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The Simulated Self

Justin Holme represents his self to you.

Is the world made of one type of stuff, or at least two? We’re familiar with the physical world, but consciousness appears to be a different type of stuff altogether. The two main theories about the relationship of the physical world to consciousness are materialism (a type of monism, where everything is made of one type of stuff), and dualism. The first essentially says that the material world is all that exists, and consciousness can and probably will be exhaustively explained in scientific, materialistic terms. By contrast, dualists argue that consciousness is somehow separate from, but connected to, the physical world. If a person bangs their head hard enough they temporarily lose consciousness. So it is reasonable to assume that consciousness requires some kind of physical basis, at least for it to exist as we know it. But let’s give the idea of the mind’s link to the brain a little more scrutiny.

The Simulated World

Biology and neuropsychology tell us the brain is a highly complex physical object, which in some ways resembles a computer in its operating principles. There are ‘circuits’ of neurons (brain cells) connected by synapses, the neurons firing electrical pulses, often in systematic, logical ways. On a larger scale, the brain is organised in a modular way, with damage to certain regions causing particular deficits (‘aphasias’) – such as damage to the visual cortex, the part of the brain which processes sight, affecting the person’s ability to be aware of visual information.

Data received from the outside world via senses such as the eyes and ears is processed in various brain modules. Thus, a photon hits a pigment molecule in a receptor cell in the retina, which sets off a reaction in a nerve cell, which sends a pulse of electricity to the visual-data-processing areas of the brain. Different retinal pigments and cells are sensitive to different frequencies of light (‘different colours’), and the relative positions of the stimulated receptor cells are mapped by the brain’s visual processing system to show where in the visual field the information is coming from. Here, light information has been turned into electrical data – basically streams of electricity flowing round the brain’s biological circuits. At some point all the information is brought back together into an integrated story – your consciousness, which as it changes through time forms your self.

Although the data we have about the physical world is coming from different organs, and being processed by different brain modules, somehow our experience is a coherent whole, which presents us with what we often call ‘reality’. However, that is clearly a misnomer, albeit that our culture and language are thoroughly infected with this mistake. Reality itself is the world of matter and energy which is the mind-independent originating cause of our perception of it. What we experience is actually the result of data gathered about the physical world; so it cannot be that world itself. Rather, the data about the world is collected, processed, and then integrated into a simulation of the world. This simulation is our experience of the world. Thus, our experience is nothing more or less than a simulation generated from data from our senses, and should not be confused with either the data itself, or the ultimate source of that data, the physical world. We might assume we are directly aware of that physical world; but consciousness is never directly aware of it. At all times, only simulations – very accurate and vivid perhaps – are the objects of consciousness. Simulations are what consciousness contains.

This can seem a bit difficult to believe at first. Every time we used a word such as ‘tree’, or ‘river’, or even ‘reality’, we thought we were referring directly to the physical world; but we were actually referring to our brain/mind’s simulation of it. This simulation is so good, coherent, and indeed accurate, that we have come to believe the simulation is the thing represented. Most of us have lived all our lives in this mistaken belief. But on the other hand, we understand the basic neuropsychology/biology which shows that this illusion cannot be the case.

If this distinction between reality and the simulation of reality which we experience is not clearly recognised, then problems are going to ensue in any debate about consciousness. For instance, we may think we are talking about an aspect of the real (mind-independent) world, when we’re actually discussing an aspect of the mind-dependent simulation only. Colour is a good case in point. The experience of colours is used in our visual simulation of the world to display electromagnetic frequency data. What is represented by a perceived colour is typically the wavelengths of incoming photons (light). Somewhere in the visual area of the cortex, the light frequency data is converted into, and represented by, the colours we experience. Indeed, the very concept of a colour cannot make sense independent of of some kind of visual experience of it. And how could light frequency data be displayed to experience, other than through something like colour?

Perhaps then we need to reconsider some of the philosophical distinctions between secondary and primary qualities. This distinction was formalised by John Locke in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). Locke said that smell, taste and colour, as well as other sensations, were subjective qualities of our perception of the world, and as such were mind-dependent. Sensations such as colours do not exist in the world independent of minds perceiving them. They were called the secondary qualities of objects. The primary qualities of physical objects – such as, among others, weight, size, and perhaps today we could say light frequency – are by contrast properties out there in the world, and are objective and measurable. Yet psychology has shown how subjective our perceptions can be even in regard to relative size and the distance of objects. Maybe we need to recognise that our senses provide access only to secondary qualities. This does not mean that what we call the primary or mind-independent qualities of physical objects do not exist, only that we derive our understanding of these mind-independent properties from mind-dependent information.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is a very important figure in the debate concerning the relationship between the physical world and our experience of it. In his Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Kant claimed that our experience of the world has certain necessary qualities, such as having temporal duration and revealing spatial extension. These qualities were therefore not necessarily features of the world as it is in itself.

Reality as it is beyond our perception of it Kant called the ‘noumenal world’. He contrasted this noumenal, real world with the world as we perceive it, which he often called ‘the world of appearances’ or the ‘phenomenal world’. However we never can have direct experiential access to the noumenal world, the world as it really is, and so perhaps can never even have sure knowledge it exists, let alone what features it has. Kant thought that the noumenal world is real, but its fundamental nature is hidden from us still, behind the veil of perceptions. Nevertheless he thought that there are many aspects of both worlds which are consistent across them.

It seems to me that Kant might well have said that physics is the exploration and understanding of the noumenal world – of reality as it actually is. The strangeness of quantum theory would have perfectly fitted Kant’s intuitions that the mind-independent world was radically different from the world of appearances we’re directly aware of. Einstein’s theory that the apparently fundamental differences between energy and matter were illusory would also have been no great surprise to Kant.

The Simulated Self

So the brain works like a complex computer, gathering and processing data, which then puts on a show for us – a wonderful, accurate, multicoloured, multisensory simulation of reality that in some ways might even be more useful than a direct perception of it (if such a thing were possible). After all, the different colours and shades we see often provide very useful information about the world. But this model of perception has one obvious problem. Who is this show being put on for? Is there some kind of self inside our brains who witnesses the contents of consciousness? If so, by what mechanism is the self aware of what it witnesses? And how can we avoid the potential infinite regress of self-awareness, whereby a further self is forever needed to be added to be aware of the self and its contents so far?

There are aspects of consciousness that seem to necessarily include elements of feedback. For instance, self-awareness must mean consciousness of my self. So there seems to be an aspect of consciousness that, like the mirrors in a lift, reflects an image of self back and forth. It is worth remembering that part of our simulation of the world is our experience of our own bodies: we can see almost everything except our backs (if we use a mirror we can see that too). Perhaps even our moods and thoughts are also simulated, then? Now, it certainly feels like I am ‘right here in the world’, even though we know that the world I experience myself to be in is a mentally-constructed simulation. Perhaps what I think of as ‘myself’ could also be a sophisticated simulation? That is, within the general simulation, there is a part that is labelled ‘Me’, and this ‘Me’ has various simulated qualities, such as being tired, hungry, cold etc. So we have a simulation of the world which includes a simulation of our self; or at least those parts of both that are useful and relevant. A feedback element can clearly be seen here, in that the very organism that is producing the simulation is also part of what is being simulated. To be accurate, our representation of self must include, to some extent, the fact that it is simulating itself.

Does this give us a way out of a potential infinite regress of who or what inside our brains is aware of the show of consciousness? Maybe. If we translate the idea of ‘self-awareness’ into ‘self-simulation’, self-consciousness becomes both its own subject and object. It is at the same time what that consciousness is aware of, and what it is. Thus self-consciousness could be seen as an emergent property of a brain which has a detailed enough mental map/simulation to include the organism itself.

It turns out what we normally refer to as ‘self’ is really a representation of a much deeper and wider being, just as what we have referred to as the ‘world’ was. The data for the ‘self’ part of our simulation of the world comes from our bodies and psychology, so there isn’t the same problems with data collection as there is with the world beyond our bodies. The self must therefore potentially be the most accurate and unambiguous part of the simulation. But we are not generally aware of breathing, and almost never of our own heartbeat, and never of what is happening at the cellular level, as this knowledge is not required by the highest levels of our brain processing, our awareness. Consider how much what’s going on in our brains would be just distracting if it was also simulated. Yet our simulation of the self could hardly be complete, even if we factor out all the activities of the body which we cannot perceive.

What we’ve thought of as an unmediated self and world were nothing of the sort. At this point the whole basis for disagreement between dualists and materialists falls apart, since they formed their conclusions about the relationship between the mind and brain on a false perception of what mind and brain are. Perhaps idealists might here sense a chance of revival against both. Idealists argue that reality is all mental, or composed of ideas (it is also a monist position, like materialism). The idealists might comment that we can only be aware of the simulation, and that the materialists and dualists need to prove that there even is a material basis for the simulation, which is in the mind, and therefore mental in nature.

© Justin Holme 2010

Justin Holme is a philosophy graduate of Cambridge University and a freelance writer concentrating mainly on philosophy and psychology.

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