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“Is Consciousness a Controlled Hallucination?”

In this new video from 8/25/2021, philosophers Philip Goff and Keith Frankish discuss consciousness with neuroscientist Anil Seth, whose new book is Being You: A New Science of Consciousness (which I have not read yet). Following are my comments on the first half of the video:

Jumping right in from the first few minutes, I have some questions, criticisms and insights that are worth mentioning. My apologies for the long winded, irritatingly constructed sentences that probably detract from what I’m trying to say more than clarify, but it’s important to me that I communicate the nuances in excruciating detail. Maybe someone or some AI internet archive spider will find it interesting in fifty years.

8:45 (Anil Seth) “Everything that we perceive is an active construction. It’s generated by the brain.”

Has this been tested and found to be conclusively true, or is it an assumption + confirmation bias? How do we know that what we perceive is not an active filtration or modulation of access to other contexts of consciousness (transpersonal, subpersonal, etc)? How do we know it is active construction rather than participatory collaboration?
What is the physical mechanism by which “the brain” (the whole organ? neurons? molecular changes within neurons?) “generates” (Explanatory Gap/Hard Problem goes here) these “constructions” (sights, sounds, flavors, thoughts…call them qualia)?

Note: *Importantly, anything we refer to as a brain is also only known as qualia, by qualia, for qualia. A brain is an object rendered in our sense of touch, an image rendered in our sense of sight, an idea rendered in our sense of understanding. We have no valid reason to presume objects to be anything other than shared or universal qualia. To the contrary, even the physicalist/eliminative position demands that everything that we experience and can ever experience, including all physical phenomena, can only ever be a representation of conditions inside of a (literally meta-physical) program or biochemical virtual “function space”. If physicalism is right, we can never contact physics in any way and are forever trapped in some kind of Platonic cave of computations that only seem physical, or only seem like computations, or only seem to seem…or something.

9:28 (AS) “My perceptions have the characteristic phenomenology – they appear the way they appear because that’s useful for my overall survival as an organism.”

My argument against this is that it is clearly a “Just So story”, that is, a post-hoc justification of appearances without being based on any plausible a priori possibility of a capacity to generate appearances physically, let alone for any such thing to provide a possibility of survival advantage over the ordinary complex physical activities of other body systems that we presume do not generate appearances and would not improve as a result of them. 1

Indeed, it seems quite implausible that of all phenomena that have come to exist in the universe, only these certain groups of cells in certain organic bodies have this unexplained physical power to generate non-physical appearances…to themselves…that bear some isomorphic relation to everything else in the universe…that actually has no appearance at all.

The entire physical universe is, under the contemporary neuroscientific view that Seth advocates, without appearance – an invisible, intangible, unexperienced void that spontaneously acquires a monumentally grand variety of distinct, multisensory appearances when certain very specific kinds of biochemical events occur in certain sequences. But how? And Why?

Given the staggeringly effective abilities of a simple periodic table of atoms generated by simple stars to physically generate and maintain every organism, every immune system, every brain structure and function without any such thing as appearance, why would this virtual dashboard “appearance”, within which a hallucinated “user” of such hallucinated dashboards also virtually “appears”, offer any improved chance of survival to a reproducing body of cells? There are neurons in the gut too. What is our theory for how and why these systems of cells would not benefit by creating hallucinated ‘constructions’ for…their mission critical activities (or is it for their constructed ‘selves’)?

9:40 (AS) “Redness is not objectively out there in the world. There’s just wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation”

The problem here is that our expectation of electromagnetic radiation, and of a world, and of objectivity would also have to be constructions. Our sense of a physical reality that has no appearance and can never be contacted in any way, must also be a construction. No matter how much science we do, and how objectively we think we are being, we can only ever validate our sense constructions by more constructed appearances of relation between theories (intellectual constructions) about observations (meta-perceptual constructions derived from multiple similar perceptual constructions). You can’t have it both ways. If consciousness is constructed, then every sense of correspondence between constructions is also constructed. We can’t put ourselves in a hallucinatory box without that box also being hallucinatory.

10:19 (AS) “In some conditons, like under psychedelic drugs or in psychosis, whatever, your perceptions become less controlled by the relevant sensory data.”

Is it always less controlled, or do altered states of consciousness sometimes appear to open access to sensory data that is controlled by different, but no less controlling features of reality beyond physical appearance constructions? Some of that data may be in conflict to some extent with our default conditioning, and even physical causality, but not always. Psychedelics and psychosis are sometimes tied to genius insights and unusually high performance (Doc Ellis’s LSD No-Hitter as an example). Transpersonal/psychedelic appearances may defy ordinary personal and subpersonal control, but that does not mean that the defiance is not simply another, perhaps higher2 context of control. There may be conflict and chaos between modes and scales of awareness, and that is fairly described as ‘uncontrolled’, but it need not imply that what is bleeding through personal awareness is not also a form of highly developed awareness. By analogy, two strong, clear radio station signals may be received by one receiver as a garbled confusion of two signals and static. In addition, examples like Doc Ellis’ psychedelic no-hitter present a counterfactual data point to the hypothesis that it is always adaptive for hallucinations to tend to resemble physical conditions and causes.

11:51 AS makes an important point about prediction not always being about predicting the future, but rather we might also refer to perceptual fill-in of missing data ‘prediction’. What needs more attention, IMO is the wholeness or gestalt of the appearance. A simulacra such as a face appearing in a cloud does not appear to be filling in something as a computer would try many different possible solutions, rather one solution or another appears in its entirety at any given moment. While the neuroscientific view focuses on the information processing function of suppressing ambiguity, the more interesting issue to me to focus on is what that ambiguity is replaced with – seemingly complete and aesthetically rich presentations that are revealed in a finished form rather than constructed over time, as if being pulled from some eternal Akashic gallery of archetypes. It seems to make no difference whether the gestalt is from memory or novel as far as the level of detail of its completeness or the speed in which it is accessed. When I see the Mona Lisa in the image below, it is ephemeral yet persistent, and neither fuzzy nor focused.

uncredited image from the internet

In the case of novel gestalts (such as a weird, non-famous face in slice of toast), the fill-in would appear to have no value or a negative value to abductive reasoning (~13:12). The simulacra toast face does not lead us to an explanation of a physical cause of that sensation. Note that our early advances in artificial image recognition do not produce these kinds of prefabricated gestalts, but rather just the opposite.

See my writings here for more information.

In fact, without the side by side comparison, the digitized output of Bayesian-like backpropagation does not really resemble an image. It is an anti-simulacra…a source of potential recognition strategies, but what is being recognized is not a visible image, but invisible statistics. Why, if Anil Seth’s view is on the right track, do our guesses and predictions look like they are coming from ‘somewhere’, rather than from nowhere?

The conversation continues into describing the role of prediction for both biology and consciousness. There is no question that human personal consciousness uses Bayesian-like probabilistic methods of accessing what I would call subpersonal data, but whether that data is simply another layer of conscious experience or an unexperienced biochemical process remains untouched by neuroscientific inquiry. Yes, our perception certainly can model to predict something evolutionarily functional (red octagon = Stop sign) but that does not explain what the appearance of color or shape actually is, how it appears, or why. Retrospectively, once we have qualia/appearances, then sure, we have every reason to benefit against natural selection pressures by using them, but we would have the same reason to benefit from any power that transcends ordinary physics. Omniscience would come in handy, and it’s just as likely to emerge spontaneously from physics as any sort of qualia.

The retrospective benefit of prediction does not in any way prospectively justify the existence of qualia or its value for prediction over and above biochemistry. Everything that Anil is saying is important to the easy problem of consciousness, and it gives us a plausible connection between evolved Bayesian prediction mechanisms and evolutionary biology, but it doesn’t give us any insight into how either of those mechanical-anesthetic functions could relate to phenomenological (aesthetic-participatory) presentations, or the possibility of their being generated physically or mathematically. Philip makes this point later on, around ~21:00, that the predictive features of consciousness are neutral as far as dualism v materialism is concerned.

Although Anil goes on to say that his materialism is pragmatic rather than an absolute philosophical conviction, he does not really seem to support that. Instead his defense of pragmatic materialism seems more tied to a preference for working with brain function rather than metaphysical speculation. I don’t disagree, but it’s not an argument that defends materialism objectively. It is of course more pragmatic professionally to know about the brain than it is to know about the big picture of life, the universe, and everything, but that doesn’t make it more true. As he continues around ~28:00, it seems clear to me that his rejection of Dualism (which I reject as well, but for the opposite reason3) is itself a kind of naive rejection of a straw man of Dualism, it’s history and popular association with the harmful behaviors of religious groups, etc. It’s a pedantic, and overused disqualification of all things non-material on general grounds of being ‘unhelpful’ and silly seeming. I think that there are good evolutionary reasons for that bias toward matter and by extension survival of the material body, but it is an unscientific bias nonetheless.

Around 33:45, Keith asks Anil about realism and privacy. His response includes “Buses have qualities, properties such as solidity and velocity that do not rely on a mind to exist.”

Here I would say that we only know that those physical properties do not require our mind to exist, but we do not know that such properties are anything other than other properties of consciousness. Perhaps there are impersonal qualities of conscious experience that are common to certain contexts and modalities of sense that have become nearly universal. If our sense of physicality is derived from our haptic-tactile sensitivity and perceptual processing, then it makes sense evolutionarily that the appearance of our body and it’s existence in a world of bodies/objects/matter is rendered with robust realism. That physical universe that our bodies exist within may be the sole common context that binds all experiences together, however that universe may in turn be dependent on a larger context of a universal haptic-tactile sense capacity that prefigures biology, and which may be dependent on a still larger context of an irreducibly aesthetic Totality or Holos.

The discussion goes on to mention Donald Hoffman’s Interface theory, where Anil comments that he parts ways at the point where Hoffman’s view suggests conscious agents everywhere. I call this ‘promiscuous panpsychism’ and agree that it seems unparsimonious – however – I see agency itself as irreducibly qualitative, so that it need not be a prerequisite for qualia. I propose that the universe may exist as an experiential phenomenon prior to a robust sense of agency, and that qualities like redness, or visibility itself may exist as modes of awareness independent of any container of multiple other types of awareness. Something like subjectivity may develop from more primitive sensory-motive qualities, which we may have mistakenly conceived of in non-participatory terms such as electromagnetism. In other words, the sense of being a participant may evolve from pre-agent experiential-aesthetic phenomena of “motive” or “participation”. It may be that agency is nothing more than a sense experience of persistent separation from of multiple other sense experiences.

I think that Anil is wise in stating at ~43:22 that his view does not insist that qualia must be reduced exclusively to behaviors, dispositions, and functions. He goes on to say that he thinks that the self is not a separate entity as in Dualism, but is just another controlled hallucination. I agree with that, however, if we follow the reasoning to its logical conclusion, Seth is saying that it is the brain that is hallucinating itself as a self, rather than as a brain appearance. This to me is arbitrary and inconsistent. If the self is a phenomenological model of something, then so must the brain be also – and physics. Whatever it is that hallucinates both physics, brains, and selves cannot be meaningfully described as physical, and the whole notion of hallucination begins to unravel itself. Neither self nor brain has any reason to hallucinate, and if hallucination is more primitive than either of those, there is no reason to diminish it in hallucinatory terms. If my suggestion of universal qualia is on the right track, that would be the more fundamental reality, or even more fundamental than reality as it encompasses fact, fiction, nonsense and qualia in which all three can comingle as well as transcended.

More that I agree with after the 50:00 mark, Anil talks about the brain being fundamentally an organ concerned with keeping the body alive. The problem is that view doesn’t offer any explanation of how that function would be so different from that of any other body organ or system that it would allow its predictive, homeostatic strategies to be anything other than the biochemical gears and timers that we observe them to physically be. What makes the homeostasis of a body any more worthy of non-physical aesthetic seemings and hallucinations than any other system within a body? The immune system has to record and strategize against pathogens, shouldn’t it also have evolved feelings, thoughts, sounds, etc to model its games and meta-games?

After the 57:00, Philip brings up Free Will and the extreme positions of Determinism vs Libertarian Free Will. Here again, Anil’s response is a fall back to cliched arguments from incredulity; “Not even wrong”, “Not the kind of argument that warrants…” These aren’t valid objections. They might be true, but you have to provide a reason why. How you feel about it isn’t relevant. “What could that possibly mean?” he asks at 58:39…”Without invoking some sort of thing that has causal agency…” “I have no need for that hypothesis”.

Except that you do need some kind of hypothesis for how you can purport to have authority to decide what hypotheses you need in the first place. What is this “you” that the brain puppet on the screen speaks of? How can it have opinions or change them?

I understand Anil’s line of objection as I used to think of free will in the same way for many years. I reasoned that we have no choice but to make the ‘best’ choice we are aware is possible. After flipping my physicalist worldview many years ago however, I see the limitations of that assumption. While I completely agree with determinists and neuroscientists who point to our shockingly bad estimation of the independence of our will from subconscious influences, I no longer see that as a valid reason to eliminate some measure of direct personal agency as a legitimate influence on its own.

For example, sure, I can connect up a device to someone’s brain and zap them into making their arm move. If I zap it just right, they will think that they have made it move, but if we follow the causal chain back from the zap, it is my personal agency that is clicking the button to override their personal agency. In addition to chronically overestimating our own sense of free will, I see that we also chronically underestimate it, and that human beings routinely demonstrate remarkably unprecendented acts of creativity – inventing their own new choices rather than simply following the nudgings of their default brain states.

This gets into a much deeper discussion into the fabric of causality, which in my view can be understood in a radically new way. To use a metaphor of a traffic light, where Anil Seth’s view might reduce a Yellow (“Caution”) traffic signal to a slightly more complicated flow chart of Red and Green deterministic calculations (How fast am I going? How long has the light been Yellow? etc) and other more subtle calculations (“That car on the right looks like it’s going too fast to clear the intersection”, “I can’t be late for this appointment”, etc), we have to ask why those computations would require some sort of experience of seeming to wield authority over the final edit of decision and the rather Promethean-seeming power of motor execution. Why wouldn’t the choice just happen without an “us”? Why would it be a choice rather than simply an arbitrarily next step in a series of generic computations? What feels proprietary about the final execution choice, and why? What feels responsible and endeavors to make others act responsibly?

I propose a different view of causality as a spectrum of overlapping interdependencies of influence. In the absolute sense, it is not will that is the illusion, but determinism and randomness. Will may be the authentic primordial phenomenon while mechanism and chaos are artifacts of interface entropy/insensitivity. What we see in the behavior of quantum phenomena for example may not be anything other than deeply microphenomenal will, or the distant ancestor of will. Not random, and not the Green Light / Red Light of determinism. Instead of reducing the Yellow Light to a flow chart of Green and Red dichotomies, I flip the assumption and see Green and Red dichotomies as the approximated appearances – collapsed states of Yellow light experiences of will that are not directly accessible to our interface. I’m not suggesting a kind of panpsychism where every electron is agonizing over their destiny like Hamlet, but rather that what we see as an electron is itself only a reflection of many contexts of experience that are ultimately united in superposition of both ‘to be’ and ‘not to be’…the eternal and the eternally ephemeral.

I observe that the strong nature of the objections to taking personal will as ontologically distinct from other influences as, ironically, a reflection of the particular modes of sense and sense-making that we have learned to use and cherish from legacy of scientific Enlightenment thinking. Ironic because we are using our free will to choose to deny free will. Could anything else even have the power to deny itself sincerely? Once we drop the anthropocentric and biocentric bias from our understanding of sense, we no longer have a reason to assume that the haptic-tactile sense of a physical world is the sole authoritative context within which reality is defined. That sense, as well as visibility, may only be specialized modalities of objectifying and separating, so that it would be a category error to look to them to find evidence of will. Will is at the opposite end of the continuum of sense – the most intimate and least objectified influence on reality. You won’t find it in a microscope or photomultiplier. What we do find in our experiments with photomultipliers, however, defy any reasonable expectation of randomness or determinism, proving again and again to be more than either…more like the Yellow Light than either the Red/Green of determinism or the arbitrary blinking of both. It appears to be “uncertainty” all the way down, so how is that not will? If it is will or proto-will, why should we be the sole phenomenon in the universe who posses only an illusion of it?

I’ll stop here at the 1:00:00 mark for now. Will continue watching the second half and post my comments soon. Or I won’t! Depends on what I decide, and what reasons I choose, of the many that influence me from the subpersonal, personal, and transpersonal levels of my awareness to place above other influences. No matter how few degrees of freedom I really have, just the sense that I exist at all, and that will is even conceivable objectively contain more degrees of freedom than a universe in which those experiences/phenomena do not exist.

Part 2 of this is here.

1 See Raymond Tallis excellent book “Aping Mankind“, chapter “The Disappearance of Appearance”. I have also lifted the terms prospective and retrospective from his writing on this topic.

2 More aesthetically rich, seemingly more meaningful, multivalent, synchronistic, and often seemingly more teleologically driven.

3 In my understanding, Dualism is insufficient not because of any ties to superstition or fantasy, but because it doesn’t go far enough, and because I think that Locke and Galileo made a mistake in giving objectified qualia Primary status, relegating trans-tangible and intangible qualia Secondary status for centuries to come. Unlike physical or mathematical law, aesthetic qualia are conserved across all context of realism and surrealism. Even under synesthesia, a word or number may have a color, but the color and the word are merely bound together, not indistinguishable. Red is red whether we are dreaming, hallucinating, or wide awake. Whether visible wavelength photons are present or not. Most qualia is conserved across states of consciousness but many physical laws are not. I may dream of a physical world where gravitational laws are unstable or anti-realistic, but I cannot dream of a world where the color red has no visible appearance.

  1. August 27, 2021 at 5:11 am

    Around seven years of age, I remember having some of these thoughts. I also remember thinking how we know we’re awake, for even in dreams, there are feelings and color, and might the waking state be just a more streamlined dream. How could we know. If one goes by the intellect, one can reason any way one decides, which explains the myriad of obsessions people have (i.e. diseases, aliens, germaphobes, and more….). But I think that kind of thing comes from disturbances inside a person finding strange ways of outlook, and often, from people having too much time on their hands and not following responsibilities. Just some thoughts. **One other thing: I remember a teenager asking such questions and I asked “What’s the point?”

    • August 27, 2021 at 8:34 pm

      It may well be the case that philosophy is the product of idle hands, and that being preoccupied with mundane affairs leads to a life that is happier and more meaningful, however, some of us don’t seem to be presented with that option.

  2. August 27, 2021 at 3:59 pm

    Truly brilliant and inspired writing, Craig. I especially love this:

    “I flip the assumption and see Green and Red dichotomies as the approximated appearances – collapsed states of Yellow light experiences of will that are not directly accessible to our interface. I’m not suggesting a kind of panpsychism where every electron is agonizing over their destiny like Hamlet, but rather that what we see as an electron is itself only a reflection of many contexts of experience that are ultimately united in superposition of both ‘to be’ and ‘not to be’…the eternal and the eternally ephemeral.”

    The metaphor of the yellow light in relationship to the green and red, seems both fitting and telling. Fitting for an analogy to quantum physics, and telling as a parallel to polarized thinking we see so much of these days. Perhaps too, any and all learning that we are capable of depends upon the yellow light mode in which we pause, or reflect on whatever decision or conclusion we might come to.

    On another note, it seems to me that anytime we might propose to know the nature of something, there at least needs to be some or thing or state to serve as a comparison. How we define “hallucination” depends on whatever our notion of reality is, both of which assume our access to enough knowledge to be able to make the comparison. That assumption, as you point out, contradicts the claim that we’re hallucinating, and that we have access to some pure and absolute notion of the totality of reality, all at the same time!

  3. August 28, 2021 at 4:46 am

    And then, there are those that fenable creative language, filled with intellectual insights, for the purposes of going in to college bars and get-togethers to appear knowledgeable, then popular. Saw that in a movie.

  4. Joseph McCard
    September 14, 2021 at 3:15 pm

    Craig, interesting, that after 2 years or so, we seem to be running on parallel tracks. I was recently, for several months, commenting almost daily on Phillip Goff, and Keith’s twitter pages (until Phillip blocked me, oh well). Glad to see your comments on Anil Seth’s new book, expanding my understanding of it.

  1. August 27, 2021 at 8:17 pm

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