There’s a Youtube video put out by the RI that sees Professor Nicholas Humphrey contemplating the nature of human consciousness.
Here’s the video: The Magic of Consciousness.
Some commenters seem to have trouble understanding how consciousness, and the mind, can be explained by physical processes when the subjective experience is screaming at them that the mind and consciousness are not physical at all. This incredulity extends so far that Deepak Chopra adds his twopenneth; and I suspect that it’s this incredulity, along with his interest in mysticism generally, that has driven his ideas that consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe. So, maybe Feng Shui works because setting your grand piano facing south makes it a happy conscious piano? Are piano keys always happy to be the keys of a piano? These are the things you have to think about if Deepak Chopra is to be taken seriously.
I’ll wait for Deepak Chopra to do some science that actually demonstrates this thing consciousness that does not amount to mere subjective perception of one’s own consciousness and the subsequent presumption that others have minds too. Because our own personal experience is all that we have to indicate that consciousness is a phenomenon at all.
If you watch the video you’ll see that Nicholas uses the example of the impossible triangle optical illusion. He refers to the 3-D model of the 2-D impossible triangle, as explained and displayed in this source:
Perceptual Illusions and Brain Models (2 pages).
Gregory: “There are purely optical illusions, where light from the object to the eye is bent by reflection (mirrors) or by refraction (the bent-stick-in-water effect, and mirages).”
But some optical illusions are actually mental illusions, illusions of mental perception. Gregory: “The Poggendorff illusion figure (1860). The straight line crossing the rectangle appears displaced.” The optical properties of the figure do not change as we look at the figure with a ruler along the line, to show it is continuous, or without the ruler, when our brains perceive it as displaced.
The impossible triangle was traditionally presented as a 2-D drawing of an imagined 3-D figure. Gregory: “The impossible triangle (FIG. 9) (L. S. Penrose and R. Penrose 1958) cannot be seen as an object lying in normal three-dimensional space.” But Gregory presents us with a 3-D model that can be perceived as the impossible triangle from certain positions. We’ll get back to that perception and how it relates to the illusion of consciousness. This is the model used by Nicholas in the RI video.
We’ll get back to the impossible triangle and its relation to the illusion of consciousness. First, consider the nature of self-awareness, and the subjective view we have of our own minds.
The brain is a self-monitoring system – as are many animals, biological subsystems, and computer systems.
Part of a typical computer’s embedded software monitors signals that represent measures of its own CPU temperature, and if the temperature approaches a value that endangers the CPU the software can fire outputs that shut down the computer. So, if a failed computer fan, or a blocked vent, prevent the cooling system working, this self-monitoring system can protect the CPU. We have mechanisms that are similar in principle but are far more complex that cause us to pull away from hot objects, or to remove clothing when overheated, or to reason about turning down the heating in the house. Computer systems that propel themselves also have to self-monitor: the vacuum cleaners enjoyed as motor vehicles by Youtube cats; or Google’s self-drive cars. Simple brained animals are some way between these computers and humans, performing very complex tasks that integrate monitoring the environment, self-monitoring their own internal states and behaviours, and modifying those states and behaviours in order to achieve some goal – such as satisfying the demands of yet other automatic sub-systems such as the hunger mechanism.
In monitoring itself the brain cannot detect or ‘feel’ the individual neurons clicking away, or the rush of neurochemicals at synapses. It has a different higher level model of itself, that probably, for reasons of evolutionary efficiency, has no need for the fine detail of individual neuronal activity. The result is that the brain has evolved and developed to create a model of itself, which it perceives as the mind. And because it cannot detect the physical detail of its neurons it feels, to itself, as if it is just a free floating mind – it has created its own illusion of being a separate mind, free of its own physical material. The brain responds to chemical activity induced by bodily and other brain functions as emotions. Millennia of philosophy and theology that didn’t understand the neuronal nature of the brain have run with this mind model as if the mind is a real but immaterial entity.
Nicholas refers to the problem of appreciating what pain is, in physical terms. In the illusion of being a detached mind the brain perceives pain as signals. Pain signals are distinguished from non-pain signals by their frequency and not their amplitude. That the brain translates this into a subjective measure that we (or I, where ‘I’ IS the brain as a collective system) experience is no more than the brain’s self-aware ‘mind’ model of the pain stimulus.
So, that’s my basis for tying the ‘mind’ as an illusion to the physical brain that fits with everything in science that demonstrates that physical naturalism works and is therefore a reasonable model of the universe as a whole, and a reasonable model for our consciousness as a brain process.
There appears to remain the issue of this distinction, between the actual world that we perceive and our perception of it, the difference between pain neuronal signals and the perception of pain that doesn’t carry any of the detail of the pain signals – the ‘qualia’ of pain. Personally I don’t see a problem with this. The neurons process action potentials, but the whole brain decodes this as pain sensations. They are different modes, different levels of data.
What’s the alternative? What evidence is there, any scientific evidence, or anything at all other than a subjective feeling, that the mind exists as some immaterial entity, or that consciousness is not an illusion? I don’t think there is any. If you examine claims made by dualists like Chopra, and the naysayers of physicalism that have nothing but uncomfortable incredulity to go by, then you’ll find that they are referring to yet more mental gymnastics that can be incorporated into the same illusory mind model.
So, how does the impossible triangle fit in? The thing is, the impossible triangle of this video is external to the brain. We can change perspective to reveal the error of our perception. The triangle doesn’t change physically – so the ‘optical’ illusion is in the brain, as a mental perceptual illusion. When we change perspective our ‘optically stimulated’ mental illusion is broken. We cannot do this with the brain’s illusion of consciousness and mind. We are stuck with the introspective subjective perspective, of perceiving a mind at work. We cannot change our perspective to reveal the mental illusion that we think is the free mind and its conscious experience. Instead, we use science and reason to figure out that it’s an illusion.