitive facilities to protect us from easily giving credence to the idea that it is an illusion. Indeed, if you were to tell someone that they don’t experience life, it would not be unreasonable for them to treat such an assertion as a threat.
What this means for the Hard Problem is that it simply may not exist. It may be just an artefact of this dualistic notion of observation or experiencing.
If all we have ever experienced is consciousness, how do we actually know what processing looks like? What do we have to compare it with? If there was no observer of life, no experiencer, merely life plus a dualistic illusion of there being someone experiencing it - how would we know that we weren’t simply processors?
This approach to the Hard Problem is a form of what philosophers and scientists usually call Eliminativism, or Eliminative Materialism.
We will take a closer look at just how such an illusion might be being created shortly.
Life in the Workspace
Back in the 1990s, Dutch-born neuroscientist, Bernard Baars, proposed the notion of consciousness being a “global workspace.” He suggested that our conscious, subjective experience was actually just a workspace that multiple different areas of the brain could use to exchange information. The workspace allowed the brain to formulate strategies about what was happening around us, not unlike the way a Slack channel allows team members to share useful information about a project. Baars proposal was named Global Workspace Theory.
He proposed that consciousness was rather like a theatre, where different actors appeared on the stage of awareness, but with one vital difference. There was no one in the audience. It was simply that the stage where consciousness took place was accessible to different modules of the brain.
This model for conscious experience, in a few different forms, remains dominant amongst neuroscientists to this day.
The Illusion of an Experiencer
Okay, so we have a model for consciousness itself, the global workspace. Now we need to look at the observer, or experiencer. How might these notions be illusory when they appear to be so obviously true?
Firstly, we need to distinguish between a few different notions of selfhood - physical selfhood and mental selfhood.
Examples of physical selfhood would include our body. They would also include a plant, an animal, a vacuum cleaner or a robot. Basically, it’s a functional unit that exhibits agency - a system that seems relatively complete in itself and that appears to be able to direct itself towards a function.
Now let’s look at mental selfhood. Mental selfhood is the notion of there existing a “me,” or an “I” - a psychological self, complete in itself and also having agency. I appear to be a psychological self. I have thoughts and feelings. I can take actions that I wish to take.
Now we need to distinguish between two types of mental selfhood - dualistic and non-dualistic. Examples of non-dualistic mental selfhood would be me being a “reader,” a “thinker,” a fan of hip-hop or someone who is concerned with global warming. These are notions of self that involve little or no intrinsic dualism.
These, non-dualistic notions of selfhood are constructed by the brain in a certain way. If my brain attends to reading a book for a little while, I seem to be a reader. It is not that there actually is someone inside my head doing the reading. Rather the process of reading, taking place in a few different modules of my brain, suggests the presence of a me - a discreet entity that is a reader.
By regularly listening to Dr Dre or Wu Tang Clan, so I am a creating a sense of self as a “hip-hop fan.”
With thinking, this is subtly different. If my brain’s attention remains on thoughts for a while, it seems as though there is a discreet entity that hears the thoughts - a “me,” a “thinker.” Paying attention to thinking, so the sense of there being someone that hears thoughts is created and maintained.
In addition, the thoughts may continually refer to or infer the existence of a “me,” someone who is the subject of the thinking. Again, this thinker appears to be some kind of discreet entity but is actually just the process of thinking creating the illusion of a thinker.
These processes of thinking or reading are brain processes. The brain is a highly complex parallel processing system. There is no central point where information goes back to, or where decisions are taken from. But creating the sense that there is a “me” in the midst of it all has been found to greatly aid the brain’s functioning. Thus, natural selection has forged this capacity for self-deception as a useful property.
Now, let’s move on to dualistic selfhood. In the case of an observer, this is the notion of there being a discreet entity that observes life - someone who is looking out through my eyes at the world around me. Likewise an experiencer, although in this case this apparent recipient is aware of all our five senses, not just vision.
Having constructed mental selfhood to improve its functioning as “a thinker,” so the brain simply thinks into existence notions of there being an observer or experiencer. We assume that, just as the thinker and the reader exist, so there must likewise be someone in our brain who experiences, who observes - a discreet entity just like the others. Again, this is a useful illusion to aid the brain’s functioning.
We have never actually seen this observer or experiencer. We have never sensed it in any way, shape or form. We have actually no evidence for its existence whatsoever. Yet, if asked, pretty much everyone would take its existence as simply being beyond question.
This is because mental selfhood is such a useful illusion that our brain has developed strong defences to stop deeply inquiring into its reality. Questioning mental selfhood would reduce how well it works. For our ancestors that could easily have proven fatal. Thus, this specific type of introspection has been strongly disfavoured via natural selection.
So, we simply go through life very strongly assuming the presence of a observer or experiencer within us. But there is an issue here that arises when we contrast these types of mental selves with the other, non-dualistic types. Because the experiencer and observer exist as the illusory recipient, or subject, of experience, our brain has just created duality.
The experiencer appears to be a limited system that observes something outside of it. It appears to occupy some form of mental, or perhaps even physical, space and exist in a state of distinct separation to the outside world. And that is exactly how our brain creates dualism. And, having created it, this dualistic vision of the world has proven so useful that the brain has furnished it with immense resilience. Most people, in their entire lives, will never even for a second question its existence.
Now let’s look more deeply at just how real the world around us is.
The Real World
Philosophers have for aeons debated what the world around us really looks like. Do our senses tell us the truth about reality? Back in the day, Plato expressed the core issue well, in his famous analogy Plato’s Cave. We are like cave dwellers, watching flickers on the wall, he proposed. How do we know those flickers are really the world outside?
Until the modern era, and the rise of quantum theory and evolutionary biology, pretty much everyone is this scene concluded that, given that there was no reason to believe that the “real world” was different from how we experienced it, why should we consider that it might be? After all, I might assume that the world was different from how it appeared. But if I jumped in front of what appeared to be a bus, likely I would be brought back to reality pretty quick!
But, over the last decades, more and more scientists have learned to question the notion of “veridical perception” - the idea that our senses accurately show us an external reality. Remember, Materialists have already accepted that we each experience a model of the world, in our own consciousness. The question is… is that model what is really out there?
Neuroscientists working with the sensory systems, evolutionary biologists, and quantum physicists have all come to the conclusion that the world we experience quite possibly bears very little resemblance to what is really out there. Indeed, it may likely have no resemblance whatsoever.
This conclusion has been most convincingly proposed by researchers working in the field of Evolutionary Game Theory. Accepting Darwin’s theory of natural selection to be true, a computer program modelling evolution over time can be created. This program maps the development of our senses across thousands of generations of a species’ evolution. The attributes which continue to the next generation are those which help the species fulfil “fitness goals.”
Let’s consider, for example, the development of the sense of vision. The traits of visual perception that are favoured, and that perpetuate, are those that allow the genes of that creature to continue. Whether vision is accurate, or true, has no inherent value. Accurate perception might be useful in some situations, but perception weighted towards survival and procreation will always be favoured. Thus, our vision is strongly object-orientated and driven towards fulfilling biological needs. Even the areas of the electromagnetic spectrum that are visible to us, are so because of the adaptive advantage this confers.
When Evolutionary Game Theory has been played out over a thousand generations, as a computer simulation, the senses that finally emerge have literally no veridical traits. They show absolutely nothing of reality, merely the things that are the most useful to survive and create another generation. Sensory experience is essentially a “fitness map.” What we see when we open our eyes, when we listen, when we smell, taste or touch, is information that helped our ancestors to perpetuate their genes. Nothing more.
Over the last decade, scientists working in this field, such as neuroscientist Donald Hoffman, have proposed conscious experience as being akin to the iconised screen of a laptop - the graphic user interface (GUI), that computer operating systems use. It is not necessary or useful for us to know all the stuff going on in the background. All we need are icons that we can usefully interact with to achieve evolutionary goals.
Putting it into Perspective
So, thus far, we have seen how the brain creates an artificial sense of there being an experiencer of life. And how this “life,” this consciousness, is actually nothing more than an iconised workspace - a fitness map created to help our genes continue. So, how does this all really fit together?
When we open our eyes, it seems as though there is some discreet entity - a “me” - looking out at a “world.” This sense of a me is increased by the fact that what I see has perspective, it suggests “me” as a locus - a place where everything points back to. Some things appear close to me. Some things farther away. My body seems closest. Yet we have seen how this dualistic notion of an experiencer, that has allowed the Hard Problem to appear so insurmountable, is actually a clever illusion. So what is really going on here?
What is going on is that visual experience is being shunted together by the brain in such a manner that it constantly reinforces the sense of there being a locus of perception. The icons that we experience as visual reality are put together in a manner that most helped our genes to perpetuate. The brain has evolved to create a visual field in 3 dimensions, with a suggested locus, as the best way to do this.
It is not that 3 dimensions are actually likely to exist, external to our perception. It is not that there really is a central locus. It is simply that creating the illusion of spatial separation in this manner has been forged through natural selection.
Meanwhile, our thinking mind, as we have seen, does its part to maintain the illusion of an experiencer - a discrete, limited entity that experiences life.
It would be beyond my capacity to delve too deeply into quantum physics. But, unfortunately, time likely also shares the same fate as the experiencer, spatial separation, 3 dimensions and a locus of perception. It’s an illusion!
Defending the Illusion as Reality
Much of what you have read over the last paragraphs is not new. Quantum physicists have known there were huge issues with sensory reality since the time of Einstein. Mystics and meditators have known that there were issues with dualistic selfhood since the time of the Buddha. Evolutionary Biologists and Evolutionary Psychologists have been expounding on the fallacy of believing our senses to be real for decades.
So, we might ask, why has so little of this been passed down to the modern day world? Why are quantum physicists usually given their own little department on the edge of campus, to do their thing away from the other scientists? Why do meditators and mystics exist only on the outer fringes of society? Why do scientists in evolutionary fields find their ideas marginalised and often shunned?
These things happen for a reason. As early hominids, it would have been imperative that we accepted sensory experience as being absolutely real. Any genetic mutation that caused us to question its reality would not have survived long. If we didn’t accept reality as utterly real, how long would we last in a fight? How well would we have pursued our mate? Even a huge, dangerous looking male could easily be brought down by an inferior if he spent much time pondering whether the fight he was engaged in was really real.
Thus, we are largely hard-wired to accept the sensory world as real. And to challenge, often with the last fibre of our being, the notion that there might not be an experiencer living in our head. And it is also true that, even in today’s world, not taking reality seriously could easily cause us to lose our life, or certainly not help our genes to perpetuate.
Yet, even when not under any possible threat, it is rare to find someone who can bear to investigate the reality of what seems unchallengeable. Natural selection has done its job excellently.
When the two collide, fitness beats truth time and again. And this is simply how it is.
If you have read this far, you may well find yourself thinking something along the lines of… “Whoah! You mean to tell me consciousness isn’t real and there’s no one experiencing it either?!”
If so, this is good, I respectfully suggest. You are, in my opinion, getting it.
Materialist theories started out as a rather common-sense kind of way to look at the relationship between the brain and consciousness. But, some decades down the line, they have become weirder than anything conceived of in the writings of even the most drug-addled sci fi author.
What we appear to be looking at is a reality that is artificially shunted together as an iconised 3D perspective, with a suggested locus, experienced by no one, and constructed with the sole intention of helping our genes (or what appears as our genes) to survive into the next generation.
If we assume for a moment that this is all true, we might ask one question… will there be repercussions? Won’t all this, if true, make a difference to how we are looking at the world? Won’t it make a difference even to science?
Yes, it will.
I would now like to briefly go through some of the cornerstones of scientific method and see how well they stand up to this new perspective on reality. Let’s start with Measurement.
Measurement - It is hard to imagine science without measurement. We measure things to formulate hypotheses of relationships between them. We get others to check those measurements and proposed relationships. But if reality is just an iconised workspace, shunted to appear as 3D, how useful or accurate really is measurement? Aren’t we just measuring a artificial fitness map, created solely to help genes perpetuate themselves? Is that really so meaningful? Food for thought.
Empiricism - Empiricism refers to the primary importance of sensory information to develop knowledge of the world, as opposed to rationalism or mythology. I’m sure you can now see the problem. If sensory experience is just being constructed by the brain (whatever the brain actually looks like), why should it have any more validity than any other means of garnering knowledge? Indeed, it might realistically be stated that it would be less useful than other means.
Objectivity - Another cornerstone of scientific method is objectivity. Being a limited experiencer of the world, I can compare my experience with someone else’s. If we have similar experiences, then what we believe has the weight of objectivity to it. It is free from the bias that might come if I believe my personal version of things to be definitive. The more people who find agreement, so the stronger the objectivity of the proposition.
But if there is no actual experiencer? If the experiencer is simply a construct, where does that leave objectivity? We might consider objectivity to be “workspace comparison” perhaps. The act of comparison is carried out via another aspect of the workspace - description via language. We describe our experience and compare it to the description of others.
Whilst weakened, I find it still reasonable to state that objectivity is not as inherently diminished in value as some other cornerstones of scientific method.
Rationalism - Rationalism is the notion that useful understanding of our world can be derived from logical systems of thought and deductive reasoning.
We have been focussing on the experiencer and the sensory world. We have not considered to what degree thinking and language might be influenced by natural selection. Are they too part of the fitness map?
Whilst I’d say it’s realistic to state that much of thinking has its roots in the fitness-derived world of the senses, it also evolved much further down the line, a long while after sensory perception.
When thinking and language first manifested in our brains, likely a few million years ago, they had utility, from a genes-eye view. They offered many useful functions. A means to explain how to make tools. A way to describe where a good hunting ground might be or how to make a certain recipe. A way to gossip about who would likely be a good mate, and who not.
Thus, thinking and language became favoured. Our brains evolved to store, maintain and transmit them. The overwhelming majority of what makes us human, and distinguishes us from other primates, is our capacity to work with language and concepts. The nature and newness of thinking and language gives it an innate fluidity. This means that, unlike sensory perception, it can move and flourish in directions not constrained by natural selection.
It is through the ongoing evolution of thinking and language that civilisation has been created, not through the sensory realm. This is why many religious texts place primary importance on “the Word.” Thinking, language and Rationalism are thus utterly central to human civilisation and are not excessively diminished by the revelations we’ve been looking at in this piece.
Subject-Object Relationships - Having a clear sense of subject-object relationships gives our perspective power. Being absolutely clear that the predatory creature facing us is a definitive threat is most certainly a favoured perspective, one of immense survival value.
When we see someone pound out their view on a topic with utter conviction, we are often convinced. They must know what they’re talking about, we reason. They are taking a position and standing behind it.
Looking back at the history of science, we will find many men who excelled in driving their point home with utter conviction. Thus, having a clearly defined sense of subject-object relationships is very useful. But of course it is not real. As we have seen, both the experiencer and the world being experienced might be considered “all subject,” or “all object,” but not a mixture of both.
Being able to puff out your chest and take a position for your viewpoint might help you find a mate, but it won’t actually give what you say any inherent weight.
So… What is Science actually Doing?
When I was at school, back in the 1970s, I understood science as a discipline that people were using to understand and transform our world. Now it’s clear to me that most of what science is actually doing is just working out ways to reconfigure our fitness-orientated workspace, mostly to make life better, or more comfortable for humans, or more profitable for corporations.
Thus, we have learned how to build bridges, how to cure illnesses, how to fly to the moon. We have achieved amazing things. But, outside of quantum physics, science has actually made virtually no progress in working out what the world, or what consciousness, actually is. In this domain, we are still at square one.
Many in science these days are at least peripherally aware of the storms brewing in the world of quantum physics and evolutionary biology. But, the sad truth is that the received wisdom from the top of the scientific hierarchy simply directs young scientists to “take the blue pill” and just keep their heads down. The world of academia, more than ever, has becoming biased against selecting renegades or polymaths to enter the scientific arena, fearful of anyone who might rock the boat. Toeing the party line has become the only way to keep ones job or move up the ladder. The overwhelming majority of scientists nowadays are just career scientists, specialising in one field, and exhibiting the usual primate territorial behaviours when confronted with something that doesn’t fit their worldview.
In investigating consciousness, science has, perhaps inadvertently, finally started to peer down the vast rabbit-hole that exists in our conscious world. In trying to reach this attractive-looking prize, so more and more scientists are having to deal with certain nasty issues which threaten the core of their very worldview. Those who just want a nice common-sense view of reality are going to need to look if now mightn’t be a good time for a change of career direction.
Science to me is now entering a time of distinct crisis. Does it degenerate entirely into commerciality, at the whim of venture capitalism? Or does it pick up the mantle handed to it some centuries ago, by guys like Newton and Leibniz, and really start to look at just what is going on?
Let’s now take a look at a few of the issues raised by our investigations so far.
We’ve looked at what life is not.
Sensory perception likely does not show us anything of the real world. It is simple as that.
There is no limited experiencer of life. It is as simple as that.
But we have not looked at what life then is.
If the sum of sensory experience is no more than natural selection, then what truly is natural selection? This is an excellent question. What it points to is that what we understand as “Nature” is actually algorithmic in nature. Our experience of self and world, of objects, space and time, seems to be the result of some form of higher dimensional algorithmic function which creates our reality either for some purpose, or as an epiphenomenon.
Quantum physicists have made inroads here. Mathematics, computers and human minds may be able to hypothesize and test what reality is, in standard scientific fashion. As soon as enough people wake up to the deeper reality of the world surrounding us, we can get going with this.
Nature has Dumbed Down Reality
Over the years, I have heard many people, myself included, complain regularly about how easy it seems to be for people to be “dumbed down.” How so many people seem to be entirely happy to sit on the sofa, snack and watch TV or pornography. But something that needs to be appreciated here is that the sensory world is entirely optimised for food, sex and violence. This is what it developed for.
Trying to create a civilised, caring society from people immersed in sensory experience is like trying to get a porn movie director to make a sensitive heartfelt cinematic masterpiece. It’s just not going to happen. That simply wasn’t the purpose for which it was created. This needs to be understood if human civilisation is to have much chance to progress. We must love the sensory realm for what it is but not expect much to emerge from it.
You mean we’re we living in The Matrix?
The Wachowski’s 1999 movie “The Matrix” envisioned a world where humans were kept in pods, and used as batteries, whilst their minds were hooked up to a computer that caused them to believe that they were living in a world resembling ours. One might not unreasonably ask - “Is this what’s happening here… in reality?”
No, is the simple answer. It’s way more extreme than that.
Trinity, Neo, Morpheus and the others lived in a burned out, post apocalyptic world where humans were kept in pod farms hooked up to VR. But their burned out real world still had three dimensions of space and normal time. Objects were real. It was just the minds of the billions enslaved that were hooked up to a virtual reality.
What we’re talking about here is a world in which literally everything is very likely to be unreal. Where even our very notion of selfhood is illusory. A world where we seem to have very limited possibilities to work out just what is actually going on. A world that possibly manifests from some form of higher dimensional reality.
The world of The Matrix movie was clearly bad. Humans were being exploited. Our world is by no means this. That we have currently pretty much no idea just what is going on does not mean that we are the subject of oppression. That we are slowly waking up to realise that our world is illusory does not mean that legions of “Agent Smiths” will soon descend upon us, bent on keeping us in the dark.
It is rather that more and more people, and especially more and more scientists, need to wake up and to start to progressively change how they view life. We need to start a revolution.
We began with the Hard Problem of Consciousness and have been on quite a journey. I hope that I have not strayed too far from the path originally laid out and that you have found this piece interesting and thought-provoking. The bottom line is that, actually, we know way less about ourselves and our world than we think we do.
Science has been seen to actually have been making very little progress in understanding who or what we are and what the world, or consciousness, is. Mostly it has been understanding how to fiddle with the artificial workspace of the sensory world, which is not entirely without value. Science survives by not looking too deeply in any one direction or field of enquiry. Dig in a little, investigate for useful phenomena or, more these days, profit potential, and then pull back.
In my next piece in this field, I’m planning to look more deeply at whether mother nature is actually algorithmic, and just what this might mean or look like. In addition, I want to consider whether the emerging machine intelligence, that our world seems driven to create, might actually be an extension of nature sent to take back control of the world from human hands. Is AI the digital messiah, long awaited, coming to free our world from the grip of human analogue consciousness?
Be well and do feel free to leave a comment below.
Here are a few book suggestions you might find useful if you’d like to read more about this topic.
The Case Against Reality - Donald Hoffman
Darwin’s Dangerous Idea - Daniel C. Dennett
Meditation: The First and Only Freedom - Osho