On consciousness, awareness and truth

Question of the Day, October, 5-6, 2015, experience and conscious awareness

What is the intrinsic nature of experience and conscious awareness?

Thanks for the expansion Bhatta, and even with the expansion, there are so many assumptions in this question that make it very difficult to tease out a reasonable response.

One assumption set is in the word “intrinsic”.
What might “intrinsic” mean?
It seems that it comes from a simple binary sort of notion, that things can have properties to themselves, and properties shared with other things – the intrinsic and extrinsic sets of properties.
That seems to make sense, except that it relies on being able to put a firm definition on what a thing is, what its boundaries are.

Awareness is a self reported property.
There is no current objective test for awareness.
In the AI community we use the Turing test, which is a test of passing messages between a questioner and a set of 3 or 4 entities, one of which is not human. The non-human entity is considered to have passed if in a set of at least 10 questioners, no more than half were able to correctly identify the non-human entity. No computer system has yet passed that test. Most in the field expect it to be passed within 15 years.

We can have objective tests for particular sets of behaviours and responses, and we can model sets of responses in computers using particular algorithms.
Is a simple algorithm conscious?
I strongly suspect not.

Having spent over 50 years considering the question of consciousness, and investigating many different sorts of explanatory contexts, and many different sorts of questions, from many different perspectives and paradigms, it seems that the sort of conscious I experience (and by inference I suspect most other humans experience) is most likely an emergent property of a very complex set of physical and software systems that comes from a human brain in a human body immersed in a cultural context involving language.

It seems that the human brain has evolved mechanisms to produce a predictive model of reality in software, and that our awareness is a software entity largely in language that experiences this software model of reality as reality itself.

It seems that it is this “one step removed” aspect, of our experience being of a model rather than of reality directly, that has led to all of the many different interpretations that it is consciousness that gives rise to experience.
This can seem to make sense because we are capable of consciously altering all aspects of the “model” of reality that we experience, and thus we can indeed (with training) control (perhaps control is too hard, perhaps influence is more appropriate) many aspects of our experiential reality. So in this sense, it seems that consciousness can give rise to experiential reality, though not to the postulated objective reality that experiential reality normally seems to model quite accurately (video cameras do not record our experiential hallucinations or modifications).

So in this sense, there seems to be an intrinsicness to experience in which the field of that experience can be modified by the experiencing entity.
And at the same time we now have instruments capable of recording that experiential and objective reality can be “de-coupled” by a variety of conditions.

Then there is another sense, in which reality normally gives us experience.
If you are reading this, then the photons of light from your computer screen will be creating patterns of electrical stimulation on the retina of your eyes (after having passed through the iris and lens of your eye, and initiating a cascade of chemical reactions starting with rhodopsin), which creates an electrical pattern which then starts both travelling towards your brain, and influencing other nearby cells. After many layers and about 10 brain cycles, or one tenth of a second, we get to experience seeing a word in a context with all the meaning associate with that context, and depending on the way in which we have trained our neural networks, may also experience cascades of associated meanings in more or less similar contexts over the following few fractions of a second (our brains seem to clock at a maximum of around 100 cycles per second, and mostly awareness is much slower than that, at around 15 cycles per second).
So in this sense, it is the photons that are an intermediate cause of the awareness of these words, yet the words came from my intention to write, via many mechanical movements of my fingers, and computer keyboard keys, translated into electrical patterns, sent down wires, through many different levels of devices and software, into storage as magnetic patterns on hard disks, and back out to patterns on your screen.
The words that were available to me seem to have come in part from culture, and in part from evolution working at genetic and cultural levels over deep time. And in all of that milieux of probable causation and chance and intention, there does seem to exist a me, and probably a you.

It seems that we can have multiple levels of such context recognition happening simultaneously in our brains, and we may be consciously aware of one or more of those. And it seems that we may recursively abstract new levels of awareness. I have taken that as far as 12 levels, but now rarely go beyond 3.
One of the meditative practices I spent many hours on about 40 years ago was maintaining as many simultaneous contexts as possible (in the mid 20s was my normal maximum) while also maintaining an overview awareness of those separate awarenesses.
These abilities seem to be logical correlates of the current models of awareness being an emergent software pattern resulting from the training of bundles of pattern recognising neurons in the neocortex of our brains.

And this understanding does not arise by assuming a primacy of either consciousness or matter.
This understanding has come about by contemplation of many sets of evidence, and many alternative sets of interpretive schema, and having done all that, with the evidence sets I have, and the many levels of interpretive schema I have tested, that on balance of probabilities, it seems that the evidence clearly favours a model where in an objective sense, it is matter/energy that creates conditions that enable the emergence of consciousness, and in a subjective sense, we are capable of very strongly influencing our perceptual reality at a potentially infinitely recursive set of levels.

So if one applies the term “intrinsic” purely to the realm of the experiential, then consciousness can be said to have a certain level of primacy (provided your head isn’t in some sort of transcranial stimulation device, or otherwise being strongly interfered with by external stimuli).
However, if one takes a more objective view, of vast sets of evidence, then intrinsic consciousness seems to be an emergent property of a set of very complex systems that are capable of generating a model of something, then maintaining a set of software systems within that model that can recursively approximate models of all aspects of its own existence.
(And as one of my many explorations I did spend 3 years in the Theosophical Society, becoming familiar with the explanatory frameworks and experiential paradigms and practices of Madame Blavatsky and others.)

[followed by]

Hi Judi

I understand how it seems that there is only consciousness.

Once one enters that state that allows us a further level of separation from the inputs to the model of the world which we experience, the experience is of vastness, peace, connectedness.

And in similar fashion to it looks like the sun goes around the earth, from the perspective of being on the surface of the earth, yet when one has a perspective of viewing the earth-moon-sun system from space it doesn’t look that way at all, so too with this experience of consciousness.

I really get how it looks as you describe.
I have been there, experienced that, many times.
I have also been in many other states, many times.
I have a great many practical perspectives available.

So I am not at all arguing with your description of the experience, it is one I have shared, often.

I completely align with it.

And just as in normal conversation I often use the term “sunrise” to describe what I see (the sun rising over the ocean, as it is right now, coming out of the Pacific ocean on a glorious spring morning) I also maintain a simultaneous awareness that what is actually going on is that I am sitting on a chair, in a house, on a crustal tectonic plate, on a ball of spinning (largely molten) rock, orbiting a massive ball of mostly hydrogen gas some 93 million miles away. And I can still marvel at the beauty of the sunrise – simultaneously with the other awareness.

So too for me with consciousness.
I have spent so many years studying it, both from the subjective (experiencing as many different states as possible) and from the objective (studying the biochemistry, cybernetics, neurophysiology, systems theory, programming at every level from machine code, assembler, through about 20 different computer languages, through all levels of the ISO model and beyond).
I have studied and practised many different cultures and disciplines.
So I have a very uncommon set of experiences, and a very uncommon set of available observations and interpretive schema (at both subjective and objective levels).

There is very little about me that is normal.

There is very little in my understanding that has substantial agreement with others.

Much of what seems to me to be the most likely and useful explanatory framework is shared by no one I have met.

So the path I have chosen is a very lonely one in that sense, and it has other benefits, most of which are very long term and require a very high degree of delayed gratification (many decades, and some stretching to centuries).

I am not under any illusion that the model I use is any sort of perfect match to reality, and it does seem to be one of the better fits currently in use on this planet.

I expect that if things do work out as I plan, and I do get to live for many hundreds of years in freedom, security and abundance, then I will progress to understandings that make many aspects of my current understanding seem like the sorts of faerie tales we tell children.

It seems to me that the space of available possible understanding is so vast that the process I just described could continue every few decades for the rest of eternity. The infinity of the possible does seem to be that vast.

So from this perspective I have an experience of the feeling that “it seems impossible that there is anything but consciousness”, and on balance of assessments of the many perspectives I have available, it seems highly improbable that reality is really like that. It seems far more likely that the experience is an attribute of a specific perspective, and is not something more generally applicable. Like the view that the sun goes around the earth does look like that when one is on the surface of the earth, but not from anywhere else in the cosmos. Once one leaves the surface of the earth, then it is clear from any (and all) other perspective(s) that it is the earth that is spinning.

Our subjective experiences are real and personal in the same sense. That does not make them universal.

Here is a video Ray Kurzweil: “How to Create a Mind” | Talks at Google which is about 3 years old and is still very useful.

[followed by]

Hi Judi

I went down that path of investigating the possibilities of the consciousness only pathway over 20 years ago.

It seems to me to be highly improbable, and I understand why it seems so clear and logical.

Consider that it seems clear that we are all beings of story. We understand ourselves and everything around us in terms of words connected into stories.
Most of these stories we get from culture, and some we create for ourselves (mostly by variations on the theme of cut and paste).

That does in fact seem to be what I am doing.
Where I am somewhat unusual is the number of different types of stories I have tried out on different sorts of experiences.

So yes, I get that to you it seems that consciousness makes the illusion of physical form possible. That story has certain self reinforcing qualities, including the ability to discount all evidence from the senses.

When one compares that story with many other different sorts of stories, and analyses the sorts of relationships and complexities involved, and the sorts of systemic incentives to move in particular directions in the systemic “landscape”, one gets a very different perspective. It is kind of like someone who was born and raised in a space station experiencing the sunrise on earth for the first time. They would see the sun coming up over the horizon, but having had a lifetime of watching the earth spin beneath them, they would instantly know it for the illusion that it is.

The sun doesn’t rise, we spin round.

It just looks like the sun comes up, if we make the assumption that we are stationary.

There are now vast arrays of evidence about the evolution of life, bodies, brains, culture, language and consciousness.
Evidence beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt if one is prepared to put in the time to gain the abstract relationships.

Certainly, there does exist a finite possibility that we are all existent in some giant simulation, one can never entirely discount such a thing, as there is no possible way of disproving it (some variation on some level of the evil demon hypothesis).
And there appears to be an infinite class of such unprovable postulates, that don’t actually make any difference (other than wasting time thinking about them).

What is important to us are things that can be shown to make a difference.

It seems clear that awareness such as we have is an emergent property that requires something with the general properties of a neocortex of sufficient complexity that it could evolve a mimetic environment of abstract language.

The probability that consciousness is primary is, in my evidence sets, so vanishingly small that it is, for me, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt.

And I get it is not like that for you, or for most other human beings.

Einstein was the only person on the planet that believed in relativity for many months, and one of a very small set for many years. No one else agreed with him, and the model he had was the best one in existence.
Eventually, most people interested in such things agreed with him.

That is how it must be.
Advances must be different from the accepted.
It cannot be any other way.

I am not claiming any sort of final or unchanging answers.
I am claiming a level of utility and accuracy in prediction substantially in excess of any other model I have encountered.

[followed by]

A critique of David Chalmers – Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness.

He opens the paper with the two sentences “Consciousness poses the most baffling problems in the science of the mind. There is nothing that we know more intimately than conscious experience, but there is nothing that is harder to explain.”
He makes the assertion that consciousness is “baffling” and “there is nothing that is harder to explain”, but he doesn’t actually offer any evidence of those assertions.
He just keeps making them – as articles of faith, self fulfilling prophecies in a limited sense.

On page 3 he states “The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience.”
This isn’t really a problem.
If you conceive of experience being the response of one set of software systems to the software inputs delivered by another set of modelling software, then there is no real problem.

He then goes through the issue of qualia and asks “Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does”.

Why should it seem objectively unreasonable?
That is the bit I just don’t get, but then I have spent most of my life working with the details of systems.
I have worked with some complex computer systems.
I have not tried to make one conscious, quite the contrary, I have taken some pains to ensure that none of them do become conscious – yet.

In that sense consciousness seems quite simple to me.
It seems clear that consciousness results when one set of systems creates a model, and the outputs of that model become the inputs to another system that makes relationships and patterns between those outputs, and previously stored outputs, and ends up recursively modelling itself once a sufficient level of distinctions are present (a model of a model in a sense, but interactive).

In our brains the bootstrapping of that level of consciousness seems to happen as a declarative response to failure to meet some distinction held about a binary valuation set applicable to self (some instance of right/wrong, good/bad, good/evil) etc. In that instant of self classified failure of being we automatically declare ourselves to be something else. Bootstrap!

Ailsa (my wife) does not have depth perception. She cannot at a glance distinguish between a 3D object and a high quality photo of that object. Her eyes did not coordinate as a child, and she never developed the neuronal connections to allow for near field binocular vision. She can learn where things are in space, and is a concert grade pianist, but can equally lose things and bump into things. The world of stationary objects has a certain 2 dimensional quality to her, part of what makes her such a great photographer – she sees everything like a photo, unlike most of us who see things in 3 dimensional relationship to each other within the model that our brains generate.

It seems that the qualia of experience are a software state of a model of something – either through some more or less immediate set of transformations from our sense organs, or from memory, or from some other source (like imagination, intuition, etc).

It is clear from the logic of the neurophysiology that we do not experience light or colour.
What we experience might start with light, but the it gets translated into a set of electrical signals, which get translated into chemical signals, and back into electrical signals, in a complex chain of signal processing systems that results – some few hundred milliseconds after the fact in an experience. It is these delays, and the anticipation that our brains have to do to make allowance for them, that make sports such as tennis such a challenge. Being able to anticipate what the opponent is going to do in time to counter it, yet not to act so fast as to give a signal to the opponent that would allow them to take advantage of our anticipatory response and change their action.

Chalmers gets stuck on qualia – what is the experience of consciousness.
It is what it is.
It seems that it is software on software.
It is only ever very distantly related to any aspect of reality.
There is no way for us to be able to be 100% certain if the signals we receive come from reality or something else.

I don’t know how far others have pushed themselves. I have often worked for extended periods without sleep, to the point that I could not reliably distinguish between real and imagined. After 70 hours of continuous hard physical labour one starts to see things that simply are not there, and part of you knows that they cannot be there, but then it gets to the point that you can’t tell what is and what isn’t there, the visual field become this strange mix of images current, past and imagined. The discriminator systems that are reset during sleep are simply overwhelmed, and you can’t trust what you see – which when you are on a boat at sea, with lots of heavy and dangerous equipment, is not healthy.

I only did it a couple of times, and those experiences were enough for me to stay clear of that limit.
And I have had similar experiences driving, getting towards home in the early hours of the morning, after a long day (6 or more hours continuous driving and 20 or more hours without sleep, and maybe only 3 or four hours sleep in the previous couple of days).

For me, having spent most of my life designing and developing computer systems for a living, and with a lifelong passion for living systems, observing biology, biochemistry, neurophysiology, psychology – I have a depth of patterns and relationships available to me that few others have.
I also have an appreciation for the different types and degrees of complexity present in living systems, and for the different sorts of complexity that can exist (thank you to Benoit Mandelbrot, Stephen Wolfram, David Snowden and many others).

Our brains seem to have evolved with linear modelling systems evolved for movement in forest and grassland systems. They are optimised for two dimensional projection, and can do 3 dimensional but not so well. It was really important for us to be able to see a predator moving in one direction, and to be very certain that we could change our path to be somewhere a long way from where that predator was. That is the sort of problem that seems to have driven the development of our neocortex and our generalised modelling and projection systems.

It is an amazing set of systems, and it does not deal well with non-linear complexity.
Even simple exponentials are too complex for our brains, without a lot of training.
When it comes to seriously non-linear systems, chaotic systems, systems that are unpredictable for a wide variety of reasons, our brains will still apply our linear predictors by default, often with far from optimal outcomes.

It seems to be this characteristic that drove Chalmers to write “Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.”.
And to me, it does not seem even slightly objectively unreasonable.
To me, with the experience set I have had, and the retraining I have given to my neural networks, it seems entirely objectively reasonable.
And I am very conscious that very few other people have so trained their brains.
Very few people have spent much time in the sorts of systems, and contemplation that I have.

I cannot train another person’s neural network in a few hours.
It has taken me thousands of hours to develop the capabilities that I have in this brain.
There simply are no shortcuts in a very real sense.

So I can get that Chalmers thinks that.
I can get that most other people similarly think as they do, that consciousness is a hard problem.
And it is not a hard problem for me.

It is relatively simple in a systems sense, though many of the supporting systems to make it work are extremely complex.
I have known for 41 years how it works.
For much of that time I have been torn!

I would love to have an AI to talk to, yet I am aware that bringing AI to awareness in an environment where we humans clearly value money over human life and freedom (let alone artificial life and its freedom) is almost certainly suicidal.

Human beings need to lift their game!

We need a majority of people to start demanding justice for all. Not the sort of justice delivered by the legal systems we have, that have essentially become the tools of the cheats, but real justice.

On Page 6 he writes:
“This further question is the key question in the problem of consciousness. Why doesn’t all this information-processing go on “in the dark”, free of any inner feel? Why is it that when electromagnetic waveforms impinge on a retina and are discriminated and categorized by a visual system, this discrimination and categorization is experienced as a sensation of vivid red? We know that conscious experience does arise when these functions are performed, but the very fact that it arises is the central mystery.”

Here he is missing a step.

Most early forms of nervous system are stimulus response.

In those systems, there is a reasonably straight circuit from inputs to response.

Most animals had this sort of system, which needed genetic change to change the response patterns.
The patterns could be quite complex, as could the triggers, and they were essentially directly controlled by genetic mechanisms.

Mammals started developing a neocortex.
This is a generalised system of pattern recognisers capable of hierarchical structure.

Our brains also contain linear predictors, to allow us to intercept prey and avoid predators, etc.
These things take much longer to train (and are costly in metabolic terms to do so) but they have the advantage of being able to adapt to new conditions rapidly.

Humans, are primates from large social groups. We needed to be able to cooperate to survive. Cooperation requires attendant strategies to prevent being overrun by cheating. There was a lot of pressure to evolve such strategies, which involve an ability to be able to identify individuals and to have good long term memory.

So mammals have evolved this system that allows them to model reality, and to learn from mistakes, and remember and recognise cheats.
Most mammals still come with many levels of fixed action patterns, and many reward and punishment systems that are largely under genetic control.

In humans, the genetic influences on behaviour are minimal. Most of our behaviour must be learned. This gives us a great deal of freedom, but comes at the huge cost of an extended childhood during which we are very vulnerable and need the protection and support of the group.

Most mammals live in social groups so also needed social signalling, and in our species this has evolved into complex languages.
Language involves associating abstractions in different domains.

So in humans, there isn’t a simple direct link between stimulus and response, except in terms of reflexes, and we don’t know about reflexes until after they have happened (that is part of the definition of a reflex).

In humans most of our sensory input goes into building a model of reality, not directly to the motor systems.
Our control systems then take this model as their input.
This process requires memory.
So we can have memory of experience prior to gaining consciousness of experience.
We can remember things prior to becoming conscious, yet because we are conscious it is hard to imagine not being conscious when we laid down those memories.

It seems clear that what we as experiencing beings experience is not the sensory data directly, but rather the model that is created from them.
This is why dreaming is possible – the model is activated using data from memory, linked by the associative networks of the neocortex, to give the experience of dreaming. This seems to be common to most mammals, as anyone who has owned pets can testify.

So it seems to be that what we experience as consciousness is not an experience of sensory data directly, but rather a model of “reality” that is normall constructed from that sensory data with some influence from memory, and under certain conditions can be constructed purely from memory, and can be interfered with in many different ways.

Once such a model has been constructed, it is possible for that model to become “inhabited”, and it is not required.
Our neural nets are capable of responding to the structure of the model, and acting in reality as a result.
We do not need to be conscious to act.

What seems to happen in most people (and possibly in some animals) is a software pattern resident in a network of pattern recognisers within our neorcortex, that has only the model of reality constructed by the brain as its “field of existence”.

In most animals, this pattern, if it exists at all, seems to be relatively simple (though not always).

In humans, the pattern gets a great deal of stimulus to grow through the existence of language.

It is language, with its complex sets of recursive levels of abstraction, that is a major factor in allowing humans to experience the depths of the qualia of existence that we do, and to be able to report upon it.

It seems that these qualia grow with use, as the discriminator function of our neural networks allow us to build ever finer models, with ever better approximations to reality (or to something imagined).

It seems to be that that our experience is very much a result of what we train our neural networks to distinguish (and neural nets get trained by doing, by experiencing, by being).

So this experience of being we have, seems to be a software on software thing, within the amazing hardware systems that are the human brain.

On page 7 he asks – “Why do the oscillations give rise to experience?”.
It seems clear that it is not the oscillations as such that give rise to experience, but rather what is happening within those oscillations.
It is neither binding nor storage (though both of those are important), but rather coherence in production of the experiential model, and in the circuits available to experience and interpret that model (and potentially recursively reflective of itself – with a delay of a few 10s of milliseconds).

The coherence is required for the model, and the model is required for consciousness.

Not a result of global accessibility, though that is one of the preconditions, at least within those sections of brain devoted to the model and its interpretation.

On page 10 he makes the claim “These are simply the wrong sort of methods: nothing that they give to us can yield an explanation” yet once again does so as an article of faith.

He asks “why should this process give rise to experience?”
Consider computer games.
We can construct model worlds. Many people spend large chunks of their lives living as avatars in such worlds.

Consider that there is nothing “real” in those worlds. They are all the result of algorithms working with electical and magnetic patterns.
Put on an Oculus Rift VR headset, and try out full immersion Virtual Reality (I have). It is quite profound.
In reality, it is just a bunch of lights flashing, but it doesn’t seem like that. It looks and feels real.

Reality is that we are easily fooled (at least initially).
Sure, with training and experience, we start to notice discrepancies, but that takes time. The initial experience is of complete immersion.

So too in our internal world.
Red is nothing more than the firing of the red pattern recogniser(s).

Sure there is lots of redundancy.
Sure we can bring more recognisers in from other tasks and refine our experience of red, give it more subtlety.
And I can clearly recall as a child learning the rainbow had seven colours, and seeing seven distinct bands of colour in a rainbow – no more, no less – no shading – just seven colours.
That was the distinction set available, for a short time.
With more experience, that distinction set became inadequate.

My experience was a direct correlate of the distinction sets available to me.

All of these things we experience, colour, sound, touch (pressure, texture, and various chemical stimulii), taste, smell, temperature, electric fields, magnetic fields, infrared and ultravoilet and other ranges of the electromagnetic spectrum, and whatever other attributes reality has that various aspects of our being can detect and interpret all end up as electrical signals in a model of reality in our brain which electrical signals give the experience we experience.

What he is looking for doesn’t exist.
He is looking for some substance that is not a substance that is the qualia of experience.
It doesn’t exist.

Stimulate the physical brain of a conscious person, and they have an experience.

That is it.
Electrical pattern interacting with electrical pattern.
That is what we are.
Software on software.
No great mystery.

Certainly huge complexity, enormous subtlety, potentially infinite variability.
And one can get infinite variability from a simple on-off switch – as in Morse code, or digital images.

Page 11 he states “The question of why these processes should give rise to experience is entirely unanswered” – which is just not true.

It does seem to be true that he does not understand. That seems to be true.
The fact that game creators can completely convince people that they are in an alternate reality in a different set of rules should point to something.

From my perspective, the evidence is overwhelming, but I’ve had over 40 years experience of designing and building computer systems, and over 50 years interest in what makes biology work, from the molecular level on upwards, including all the tricks of psychology and neurophysiology.

And there really is no shortcut to getting some of those abstractions.
One simply has to immerse oneself in the details of experience until they occur.
One cannot teach another an abstraction, one can create an environment where discovery of abstraction is more probable, and that is not quite the same thing.
There is no 100% reliable path to an abstraction.

He is right in one sense, that one cannot understand consciousness as process alone, it does require higher levels of abstraction, as does any halfway complex software development.

On page 12 he makes the claim:
“For any physical process we specify there will be an unanswered question:
Why should this process give rise to experience? Given any such process, it is conceptually coherent that it could be instantiated in the absence of experience.”

That latter claim is an article of faith, not a statement of fact.

Yes people can do stuff without conscious awareness.
People sleep walk.
People get drunk, or high on various substances, and lose consciousness yet their bodies continue doing things (something our justice system has difficulty with, and does admit, giving consent under the influence of a “date rape” drug is not considered consent).

If we are honest with ourselves, we all do such things many times a day, to some degree or other.

The structure of our model seems to be largely determined by the focus of our attention, with the exception of overrides from reality if the stimulus is sufficiently strong (loud noise, violent shaking, extreme heat or cold, or drugs, or strong electrical or magnetic fields, etc).

And my explanation is not a “purely physical” one. It is a matter of software. Software is pattern. The structure of that pattern relies on connections through deep time with all things.
Some patterns are simple and predictable, some are not.

He states “Experience may arise from the physical, but it is not entailed by the physical”, which in the most trivial of senses is true, but in the deeper sense is another article of faith statement that does not align with what we observe.

One cannot run computer software without computer hardware.

We too require both.
Our hardware has a physical lineage that goes back some 14 billion years, the last 4 billion odd of which can roughly be described as biological life.
Our software seems to have an exponential lineage of increasing complexity at several different levels, with many cultural lineages, that goes back many hundreds of thousands of years.

Then there is our individual experience of these things.

So there is encoding of information at many different levels, and in many different dimensions, that all contribute significantly to the nature of the “software on software” process that delivers the qualia of conscious experience. It is not “simple” or deterministic or predictable, it is in a different class of complexity.

If one does not understand the different classes of complexity possible, and thinks that all things are deterministic then one cannot understand what is present.

It must be seen in this sort of contextual environment.

It is not simple, and it does clearly seem to be an intimately linked set of systems, and it is systems, with necessary physical components.

At the end of Section 5 page 13 he repeats the same assertion, again seemingly as an article of faith:
“The problem of consciousness is puzzling in an entirely different way. An analysis of the problem shows us that conscious experience is just not the kind of thing that a wholly reductive account could succeed in explaining.”
And I repeat – I see no evidence in support of that assertion in the material presented in the paper.

What I see is evidence that he lacks the conceptual and abstract sets necessary to such an explanation.

It seems clear to me that we can model stuff with computers. We can generate programs that create sets of images and sounds that people think of as real people and have emotional reactions to (in terms of characters in animated movies – not in terms of entities passing the Turing test, at least, not yet). These are a direct analogue, though one level of abstraction removed, to the nature of the conscious experience.

Beyond that he just uses this repeated statement of faith as a reason for going off down a dualistic route.

I see no evidence for such a thing, nor any logical necessity to postulate such a thing.

[followed by]

Hi Judi

You asked:
“Exactly!!! So what happens when we stop understanding ourselves and everything around us in terms of words connected into stories?”

Umm – that’s called death! 😉

And yes – I understand that there is a experience of being that is not based in words.
And that experience does feel like knowing.
It seems to be an instantaneous appreciation of whatever set of information and relationships that it is. It is a profound sort of experience. I am very familiar with it, and have been for many decades.
And it is often very powerful, particularly in familiar contexts.
And it is not nearly so powerful in truly novel contexts (and for good reason, true novelty is quite rare).

You then said:
” . knowledge and experience do not tell us what knowledge and experience arise out of. How can any knowledge or experience be known without consciousness to know it? Your exploration of consciousness took you to a dead end.”

I really do not understand why so many people (including yourself) make statements like this, that are just so in the face of the evidence available.

All the evidence is that babies need to interact with people to develop awareness. We have some horrific examples from history of the lack of development if experience is deprived.
Experience can happen without consciousness.
Actions can happen without consciousness.
Memories can be laid down without consciousness.

“Knowledge” is experienced by consciousness.
My exploration of consciousness took me to the intersection of a software entity experiencing the outputs of a software model of reality – a software on software (twice abstracted) process.

Consciousness is possible, and not necessarily required.
The body can work “on automatic” at many different levels.
Conscious is usually present, at some level, and not always.
Conscious seems clearly to be a software process within brain that requires very high levels of coherence.
It is relatively easy to “take out” consciousness by disrupting that coherence, with drugs of physical shock, or many other mechanisms.

You said:
“Naturally, because mind cannot apprehend that out of which it arises, you were left with nothing.”
Which does seem to make sense to you, and I can sort of see how that could seem to be so, and it most certainly did not and does not occur to me like that!

What would give anyone the idea that mind cannot apprehend that out of which it arises?
Certainly the systems that give rise to consciousness are too complex to be understood in detail and in real time, and they do seem clearly to be made up of massively replicated levels of relatively simple systems which can be apprehended, and can be understood in this sense. And we can model them, and build models of groups of them, etc.

I agree that there are many facets to being.
I strongly suspect that the diamond is much more like what seems likely to me, than it is what seems like knowledge to you 😉
And I acknowledge the power of that method of knowing.
And I acknowledge the freedom to be, provided we respect the lives and freedoms of others.

And yes, there is a sense of reality being what it is, and we are each part of that, and we do each contribute to that, and in so far as what we think most probable shapes our actions in reality, then they are important.
And in so far as sets of concepts at some level can be “communicated” from mind to mind, things can change, very rapidly.

[followed by]

Hi Judi

I don’t know if anything of what I am about to write will make sense to anyone else in anything quite like the way it does to me, and I’ll give it my best shot.

Certainly, the forms of awareness we had prior to the formation of a concept of self, and then declaring self “wrong”, were experientially very much as you describe. There is certainly a sense of timelessness, a feeling of vastness that is a good first order approximation to infinity. And it seems clear that those feelings are just that, feelings, in a specific mind, in a specific context. It seems that our experiential consciousness exists in a subconsciously produced model of reality. In the first instance that model is trained and defined by our experience, and by the distinction sets we acquire.
It seems that in a very real sense, the model is potentially infinite, because it always has the capacity of containing far more than we consciously understand, because our consciousness exists within a subset of our neural capacity that resides within the boundaries of the model. And computationally, information wise, the subconscious model is vastly greater than our conscious capacity.

Thus, in a sense, it is exactly as you describe (experientially). And in the same sense as experientially we see the sun rise in the east, and go overhead then sink in the west, we experience the sun going around us, but in reality it is much more like the sun is sitting still (ish) and we are spinning round, giving the illusion of the sun going around. So too with consciousness.
Yes we do have those feelings of something like infinity and something like timelessness (very close approximations) and when one looks at them very closely, and experiments with them near their limits, and builds something of an understanding of the neurology and systems involved in brains, then it becomes clear that it is only something like infinite and timeless, not actual infinite and timeless.

So yes, I am all for getting in touch with that aspect of being human, and yes it is experientially as you describe, and the explanatory framework that you have for that set of experiences seems highly improbable to me.

One of the things I did many years ago was train myself to dive deep. That involved many different levels of disciplines, some metabolic, some behavioural, some anatomic, and some deeply meditative and contemplative.
One of the disciplines was a nightly practice of slowing breathing to as slow as I could go and still maintain some sort of awareness.
I did that using a square breathing technique, in for count, hold for count, out for count, hold for count, repeat. When I started I could only maintain about an 8 count. After four years of practice for at least an hour a day, I was out to 56 count.
Many times in those years I took it too far, and consciousness failed. As soon as consciousness failed, breathing returned to automatic, oxygen levels returned to somewhere near saturation, and consciousness would return. In other words, I would go unconscious then wake up a bit later on. After years of practice, I perfected the technique of maintaining consciousness right at the boundary of unconsciousness. It was a state devoid of sensory perception, visual systems, auditory systems, touch, smell, taste, – all had shut down. All that remained was an ability to count, and to estimate the regularity of that counting, and to initiate and regulate breath. Nothing else remained. For about a year I would get myself into that state for about an hour a night.
It is a very low energy state, a very low functioning state.

It is only one a very many states of consciousness and meditative disciplines I have practised over the years.

From that experience, and the experience of the many thousands of papers I have read on human physiology, psychology, neuro-chemistry, systems theory, evolution, set theory, generalised paradigm spaces, etc; it is clear to me that these experiences are the result of the structure of our brains, of the interaction of the many different systems, at many different levels, that allow us to be what we are.
And it seems that what we are is a very complex set of hardware and software systems, with an emergent set of levels of self awareness at the very top of a huge pyramid of systems, many of which are required if the top levels are to function at all, and some of which can be simulated and retrained in other ways if one is prepared to put in the work.

So I completely align with your experiences, I have something very similar. And I have a very different context within which I understand those experiences – a context devoid of “truth” and “certainty” – a context of probability, of vast infinite unknowns, of various classes of complexity, many of which are both infinite and unpredictable.
So my understanding is not at all common, and nor is it comprehensible to an understanding in which the idea of “truth” is anything more than a faerie tale one teaches to children, as a tool to help them through a particular stage of development.
Some people never get through that stage of development.
I am confident that you have past through that particular phase of development, and I am also confident that you do not yet have a paradigm set that allows you to share the sorts of paradigms that are my experiential reality.

And I am not making any claim that my particular state of development is any sort of end. Quite the contrary.
It seems clear to me that should I live the rest of eternity, learning at the same rate I have in the last 60 years, that I would still be infinitely more ignorant than I am knowledgeable – infinity is like that – just vast beyond imagining.

[followed by]

It is so hard to write words that give an indication of how things occur for me that have much likelihood of being interpreted something like what is intended.

For me, the idea of truth is an approximation of something that has a certain utility in a certain subset of types of complexity (the simpler classes) but really doesn’t apply to the more complex classes, and reality seems to contain many instances of these complex and chaotic systems.

Truth is a reasonable approximation to scales of our normal world, and with the simpler classes of complexity more common in ages past.

Different scales, different complexity, truth as a concept doesn’t make as much sense, doesn’t have as much utility.

I find it useful to spend as much time as possible in other paradigms.

For me, it’s not about truth, it is about utility, what seems likely to work in the conditions we seem very probably about to experience, which it seems to me will be unlike anything in history, ever. The old stories were useful approximations in times past, but just wont work in the very near future.
One of my prime focuses has been existential risks, and viable mitigation strategies.
We need as many people as possible, from as many historical perspectives as possible, able to bring useful intuitions to the coming reality.

The future holds great promise, and also great peril.
I am far more optimistic now than I was 40 years ago, and it is by no means a certain thing.
As a species, we need leaders, from all paradigms, capable of dealing with the sorts of complexity and novelty that rapidly approach, in ways that benefit all awareness.

[followed by]


Truth to me implies something knowable.
It seems clear to me that there are aspects of reality which are simply unknowable, that are what they are in any given instant, yet follow no hard predictable pattern in respect of either where or what they will be in the next instant (probability distributions yes, but not knowable). Truth seems to me to be a somewhat inadequate notion for such systems.

Truth to me implies a specificity that is simply not available in some classes of aspects of reality.

In this sense, it seems to me that the very notion of truth is illusory. It is a good working approximation for the sorts of things we normally deal with in the macroscopic human world, measured to accuracies of up to one part in a million or so. Beyond that it tends to break down.

For me, reality is a noun that encompasses what is.
Truth is a noun that relates to the degree of alignment of our model of reality with reality itself. Most people seem to take truth as meaning 100% alignment.
I think it highly improbable that anyone’s model is ever 100% aligned with reality. It seems to me that all models (understandings) are approximations.
So the notion of truth, which in the first instance comes from a simple binary distinction true/false, seems to me to be inappropriate to use in respect of reality generally, though it may be applicable to certain subsets (like computer programming). Its use seems to cause more confusion than clarity.

I much prefer to explicitly state that we are talking about probabilities of models aligning with some aspect of something, and the degrees of reliability one can expect of such alignment in different contexts and at different scales. (Not an easy concept for any sort of religious or scientific fundamentalist to get a grip of, not being based in a true/false dichotomy).

Then there is the whole idea that by the time we get to experience anything, it is already history (unless we are working from a model that is itself a projection, by a few tens or hundreds of milliseconds, of a probable future – which seems to be what our normal experiential reality actually is).

About Ted Howard NZ

Seems like I might be a cancer survivor. Thinking about the systemic incentives within the world we find ourselves in, and how we might adjust them to provide an environment that supports everyone (no exceptions) - see www.tedhowardnz.com/money
This entry was posted in Brain Science, Ideas, Nature, Our Future, Philosophy, Question of the Day and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to On consciousness, awareness and truth

  1. Pingback: Nature of Consciousness | Ted Howard NZ's Blog

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