The Nature of Consciousness

“In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Thomas Metzinger about the scientific and experiential understanding of consciousness. They also talk about the significance of WWII for the history of ideas, the role of intuition in science, the ethics of building conscious AI, the self as an hallucination, how we identify with our thoughts, attention as the root of the feeling of self, the place of Eastern philosophy in Western science, and the limitations of secular humanism.”

“Thomas K. Metzinger is full professor and director of the theoretical philosophy group and the research group on neuroethics/neurophilosophy at the department of philosophy, Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, Germany. He is the founder and director of the MIND group and Adjunct Fellow at the Frankfurt Institute of Advanced Studies, Germany. His research centers on analytic philosophy of mind, applied ethics, philosophy of cognitive science, and philosophy of mind. He is the editor of Neural Correlates of Consciousness and the author of Being No One and The Ego Tunnel.”

Why Buddhism Is True

The full title of this book is: Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. And it’s the science and philosophy parts of the book that I found most insightful. There is so much within and about Buddhism that are really hard for me to grasp. Emptiness, non-self, just to mention two. This book gave me — for the first time — a tiny, brief glimpse of what these might be. The author explains how natural selection plays such an important role in determining who and what we are. And his explanation of consciousness is the best I’ve come across. This was a breakthrough book for me. I’ll be reading it again. Here are a few excerpts, stripped of all context. Continue reading

Meditation: 365 Days

According to the app I use to track my meditation practice, today was the 365th consecutive day of sitting. Cool. One year with zero misses. Which means absolutely nothing other than I’ve been consistent in my practice. I started keeping track on November 30, 2014 and ran up a string of 371 days before missing a day (pneumonia). The next run — 271 days — ended while I was out of town attending my 50th high school reunion. Which might be the worst excuse imaginable. And now I’m less than a week away from beating that 371 string. Two days without meditating in the past 1,007 days.

The only day that counts, of course, is today. The app and keeping my streak alive give me a little extra incentive to sit every day but I don’t need much incentive these days. The time I spend in meditation is almost always the best part of my day.

Next milestone? 500 days.

Fear Hologram Projector

The brain has the ability to generate vivid, life-like images and scenes. It does this seemingly on its own. These scenes can appear in one’s consciousness at any moment and they can be nearly indistinguishable from reality (‘out there’ as opposed to ‘in your head’). These thoughts, in my experience, are mostly beyond ‘our’ control. They happen to us. And while we can’t prevent them, we can — with practice — observe them. See them for what they are. The analogy that best captures this for me is a Fear Hologram Projector.

“Fear” because the scenarios that trouble me most involve fear and worry and anxiety. “Hologram” because these little mental vignettes are so incredibly real. I don’t know why the brain (some brains) persists in creating these but the brain in my head pulls from a lifetime of images and situations and mashes them up with the most negative of emotions and ideas.

It’s like walking down one of the endless passages in my brain and suddenly finding myself in one of these holograms. And the more mental attention I give it, the sharper and more detailed it seems. The hologram seems to need the energy of my attention to project. The fear hologram can loop endlessly for days or weeks. Or longer.

The brain can, of course, create a more positive, pleasant scenario. We like to imagine good and happy things happening. It would seem to be just as easy to create that kind of hologram as the awful kind. If ‘I’ am going to imagine some future, why wouldn’t I choose to something pleasant? The only answer I can come up with is I don’t get to choose. These mostly just happen. They come unbidden.

How do we turn off the Fear Hologram Projector?

Well, we can’t turn it off until we recognize what’s happening. We can’t see the projector when we’re in the middle of the hologram loop. The key here is probably mindfulness. Seeing what is really occurring. Not in your head but in the real, objective world around you (if you believe in such a thing). We might think of this as “experiential reality.” What we see, hear, touch, smell, taste.

When I find myself trapped in a fear hologram, it feels dark, like a movie theater. The images on the screen are more vivid in a darkened theater. And I can’t see the projector because I don’t know to look for it, or where to look.

But if I can be mindful enough to recognize I’m in a hologram — something generated by a (I choose not to say ‘my’) mind — I can bring up the house lights of my awareness! And in that instant I can see that the images are not real. They’re brain stuff. Stuff ‘I’ didn’t choose. Under the bright light of my awareness, the hologram images fade and as my awareness stops powering the projector, the images disappear. My belief, my buy-in is necessary for the hologram to exist.

I’m reminded of lines from my reading about Buddhism and Taoism.

“Am I conscious now? It troubles me that I seem so often to be unconscious. I wonder what this unconsciousness is. I cannot believe I spend most of my life in a kind of darkness. Surely that cannot be so. Yet every time I ask the question it feels as though I am waking up, or that a light is switching on.” – Ten Zen Questions

“Belief is at best an educated, informed conjecture about Reality. In contrast, seeing — raw, direct, unadulterated experience — is the direct perception of Reality Itself. […] Base your actions on what you see, rather than on what you think.” – Buddhism Plain and Simple

The bad news: our brains (okay, fuck it! My brain) have an endless capacity for materializing FHP’s (Fear Hologram Projectors), twenty-four/seven. And a lifetime of material from which to create the loops. Access to all our fears and anxieties.

The good news: it’s pretty easy to hit the house lights, spot the projector and pull the attention plug. If we can stay mindful. Of course, mindfulness doesn’t necessarily mean a state of meditative bliss. If you’re rocketing down a black ski slope; lining up for a night landing on an aircraft carrier; or in the middle of brain surgery… you’re probably not trapped on some mental fear loop. And lots of daily, less challenging tasks, can help us stay in the moment. But the mind never stops. You can hit the house lights and pull the plug on the fear projector… and find yourself back in some anxious future 30 seconds later. And this can repeat over and over, day and night.

At the risk of oversimplifying, I am either ‘awake’ or not-awake. Not-awake can take several forms, of course. There the subconscious which is probably what I’ve been talking about. How frustrating that it handles all of those life and death tasks (breathing, heart, etc) without any help from the conscious me…. and still finds time to gin up endless fear and anxiety scenarios.

Then there are dreams — which tend to be more real than the Fear Holograms — but there’s nothing we can do about those. Fortunately, mine seem to fade quickly upon awakening. And I’ve read that we also experience unconsciousness most nights. Dreamless sleep. Would like to have more of that.

I expect to be reaching for the switch to the house lights for the rest of my life. Endlessly pulling the plug on the FHP. But I find some comfort in the belief that “Thoughts think themselves.” I don’t control them. That’s the subconscious, forever and always.

And I have the cushion. Meditation. Observing the mind, allowing it to become quieter (rarely quiet). Awakening, if only for a moment.

Do we have control over our thoughts?

If the answer is “yes,” when and how do we choose what we’re going to think next? And does that mean it’s possible to know what my next thought is going to be before I think it? (I don’t think so) And if we can choose what we are going to think, can we choose to think nothing for the next 30 seconds?

I’ve been reading up on this for a good while now and I’ve concluded it only feels like I’m thinking my thoughts. In fact, the thoughts are thinking me. I’m that little kid in the toy car on the front of the grocery cart. I’m turning the steering wheel left and right and — occasionally — the car turns in the direction I steered. And before you ask, no, I have no fucking idea who’s pushing the cart… I just know it ain’t me.

Homo Deus: Free Will and Consciousness

This is the second of three posts featuring excerpts from the new book by Yuval Harari (Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow). The first post dealt with traditional religions, creeds and ‘isms.’ The excerpts below are some of Dr. Harari’s thoughts on the concepts of free will and consciousness.

The obvious problem with posting selected excerpts the the absence of contest which you can only get by reading the book. I encourage you to do so.

Free will exists only in the imaginary stores we humans have invented. […] (The question is not whether humans) can act upon their inner desires — the question is whether they can choose their desires in the first place.

I feel a particular wish welling up within me because this is the feeling created by the biochemical processes in my brain. […] I don’t choose my desires. I only feel them, and act accordingly.

Once we accept that there is no soul and that humans have no inner essence called ‘the self’, it no longer makes sense to ask, ‘How does the self choose its desires?’ […] There is only a stream of consciousness, and desires arise and pass away within this stream, but there is no permanent self that owns the desires.

If I am indeed the master of my thoughts and decisions, can I decide not to think about anything at all for the next sixty seconds?

(There are) at least two different selves within us: the experiencing self and the narrating self. The experiencing self is our moment-to-moment consciousness. The narrating self is forever busy spinning yarns about the past and making plans for the future. […] It doesn’t narrate everything, and usually weaves the story using only peak moments and end results. […] Most of us identify with our narrating self. When we say ‘I’, we mean the story in our head not the onrushing stream of experiences we undergo. […] We always retain the feeling that we have a single unchanging identity from birth to death (and perhaps even beyond).

If you want to make people believe in imaginary entities such as gods and nations, you should make them sacrifice something valuable.

Each of us has a sophisticated system that throws away most of our experiences, keeps only a few choice samples, mixes them up with sbits from movies we’ve seen, novels we’ve read, speeches we’ve heard, and daydreams we’ve savoured, and out of all that jumble it weaves a seemingly coherent story about who I am, where I came from and where I am going. This story tells me what to love, whom to hate and what to do with myself. This story may even cause me to sacrifice my life, if that’s what the plot requires. […] But in the end, they are all just stories.

Every moment the biochemical mechanisms of the brain create a flash of experience, which immediately disappears. Then more flashes appear and fade, appear and fade, in quick succession. These momentary experiences do not add up to any enduring essence.

From Bacteria to Bach and Back

From Bacteria to Back and Back. The Evolution of Minds, by Daniel C. Dennett. The book’s cover teased me with “How did we come to have minds?” The author dragged me through 300 pages of “groundwork” before providing anything I could recognize as an answer. But I took notes (below), if underlining counts as taking notes. And here’s a review by Thomas Nagel. And a 45 minute audio interview at The Big Think.

The immaterial mind, the conscious thinking thing that we know intimately through introspection, is somehow in communication with the material brain, which provides all the input but not of the understanding or experience. 

Can there be reasons without a reasoner, designs without a designer? (Dennett says yes)

A central feature of human interaction, and one of the features unique to our species, is the activity of asking others to explain themselves, to justify their choices and actions, and then judging, endorsing, rebutting their answers, in recursive rounds of the “why?”

Natural selection doesn’t have a mind, doesn’t itself have reasons. […] For instance, there are reasons why termite colonies have the features they do, but the termites do not have or represent reasons, and their excellent designs are not products of an intelligent designer.

Turing showed that it was possible to design mindless machines that were Absolutely Ignorant, but that could do arithmetic perfectly. […] He foresaw that there was a traversable path from Absolute Ignorance to Artificial Intelligence. […] Both Darwin and Turing claim to have discovered something truly unsettling to a human mind — competence without comprehension.

Why and how did human-style comprehension arrive on the scene?

Ontology – the set of “things” a person believes to exist.

Comprehension is an emergent effect of systems of uncomprehending competence.

What is consciousness for (if anything)? If unconscious processes are fully competent to perform all the cognitive operations of perception and control.

Information is always relative to what the receiver already knows.

If DNA can convey information about how to build a nest without any terms for “build” and “nest,” why couldn’t a nervous system do something equally inscrutable?

Intentional mind-clearing, jettisoning information or habits that endanger one’s welfare, is not an unusual phenomenon, sometimes called unlearning. […] The brain’s job in perception is to filter out, discard, and ignore all but the noteworthy features of the flux of energy striking one’s sensory organs.

One of Darwin’s most important contributions to thought was his denial of  essentialism, the ancient philosophical doctrine that claimed for each type of thing, each natural kind, there is an essence, a set of necessary and sufficient properties for being that kind of thing.

Children learn about seven words a day, on average, from birth to age six.

Understanding a word is not the same as having acquired a definition of it.

Words don’t exist,  strictly speaking. They have no mass, no energy, no chemical composition.

Memes are transmitted perceptually, not genetically.

Words are memes that can be pronounced.

“In terms of the brain, we know that concepts are somehow stored there, but we have little idea of exactly how.”

The acquisition of a language — and of memes more generally — is very much like the installation of a predesigned software app of considerable power, like Adobe Photoshop, a tool for professionals with many layers that most amateur users never encounter.

We may “know things” in one part of our brain that cannot be accessed by other parts of the brain when needed. The practice of talking to yourself creates new channels for communication that may, on occasion, tease the hidden knowledge into the open.

Nature makes heavy use of the Need to Know principle, and designs highly successful, adept, even cunning creatures who have no idea what they are doing or why.

Our thinking is enabled by the installation of a virtual machine made of virtual machines made of virtual machines.

We learn about others from hearing or reading what they say to us, and that’s how we learn about ourselves as well.

“We speak not only to tell others what we think, but to tell ourselves what we think.” — John Hughlings Jackson

Bare meanings, with no words yet attached, (can) occupy our attention in consciousness.

Evolution has given us a gift (the mind?) that sacrifices literal truth for utility.

(The mind is) that thinking thing with which you are so intimately acquainted that is hardly distinguishable from you, yourself. No wonder we are reluctant to see it as illusory; if it is illusory, so are we!

If free will is an illusion then so are (we).

Human consciousness is unlike all other varieties of animal consciousness in that it is a product in large part of cultural evolution, which installs a bounty of words and many other thinking tools in our brains, creating thereby a cognitive architecture unlike the “bottom-up” minds of animals. By supplying our minds with systems of representations, this architecture furnishes each of us with a perspective—a user-illusion—from which we have a limited, biased access to the workings of our brains, which we involuntarily misinterpret as a rendering of both the world’s external properties (colors, aromas, sounds,. . . ) and many of our own internal responses (expectations satisfied, desires identified, etc.).

Deep learning will not give us — in the next fifty years — anything like the “superhuman intelligence” that has attracted so much alarmed attention recently. […] I have always affirmed that “strong AI” is “possible in principle” — but I viewed it as a negligible practical possibility, because it would cost too much and not give us anything we really needed.

The real danger, I think, is not that machines more intelligent than we are will usurp our roles as captains of our destinies, but that we will over-estimate the comprehension of our latest thinking tools, prematurely ceding authority to them far beyond their competence.

When you are interacting with a computer, you should know you are interacting with a computer. Systems that deliberately conceal their shortcuts and gaps of incompetence should be deemed  fraudulent, and their creators should go to jail for committing the crime of creating or using an artificial intelligence that impersonates a human being.


I watched the movie Morgan tonight. You know the story. Remote research lab where Big Corporation is creating weaponized AI in the form of a young girl. Wash, rinse, repeat. Nothing as interesting as Blade Runner or Ex Machina. But there’s a scene (don’t worry, it’s not possible to spoil a plot this well worn) where the scientists are supposed to “terminate the project” and it struck me that it might be harder (emotionally) to “kill” an AI than to create one.

This little movie also reminded me that to be less than — or more than — human, and know it, might be the worst thing ever. Roy Batty made us feel that pain in the final scene of Blade Runner but I got a pretty good jolt of it watching this film.