Nov 10, 2021, 05:55AM

How Real is Reality?

The hard problem of consciousness.

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I live on a park-home estate in the village of Broad Oak, near Canterbury in the UK. There’s a small patch of woodland bordering the estate. It’s privately owned and serves as a buffer zone to a nearby clay pigeon shooting range. Hardly anyone goes there. I’ve adopted it as my own.

There are signs of occasional use. There’s a fire pit with car tires and crates piled on top of each other to make seats, and a few empty beer cans and bottles scattered about. Someone has been having a party. I imagine the local teenagers go there to make fires occasionally. It’s in a dip, out of sight of the main path. I’ve also done my own burnings, of old notebooks and bits of writing I no longer have any use for.

There’s a fallen tree nearby, with two branches that spiral around each other, pointing down the slope to where the fire pit’s located, like a signpost showing the way. Overlooking the pit is a Beech tree with a small gap in the roots. The gap is like an arbour and I’ve planted a wooden sculpture in there. My son gave it to me as a kind of joke one Christmas. It’s of a bearded face carved into a small log, about the width of my forearm and half as long, yellow-brown, with a shallow depression on top, meant to hold a candle. The face looks a little like Father Yule or the Green Man. I put him there to represent the genius loci, the spirit of the place. He’s like a small god, a djinn or an elf: ancient and wild, amiable but untamed; just like this wood.

I leave offerings of food in front of his rudimentary temple, bits of my dinner. When I go back, the food’s always gone. I like to imagine snuffling creatures, birds and insects, finding the food and consuming it when no one’s about. Only this moldering god witnesses the feast. Only he knows the secrets of the woodland life. He’s like my imagination, a part of my mind, parked out there in this hidden locale, there for me, so that when I arrive there a day or two later with a new batch of food to give, I can think about what might’ve taken place: what those blind eyes might’ve seen in the intervening hours, what those dumb lips might tell me if he could whisper in my ear.

It’s all a game. What else would you call it? But it seems to me that a spirit haunts these woods, and that I am honoring its presence with my devotions. It all depends on what you think the world is made of. If you think that the world’s made of blind matter bumping around in a dead universe, then what I’m doing is absurd. But that view has only really been around since the middle of the 19th century. Before that, people believed the world was full of presences and that there were many hidden forms of life beyond our immediate perception. They believed in gods and spirits and ghosts and angels and host of invisible beings populating the world.

They believed, for instance, that the planets had personalities, which they thought of as gods, and that it was possible to communicate with these beings. You could make sacrifices, or say prayers, and the planets would listen to you and act on your behalf. Same with the sun and the moon. Same with the ocean and the seas. Same with the earth itself. The world in which they lived was enchanted and alive and our job as human beings was to negotiate around it, as we do the human world: making demands, making sacrifices, flattering and bribing in the hope of getting a better deal.

That was the Classical world view, shared by people in ancient Rome and Greece and still, to some degree, in India and other parts of the world. Earlier peoples had an even more radical view. They thought that everything was alive: that every rock, every stone, every mountain, every river, every tree, every grove, was imbued with life, was inhabited by a spirit of some sort. This is known as animism and it was the dominant world view for the majority of time that our species has lived upon this planet. Many tribal peoples still subscribe to this view.

We could dismiss all this as just primitive superstition, the ill-conceived imaginings of less sophisticated minds than our own, but it turns out that our ancestors may have had a more realistic understanding of the way the world works after all, and that it might be our own world view that’s faulty.

It comes down to something called the “hard problem of consciousness.” This is the problem of explaining how our subjective, qualitative experiences can arise out of a lifeless universe. How, for instance, do you explain the taste of potatoes, or the effects of music, or the feeling you get when you see a person you love? Are these only the residual effects of neural activity in the brain, an illusion of matter, or do they have objective truth in conscious reality: the reality of consciousness?

The standard materialist answer to this is to say that consciousness is an emergent property of complex systems.

As James Ladyman, once editor of the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, says: “Consciousness is an emergent property that only arises in living systems. Life is an emergent property in very physically complicated things...”

“If I think about a spider,” he continues, “it’s got a primitive sentience, it’s got perception. Is it conscious? Maybe, a bit. And then you start thinking about layers and layers and layers, you get the idea that… there could be human consciousness arising out of matter. It’s not like there’s just billiard balls and consciousness; there’s this incredible complexity of layer upon layer between the two.”

In other words, the billiard balls of matter can make consciousness, it’s just that it takes a lot of layers to get there. He also doesn’t say how this happens, nor does he tell us how we can go about proving this idea.

The counter argument to this is to say that, while science has been successful in explaining physical systems, it wasn’t designed to deal with qualitative issues. Phillip Goff points out that science is about numbers, whereas consciousness is about experience. “It involves qualities,” he says, “the redness of a red experience, the sweet smell of flowers or the taste of coffee. You simply can’t capture these qualities in the purely quantitative vocabulary of physical science.”

Goff’s answer is something called Panpsychism, the idea that consciousness is a property of matter, and that fundamental particles, like electrons, may contain elements of consciousness in them which, when added up in a more complex system, like the human brain, can produce our own sense of consciousness. Consciousness, in this model, is a matter of degree: small bits of consciousness adding up to greater and greater bodies of consciousness in the human mind.

Some scientists take this even further. Donald Hoffman for instance. Hoffman’s a cognitive neuroscientist who postulates that the world as we see it is the equivalent of the user interface on a computer; that it’s not in itself real, rather that it’s a simulation allowing us to manipulate the world to our advantage.

The way he got to this position is by thinking about the evolution of our senses, and what this means in evolutionary terms. The common view is that evolution favors reality: that the creatures with the most realistic perceptions would be the most likely to survive. In other words, the reason that human beings are the dominant species on the planet is that our view of reality is the most real. Hoffman disagrees. He ran simulations on this proposal and discovered that, if our senses evolved and were shaped by natural selection as it is believed, then the probability that we see reality as it is is zero.

He uses a metaphor to explain this: of the user interface on our computers. Is the interface the reality, he asks? No. The reality is diodes and voltages and microchips and circuits, all the complex inner workings of the computer that lie beneath the surface. The interface tells us nothing about these; rather it allows us to manipulate them to our advantage. It’s the same with our view of reality. This tells us nothing about reality, but it allows us manipulate reality in a way which serves our survival needs.

Even space, he tells us, is a data structure, created for the fitness pay off. So we have a choice between two apples, one of which is 10 feet away, and another which is 10 miles away. The nearer apple is the most useful, involving less calories to get hold of. So our sense of space is there to define the difference in advantage. The further away something is, the smaller it is, the less advantageous it is to pursue it.

There are lots of correlations, he tells us, between certain kinds of brain activity, and conscious experiences. So, for example, when neural activity in the V4 region of the brain, the color center, is suppressed using a transcranial magnetic stimulator, all color drains from the left side of the visual world. Instead of color in that region, we see shades of gray. Once the stimulator’s removed, the color flows back in. There are scores, perhaps hundreds of such correlations, he says. But does that mean that the V4 region causes color? No, because correlation isn’t causation. A rooster crowing doesn’t cause the sun to rise, even though there’s a correlation there.

Another example. Scientists have shown that, using an electroencephalogram, they can predict a choice you are going to make seven seconds before you actually make it. But does that mean that the brain activity caused the choice? No. There’s a correlation between people arriving at a train station, and the later arrival of the train. Does this mean that the people caused the train to arrive? No. There’s an invisible third factor in this equation, the train timetable, which determines the arrival of both.

Hoffman proposes another theory to explain how the world is really functioning. He puts consciousness first. He says that the world’s really composed of a network of interacting consciousnesses, which evolution has simplified down for us to what’s useful and what’s not. It’s this simplification that creates the objective world. So he talks of portals to consciousness and gives another example. What does your face in the mirror tell you? It tells you that you have skin and eyes and hair, and what color they all are, but it doesn’t tell you what you’re feeling. There’s a whole universe behind that image: thoughts and feelings and hopes and dreams and tastes and sounds and loves and hates and impressions which go beyond the facial expression. If you smile, that signifies happiness for other people to read, but it’s not happiness itself. The same for all the expressions you can make. The world behind your face is a virtual infinity of moods, thoughts and perceptions, hidden behind this mask of skin and bone.

We know this about ourselves, and can guess it about other people, but what about the rest of the world? Again, like the illusion of space, there’s a diminishing perspective on this. We understand our friends to a degree, our pets to a lesser degree, but a spider, an ant, a bacterium, are virtually beyond our ability to comprehend. As another Panpsychist, Thomas Nagel, once asked, “What is it like to be a bat?” We’ll never know. But at least with the bat, as with the spider and the ant, we can recognize their sentience, even if we’ll never have their experience.

What about the rest of the phenomenal world, the mountains, the rocks and the rivers? If Hoffman isright, then that too is composed of conscious agents interacting with each other on the level of mind. The world, according to this view, is composed of subjectivities, invisible presences, rather than the great big objective lump out there we perceive it to be. In other words, it's full of spirits and ghosts and gods and demons, just as our ancestors thought it was. And there really is a spirit in those woods at the bottom of my estate, which I’m in communication with.

—All the interviews in this article are from an Institute of Arts and Ideas YouTube video here.



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