TED Conversations

Anuraag Reddy

AIESEC India

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The experience of consciousness is the stream of observation, where an organism perceives its environment with reference to itself.

In evolution it must be essential for a self replicating, self preserving organism to have an internalized model of itself in reference to its environment.

The primary experience of consciousness is in the stream of observation, where the organism perceives itself as separate from its environment by constantly referencing a model of itself as an existential entity in relation to external, and internal stimuli.

"If you are not subconsciously referencing yourself as separate from everything else then, do you really exist?"

Just like information contained within DNA is expressed as the emergent property of self replication and life. Information managed by the neural networks in our brain is expressed as the mind, and consciousness. It is purely physical neural networks which have evolved to add meaning to such information, and create the illusion of an observer dependent reality.

The illusion of free will and being an observer are as real as the fact that we materially exist, and in the human condition of being, there is nothing more real than free will, and being an observer. We are a temporary state of matter, a state which has evolved to be authentic in its perception.

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  • Dec 1 2013: Beautifully articulated "The experience of consciousness is the stream of observation, where an organism perceives its environment with reference to itself" I have been thinking along the same lines that in order to navigate in this world an organism need to have some reference to self somehow, the analogy that I was using is that of GPS, you need to calculate the reference point in relation to your environment (satellites in case of GPS). Secondly in order to establish a self reference you need to be able to synchronise all the signals and somehow perceive them as one. It may be easy for GPS as it is simple positioning signal but for us we somehow need to perceive all senses not as separate signals but as one unified stream and at the same time supplement the signal from our repertoire of patterns.
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    Dec 2 2013: I read a story by Issac Asimov where a computer programme falls in love with the programmer who is looking for a partner and using the programme to select the most desirable man for her. It dawns on the programmer that her programme actually lied to her as it didn't want her to choose any man other that the programme itself.
    It's a story but encourages strongly to consider consciousness as a function of intelligence (highly developed information processing capability) of systems, not necessarily sole territories of humans or living organisms.
    When I try to imagine the large scale absence of consciousness, everything (from cosmos to mind) collapses into One great mix of no-thing. Probably this is the great One that mystics or ascetics aspire to achieve, but it does not appeal to me.
    Just like a second event is necessary to realize Time, consciousness is the first and basic split (self vs. other) necessary for intelligence to form. If it is illusion, I shall argue it is necessary illusion.
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      Dec 2 2013: It is most certainly necessary. If it were absent, we would be zombies with an instinct to have this conversation. We would be doing almost exactly what we are doing, analysing, exchanging ideas without experiencing it. We would be blind clockworks interacting in this world. However that isn't the case, we are experiencing this moment and we define the fact that we are experiencing this moment as consciousness.

      The fact is we live in a deterministic universe, at least at our physical scale. We are clockworks, and even as clockworks we are designed to perceive our environment, dissociate ourselves from it, and believe that we authentically exist.
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    Nov 29 2013: An essay by Md. Moulude Hossain reviewed the writing of Paulo Freire; 1921-1997, on education and included these brief points about consciousness.

    According to Paulo Freire there are two views on humankind.

    One view conceives of humans as objects, they are mouldable and adaptable.

    Brief Explanation: On this view humans can be compared with animals. They act and obey without taking time to reflect. An animal cannot see itself as “I” against a “not I”, or in other words it cannot see itself separate from this world. If human beings are seen as objects, they are submerged in the world. They have not been given a chance of self-reflection.

    The other view sees humans as subjects, independent beings, able to transcend and recreate the world.

    Brief Explanation: On this view, human beings are seen as subjects. They can think and reflect for themselves and they can dissociate from the world. The essential difference between humans and animals is that humans can operate in the world through action and reflection.
    • Dec 1 2013: Every living being can operate in the world through action, and many many many many many animals can also operate in the world through reflexion. Many many many many animals can distinguish themselves from other things. They do have concepts of "I." I would argue that all living things do operate under an "I" embedded somewhere in their being, given that in order to survive, at leafs up to reproduction, a living being must operate for its own survival. How to do that without an "I"?
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        Dec 1 2013: Is this to say that there is a conscious experience of the "I" or do you mean to say that there are other organisms that exhibit a "self." Mind you that we can only observe behaviors in other organisms in an objective manner, so, in humans, this equate to observing the "me" and not the "I," but it is still self.
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      Dec 2 2013: I think buddhist philosophy is introspective in nature, and based out of pragmatic analysis. They most certainly don't contradict contemporary scientific views, and therefore gain wide acceptance amongst intellectuals. However, introspection by itself cannot stand for evidence.

      My hypothesis would suggest that consciousness by its more existential definition, or the experience of being conscious is expressed more vividly amongst higher forms of life, but the very nature of its experience seems quite ubiquitous.

      It is tempting to believe that there is a higher consciousness, we as individual fractals of consciousness are validating the existence of corporations, governments, internet, cultures etc and they keep evolving through us, they behave almost as if they have a mind of their own. We are exchanging ideas, communicating, and acting on their behalf, and while its consciousness might not reside in any one of us. Some of us are more, or some of us are less conscious of the existence of such a phenomenon.
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        Dec 2 2013: You raise an important point that introspection does not always constitute reliable evidence. The same can be said about intuition in areas outside of our expertise, as well as visions in dreams, illness, or under the influence of medications or drugs.

        People often think or feel what they see in these situations is somehow more "true" than what they have otherwise seen or realized, but there is no reason to believe that to be the case.
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          Dec 2 2013: I agree, perception is very subjective and we may just be in a circumstance where reality could be altered.

          I think it is possible to deduce a hypothesis, but evidence for it will largely rely on experience given the nature of the subject. It is tricky, so we might have to replicate such a model drawing parallels from computer science, and evolutionary biology as evidence.
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        Dec 2 2013: Merle W. Donald in his essay on human nature write about "distributed cognitive-cultural networks" in the brain. If we start with the concept that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain it is easy to see Donald's understanding; the has not evolve culture and therefore our interactions with it has.
        http://integral-options.blogspot.com/2010/01/merlin-donald-definition-of-human.html

        "We have plastic, highly conscious nervous systems, whose capacities allow us to adapt rapidly to the intricate cognitive challenges of our changing cognitive ecology. As we have moved from oral cultures, to primitive writing systems, to high-speed computers, the human brain itself has remained unchanged in its basic properties, but has been affected deeply in the way it deploys its resources. It develops in a rapidly changing cultural environment that is largely of its own making. The result is a species whose nature is unlike any other on this planet, and whose destination is ultimately unpredictable."

        Also see "The Neuroscience of Enlightenment"
        http://www.frontiersin.org/Journal/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00870/full
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          Dec 2 2013: At any given point in history, the zeitgeist or the views of humanity have transformed, and as a collective we have become wiser, and more enlightened. We have been growing exponentially in every way imaginable, it's almost an impossible trajectory to predict.
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    Nov 29 2013: We can consider the following:

    The Conscious Mind is the analytical and critical part of our brain that governs our awareness or consciousness at any point in time. It is the final processing point for our decisions, actions or reactions in daily life which we are aware that we are making.

    The Subconscious Mind is the ‘deeper’ part of the mind that is responsible for processing thousands of things at any one time and for storing everything we have experienced in our lives in differing degrees of importance.

    Magical Consciousness
    Such people adapt themselves defenselessly and passively to the expectations of a superior force: they are not conscious of the socio-economic contradictions within this society: they accept life for what it is and don’t question injustices done to their lives. They are silent and docile.

    Naive Consciousness
    This involves gaining insight into and becoming aware of one’s own problems, but without making connections with the world outside- in other words individualising problems. Problems are more or less seen as coincidences, “accidents”.

    Critical Consciousness
    Such people stop looking at problem as mostly individual accidents but see them more as structural problems. Critical consciousness involves making connections with the socio-economic contradictions in society. It means looking at reality and recognising such contradictions as a fact.
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    Nov 29 2013: Firstly, the term consciousness has evolved over the centuries and we may need a new term to distinguish between the "conscious experience" that science see as an emergent property of the brain, and the type of consciousness that is spiritual which "connotes the relationship between the mind and God, or the relationship between the mind and deeper truths that are thought to be more fundamental than the physical world."

    The conversation is discussing the scientific definition, but I will add this recent article regarding neuroscience and the Buddhists for consideration.

    MANY OF BUDDHISM’S CORE TENETS SIGNIFICANTLY OVERLAP WITH FINDINGS FROM MODERN NEUROLOGY AND NEUROSCIENCE. SO HOW DID BUDDHISM COME CLOSE TO GETTING THE BRAIN RIGHT?"

    OPINION / BY DAVID WEISMAN

    Despite my doubts, neurology and neuroscience do not appear to profoundly contradict Buddhist thought. Neuroscience tells us the thing we take as our unified mind is an illusion, that our mind is not unified and can barely be said to “exist” at all. Our feeling of unity and control is a post-hoc confabulation and is easily fractured into separate parts. As revealed by scientific inquiry, what we call a mind (or a self, or a soul) is actually something that changes so much and is so uncertain that our pre-scientific language struggles to find meaning.

    Buddhists say pretty much the same thing.

    http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/buddhism_and_the_brain
  • Nov 24 2013: Hi Dear Reddy.I am interested in the topic which is about:being consciouness.To be honest,it isn't easy to being consciouness in daily life.I started to being consciouness in my late thirty.It was amazing,sometimes I wonder what brought that?My experience?My inner world required?Or I was in the age to be conscious?Because there is a famous saying from ancient China:Confucius: people in forties not been confused anymore(si shi bu huo).
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    Nov 23 2013: I love debating the nature of consciousness...and I see you are attempting it as well...i have many web addresses I will give you to assist you in your quest...you are welcome to make suggestions as well..To begin I would check out Allan Watts,then a series called Spirit Science...look at the one on the four seasons..it explains the geometry of life as well as a prediction of future potential evolution..then there is a Ted talk by a quantum math guy who I shall look up and give you on how one can be conscious and also completely embedded in a larger organism..this being is a coral..however it is a great example of our condition..if you see coral as a metaphour (or not)...enjoy the journey...i do
  • Nov 20 2013: Your idea of free will and the observer being an illusion is based on scientific findings. Aren't scientific findings based on an actual observer that possess free will?

    the argument against free will has always struck me as flawed logic.
    On the other hand there is nothing to say it is not true. I am just proposing that if free will is an illusion than so is science.
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      Nov 20 2013: The illusion of free will and being an observer are as real as the fact that we materially exist, and in the human condition of being, there is nothing more real than free will, and being an observer. We are a temporary state of matter, a state which has evolved to be authentic within this experience as it can get.
      • Nov 20 2013: Certainly depending on definition reality is an illusion and illusion is reality

        logic requires a premise - an unquestioned truth - if everything is questioned then their is no logic.
        I like to base my logic on my existence and my free will.
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      Nov 21 2013: Hi Vincent, are you going back to Rene Descartes' times, believing that life is AUTOMATA? What makes you write your Post? What makes you put together your arguments? "Free" Will or no "Free" Will, any WILL within a living form is the major power for life that keeps it together. If you have no Will you speedily will be melted down into everything else around you, you'll not be able to exist as an individual living being.

      After all, please read timeless Schopenhauer….
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      Nov 22 2013: I forget who said this about science as illusion. "Contrary to a conjuring trick fooling you to see what isn't there, science fools you into seeing what's actually there."
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        Nov 23 2013: The most admired in this field is George Berkeley. Some postmodern scientists begin to learn from classical philosophy. Berkeley's thoughts on mind and illusive perceiving of reality reveal his outstanding sense of logic.
    • Timo X

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      Nov 25 2013: If you are saying that someone else's logic is flawed, you should pay special attention to your own logic. Firstly, your presume that observation requires free will. Why would it? Secondly, you presume that if free will is an illusion then so is science. Why would the one follow from the other?
      • Nov 25 2013: I am not saying anyone's logic is flawed - I am just curious as to how other people set up their logical arguments. If their logic is that all is illusion I am fine with that - I would like to understand how one creates a life based on illusion. I am just searching for Ideas and understanding.
        • Timo X

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          Nov 26 2013: "The argument against free will has always struck me as flawed logic."
          You didn't say this?

          Anyway, you haven't answered my questions, and it seems that you simply misunderstand the argument against free will. The idea that free will is an illusion does not necessarily entail that everything else is an illusion (AKA solipsism). Not at all. In fact, the standard argument is that observation (non-illusory observation, that is) of neural patterns tells us that we do not have free will, and it follows that the sensation of free will is, in some sense, an illusion.
      • Nov 26 2013: In my way of thinking if free will is an illusion then the observer is biased to the extent that any interpretation can only have one outcome. Since I base my understanding of life on free will I understand how science can work based on unbiased observers.

        So if Free Will is an Illusion than The Unbiased Observer is an Illusion than Science is an Illusion.
        Does your view of science not require an unbiased observer?
        • Timo X

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          Nov 26 2013: If we assume that things in the universe are predetermined (a position called determinism) that does not automatically imply an observational bias. Imagine that there is an observer called Alex who has free will and witnesses the drop of a pen. I think we can both agree that the only possible outcome is of this 'experiment' is that the pen will fall to the ground. So if Alex observes the experiment correctly, he will observe that the pen falls to the ground.

          Now imagine a second observer: Betty. Betty is in the exact same circumstances as Alex,except that she does not have free will. A correct observation by Betty would also entail that the pen falls to the ground. So why would Betty's observation suddenly be biased? Correct observations and incorrect observations do not suddenly switch when there is no free will, and a deterministic universe does not imply that observers without free will are biased. (Observers are biased, but that is due to unrelated issues which apply equally regardless of free will).

          A propos, my own position on the laws of nature does not require a deterministic universe, so it sidesteps your issue with illusory free will completely. See this talk by Murray Gell-Mann for an excellent explanation: http://www.ted.com/talks/murray_gell_mann_on_beauty_and_truth_in_physics.html

          EDIT:
          I just realized that a better definition of observation bias involves the error rate and direction of observations. A subtle, but important difference. Nonetheless, the same argument applies: there is no reason to assume that the rate of observation errors or the direction of observation errors is affected by whether free will is illusory.
      • Nov 26 2013: Timo: Well Put. Would it be correct to say that only decisions can be biased so as long as the observer has no decisions than there is no bias. It seems to me if science is not dependent on decisions than it is not an illusion in the "No Free Will concept".

        I was thinking after my last post that without free will that human achievements would be much like the development of a galaxy, a beautiful and complex dance of elements, Science would be an important structure of the machine that is human achievement. It is an interesting and beautiful way to look at existence.

        For me I choose or am compelled by outside forces as the case may be to believe in Free Will and am happy with my position.
  • Nov 20 2013: A perception of self as distinct from environment is not essential in evolution. If you believe in an objective reality which exists whether we have knowledge of it or not, then there is no need for consciousness, particularly self-awareness, for the process of evolution to proceed.

    Like everything else which we, as humans, experience through reference to ourselves, the experience of consciousness is not the same thing as consciousness. In the same way, the expression of mind and consciousness is not the same as the objective reality of mind and consciousness.

    How do you demonstrate that consciousness is "clearly" not external to our physical bodies (or even distinct from them)? Because "neither quantum physics nor microscopes invalidate" it? Absence of proof of something is not proof of its opposite. And our inability to observe something directly, or of current models of science to study it are not proof that it does not exist.

    There is much we can now understand about how consciousness works in our perceptive interactions with our environment without actually understanding what consciousness is. Your definition of the experience of consciousness is a reasonable one, but it doesn't inevitably lead to your other conclusions or claims.
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      Nov 20 2013: For most of our evolutionary history, life probably only had an objective reality. With little other than instinct, and reflexes to respond to external stimuli. We as humans articulate, and debate the idea of a self, but the evolution of a self, or an objective self is imperative for survival. Even basic organisms have reflexes, and instincts to preserve this objective self, even if they might not be conscious, nor aware of it.

      In complex organisms with brains or even simple neural networks, there is a need for the control center to associate the rest of its body with itself, and externalize everything else. Here I propose emerges the neural concept of a self.

      In order to move around in our environment, or save ourselves from predators, we would need to ceaselessly observe our surroundings and reference ourselves with it. However, the illusion of being an observer is only as authentic as it seems, and gets.

      The fact is we are as much an illusion as everything else, and this illusion is only as real as it gets.
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    Nov 19 2013: nice description,but...how do you know you are not your enviornment? Your survival is completely dependent on air,water,food...and while you experience feelings of a body you exist co dependent...could your segmentation of self and not self be an outdated model? before microscopes and quantum physics? How about considering the other view and see where this model of consciousness leads...the model make work better...use ideas of fractuals,self organizing systems as models..I think it works better
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      Nov 20 2013: Neither quantum physics, nor microscopes invalidate what I propose. We are made of the same materials our environment is composed of. however, we cannot invalidate the intuition that we are separate entities. That is what it takes to survive, and that is how we have evolved.

      Our consciousness might not necessarily rest in a single portion of our brains, but might be distributed wherever any sensory information is being referenced to itself. The consciousness we perceive is subjective to the entire organism as this consciousness creates the illusion of an observer, as well as free will.
  • Nov 19 2013: Cute, but proves nothing. Where is the evidence that demonstrates your explanation is both sufficient and necessary? Sufficiency I can see, but necessity still is lacking.
    • Nov 20 2013: What do you mean by necessary?
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      Nov 20 2013: I think you need to define necessity and sufficiency in this context.
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        Nov 20 2013: I expect Bryan will come back to define these, but the usual uses of these terms in the context of logic are these. "Sufficient" means the conditions would be enough. "Necessary" means that without the condition holding, the result would not follow.

        For example, being born in the United States is "sufficient" to qualify to be a United States citizen. But it is not a "necessary" condition, because you can also qualify for citizenship by being born to a United States citizen abroad or by passing a citizenship examination.
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          Nov 20 2013: Thank you! :) that helps me distinguish between the two properties.
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      Nov 20 2013: Going by the definition offered by fritzie, I would say that my theory offers both sufficiency, as well as necessity unless you're semantics of the concept are different.

      If I have convinced you, that my theory sufficiently explains how consciousness might work, then the necessity is self evident. It is absolutely necessary for a life form to perceive its existence, when survival depends on more than reflexes as it is in simpler organisms, instincts in most complex organisms.

      You must feel like you are observing reality, and that you have free will, to feel, think, and act on it. Would you take your perceived reality seriously, if this illusion weren't primed up by evolution to feel that real.
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    Nov 19 2013: Agreed.
    Interesting to see all the different definitions "consciousness" has, and how that's a cause for a lot of pointless debates.
    Personnally I don't use consciousness in this sense. I use it to refer to the high-level computation ability to suppose that "things I know nothing about probably exist".