Non-Mysterious Consciousness

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March 11, 2017 – MCAT CARS Passage

Question: What is your summary of the author’s main ideas. Post your own answer in the comments before reading those made by others.

When Isaac Newton was 17 years old, he performed a series of experiments with prisms and light beams. Within weeks he discovered the scientific explanation for color, invented the reflecting telescope, proposed the particle theory of light, and deduced that the human eye contained three receptor types corresponding to the three primary colors. Not bad for a teen.

Newton’s insights were not easily accepted. At the time, the prevailing theory of color was metaphysical. White light was thought to be pure, heavenly, and scrubbed of all contaminants, whereas colored light was contaminated by the worldly surfaces it touched. To scholars, the exact process by which white light became dirtied was a philosophical hard problem worthy of debate.

We now know why that hard problem was so darn hard. The brain processes the world in a simplified and inaccurate manner, and those inaccuracies gave people the wrong idea about color. Deep in the visual system, the brain reconstructs information about light. In that simplified code, white corresponds to the color channels registering zero and the brightness channel cranked up high. Pure luminance without color is a physical impossibility, because white light is a mixture of all colors. The pre-Newtonian problem of color was hard because it had no possible solution.

Why would the brain evolve such an inaccurate, simplified model of the world? The reason is efficiency. The brain didn’t evolve to get all the scientific details right. That would be a waste of energy and computing time. Instead, it evolved to process information about the world just well enough, and quickly enough, to guide behavior. All the brain’s internal models are simplified caricatures of the world it models. Arguably, science is the gradual process by which the cognitive parts of our brains discover the profound inaccuracies in our deeper, evolutionarily built-in models of the world.

The hard problem of our own time is the mystery of consciousness. Let me be precise about what I mean by consciousness. These days it’s not hard to understand how the brain can process information about the world, how it can store and recall memories, how it can construct self knowledge including even very complex self knowledge about one’s personhood and mortality. That’s the content of consciousness, and it’s no longer a fundamental mystery. It’s information, and we know how to build computers that process information. What’s mysterious is how we get to be conscious of all that content. How do we get the inner feeling? And what is that inner feeling anyway?

It’s been called awareness, phenomenology, qualia, experience. It seems non-physical, ethereal, more like an energy than a substance, by definition private and therefore not objectively testable. And the fact that it seems like anything at all is the thing itself—the seeming.

At first sight, we have what appears to be an unsolvable hard problem. If the brain generates consciousness, how does it do it? What exactly is being generated? Energy? Matter? A third, more fundamental substance? Some scientists have suggested it’s generated by vibrations in the brain, perhaps oscillating activity in neurons, or perhaps quantum states of microscopic tubules inside the neurons. Or it could be independent of the brain altogether, as many mystics claim. One guess is that everything in the universe is imbued with a primordial consciousness. Maybe it’s a special life force, like in Star Wars, which has so far escaped scientific detection. Or maybe a deity breathed it into us and when we die it leaves the body and enters a new phase of existence.

The mythos of consciousness is every bit as confusing and nonsensical as the purity of white light, and the source of the confusion is the same. The brain constructs inaccurate models of the world. To understand consciousness scientifically, once again it’s necessary for the cognitive parts of our brains to discover the inaccuracies in our deeper, built-in models of ourselves.

The human brain insists it has consciousness, with all the phenomenological mystery, because it constructs information to that effect. The brain is captive to the information it contains. It knows nothing else. This is why a delusional person can say with such confidence, “I’m a kangaroo rat. I know it’s true because, well, it’s true.” The consciousness we describe is non-physical, confusing, irreducible, and unexplainable, because that packet of information in the brain is incoherent. It’s a quick sketch.

What’s it a sketch of? The brain processes information. It focuses its processing resources on this or that chunk of data. That’s the complex, mechanistic act of a massive computer. The brain also describes this act to itself. That description, shaped by millions of years of evolution, weird and quirky and stripped of details, depicts a “me” and a state of subjective consciousness.

This is why we can’t explain how the brain produces consciousness. It’s like explaining how white light gets purified of all colors. The answer is, it doesn’t. Let me be as clear as possible: Consciousness doesn’t happen. It’s a mistaken construct. The computer concludes that it has qualia because that serves as a useful, if simplified, self-model. What we can do as scientists is to explain how the brain constructs information, how it models the world in quirky ways, how it models itself, and how it uses those models to good advantage.

The study of consciousness needs to be lifted out of the mysticism that has dominated it. Consciousness is not just a matter of philosophy, opinion, or religion. It’s a matter of hard science. It’s a matter of understanding the brain and the mind—a trillion-stranded sculpture made out of information. It’s also a matter of engineering. If we can understand the functionality of the brain, then we can build the same functionality into our computers. Artificial consciousness may just be a hard problem within our grasp.

Adapted from theatlantic.

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This was an article on Psychology.

Have a great day.
Jack Westin
MCAT CARS Instructor.
Contact Information

30 Comments


  1. A need to understand consciousness and its functionality

    Reply

  2. Like the origins of white light for Newton, the origins of consciousness presents a hard problem for current scientists. It has mostly been considered the realm of philosophers and mystics. The field of neuroscience has drastically altered our understanding of the brain. It is easy now, relative to say 50 years ago, to understand how the brain takes input, processes that input, and generates output. However, we do not yet understand how, or why, the brain documents this process and churns out a self report, a sense of the subjective “me” occurring at the center of all these processes. The author claims that this sense is just another construct the brain creates, honed by evolution, to simply the world around it. Therefore, science should not consider itself incapable of uncovering its secrets.

    Reply

  3. Newton ideas hard to accept because of how brain works. Brain works for efficiency, even if information is inaccurate. How to study conscientiousness? It’s a hard problem like white light and the reason is because of our brain as well and it’s inaccurate way of thinking. To actually study conscientiousness we must be able to study the brain first

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  4. Consciousness is not a mystery understand it’s components by science

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  5. consciousness = mystery + mistaken construct + matter of science

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  6. brain= inaccurate –> mystery of consciousness; consciousness=/= happen

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  7. Consciousness = mistaken construct;use of science = understanding functionality of brain; author supports science

    Reply

  8. consciousness = hard science = helps understand brain

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  9. MI: HP= mystery of consciousness + science=solvable

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  10. MI: Consciousness = mistaken, focus more on hard science of the brain

    Reply

  11. Brain process = simplified & inaccurate
    consciousness = not physical + unexplainable + mistaken construst + need more science to understand

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  12. MIP: B=evol to b inacc=consc prob; need hard sci only to solve
    tone: neut

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  13. Like the old understanding of white color, our understanding of consciousness is a flawed construct, we should change our view to look at it through hard science.

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  14. Consciousness evo= hard problem
    Consciousness/=happen
    Consciousness=hard science

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  15. Consciousness = hard problem that only hard science and engineering can solve.

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  16. brain= simplified and inaccurate
    consciousness= solution in hard science

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  17. brain = inaccurate + oversimplified + creates consciousness, consciousness = construct + mystery

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  18. Newton’s discovery is good example of how hard problems could be solved if we bother to look from another perspective (hard science) – brain processes sensory information in rudimentary ways and it’s meant to be, in an evolutionary sense (efficiency and guide behaviour) – hard problem of today is how consciousness came about with many interpretations by scientific + non-scientific people – brain constructs inaccurate models which are processed by cognitive parts of the brain – author believes brain doesn’t produce consciousness, it has a model of the world and itself and the cognitive part of the brain uses this to guide behaviour – consciousness needs to be understood in terms of philosophy, religion and hard science too (mysticism has dominated this study) – understand brain function that permits consciousness so we can built artificial consciousness in computers (another hard problem).

    Reply

  19. Consciousness= brain + info = today’s problem
    brain processes = simple + inaccurate

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  20. Brain processing = inaccurate/simplified of the world. Consciousness = mistaken construct + a hard science -> need to understand functionality of brain

    Reply

  21. (1) Source of consciousness = ?
    (2) Consciousness = mystery

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  22. MIP: Processing color = wrong + efficient; Mystery of consciousness = how?
    Tone: Neutral

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  23. MIP: mysterious = conscious of content; understand conscious = examine brain

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  24. MIP: consciousness = mistaken construct b/c brain simplifies + science = explains errors of brain; tone = neutral

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  25. MIP : Just like white light, consciousness = confusing + brain’s inaccuracies. Consciousness : doesn’t happen. We can only discover how brain processes info.

    Reply

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