Consciousness – A Physicalist Perspective

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.

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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.

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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.

6 thoughts on “Consciousness – A Physicalist Perspective

  1. Hi Ron,

    Enjoyed your post and your comments at Youtube. Keep fighting the good fight.
    I could have sworn Humphreys was not saying exactly that in Soul Dust, but maybe he was. I found the book a little wishy-washy if I remember and did not like him holding onto the word “soul.” Anyways, I think his emphasis that eliminating some of the aspects of what we think consciousness is, say ones that don’t fit into a representational structure, is a good move.

    But, again, like in the book, his ending annoys me as well. I do not think we have to continue seeing experience as a mystery, or to make the leap that that was why it evolved.

    I fully agree with saying that we need to get rid of some of what we ascribe to pain states (or to other conscious states). But if we explain the “illusion of pain,” of why and how we model pain as painful: then there is no mystery left, though of course there may still be pain. Even if we know it is some quirk of some nested model, it may always be painful from inside. There was not a “mystery” of pain being selected for; there was a representation of a “pain state” that tricked us into thoroughly caring about a piece of flesh in our brain/world model, and that was being selected for. That internal model, that somehow induces “pain” states, was being selected for.

    That makes his last thesis suspect. We do not have to say that “consciousness” was selected for because it allowed us to imagine the mysterious worlds of other creatures like us; we can essentially drop all that into representational talk. Modeling that I am in this (illusory) painful state allows me to create a model that you are in something similar. That model extension, given that I have this pain presentation you must be in a similar sort of state when you have similar behaviors, seems like a good enough explanation to me.

    Right, so there is no reason to continue to describe our selves as being placed at the “center of a mystery” and to think of “ourselves and others as spiritual beings.” Furthermore, that analysis feels more like what a misguided phenomenology encouraged religion and philosophy to proclaim about humans, not something that early conscious humans really were seeing the world as, or that we should continue to see the world like today. Most of our psychological emotions come not from seeing our selves and other selves spiritually, the common psychological profiles of most pack mammals have similar emotions and feelings, it seems. Humans have extended our psychological profiles and our entanglement with other society members through our reflective capacities, and some of that may come from awe and fear of great oblivion, but it seems like a stretch to center consciousness and the arising of consciousness on such mysterious origins.

    Alright, I rambled too long. Thanks for the heads up on the video.


    1. Hi Lyndon, welcome.

      I appreciate this perspective may not be that of Nicholas Humphreys. I find most philosophers and scientists don’t try to be specific about what consciousness is in physical terms. Of course these ideas, about the brain’s inability to detect its own activity giving rise to the feeling of being a free floating ‘dualist’ mind, are entirely speculative on my part. But for me they offer a reasonable understanding of what consciousness is – more a potential hypothesis, though I’m not sure how to test it.

      I’ve not read the book. But I agree the use of terms like ‘soul’ has to be done with great caution. While the dualist terms we’re used to are adequate for expressing the illusive nature of the brain’s behaviour in every day language we need to be careful about using them when we are trying to pin down consciousness, mind, free will. Philosophers are very good at writing books that imply they’re going to give answers, but the best they usually do is reframe existing ideas, and if you’re lucky introduce you to one or two you hadn’t come across. Dan Dennette is about the best philosopher on consciousness, but I disagree with some of his opinions, particularly regarding free will – I’m not a compatibilist.

      I agree with you about ‘models’. That’s a most important concept. This empirical brain that has started to see itself as primarily a thinking thing makes models of the world and of itself. In a way we ought to realise that there is no other possibility. We model a car with sketches; and then technical drawings, plastic models, working scale models, …, until our models are no longer models but an actual car. Every seemingly identical car that rolls of a production is also a model of the prototype, and of the simpler models. Everything that represents something else or is being represented can be considered both as the model or the thing being modelled, and only our perspective determines which it is. We draw a flower and the drawing is a model of the flower, but each flower is an emergent model of its ancestors, each slightly imperfect. The nearest thing to a ‘perfect’ model, or simulation, is the thing in itself.

      “… there is no reason to continue to describe our selves as being placed at the “center of a mystery” and to think of “ourselves and others as spiritual beings.” Furthermore, that analysis feels more like what a misguided phenomenology encouraged religion and philosophy to proclaim about humans … Most of our psychological emotions come not from seeing our selves and other selves spiritually”

      Might thoughts go along similar lines. Here are my specific ideas about how we ended up with philosophy and religion having such a dominant role in our ideas. It may have been inevitable that we started out that way, but it’s time to move on: Thought v Experience.

  2. “If subjective experience-consciousness were biologically meaningful – other animals would have it.”

    Why? That would presume that evolution in various animals (including humans) had reached some ‘designed’ end-point, or that evolutionary processes are guaranteed to result in some optimal solution (always perceived with hindsight, by humans).

    It may be the case that this self-reflective self-aware form of conscious experience tends to co-evolve with language – language of some sort, that is more complex than communication in other animals.

    But none of that detracts from the idea that all brains evolve as physical processing systems, some of which (whether language is a necessity or not) evolve to perform a greater amount of internal self-monitoring and self-control through what we perceive as cognitive functions.

    1. Look, you are arguing for a cultural myth. Fine. Where’s the peer-reviewed bench science to support the statements? Simple.

      So, according to this argument, either animals are self-reflective without language and how the heck would that work, or humans have this unique ability which descended from no other animals species or biological process. That makes no sense.

  3. Sorry this is so late. Just spotted your comment whilw reviwing.

    “animals are self-reflective without language and how the heck would that work”

    I don’t know. Our failure to come up with an exlanation does not rule out this possibility.

    “humans have this unique ability which descended from no other animals species or biological process.”

    That presumes it’s a binary feature, we have it or not. The problem is that we have no living intermediary living examples. What was Neanderthal consciousness like? To what extent did they have language? We have this massive gap between us and our cousin apes. They have self-awareness, but very limited language abilities (there are disputes over what constitutes language – e.g. people like Pinker on Sue Savage-Rumbaugh work with Kanzi).

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