“You could even say that we’re all hallucinating all the time. It’s just that when we agree about our hallucinations, that’s what we call reality.” Anil Seth (Being You, p. 75)
Science books exploring what it means for humans to be conscious have typically been a hard slog. I first read Douglas Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Gödel, Escher, Bach, a notorious head-scratcher, back in the 1970s when I was coding then-new computer graphics applications for an automobile manufacturer (think the earliest Star Wars movie level of Death Star “wireframe” graphic crudeness).
In a sense, all human writing is a simplified model of a more complex reality, especially when it is describing something as complex as consciousness. Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid (Basic Books, 1979) is a very strange read of imagined conversations between characters like the ancient/mythical Greeks Zeno and Achilles with the fabled Tortoise, plus word experiments with the computer science concept of recursion. In recursion, a small set of computer code “calls itself” to elegantly traverse complex data structures like trees and other hierarchies. For instance, my own programmed graphics in the 1970s were models of automobile assembly processes, which were, in turn, collections of smaller graphic entities, which were themselves collections of smaller entities, which were…
With recursion traversing that graphic hierarchy, you can display as little or as much detail as your computer hardware can handle with one simple set of code. Hofstadter re-visited this topic in 2007 with I Am a Strange Loop (Basic Books, 2007), in which he explains consciousness as a brain-generated recursion that creates an emergent phenomenon he compares to the model of audio feedback. There is a unique and unpredictable frequency at which every audio system I have ever worked with will crash out into an unnerving squeal when pushed. Audio feedback often appears to have no single source. Rather, it just “feels” everywhere at once; it “just is” an emergent thing unto itself. Such is consciousness, according to Hofstadter, where the complex human brain is watching itself watch itself watch itself…his “strange loop.”
Neuroscientist and philosopher Daniel Dennett’s 1991 book Consciousness Explained (Little, Brown and Co, 1991) was also groundbreaking, but enough of a slog that it was jokingly called “Consciousness UNexplained.” Dennett, along with Karl Friston, pioneered the idea of the brain as a kind of “probability inference engine” that is constantly evaluating scenarios ahead of their occurrence using multiple and parallel streams of data from our senses, as well as past memories thrown into the input mix. The brain creates “multiple drafts” of a future, from which it then selects the best route to survival, probabilistically through “neuron voting.” The most consistent winners of this evolutionary bet survive long enough to propagate.
Being You: A New Science of Consciousness
Anil Seth is a British professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience who has written the most accessible book on the current state of neuroscience research that I have yet read. He comes from the same school of thought as Dennett and Friston, with a touch of Hofstadter. To Seth, the experience of consciousness is a “controlled hallucination.” The brain is constructing its “best guess” of the critical factors in the world outside, and inside, our bodies, in a science-based version of Paul of Tarsus’s “seeing through a glass, darkly.”
Dennett drew attention for tearing down the notion that our conscious experience is some kind of “Cartesian theater,” were we “see an internal movie screen” directly corresponding to what our eyes and ears are experiencing, like a crane operator peering out through our eyeball “cameras.” Each of our senses, in Dennett’s view, is just feeding partial data streams that our brains then must make (ahem) “sense of” in order to survive. Our vision is limited in distance and perceives frequencies only in a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Our ears “hear” only a tiny part of the audio spectrum. And our nose is a weak competitor against the smell perception of any beagle.
Using all those partial data streams taken together, in this view of consciousness, our brain generates a “hallucination,” in Seth’s words, that is “good enough” for our species to survive and propagate to the next generation (so far). We have optimized our senses over millions of years of evolution, although not necessarily at the 2022-optimum level. And if you and I agree on the hallucination, Seth says, we call that “reality,” even though we know, upon introspection, that it is but a small observed subset of the worlds around us.
Consciousness versus wakefulness
The author is careful to parse apart the difference between being awake and being conscious. One can be asleep but still dreaming, which is a form of consciousness. He points to different brain functions, and even physical brain areas, controlling each phenomenon.
Alternatively, under anesthesia, you are in a state that is not really sleep, and usually not at all conscious. Consciousness appears related to how different parts of the brain communicate with each other, this loop of one part of the brain “watching” another part, which can also “watch” other parts. This process gets chemically interrupted when we are under the control of the anesthesiologist.
Is your red the same as my red?
Daniel Dennett popularized the term qualia to describe this “hard problem” of how the color red “feels” to our conscious self, versus its uninteresting electromagnetic frequency on the spectrum. Is “red” the same experience for you as it is for me? Anil Seth takes this stab at describing qualia:
“An experience of pure redness is the way that it is, not because of any intrinsic property of “redness,” but because red is not blue, green, or any other color, or any smell, or a thought or a feeling of regret or indeed any other form of mental content whatsoever. Redness is redness because of all the things it isn’t, and the same goes for all other conscious experiences.” (p. 49)
Karl Friston’s “Free Energy”
Probably a much too confusing descriptor coined by noted neuroscientist Karl Friston, Anil Seth tackles Friston’s controversial “free energy” concept of brain function by suggesting that we have but one “conscious experience” at a time, and its evolutionary purpose to narrow down all the potential uncertainty, the “prediction errors” facing us. Friston’s “free energy” is, according to Seth, the “hard physics” equivalent of prediction errors, which any organism must minimize in order to survive. “Every conscious experience,” Seth says, “therefore delivers a massive reduction of uncertainty…And reduction of uncertainty is—mathematically—what is meant by ‘information.’” (p. 48)
This takes us back to the theme of our brains being probability processors that bear an uncanny resemblance to “Bayesian” decision-making, a statistical technique named after the British clergyman and amateur mathematician Thomas Bayes (1701?–1761)). I have written about this model before in the context of both our tendency to bad habits as well as more recently in how to process conflicting coronavirus vaccine information.
According to this model, our brain’s apparent choice/volition is really our experience of “watching” our brain process all it knows and gathers in these data streams as massively-parallel neuron-voting “prior probabilities” that determine our actions. If we guess correctly and capture our prey out on Africa’s savanna, or if we miss the mark today and spill our coffee while reaching for it, our experience gets remembered and fed back into improving our shot at success the next time around.
Seth takes a shot at describing the brain processes that appear to act like Bayesian reasoning. He writes, “By minimizing prediction errors everywhere and all the time, it turns out that the brain is actually implementing Bayes’ rule. More precisely, it is approximating Bayes’ rule.” (p. 89) Choice, then, is a Bayesian “best guess” that you are watching in progress, more than an intentional “on/off” switch under the control of some “little person” inside your head. The author edits René Descartes (1596–1650) here: “I predict myself, therefore I am.”
I have written in the past that the while many religious people not of a Fundamentalist bent have reconciled their faith to the realities of a billions-years-old evolutionary Earth, even the most liberal Christians usually believe in “mind-body dualism,” which gets seriously challenged in most brain research. We feel deeply that we have a soul or some other conscious entity that is somehow separate from our body, and in many religious faiths, both precedes us and outlives us. Neuroscience generally assumes that the “mind” is a product of the physical brain. Anil Seth touches on this perception of “soul” without tackling it head-on. He writes:
“What we might call the “soul” in this view is the perceptual expression of a deep continuity between mind and life. It is the experience we have when we encounter the deepest levels of embodied selfhood—these inchoate feelings of “just being”—as really existing.” (p. 155)
Daniel Dennett has long tried to parse the difficult line between what Seth calls “controlled hallucination” and “not real.” In a 2020 podcast he asserted that free will is “just as real as such other human creations as music and money.” Anil Seth takes a similar tack:
“It is also a mistake to call the experience of volition an illusion. These experiences are perceptual best guesses, as real as any other kind of conscious perception, whether of the world or of the self. A conscious intention is as real as a visual experience of color.” (p. 178)
Back to that opening quote, I think I have figured out that perhaps “good people disagree” precisely because half of the country’s “controlled hallucinations” are not matching my own “reality.” I still like the more poetic description of reality from the late songwriter John Stewart’s 1973 album Cannons in the Rain:
“Don Quixote’s windmills were giants in his eyes;
To see things as they really are, it can only make you wise.”
Some nostalgia here for of the “state of the art” of graphics technology when Douglas Hofstadter was writing Gödel, Escher, Bach in the 1970s and I was programming automobile assembly animations. Most of the “Death Star” scenes in the first Star Wars film, released in 1977, were created using a physical miniature model. However, one film sequence did show a “wireframe” attack scenario, which actually took many hours of computer processing time in those days. The math involved here, however, is quite “elegantly simple,” and if you can imagine rotating an object in your head (a staple question on college entrance exams), your brain has figured out the algorithm as well.
- Seth, Anil. Being You: A New Science of Consciousness (Dutton, 2021).