PSYCH 4320 / COGST 4310 / BioNB 4330

Consciousness and Free Will

Theme I

  Week 3: philosophical insights

Week 3: philosophical insights


what does it take?


"The pivotal question is: What is the minimal set of functional and representational properties that an information-processing system must possess in order to exemplify the phenomenal properties under investigation?

Which of these low-level properties are necessary, and which are sufficient?

What, precisely, does it mean for such a system to take a phenomenal first-person perspective on the world and on its own mental states?"

the self-model


The following can be said of the self-model:

virtuality


The self-model of human beings is a virtual model which, if underdetermined by internally generated input [...], is highly context-dependent: Its content is a possibility and not a reality.

Just as the phenomenal properties of external experience are properties of virtual objects, so the properties exemplified in inner experience are those of a virtual subject.

Its content is simply the best hypothesis about the current state of the system, given all constraints and information resources currently available.

Interestingly – and this seems to be one of the core characteristics of phenomenal experience – this possibility is depicted as a reality, as an untranscendable presence [...]. The actuality of situated self-awareness is a virtual form of actuality.

being privileged


To take the phenomenology seriously means doing justice to the fact that the first-person perspective is always privileged among all other perspectives, which may be mentally represented in my conscious space as well.

In what way does the PSM differ from all other currently active phenomenal models, be they models of objects or models of other persons? Which functional property marks out its special role in the informational architecture of the system, and exactly how does it become the stable center, not only of phenomenal but of behavioral space as well? Here is my answer:

The self-model is the only representational structure that is anchored in the brain by a continuous source of internally generated input.

whence phenomenality?


From a philosophical point of view the cardinal question is

What is needed – by conceptual necessity – to make a phenomenal first-person perspective emerge from a representational space that is already functionally centered?

In short, how do you get from the functional property of “centeredness” and the representational property of “self-modeling” to the phenomenal property of “selfhood”?

The answer lies in what one might call the “phenomenal transparency" of the data structures used by the system. Terminological details aside, the general idea is that the representational vehicles employed by the system are transparent in the sense that they do not contain the information that they are models on the level of their content.

whose illusion?


The evolutionary advantage of the underlying dynamical process of constantly confusing yourself with your own self-model is obvious: It makes a selfless biological system egotistic by generating a very robust self-illusion.

Now here is the logical mistake: Whose illusion could that be? It makes sense to speak of truth and falsity, of knowledge and illusion, only if you already have an epistemic agent in the sense of a system possessing conceptualized knowledge in a strong propositional sense.

But this is not the case: We have just solved the homunculus problem; there is nobody in there who could be wrong about anything. All you have is a functionally grounded self-modeling system under the condition of a naive-realistic selfmisunderstanding.

So, if you would really want to carry this metaphor even further, what I have been saying in this paper is that the conscious self is an illusion which is no one's illusion.

a few quotes from Metzinger's 2005 précis of his Being No One (2003)


Phenomenally represented information is precisely that subset of currently active information in the system, of which it is true that it is globally available for many different processing capacities at the same time, e.g., for deliberately guided attention, cognitive reference, and the selective control of action.

To say that the contents of conscious experience are "globally" available for the subject means that these contents can always be found in a world. This implies that individual conscious states, in standard situations, are always part of an integrated world-model.

the phenomenology of selfhood


The phenomenology of transparent self-modeling is the phenomenology of selfhood. It is the phenomenology of a system caught in a naive-realistic self-misunderstanding.

A selfless system can certainly misunderstand itself, for instance by misinterpreting phenomenal experience in terms of implying the actual existence of a self. Phenomenal selfhood results from autoepistemic closure in a self-representing system; it is a function realized by a lack of information. We do not experience the contents of our self-consciousness as the contents of a representational process, but simply as ourselves, living in the world right now.

The generation of an inner world as a computational strategy


In the brain, there is no such thing as a truly "final" phase of processing. But the generation of a single and coherent world-model is a strategy to achieve a reduction of ambiguity originating in the buzzing, blooming confusion of the external world.

At the same time, this leads to a reduction of data: the amount of information directly available to the system, e.g., for selection of motor processes or the deliberate guiding of attention, is being minimized and thereby, for all mechanisms operating on the phenomenal world-model, computational load is reduced.

integration and differentiation


The strategy of approaching the globality-constraint by researching globally coherent states (as initially proposed in Metzinger 1995b) leads to a new way of defining research targets in computational neuroscience (e.g., von der Malsburg 1997). However, it must be noted that what is actually needed is a theoretical model that allows us to find global neural properties exhibiting a high degree of integration and differentiation at the same time.

This way of looking at the globality-constraint on the neural level is philosophically interesting for a number of reasons. First, it makes the prediction that any system operating under a conscious model of reality will be characterized by the existence of one single area of maximal causal density within its information-processing mechanisms. [Cf. the notion of the unity of consciousness.]

The PSM: what turns a neural system-model into a phenomenal self?


Modeling: First, from a strictly formal point of view, there exists a proof that every regulator of a complex system will automatically and by necessity become a model of that system (Conant & Ashby 1970).

Simulation: Some information-processing systems can internally simulate the external behavior of a target object.

Emulation: Some information-processing systems, however, form special cases in that they can also emulate the behavior of another information-processing system.

A possibility which is of particular interest from a philosophical perspective, is self-directed emulation. Self-modeling is that special case, in which target system and simulating/emulating system are identical: A self-modeling information-processing system internally and continuously simulates its own observable output as well as it emulates abstract properties of its own internal information-processing – and it does so for itself.

[the remaining slides repeated FROM WEEK 1] questions arising


  1. What makes a "mere" physical process an experience for someone?
  2. What makes a "mere" physical system a subject, or an experiencer?
  3. What does having a first-person perspective on the world consist of?

some answers re the first-person perspective (after Metzinger, 2003)

The four key components of phenomenal first-person experience:

agency, or sense of initiative;

mineness, or sense of ownership;

perspectivalness, or the perception of phenomenal space as being organized around the self;

selfhood, or the conscious experience of being someone.

  • agency
  • mineness
  • perspectivalness
  • selfhood

the first-person perspective

  • agency
  • mineness
  • perspectivalness
  • selfhood

the first-person perspective

  • agency
  • mineness
  • perspectivalness
  • selfhood

multi-perspective and plenoptic vision


[cf. the plenoptic framework]

sensory substitution


the first-person perspective (Metzinger)

  1. The experienced reality is virtual.
  2. The experienced reality is a simulation of the world.
  3. The simulation is not recognized by the system as such.
  4. The part of the simulation that represents the system itself is special.
  • agency
  • mineness
  • perspectivalness
  • selfhood

the first-person perspective

  1. The experienced reality is virtual.
    The disposition of matter and energy in the world is accessible to the brain exclusively through the mediation of its sensory apparatus (which includes both the five external senses and the various interoceptive channels). No matter how veridical some of the information provided by these senses is, the representations they feed into are necessarily virtual computational constructs.
  2. The experienced reality is a simulation of the world.
  3. The simulation is not recognized by the system as such.
  4. The part of the simulation that represents the system itself is special.
  • agency
  • mineness
  • perspectivalness
  • selfhood

the first-person perspective

  1. The experienced reality is virtual.
  2. The experienced reality is a simulation of the world.
    The use of the virtual representations generated by the senses often involves simulation of events or situations (scene perception; language comprehension). Simulation is also central to planning and control (intended actions, etc.).
  3. The simulation is not recognized by the system as such.
  4. The part of the simulation that represents the system itself is special.
  • agency
  • mineness
  • perspectivalness
  • selfhood

why simulate the world? Conant and Ashby (1970)


The brain simulates the world as best as it can because the overarching evolutionary demand from a cognitive agent is to control the world so as to achieve optimal outcomes, and optimal control provably requires modeling the controlled system (Conant & Ashby, 1970).

Note that an embodied and situated agent is an integral part of the world, and so must be simulated along with it by the agent's cognitive system.

[D, the set of disturbers; S, system; R, regulator; Z, the set of all possible outcomes; G, the set of "good" (desirable) outcomes.]

the first-person perspective

  1. The experienced reality is virtual.
  2. The experienced reality is a simulation of the world.
    According to Metzinger (2003), the phenomenal first-person experience works like a total flight simulator — a virtual reality rig that simulates the entire world along with the pilot, the latter being a model (a simulation) of the system itself.
  3. The simulation is not recognized by the system as such.
  4. The part of the simulation that represents the system itself is special.
  • agency
  • mineness
  • perspectivalness
  • selfhood

the first-person perspective

  1. The experienced reality is virtual.
  2. The experienced reality is a simulation of the world.
  3. The simulation is not recognized by the system as such.
    To avoid infinite regress (trying to represent a system that represents a system that represents...), the model of the world (which includes a model of the system itself) is taken to be the "last word" — the ultimate reality.
  4. The part of the simulation that represents the system itself is special.
  • agency
  • mineness
  • perspectivalness
  • selfhood

the first-person perspective

  1. The experienced reality is virtual.
  2. The experienced reality is a simulation of the world.
  3. The simulation is not recognized by the system as such.
    "The transparency of the self-model is a special form of inner darkness. It consists in the fact that the representational character of the contents of self-consciousness is not accessible to subjective experience." — Metzinger (2003).
  4. The part of the simulation that represents the system itself is special.
  • agency
  • mineness
  • perspectivalness
  • selfhood

the first-person perspective

  1. The experienced reality is virtual.
  2. The experienced reality is a simulation of the world.
  3. The simulation is not recognized by the system as such.
  4. The part of the simulation that represents the system itself is special.
    The represented reality contains one component that differs from all others in being always present. This self-model — the only representational structure that is fed by a continuous source of internally generated (interoceptive) input — is the phenomenal Self.
  • agency
  • mineness
  • perspectivalness
  • selfhood

the Self demystified


What we have been calling "the" self in the past is not a substance, an unchangeable essence, or a thing (i.e., an "individual" in the sense of philosophical metaphysics), but a very special kind of representational content: the content of a phenomenally transparent system-model. It is the content of a self-model that cannot be recognized as a model by the system using it.

T. Metzinger, Being No One (2003)

on sleep: recall Metzinger's "total flight simulator" idea


The brain, the dynamical, self-organizing system as a whole, activates the pilot if and only if it needs the pilot as a representational instrument in order to integrate, monitor, predict, and remember its own activities. As long as the pilot is needed to navigate the world, the puppet shadow dances on the wall of the neurophenomenological caveman's phenomenal state space. As soon as the system does not need a globally available self-model, it simply turns it off. Together with the model the conscious experience of selfhood disappears. Sleep is the little brother of death.

— Metzinger (2003, p.558)

offline hallucination


Phenomenal experience during the waking state is an online hallucination. This hallucination is online because the autonomous activity of the system is permanently being modulated by the information flow from the sensory organs; it is a hallucination because it depicts a possible reality as an actual reality.

Phenomenal experience during the dream state, however, is just a complex offline hallucination.

— Metzinger (2003, p.51)

questions 1, 2 still unanswered


  1. What makes a "mere" physical process an experience for someone?
  2. What makes a "mere" physical system a subject, or an experiencer?
  3. What does having a first-person perspective on the world consist of?

we need a more fundamental theory of phenomenal experience


Any theory of phenomenal experience must satisfy a number of criteria:

There are presently only two contenders for a viable theory of phenomenality:

  1. the Integrated Information Theory —
    Tononi, G. (2008). Consciousness as Integrated Information: a Provisional Manifesto. Biological Bulletin 215:216-242.
  2. the Geometric Theory —
    Fekete, T. & S. Edelman (2011). Towards a Computational Theory of Experience, Consciousness and Cognition 20:807-827.