Being You, Peronhood and the Mystery of Consciousness

Anil Seth, professor of cognitive and computational neuroscience and author of the book Being You is at the forefront of seemingly surging interest in the subject of consciousness, with a barrage of books, articles, blogs, emerging studies, advances, ect making headlines in the last number of years. There is likely a number of reasons for this renewed interest, from writers believing we are narrowing in on solving one of life’s biggest mysteries, to those who believe we’ve never been closer and further away at the same time, to emergant theories to the sign of the times. In any case, I’ve been following him and others for a while as I have been interested in how it is that science approaches this mystery, with a particular interest in how al of this interest translates into everyday life.

In his book Seth describes consciousness as a “highly evolved prediction machine, constantly hallucinating the world and the self.” From this we get what we call reality. This idea of predictivness is at the heart of his work (related and tied to emergence).

If you are interested, here are a couple sources to get informed. First, his Ted Talk. Second, an interview from The Guardian which I will spend some time dialoging with below (given its concise summary of his ideas and his work).

A couple take aways from all of these sources:
1. Predictive and emergent realities run into a wall when it comes to making sense of consciousness

Emergence is of course, in his framework, entirely given to the purpose of survival. If he is going to locate and allow for a determinitive nature, this would be how he defines it. This is often where the mystery of consciousness comes up against a wall, which Seth acknolwedges. The natural and material functions that science is concerned with locating is not interested in how and why consciousness emerges as a preexisting and determining agency (he sees this question as actually inhibiting the less exciting and more arduous task of science to deal with the simpler observable functions we can hopefully that can hopefully give way to future study), but rather how it functions in the present in a materialist sense. Predictive means that there is always a cause and effect, and in the sense of emergence (a simple, explainable and observable particularity emerging from complexity) this has a trajectory of sorts, albeit an ambiguous and ever changing one that only becomes truth and fully rationalized as it emerges.

However, where this runs into a wall is when we move to apply personhood in any given sense of the word. As a scientist one day he hopes to get closer to explaining the what of consciousness, but the how and the why are not his concern. This becomes the real dilemma for integrated science because however one perceives our existence to be (or exist), the vast majority of people living in it are ultimately concerned with the why and the how. His hope is that the what can help us understand oursleves and others better, and, along with an increased understanding, for the science to then be put towards progressive means of attending to and for these human functions. And yet, at a fundamental level this remains bound to what we perceive our existence to be for. We are creatures of the present, but we inevitably live with narratives that incorporate both past and future concern and assumptions when it comes to integrating the science into everyday life.

2. Consciousness as memory subverts the function of nature and our understanding of the natural order in order to find meaning within human awareness, leading to a crisis of meaning.

From his body of work, however consciousness works it seems to be tied to memory. I’ve had this sense that this is true for a while now, which is part of what led me to do a deeper dive into the subject of memory and the way it operates as a connective piece of the puzzle we call human consciouses in both faith and science. How we come to a definition of a “person” has a lot to do with how our memories form a narrative in which a person can then exist. Now, of course this also comes to a kind of intersection in terms of how this translates in a meaningful way to declarations of the “I” that then correspond with truth. As Seth says in his book, predictiveness says “I predict myself, therefore I am”. This could be more or less determinitive depending on how we perceive consciousness as a kind of agency (the science seems to lean towards the “more” category, which Seth would seem to accept, but many scientists also disgaree that this means we live as though free will does not exist). If it is all emergent and on a material level the science of consciousness is simply a matter of boiling down the smaller parts in order to make sense of the bigger picture, this then forms a crisis of meaning when applied to everyday life (see also Verveke’s Awakening From the Meaning Crisis). On the one hand we can say meaning is located primarily in the function itself (survival). But consciousness throws this for a loop. It submits us to a need to subvert the natural and materialist sense of meaning and repositions it within this idea of the human experience as something distinct within the natural order. This is the primary reason why consciousness will likely never (something Seth kind of concedes) be whittled down to a mathematical equation. Awareness leads to something wholly other, which brings with it questions about the natural and materialist functions that evoke a different kind of meaning and don’t sit comforably with the materialist view. This remains distinctive, even if you try to strip it of its mystery and magic (which Seth is in the game of doing) and give it a strictly materialistic context. This is what causes a crisis of meaning. When meaning is attached so tightly to our experience of reality (what it means to be human), it is at best inconsistent, and at worst an emergent falsehood. Hence why suffering, which itself is such a complicated and persistent notion within the scientific field. Suffering is not categorically defined, but rather it is a way of defining ones experience, and therefore reality, regardless of status. Thus suffering is also intimately connected to memory, which is why the question of species suffering (where things like pain and pleasure are designed for survival within a natural order, but accompany memory in different ways than it does in a human) is so complicated in science, and why it becomes necsesary to uphold some level of human exceptionalism.

3. With an ambiguous “I”, integrating science into every day life becomes muddled and problematic.

If, as Seth says, “The “I” is deliberately ambiguous” in his equation (I think, therefore I am), then, as he goes on to say, “it says there is an experience arising of me being a single unified individual, with all these different attributes: memories, emotional bonds, experiences of body.” He qualifies this in his book as a hallucination. It’s entirely contingent, even if on some level it can be manipulated and coerced and shaped (for example, someone changing their diet or exercising). It’s also ambiguous in the sense of protecting a sense of the self made individual, which is what grounds the free world’s morality. There is a difference, for example, in seeing something like consent in nature (in any other species other than human) and consent within humanity. Thus the free world is built on the idea of the truly liberated human, which means a humanity liberated in a cohesive and universal sense from external constraints that we (the collective species) would deem oppressive (that is, anything that gets in the way of the self made person).

This is of course where things break down in integrating the science into everyday life. If the study of consciousness, as it is with all other science, can only be understood in mechanistic and mathematical terms, predictiveness (and emergence) ties us to something quite other than the personal, human will. Here in lies a part of the problem. Everything has a cause and effect and consequence, thus any attempts to squeeze allusions to the will and definitions of pershonhood that lie free from oppression and coercion and social formation from this are hallucinatory mechanisms designed, if seen through the lens of material science, for our survival. All of these things we imagine to be reality (and thus become reality) and that are entrenched in the stories we tell across history evoking an awareness of light and dark, truth and falsehood, hero’s and villains, good and bad, these are all interconnected as part of a forming social fabric. And to be clear, the science itself does not bind us to any over reaching morality. It would say that morality itself doesn’t exist except as a categorical definition used to determine that which emerges from these predictive senses. And in many cases, nature itself, and the science that observes it, challenges our allegiances to such a morality. We can look at it and say, this is our experience of reality (we see or experience suffering in others and call it bad for example), therefore it is true. Problems emerge quite quickly though when we see in our natures something equivalent to nationalism. Smaller groups forms allegiances, separate, and distinguish within species and orients around positions within society, mirroring the competitive sphere that we locate in nature and allowing us to both survive and to evolve much more efficiently. Add to this that nationalism can effectively guard against consciousness making us aware of global realities, thus absolving us of problem of responsibility (which is a problematic and highly inconsistant notion to begin with) and we are forced to contend with the question, what is the true worth of expanding our knowledge of the other. You can make the case that our smaller circles are affected by a global reality and thus in knowing this it is then in our best interest for future survival to bridge those gaps and work together. But this assumes certain things about the what and the how, and certainly isn’t that cut and dry. Problems of globalism, over population, and the immense resources needed to then attend for the negative outcomes of increased populations surface quite quickly. The naturalistic and materialistic view that science projects really doesn’t have a means of making sense of diversity within globalism, only the ability to observe how this diversity gets in the way or does’t get in the way of our survival (the jury is out on this matter as the worth of homogeneuity and assimilation have a long and patterned presence in nature in bringing about survival and change and yes, even diversity itself). It very quickly becomes subsumed into the same old survivalist mantra. To suggest it be anything more than this is to submit your assumptions onto the narrative in a way that shapes reality according to the surviving and more powerful force within nature.

The problem is, our hallucinatory sense of what reality is operates not just with a present, but a past and future narrative that can only be truly justified as real in an experiential sense, something that remains at constant war with nature itself, driven as it is by the laws of entropy whether we like it or not (the same war we see imagined in religious language and myths and stories and beliefs). Despite what we want to believe about ourselves, the truth of change and particularness emerging from complexity is that this renders most as a purely functionary role while the dominant forces in society and consciousness win out. This is still the same old game of life, however contested and undefined life remains even with all the progress we’ve made on scientific and technological grounds (and as an undefined consciousness one day emerges from technology this will only become increasingly muddled).

4. Consciousness creates a diferent category and leads to the philosohpical quandry- why “ought I get out of bed in the morning”

Consciousness places us in a different category as humans, despite efforts to dehumanize it and naturalize it back into the common order. It places an unparalleled set of questions onto the human experience that does not apply to other species. How this forms into questions of responsibility and intentional subversion of the natural order is where the science begins to get complicated. Even more so when these questions must get attached to questions or meaning that are unique to human perception and sit at the heart of the creation of hallucinagory reality. This is also where you run into all kinds of convoluted narratives in everyday life as well, as all of society bases what they do on assumed beliefs and assumptions about the how and the why of conscious being. We can’t escape that, even when the science makes sense of the what. It still has to be applied to the how and the what in order for society to emerge and to function within this materialistic reality.

In reflecting on the ambiguity of the I making sense of all the intricate pieces of the conscious and biological experience, Seth suggests that “For this piece of flesh and blood here, they seem to be unified – at least if I don’t reflect on it too much.” This is the concession of science that I see so often repeated. Ask too many of the wrong questions (read: the how and the what) and the science gets muddled, non-sensicle, and inhibited. Focus on the what and we can progress in our understanding of consciousness… in a purely mechanistic and mathematical sense. This can allow us to progress (in medicines and technology). Impose the why and the how questions though and the oft answers become, well, it just is. This is fine when we detach ourselves from reality (material) and lobby those questions onto a perceived reality (hallucinatory) that exists out there, which is precisely what philosophy does. This is where we find discussions about the acceptance of reality, the gradual loss of self and reality altogether as the true function of this reality, and thus the back and forth arguing about precisely what kind of meaning this existence actually has when it is all said and done (with philosophy swinging consistently between two extremes). This becomes a problem when the hallucinatory reality collides with the materialistic one. We come once again to the wall that has existed for as long as conscious awareness has been in play. Humanity cannot live and survive within consciousness without the ability to transcend this material reality and thus give it meaning or find meaning within it. What this says about things like humanity, God, nature, spirit, existence, this becomes the concern of both philosophy and theology, with the question of material reality then being slid in as the controlling narrative in line with the history of human progress in a materialist and naturalist sense. All of human history rests within this ongoing tension. Something like women’s liberation becomes the property of modernity and it’s vision of human progress and thus a materialist concern (for our survival). It is in its own right not a morally determined obligation or presupposition. It gets formed into a moral obligation when applied to a governing narrative, and that narrative, as history shows, represents a war between nature and consciousness. How do we bridge this? By attempting to make consciousness a material reality and conflate their mutually exclusive concerns. And once again we come to the problem. This is at its core an inherently selfish, determined, inconsistently applied move driven by survival. That doesn’t sell when it comes to human consciousness. So we package it within a hallucinated reality that can give it meaning and present that as truth equal to the material. This is how it is made to be meaningful as part of the human experience. That is formed then into a guiding narrative within societies, handed to the powers, and therefore most people, particularly in a liberal society, never think beyond this sense of reality and being. They assume the how and why questions are just naturally operating underneath as uncontested concerns. Which of course is not the case. Ask even the smallest questions and things start to break down pretty fast. See reality for what it is and this assumed meaning gets challenged within the varied experiences that we find in the world around us. Experiences emerge as inconsistent. Power structures become clear as day. Narratives becomes intertwined and muddled as we race to reapply the how and the why to a particular past, present and future narrative. People rise up from the bottom and protest. Suffering emerges from all sorts of places mired in the conveniences modernity has fostered and created. And the power systems persist under different labels. We divide, we band together, we politicize the narratives and those with means (the few) get in the trenches to hold sway and coerce and influence the masses in one direction or another. To say the world looks other than this is to stay firmly positioned within our hallucinatary reality and the irrational belief systems that allow it to remain intact. And all of this is done under the guise of material reality and the truth it exhibits.

Now, I know some who would interject here and say, this is complexity, and this is how reality works. What emerges will be that which survives, but that doesn’t change the simple fact that as humans we see suffering and it evokes a response. This doesn’t need an existential response, it simply is. And yet that is not it translates within the everyday. At best, what progress offers us is new ways to attend for the anxieties of this existence. Greater meaning does not equate to prolonged life spans or liberated societies free to become self made persons. That is an allusion. Many who proport an unshakeable faith in humanity to solve our problems also believe that the human species won’t survive and doesn’t deserve to survive because of its nature. We say on one hand that we are reaping the rewards of ecological neglect at the hands of progress while likewise touting our ability to be the answer to the problem. This of course is a projection of our consciousness rooted in hallucinatary senses of meaning and reality. It comes back to the why ought I get out of bed to face the day question that forms so much of philosophical thought. Must I? Ought I? Should I? Do I want to? And why and how must or ought or I should I do so? This becomes that much harder to answer when placed back within a materialistic framework. Ought, should, must becomes weighed against both the hallucinatory and materialist nature of reality. There is no categorical answer to this question of why, only ones experience of this world to fall back on. Which is what it is. Suffering exists regardless of my experience of this world. Further, suffering is caused by my experience of this world, both that which is caused by me and that which is I experience because of my reality. And if I decide to wake up and enact change, to what end am I doing this and making this sacrifice? Halllucinatory reality suggests that I can be something, do something, and thus my life will have meaning. Activism can’t excape its own selfish motivations that include belonging to something that can give us the allusion of meaning and identity. Altruim, selflessness and goodness predicated on accomplishment are some of the geat hallucinatary definitions that shape how we see something as meaningful, but the science of it, the materialist defintiion is quite different. Further questions of whether any of this actually exists to begin with, and whether I have any agency within that at all simply adds more and more “buts” to the philosophical equation. In philosophy there is always a “but”, especially when it comes to things like beauty and goodness and joy and love.

Welcome to the realm of the philosophical quandry. As science would say, just don’t ask those questions.

One final note here. I find it oddly ironic that science, in a very real sense (material) consistently falls back on the premise “don’t ask too many questions” in order to function. Of course our experience of this world is multi-faceted and complex, but modernity has made a big game out of excising God from the picture, either to a safe and managed distance or to a hallucinatory hold over of our emergent past that is better off dead then inhibiting material progress in the present. In truth science has equal contention with philosophy imposing it’s presence, it just doesn’t see it as the same kind of enemy. It’s okay with it making similar claims about hallucinatory reality simply because it is perceived as rooted in “reality” in a different way. How it’s different precisely is a bit muddled and confusing though. What’s ironic about this is religious history’s deeply rooted relationship with the material world. Push that further and what is compelling to me is Christianity’s distinct relationship with history and material reality. These things are not in contention, but rather integrated and informed together. It is not simply theology, it is natural theology. It is not simpy platonistic ideas of a god out there, but a God indwelling the whole of the material and created order. What this points out to me is the existence of a dominant narrative that is not simply interested in the mechanism of the material reality, but in the why and the how. This is something people like Seth don’t, and to a degree can’t contend for fully. It can only imagine, if this is the case (God does not exist), then this is what we observe. This can be played then to an extent, in material terms, into why hallucinatory reality must and should be taken seriously as well, just don’t ask too many questions because otherwise you will hit that wall. This willful ignorance becomes most obvious when played out into everyday life in the picture of often competing sometimes similar functional narratives. I know this is not the concern of science itself (it is simply a discipline), but ignoring this relationship is as dangerous as the possible inhibiting of science that comes from letting the philosophy/theology bleed into the science. This is especially true when it comes to consciousness. It becomes important for science to ask, why and how are we doing this, and to locate the past, present and future narrative that is motivating it’s endeavors, lest it become ignorant of these realities. Science does not simply occur in a bubble or a vacuum despite what some think. That shouldn’t inhibit or color the study of material reality as a discipline (and arguably within a philosophical/theological view of reality must not), but it should make it aware that if doesn’t happen in a vacuum then it is vulnerable to the same nature that guides human consciousness.

One example on this front. I recently came across an article regarding gender fluidity and it’s relationship to depression. This is based on 40 years of study, which correlates with the science of cultural, social and biological influence, and it raises some questions about the connection between perceived personhood, clarity of gender, and the problem that comes with confusion. There is plenty to consider and think about in this study, but play this into the modem narrative and it will undoubtedly arrive with a cry of discrimination and suggest a dangerous ethic and resistance. Does this mean the material reality the study represents is false? No. This is a case where we have consciousness awareness and halucinatory senses of meaning circumventing nature and colliding with nature all at the same time, and in this case with convoluted results. Now, understanding that all kinds of complicated aspects of this discussion emerge, and that this material reality doesn’t automatically mean we should address an emergent narrative based on both material and hallucinatory realities by attending to “nature” (after all, the science itself can point to the harms of socially constructed gender norms and gender confusion in the first place), what this does uphold is just how integrated all of these aspects are when it comes to how we perceive this world. For as much as we like to believe, science doesn’t always determine how we live, and I would argue rarely does. On a different level, look at how entrenched alcohol is in terms of the social narrative despite the wealth of science detailing it’s harm (we see the same thing just on a different front with cannibas legalization. Same story, different context). Science is more interested in changing how we live and addressing problems we often cause for oursleves and often in the name of progress. (consider this article which looks at how we deal with challenges by labeling them “mental disoders” ignoring the fact that we are given to ingnoring environmental, structural and societal functions as the cause of the problem in the first place. Similar again with cannibas legalization, driven by a hallucinatory reality and attached to a narrative that sits in contest with the science, motivated by dealing with the anxieties of our existance as opposed to actually confronting it). And while gender fluidity and norms and sexuality are far more complicated than this, it does belong in a similar boat. Same with sex. Science can tell us about all the negative outcomes of a sexually liberated society living in a modern age where modern progress has enabled sexuality to be attached to a sense of personhood in a way nature never designed by giving is everything from birth control to pornography to pleasure toys and socially constructed norms. This of course is all under the guise of that hallucinatory reality, imagining that sex itself holds value because we experience it in this way, even though it is arguably at war with our nature in very particular ways. It is one thing to insert consent and the image of the ambiguous “I” into the picture, it is quite another to step back and ask why and how sex has a given value in the first place. Why does it have the power to push us in multiple directions at once in terms of it sacredness and de-sacredization. In most cases in liberated societies people live without ever asking these questions, or they assume they have been answered, leading to all sorts of other kinds of problems when it comes to conscious reality. This emerges most readily when our hallucinatory realities crash into the material realities and narratives are challenged and exposed. The question is not whether this happens, but how it is we percieve answering and dealing with some of these questions, and even whether there is more than one narrative to follow. I tend to think the fact that we live as though there is points to the fact that there actually is a transcendent reality that exists, one that isn’t contigent on hallucination and my experience of it. One that isn’t shaken by the material, but rather revealed by it.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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