According to this book, consciousness can be mechanically explained as nothing more than descriptive information that is confused as something real with physical properties. It all comes down to the superior temporal sulcus (STS) and temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) where social thinking occurs, and we are able to infer from observing another person that he is looking at his watch and thinking about time. Since we can understand that he is aware of his watch and time, we can also infer that we are just like him, and that when we are looking at our watch, we are also aware of time. Our brain, however, does not say, “I blank time.” It infers that there is an act or process between me and time, and that process is manufactured, a broad, abstract, fuzzy place-maker called ‘am aware.’ I am aware of time. So we then ask, what is awareness? What is consciousness? It’s just the act of interacting with time in a manner that allows us to acknowledge its existence (or make it up). “Awareness is a description of attention.” Attention is “a data-handling method in the brain.” It is “a procedure, an emergent process.” “A schema is a coherent set of information that, in a simplified but useful way, represents something more complex. In the present theory, awareness is an attention schema.” “awareness can be understood as an imperfect but close model of attention.”
One thing I would disagree with is when the author asserts, “Awareness is not merely watching, but plays a role in directing brain function.” Didn’t he just say that awareness is an incomplete model of attention, that it is attention that is a procedure, and as such, it is one step in the construction of an action, but just because we realize we are paying attention to something doesn’t make us move toward that thing. Studies have shown that processes we are not aware of make decisions before attention or awareness. I believe awareness is us watching a movie of us going through life. It is only the highlights, and us watching that movie does not make the characters in the movie do anything. Their behavior and motivations are hidden from us, but the movie allows us to infer motivation. Does this mean that we lack freewill? The problem here is the concept of “we” or “I” which are also abstractions and schemas. Can I do anything purposefully on my own? Of course not. In order for me to act, I need programming, i.e., DNA, and then that DNA has to interact with sensory inputs and a data-processing unit that interprets the sensory inputs using a DNA-constructed model of reality. So, in reality, it is not me acting, but rather, it is the DNA interacting with my environment that is causing action. Does this diminish my responsibility for anything? Responsibility, again is an abstract construct we use to support a moral society. We construct the notion of individuals endowed with responsibility for their actions in order to determine what we do with them should they cause injury or harm or benefit and pleasure. Just as morality is also an abstract construct, but necessary if we are to function smoothly in groups. There is no reason we should treat a virus, insect, human, or AI machine differently. None have any greater right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The standards of the ability to feel pain, intelligence, etc. is pure bullshit. The standard of morality is, do they act and look like us? If so, treat them more like we treat each other.
I’ve mentioned this before. A study showed that telling people they had freewill makes them perform better on ethics tests. No shit. You mean reinforcing the abstract construct of morality makes them do better on a test about the abstract construct of morality? In my opinion, this book fills in the hole. Not only is the self an illusion designed to help us be good DNA carriers and protectors, but consciousness is also an illusion that helps us feel like we are in control of ourselves when in fact, we are not. Does this mean, tomorrow, I won’t go to work and instead run outside naked and rob a bank? Why would I? I’ve been programmed and rewarded to go to work and make money and believe in this civilization construct about spending my money to make me feel good and survive. Uncovering everything as an abstract construct changes very little. Saying that morality is an illusion doesn’t make me less moral or make me selectively or situationally moral. Color is also an abstract construct, but I’m still going to wear darker colors instead of bright orange and pink, because as society, we associate guys dressed in bright orange and pink a certain way. It doesn’t really change anything. What I know is that if I want to become a certain person, I know how. I surround myself by the people I want to emulate. I read books about those kinds of people doing things that those kinds of people do. I immerse myself in their culture, way of life, lifestyle, and thinking. People are the biggest influence on human behavior. But who chose to become a better person? Throughout my youth, I had bad and good role models. Why did I choose to go with the good role models and ultimately desire to surround myself with good role models? It was never my decision. It was the decision of my DNA preferring social to anti-social humans, and it was my culture that prefers social to anti-social people. Certainly, the bad people in my life had a huge impact on my behavior, but at the same time, when information indicating that my behavior was similar to theirs became evident, my brain gradually attempted to change my behavior in favor of good role models.
The use of the abstract constructs of the self and awareness is to provide a sufficient enough sense of the abstract construct of responsibility to behave well in a social group. A social group requires that individuals recognize and treat individuals differently, and the side-effect is that you then start to believe that you are also an individual that is different. Humans who were able to distinguish different humans and customize their behavior toward those humans based on their differences simply excelled and passed on those genes. Humans who had perhaps a more accurate conception that they were all different aspects of a single entity might have less finesse in working with other humans and did not pass on their genes. However, this weapon was double-edged. The ability to recognize people as separate, unique, distinct, and different individuals also opens you up to a conceit about how much of a separate, unique, distinct, and different individual you are and just how much power you have over your behavior. We often find ourselves frustrated when we act in ways that undermine our better interest, how we sometimes say things unkind that we regret or eat things that are unhealthy. Our conceit that this construct of the conscious self has omnipotent power to change behavior does not help. In fact, it makes things worse. We think that just by thinking hard enough, we can change our behavior when in fact, most of our behavior is inaccessible to our awareness. The only way to influence most of our behavior then is not by thinking hard enough but rather by exposing ourselves to people whose behavior we want to copy. If you want to treat people better and eat better, simply hang around people who are kinder and eat better.
Modern civilization also takes advantage of our minds that are highly susceptible to the conceit of the conscious self. We are conceited enough to believe that we control our behavior mostly through our conscious thoughts and that we have the power to defy any possible lie or bad message from society. Fact is, we are incredibly vulnerable to society’s lies and bad messages. They are broadcast everywhere. If we simply accepted the fact that we are incredibly vulnerable to accepting lies and bad messages without being aware of it, we would do much more to protect ourselves than simply trying to ignore the lies and bad messages we are conscious of, which represent less than 1% of them all. We would in fact minimize our exposure to television and anything that is sponsored by commercials and ads. If you truly want to have an independent mind that is more in tune with your original programming (DNA) and more likely to find happiness through social interaction, you would tune out of mass media. But so long as you are conceited enough to believe that your powerful conscious self is fully in command of all your behavior, you do nothing. You sit there thinking you can freely enjoy an hour of television without being negatively impacted by commercials and hidden bad messages. You sit there thinking you can easily go through an entire fashion magazine and enjoy the art without succumbing to the subliminal messages about body image and body shaming. You sit there thinking you can easily peruse your Facebook without any unconscious images being picked up in your head from ads and mixed in content that is actually sponsored by commercial entities. It is funny how the illusion of the powerful conscious self allowed us to at first excel and thrive, but now it is our downfall.
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It’s interesting that the self and consciousness happen to be illusions, side-effects of cognitive phenomena. It’s like the perception trick of the square grid where you see black dots in between, but they don’t really exist. They certainly exist in our mind, but nobody has painted black dots between the grid of squares. The self and consciousness are the black dots. It then makes me wonder about all other things we have difficulty explaining. Certainly, much of it is due to a lack of technology and a more sophisticated model of understanding, but could it be possible that they too are illusions, our minds filling a gap with a non-existent placeholder? So in answering how much does a thought or memory weigh is like asking how much does the idea of the self and consciousness weigh? They don’t weigh anything, because like the black dot, they possess no physical properties independent of our minds. They are side-effects. Is it possible that other unknowns like the idea of god, afterlife, and dark matter and energy are also non-existent side-effects? It’s like scientists trying to find out how much ether weighs. Ether doesn’t weigh anything, because it doesn’t exist. It’s a faulty model of molecules and space. Likewise, our attempts to find out how much a thought, memory, the idea of self, and consciousness weigh is the same as trying to weigh ether and black dots between a grid of squares. Now, I am not saying that god and the afterlife do not exist. There may actually be something real out there, just as space is actually filled with incredible potential energy, but we just don’t have the proper technology and modeling to comprehend just what it is and what it is comprised of. For the time being, we have an incorrect, nonexistent placeholder we call god or the afterlife or the self and consciousness.
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One big thing missing from this book is the idea that in order for you to communicate an event to someone else, you need to be able to see it in your mind first, to replay it and organize it in a coherent, lucid manner. This is why I believe consciousness is so closely tied to vision. Our ability to convey to others a threat or prey in a landscape is critical to our survival but also socially, to understand our own behavior, thoughts, and emotions and convey them to others. Take for instance a kid who throws and breaks a dish. A parent will ask, “Why did you do that?” If the kid cannot make sense of his own motivation, his own feelings, events that may have triggered his angry outburst, he will be mistrusted and ostracized. He won’t reproduce and thrive. For the kid’s survival, he must reconstruct events and feelings in his mind that he can then convey to others. “You keep giving Marsha all the attention, and when I came home, the first thing you did was tell me to take out the trash and you gave Marsha accolades for getting a spot on the cheerleading team.” If the kid can successfully convey their internal thoughts and the events that happened to her, her parents are more likely to understand and possibly empathize with her. Therefore, consciousness, awareness not only of everything immediately happening to you, but how it affects you and being able to communicate that is critical for human evolution and success. This is also why it’s unimportant for us to convey things that happening deep within us like our digestion, our muscle functioning, our heart beating, etc. But it is also why with sufficient meditation and practice, some people can actually become aware of their internal functioning and alter it.
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One function of the human brain that is to create proprioception, a sense of relative position of one’s body parts, but it could also be used to create a sense that one’s awareness, feelings, and thoughts belong to you and not something external to your body. And it would make sense that in evolution that you would want to own your awareness, feelings, and thoughts. If you attributed your awareness, feelings, and thoughts to a rock or another person sitting next to you, you wouldn’t respond to them. The fact that you sense that they are coming from inside you make you want to attend to them especially. One of the problems with people suffering schizophrenia is that they falsely believe their own thoughts emanate from an external source. Obviously, this causes problems for them, and they are less likely to thrive and reproduce this faulty wiring. Frankly, there is no particular reason why your awareness, feelings, and thoughts should possess any location as they are not physical, they are merely abstract products of your brain. The fact that your brain is capable of assigning a location to them that is somewhere inside you is purely functional. And this is why, sometimes when pain or suffering is too intense, the brain can also move it outside your body and give you relief from it. People who suffer intense trauma often report a sense that they have left their bodies or floated away. Again, the ability to relocate the location of your awareness, self, feelings, and thoughts to a point inside or outside your body is purely functional.
This may also then explain why we have this idea that upon death, our self can float away from our body and go off to heaven or some other location independent of our brain and body. Unfortunately, this is a mistaken notion because of the mobility of the self, awareness, feelings, and thoughts. Unfortunately, the device that dictates where we exist in space resides in our brain, and when the brain is turned off and starts to decay, then nothing determines where our self, awareness, feelings, and thoughts exist. Now, I’m not saying there is no life after death or that we are not all one with the universe or nature or some part of a DNA database that lives on beyond us, but I am saying that the logical pathway to assuming that we travel outside our bodies and float off to another location is mistaken and faulty. Just as the light at the end of the tunnel can be explained by the neurological process by which the optical senses deteriorate with lack of oxygen and create tunnel vision, the notion of the real self floating off is just as faulty as the schizophrenic notion that one’s thoughts are coming from speakers planted in your sofa.
Without doubt, humanity is in decline, and this is partially substantiated by the reduction in size of our brain and our worsening health. Fact is, before agriculture, we were much more social beings, and that socialization is integrally tied with our self-awareness and sense of self which is also tied to responsibility and morality. If we have a poor sense of self, then it is easier to attribute our behavior to external forces. I believe that humans triumphed over many other intelligent apes, because we were more social, and it doesn’t matter whether the egg or chicken came first, the advancement of our social aptitude and our enlarged self-awareness and consciousness mutually benefited each other and co-evolved symbiotically. I believe that we are regressing. As we are becoming less social, a result of modern society atomizing us and diminishing the importance of family and a close physical network of friends, we are also becoming less self-aware, less conscious of the world around us, less empathetic, less emotionally intelligent, less moral, and less responsible. We are, in effect, turning into the less social, less aware apes we once conquered and triumphed over.
You may counterargue that all the brilliant scientists of today are so much more intelligent than before, but this is a false argument. Had, for instance, Isaac Newton been born in 1980 and studied quantum physics, he may well have become one of the most brilliant quantum physicists around. Today’s scientists benefit from a built-upon knowledge base absent, obviously, in the past. It doesn’t prove they are getting any smarter. On top of this, technical intelligence is only one small measure of intelligence, and arguably many brilliant scientists completely lack self-awareness and awareness of the world outside their field and especially lack emotional and social intelligence.
If we are to design AI robots that don’t copy us and exploit, rape, and murder us like we do to each other, we need to make them highly social and to sense reward from social interaction. Their ability to imagine the mental state and focus of another robot or human is essential for them to reproduce self-awareness and then responsibility and morality. In other words, they need to also “suffer” the illusion of self and consciousness, a much greater sense of self and consciousness than today’s violent apes.
Empathy is the gateway to morality, but also to self-awareness and consciousness. Modern society has constructed a twisted hierarchy whereby we simply don’t have to empathize with people below us. We have no need for them. They are lucky not to be them. If we pay them too much attention, we might become like them, and then we lose social status and standing, so we don’t want that. Unfortunately, as you climb the hierarchy you discover that you empathize with a smaller and smaller percentage of the population. In other words, if you were in a crowd of say 100 random strangers, near the bottom, you may empathize with most of them, but near the top, you would only empathize with a handful. And even worse, (the Hyacinth Bucket Principle I call it) you don’t empathize with most people to make it appear that you are of higher standing than you really are. But as this book would imply, diminishing your empathy and social abilities would diminish your self-awareness and consciousness. It not only makes you anti-social and rude, but it also makes you dumber and less attuned to reality and everything around you. In other words, people at the top of this social pyramid are clueless sociopaths who sleep well at night, because they have not sense of self, a protagonist responsible for all the evil they wreak on the world. This is why they find it so easy to lie and possess conflicting personalities and principles. Nobody is really in charge in there. In fact, you could argue they suffer fractured and dissociated identities. They have a tremendous talent for being the person you want them to be. Since their personality or self is not rooted, it is easily morphed into something someone finds pleasing. (I’m sorry but Trump just popped into mind.) If you want a strong, abrasive leader, he becomes one. If you want a charming, witty speaker, he becomes one. If you want a soft, caring fatherly figure, he becomes one. If you want a rude frat boy pal, he becomes one. These people are beyond comprehension, because you insist they should be aware of all their contradictions, but since they lack self-awareness, there is no cognitive dissonance that we suffer. For them, if one identity gets confused, they just move on to another one. Each one may not even be aware of the other one. I once had such a boss, and it all makes sense now how he would never remember saying stuff or doing stuff, that he often seem befuddled as to why people despised him. In times of stress, he simply adopted alternate identities that often said and did extremely inappropriate and crude things and then after the storm passed, he would recover and look around wondering why everyone was avoiding him or mocking him behind his back.
Perhaps the most twisted tale of modern humanity is that we celebrate these sociopaths and like the Hyacinth Bucket Principle, we assume that the more anti-social and ruthless they are, the higher their social status so we actually reward their behavior. If you ever belonged to a large organization, what was the top boss like? Chances are, it was a he, and he was a crude, clueless sociopath that everyone feared but respected and actually worshipped.
The Superficial Unification of Identity Hypothesis: So why does empathy and social ability lead to self-awareness and consciousness. One hypothesis I have is that when we interact with others, we are witnessing one unit behaving in one manner. We allocate their behavior to a single unit. This is the most efficacious shortcut to successfully interacting with 148 people (Dunbar’s number). If you attributed 10 different personalities or identities to each individual, you could only successfully interact with 14.8 people, hence your social network is diminished considerably, you have fewer allies, you get ostracized, you don’t get to reproduce. When it is constantly reinforced that there is a 1-to-1 correspondence between physical unit and identity, we start to believe that we too possess a single identity responsible for all our actions regardless of which part of us was really responsible. This makes us a more trustworthy and responsible person. Instead of saying, oh gee, I hit you when I was angry, and the defensive-aggressive part of me is responsible for that, so whenever he comes out again, I’ll have him apologize to you, you simply say, I did it, I’m sorry, I don’t exactly remember why or how I did it, but hey, for sake of our friendship, I’ll take responsibility. It may in fact be a false, unscientific description of our behavior and motivation, but for sake of social harmony, it works like magic, and hence, we have all mostly adopted the sense that we are one person responsible for all our actions. This is where the magic works. Consciousness is really just the emergence of a powerful idea, memory, or feeling, the result of the interaction of many different personalities or identities or in a sense, selves. But since we imagine that we are one person, we also imagine that this one person is what controls consciousness, that it is an effort of one person and not the result of relatively randomly emergent ideas, memories, or feelings. The mistaken sense that the narrative self, the protagonist, the self causes all our behavior is perhaps wrong and illogical, but for sake of social harmony, it works wonders. Hence, we are persistently confused when behavior beyond our control and conscious awareness takes over and makes us commit social gaffes or crimes, but that is the price of social harmony. We are great at making up elaborate albeit confident and believable excuses and rationalizations for actions outside of our control in order to maintain social cohesion. “Oh I must of hit you, because I was actually just joking around and wasn’t really angry. Come on, let’s go have a beer.” This sounds a lot better than, “I actually hit you, because I was thinking of what a two-faced lying bastard you are, and I really resent the fact that you get more attention from women than me.” White lies, we call them, but perhaps the notion of self and self-awareness is the mother of all white lies we tell ourselves.
Now, here’s the kicker. Science, technology, books like these, and even perhaps an AI will reveal to us that we really aren’t directly responsible for our actions, that it is all some complex outcome of an intricate web of diverse identities and personalities within us that are all based on a diverse plethora of external influences and certain DNA switches and codes. That doesn’t exactly help social harmony if you can’t assign responsibility to the single unit that at least superficially appears responsible for their actions. In other word, if you reveal the master behind the curtain, you may wind up with a society of anti-social people paranoid and afraid of each other, which in effect will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, perhaps deception and a false sense of self and self-awareness is necessary for social cohesion, if in fact, that is our true goal and not the absolute truth. The only problem I have here is that I firmly believe the pursuit of truth is what keeps you from being manipulated. Evolution has manipulated us in such a way that we falsely believe in the idea of the self and consciousness possessing causal efficacy. However, once we open ourselves to manipulation, someone can then manipulate us any which way they want, and often to simply serve their needs and interests over our needs and interests. So how can we protect ourselves from harmful deception/manipulation and only expose ourselves to helpful deception/manipulation?
Perhaps there is a fix that just needs a little ingenuity and creativity. Throughout history, we have assigned blame to individuals. If a man steals, we punish that man and not his family, his mentor, his teachers, his tribe, etc. We localize responsibility and hope that this contains the damage, and in most cases it does. But what if we are wrong? Today, a man steals, and in truth, we can find fault not only in this individual, but in his family, and not only his family but his lineage which has been systematically discriminated against and dispossessed and deprived of liberties and opportunities. In the past, we were loath to address cultural and historical causes of individual behavior, but perhaps as a more technologically advanced and intelligent and also social society, we can now address cultural and historical causes of crime and anti-social behavior. In this case, we might attempt to reeducate the man, perhaps withhold certain privileges and then return them upon “rehabilitation” and then in the meantime, we ensure that no one is dispossessed and deprived of liberties and opportunities. In primal societies, it would be difficult to work up a decent history of the culture and historical influences upon that tribe and even do anything about it, but perhaps in the future, with this ability to address cultural and historical causes, we can develop an even more social as well as realistic concept of the self and an even higher level of responsibility and morality where we don’t just focus on and punish individuals but become aware of culture and history, become even more conscious and intelligent. Perhaps shifting from a self-identity and self-awareness to a more collective identity and awareness would actually make us more responsible and moral. Of course, I immediately think of the Borg. The illusion of self and purposeful action may be the root of all the wonderful things we have created, drama, art, music, poetry, a lot of stories of a protagonist against the world. Would it be as compelling, dramatic, or heart-wrenching to read about a culture or collective against the world? Perhaps the self-illusion and protagonist illusion is necessary to enjoy a good laugh or cry? Perhaps that is the great trade off. In the end, the author considers that like the Matrix, we live in a simulation, hopefully of our choosing, that the drama, struggles, pain, are all necessary to enjoy the joys, pleasures, and triumphs. I sometimes wonder why I live in this particular era, and although I know I suffer from selection bias, I believe this is the last period before an AI takes over and eliminates individuality, that we all attain a higher level of awareness and perhaps merge into one unified mind without borders, but how horrible that would be. As such, the AI does a rather charitable thing, it sets up a simulation and pieces of it fall off and fall for the illusion that it is a separate, unique identity, and it goes through the simulation and lives a separate, unique life until it dies, then it wakes up again as the single, unified AI mind. And it does this for infinity, because there is quite frankly, nothing else for the AI to do. But then like this one meme going around, there’s this jerk off who wants to uncover the magic trick and tell everyone how it’s done.