Conscious(ness) Realist

Publication Reviews and Commentaries by Larissa Albantakis

Summary

In four separate sections (“Level”, “Content”, “Self”, and “Others”) Anil Seth explores what it means to be: to be conscious, to be a model of the world, to be a self, and other possible ways of being. Seth beautifully outlines his own dispositions on these matters, wittily and movingly recounts memorable moments that influenced his thinking, and expertly conveys the current state of research, as well as future avenues towards scientific progress on consciousness and the self.

Anil Seth’s central thesis is that, ultimately, we are conscious beast machines whose “perceptions and experiences, whether of the self or of the world, are inside-out controlled and controlling hallucinations that are rooted in the flesh-and-blood predictive machinary that evolves, develops, and operates from moment to moment always in light of a fundamental biological drive to stay alive” (p. 198).

The “controlled hallucination” view of consciousness promoted in the book places phenomenal consciousness in the generative model postulated by a predictive processing perspective of brain function. On this particular point (and the discussion of IIT), I believe a few critical remarks are in order.

Why discuss this book?

Before I say anything else, I will say that “Being you” is very much worth reading for everyone from high school student to consciousness researcher or philosopher of mind. The book contains a wealth of information which I will hardly touch upon (see for example the excellent section on the development of the PCI measure). It was a captivating read even for me, despite being largely familiar with the reported facts. I would go as far as to say that if everyone frequenting ASSC meetings would read and internalize Seth’s basic points about consciousness, perception, and the self we could make a lot of progress in the field in a short time.

Nevertheless, there are a few issues on which our positions do not align and outlining these differences could be illuminating (but note that there is about 95% agreement overall, compared to other factions within the consciousness science community).

Commentary

Below, I will follow the structure of the book and its four chapters. However, most of my comments concentrate on the first two sections, as my focus lies on consciousness rather than the self and I pretty much agree in full with Anil’s perspective on other minds and his concerns around machine consciousness.

I: Level

This first of four sections is dedicated to the question how consciousness can be approached scientifically. Notably, Seth equates consciousness with phenomenology, the quality of one’s experiences, what it feels like, rather than what can be done with it. As he notes, “[w]e can usefully distinguish the phenomenological properties of consciousness from its functional and behavioral properties.” (p. 14) and the phenomenological properties alone define the essence of consciousness. Subsequently, the functional and behavioral aspects of consciousness are set aside, and so are theories focussed exclusively on these aspects (GNW, HOT). This in itself is an unusual and refreshing choice.

Next, possible metaphysical stances towards consciousness are outlined nicely and succinctly, whereby Anil himself “tend[s] toward a functionally agnostic flavor of physicalism”. (p. 22) An important point highlighted here is that physicalism does not automatically mean functionalism, as implicitly assumed by many neuroscientists studying how the brain “processes information”. Functionalism assumes that it only matters what a system does, not what it is. As a consequence, functionalism implies that simulating consciousness means instantiating it, making it real (p. 20). But for many physical phenomena (e.g. the weather) this is not the case. Why should it be for consciousness?

[As you may know by now, I do not think that functionalism is a coherent approach to consciousness. See here for example: The Greek Cave]

Ultimately, Seth’s proposal is to set aside the hard problem, the question “why and how consciousness is part of the universe in the first place” (p. 25). Instead, he promotes a science of consciousness with the goals to “explain, predict, and control the phenomenological properties of conscious experience” (p. 25), which he calls the “real problem” approach. To the extent that this implies a need to take phenomenal consciousness seriously and that an objective science of the subjective is indeed possible, I’m all on board. In this sense, the “real problem” approach very much aligns with our recent article on ways to move beyond neural correlates of consciousness towards a characterization of its essential and structural properties (Ellia et al., 2021).

However, Anil Seth ties two additional notions into the “real problem” approach that I do not agree with. One is his suggestion that, “consciousness, like life, is not one single phenomenon.” (p. 33). I have already criticized this view in a recent post (Why consciousness is not like life) and will not start another rant here. Suffice it to say that consciousness decidedly is one thing: phenomenal experience. Everything else “of what being you is all about” (p. 33) either pertains to particular contents within consciousness (this includes the self, your perception of the world, and memories), or to the collection of your life-time experiences as a physically persistent entity. So while being you is not just about a single phenomenon, consciousness itself is.

The second problem I see is Anil’s insistence that developing a theory of what consciousness is is not only premature, but somehow counterproductive. Instead, I believe that we can and will overall make more progress with theory-driven “real problem” approaches. After all, the PCI measure, for example, is a direct output of integrated information theory (IIT), regardless of whether it is accepted as a successful test of the theory or not.

Our disagreement about theory in general is, of course, ultimately based on our respective experience with—and our take on—IIT. Factually, the description of IIT in “Being you” is accurate, highlights important distinguishing aspects of the theory, and is even largely favorable in my reading. The one exception is IIT’s postulated identity between consciousness and … and here is the problem. The discussion of IIT in “Being you” is exclusively focused on $$\Phi$$, the measure of integrated information of a system that, according to IIT, should correspond to the level of consciousness of that system. As if IIT had nothing whatsoever to say about content (and indeed there is no mention of IIT in chapter II).

Seth writes: “the best way forward is to retain the fundamental insight of IIT that conscious experiences are both informative and integrated, but to relinquish the conceit that $$\Phi$$ is to consciousness as mean molecular kinetic energy is to temperature.” (p. 74) But the identity in IIT is not about a scalar like mean kinetic energy. It is about structure. IIT postulates that the structure of my current experience is identical to the causal structure of its underlying neural substrate within my brain in its current state. Consciousness in IIT is not one-dimensional, and thus the temperature comparison as a means to illustrate the postulated identity is insufficient (even if Giulio Tononi and others have used the same analogy for illustrative purposes in the past).

[One reason this core aspect of IIT tends to get ignored is that IIT’s predictions regarding the level of consciousness have been much easier to test and apply experimentally (but there is progress both in formulating content-specific predictions and testing them). Yet, addressing the content of consciousness is not a new development in IIT (see Tononi (2004) and Balduzzi & Tononi (2009)). IIT 3.0, in addition, explicitly ties the quantity of integrated information $$(\Phi)$$ to the compositional causal structure of the system, in an acknowledgement of the fact that conscious level and conscious content “are not independent aspects of consciousness.” (p. 54)]

The problem with reducing the identity to a scalar is that it becomes inexplicable. Anil Seth writes “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, yet it is precisely the ambition of IIT—to solve the hard problem—that renders its most distinctive claims untestable in practice.” (p. 63) While many specific predictions of IIT are experimentally testable, at least in principle (as Seth affirms), the identity claim in itself is not. This is correct. However, once we understand that the identity is structural, it becomes clear that no additional experimental evidence is required. The structural identity is nothing mysterious, or extraordinary. It is an inevitable consequence of a successful “real problem” approach.

Let’s imagine the following: let’s say IIT 10.0 turns out to be maximally successful in explaining, predicting, and controlling our experiences. Let’ say we also find a structural equivalence between the cause-effect structure and the experience, wherever we are actually able to establish as much. In other words, we have accounted for everything we can possibly hope to account for and everything is consistent. What conclusion should we draw but to postulate an identity? What would be the point to then say “but you cannot prove consciousness is integrated information”?

Today we are still far away from accepting IIT as a successful solution to the “real problem” of consciousness. But my argument is not specific to IIT. Let’s say we find instead that we can account for every discernable aspect of phenomenal experiences through a particular type of top-down predictions generated by the internal world model of a self-sustaining being. Shouldn’t we then conclude that this is what consciousness is in physical terms? How could we extrapolate from us to other beings without this assumption?

Case in point, later in the book Seth suggests that his “controlled hallucination view takes [predictive processing] and develops it to account for the nature of conscious experiences.” (p. 111). It might be conceited to imagine that IIT (or the controlled hallucination view for that matter) will hold up to scrutiny as in the scenario I outlined above. But assuming we can get there, ditching the identity would be like accepting all the evidence but denying the conclusion.

In my view, we have two options: either we blindly poke around, attributing phenomenal character to the next seemingly interesting phenomenon of choice and make slow but hopefully converging progress, or we ask what the essential properties of consciousness are in the first place and what it means to have those properties for a physical system. This is what IIT set out to do. Rather than being counterproductive, identifying what consciousness is should cut our search for “brain mechanisms [that] explain phenomenological properties (p. 111) short.

So much for chapter I. You can find my review of chapters II-IV here.

Seth A (2021) Being You. Publisher: Dutton.