Thought Experiment / Consciousness & Awareness

Echopraxia is also very good. I found it slightly easier to read, but not as mindblowing as Blindsight.

The Rifters trilogy though is very dark. Be aware of that before you start. Peter Watts is a trained marine biologist, so you can imagine how close he witnesses the systematic destruction of nature first-hand. Fast forward that half a century through the dark mind of an angry, pessimistic writer and you get a sad, scary, desolate and even sick result. F****d-up on many levels.

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I wondered the same thing about a year ago.

I asked quora what they thought about it:

It has become my most followed question. Perhaps an answer on there will help.

I believe all information in every structure has a subjective consciousness, though our conscious awareness is so strong and localized because we have many feedback loops of information forming layers of self referential informational structures that form memory and ego.

The universe is conscious and is made of awareness. That’s what physical interaction is- awareness that something had changed.

This answer goes into more depth on that:

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As an aside comment, this reminded me of the Trisolaris “computer” that was created in the Three Body Problem (an outstanding SciFi book).


I’m a pretty hard-lined “atheist” … but the more I think about consciousness and drowned myself in theory, the more I’m inclined to lean toward the idea that a mind-like substrate is the fundamental building blocks of reality.
Now - before anybody jumps to any conclusions - I’ve wrestled with this a lot.
But it seems to me that if A is a necessary building block for B; then B is - by definition - incapable of properly being a fundamental piece in the construction of A. So if you were to try to decide whether X has emerged from Y or whether Y has emerged from X - the logical method of going about trying to find out would be to see if you could build X with Y or Y with X.
There are a few problems that seem to answer with the idea that a sort of subjective mind-like substrate might be the primary (or at least predecessory) element on which everything else we are aware of is built.
But … I’m not sold on it - I’m actually really troubled by it - but that’s what “seems” to be the result of what I’ve distilled down out of everything I’ve come across so far.

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That’s 2 mentions of this book so far. I may just have to pick it up.

Back in the day I used to play a game with my nerd buddies, C-Robots.

This affected me greatly and shaped my thoughts on how to parse what was going on in the command and control system of living critters. With the sensors and motor units available you had to build a machine that could find an enemy unit, engage & destroy it, and not run into walls and kill yourself.
Once you get used to thinking like that it frames how you see these same problems being solved in meat machines.

Take an earthworm. It can smell, move and turn. The olfactory system can detect smell gradients to vary the turning to center the smell of food in a generally forward direction. It has a gut like I do and the gut can signal that what it ate was good or bad. This gets fed back to the olfactory unit to remember what is a good or bad smell and to go to or away in the future. This basic system has been strongly preserved in higher order critters and is actually how humans are affected if they vomit on bad food. You will not be interested in eating that food again for a long time. If you pay attention you will find that the Olfactory system still plays a surprisingly large role in how our primate brains function.

Add in vision and the memory system gets way more important. Mapping gets to be a big thing. Locations where food, water, and shelter might be found are a huge deal. Processing vision into space that can feed into the memory of locations has such a high impact on survival that there would be enormous evolutionary pressure on the development and refinement of specialized hardware to turn egocentric sensing into allocentric locations.

Likewise, feature detectors for things like ripeness using color and judging distance using stereo will offer huge advantages in survival so these will be an essential part of the scene evaluation hardware.

What does it feel like to have all of that high-level parsing collected together, graded for relevance, and tucked into your memory? This network of processing though the agency of the cortex? I call this “your experience” or the contents of consciousness. The current activation pattern of your cortex is what is in your consciousness.

The cortex all works together with this weird filter/route/remember process that is distributed through the whole of the structure. Lashley was onto something with his mass action proposal. While there are distinct island of function that is more a function of connectivity rather than differences in functional structure. The same basic cortical algorithm is at work in all parts of the cortex.

Having a built-in system to identify shapes of your own kind and to be afraid of things that can harm you is highly desirable. It just makes sense to also put in the ability to recognize social and sexual cues. These things are so important to the survival of the gene line that you can’t leave this up to trial and error learning so this is memory is hardwired into our amygdala. You don’t have to learn this stuff - you just know it. This important feature was baked into the lizard brain and is highly conserved. Since this is a subcortical structure we do not experience it in our consciousness but instead - emotionally.

We still have the older lizard brain; being spoon-feed by our fancy cortex, making decisions that are turned into actions - also by our fancy cortex. It has been researched and documented that you experience your decisions AFTER they are made. It seem mysterious because the lizard brain has no representation in the cortex so we have no consciousness of its actions. We have a sense of the actions being initiated in the forebrain. We can evaluate these nacient actions in the cortex and feed the initial evaluations back to the lizard brain for a go/nogo on these plans. But the cortex does not initiate actions; the lizard is the driver of our actions.

Awareness - the stream of sensation reaching our temporal lobe - is not mystical. It is the stuff that evolution has deemed is sufficient to perceive and select useful actions. It just makes sense that we perceive our motion selection system as part of our internal feedback loops. The brain is full of these at all stages of the motor system.

The whole speaking and the mental tricks that language brings with it are a happy accident. Evolution works like that. Sports of design that offer enhanced survival are strongly preserved. I would not be shocked or surprised if speech arises in some other branch of the animal kingdom over the long haul.

Supportng paper:

I’ve come to the conclusion that if you could technically define what consciousness is and how it works then you would simultaneously technically define what everything in the universe is and how it works because if you try to encode it in language, you can only define consciousness in terms of its contents. If you try to explain it, you must explain its causes.

That is to say, if we knew everything about conscious awareness, we’d have to know everything about everything because everything exists within conscious awareness. Nothing has ever been observed outside it.

When the effects of things outside consciousness have been observed, the effects proclaim that the thing itself did not exist outside of conscious awareness: that, while the thing disappeared, it’s effect carried on as probabilities without discrete histories.

That is to say, nothing can change except at the receding edge of the moment you attend to it. Perhaps the universe is made of awareness or consciousness, as you have suggested. I think the best word to use is Attention. Everything seems to be molded and shaped by the flow of attention. Indeed, made up of the flow of attention because in the end, the shape, the pattern is all there is; the substrate of the pattern is always other patterns.

Consciousness is, in that way, a discretizing phenomenon by its very nature. The universe is only discrete where we’ve laid it out flat, it’s only quantized because we’re looking. Everywhere else, it’s continuous and unitary.

And being unitary, it can have no parts, no causation, no description. In order to see things, you must see them from a particular point of view. When the view is particular, the things are too.

I’m sorry but there seems to be some logical flaws at work here.

I think that any argument that requires perception for the universe to exist is erroneous.

The universe was just fine before someone was around to perceive it.

Perhaps not from your personal point of view but I doubt that the universe cares if you do or do not perceive it. I know that I certainly don’t care if you do or do not perceive me.

Likewise, limitations in our quantizing or perception place no reciprocal limitations on the universe. Need I add that your perception of the relation of parts and whole is similarly a personal problem?

An alligator chasing prey over a car abandoned in the swamp does not have to understand cars to both perceive it and navigate over it.

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I think you’re missing the point. We’re not talking about the perception of any particular mind. We’re talking about mind, itself. We’re talking about perception, as such; that perception itself is a requirement for being in the first place. Indeed, perception is synonymous with being itself.

All I can know for certain is that “direct experience is.” I don’t know what that means, but in that way it’s primal; it is being. The contents of my direct experience can be thought of as caused and causing each other. But the direct experience is in some unknown way, primary.

Think of it another way. We’re recognizing the very real and logical conundrum that my head is in the world, and the world is in my head. I think to take a hard-nosed stance that the theoretical world is more real than the direct experience of it is too one-sided because it expresses an unhealthy material reductionist ideology.

The universe doesn’t care if my experience continues, you’re right about that. But that doesn’t mean that somehow in some way, the whole universe is primarily “mind.”

I think I see your problem. Your PERCEPTION of the world is in your head. You do not CAUSE the world, you perceive it. Some sensations, internal and external, are collected together, sorted/filtered by relevance and register in your temporal lobe. This is encoded into episodic memories in the EC/HC complex and to a much lesser extent, by the cortex itself as the sensations filter through.

You are also registering these same sensations in the older brain structures but this is not available to consciousness. These lower brain structures also recieve the results of the cortical processing.

These lower brain structure sensations are used to select actions which then also become available to consciousness.

I don’t view this a pernicious reductionism but a simple narrative of a straightforward process.

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Good, and you’re right.

That’s true. And by the same token; the world does not cause you.

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To follow up on an implied question - If the world does not cause YOU what does?

The collected sensations include the stabilized vision platform that is tightly integrated with your body & balance system.

The YOU feeling is the internal reference of position that salts all of your perception. This system can be defective and has some very real impact on the perception of YOU.

I’m sorry Bitking, we’re talking past each other. If you identify with your body and brain, then you’re right. If you identify with awareness I don’t think you can be caused. It is the great paradox of being; only that which already exists can exist.


If you assume (as I do) that awareness is an emergent property of the functioning of the brain then there is no paradox.

Since I am a strict materialist there is no other viewpoint that makes any sense to me.

Although I will admit to a certain intuitive discomfort with spooky action at a distance such as electro-magnetism and gravity.

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I would disagree, but that’s a whole other debate. :-).

Not to rekindle this thread - but I just wanted to mention a few things to both @Bitking and @jordan.kay .
First off - Bitking - I learn a lot from your posts and comments. You are an incredibly intelligent and extremely logically minded person. You should teach or make youtube videos or something if you don’t already. And if you do - I’m going to need to know what your channel is.
jordan.kay - this is kinda the conundrum I’ve found myself in. I tend to agree with, and settle into what can be proven or at least effectively investigated with logic. So - I’m inclined to align myself with the materialist view - but - there are just some things that I cannot fit into the structure of the materialist perspective no matter how hard I try. The subjective conscious experience is one of those things. The plethora of qualia and the insanely terrifying, horrific, wonderful, and beautiful work of art that is the human experience just does not seem to me to be an emergent property. That’s not to say that It’s not though - it may very well be an emergent property of the patterns of activity within the brain. But as the evidence currently sits - I have a hard time with that proposal.
Emergent properties - to me - seem to be a bit of a stretch of concept. For instance, waves in water are considered emergent. Lipids to cell membranes. A gene is an emergent property. But these are all well understood and you can trace them all the way down to their building blocks and fully understand how the properties of a single water molecule levels up to the properties of a large collection of water molecules. Consciousness, however, cannot be deconstructed in the same way all other known emergent properties can.
This specific issue, and the fact that - when I dream at night, the occasional highly detailed lucid dream can generate a world of impeccable clarity and realness has forced me to - at the very least - consider the possibility that (if my mind can synthesize a reality that is occasionally indistinguishable from what I know as my waking reality - but we are having a hell of a time breaking consciousness down into its component parts such that it is understood materialistically) the relationship between mind and matter might not be materialism. I have to at least be open to that possibility. The evidence requires it of me. And that bothers me because I like things to be packaged up in neat little organized boxes. The so called “hard problem” is a thorn in my side.


I have several posts here addressing each and every one of the points you raise.
I could run around and collect them but I will just stop with: I have ample evidence to believe that consciousness is an emergent property.


Waves are emergent in water, but only when specific conditions are met.

Each individual water molecule contains every necessary characteristic to cause a wave. But only when a sufficient number of water molecules are together, at a limited range of energy, and under influence of at least two forces, can we detect a (liquid) wave phenomenon.

So, you could say that consciousness is a emergent property of carbon-based molecules. Each atom of carbon holds all the features to combine to a conscious entity. Only the conditions for this to happen are much much more specific.

In my opinion, it’s a long stretch to hypothesise that consciousness is just emergent from some random complexity like an ant hill or the internet, or a legion of college students. Mere complexity is not enough, and emergency tells us nothing.


Trying this line out in other situations:
Diamonds are an emergent property of carbon-based molecules?
Wait - didn’t we already establish that was consciousness?

Computers are an emergent property of sand.
Or is it beer glasses?.

Bridges are an emergent property of iron ore.
Or is it guitar strings?


Seems like something is missing here.

Perhaps the atoms in question have to be arranged in a certain way to express this emergent properties?

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So what is that elusive “secret sauce” that makes consciousness special and personal?
It is physical and can be broken; the cases I have read about all seem to be related to sensing and incorporating the vestibular system with episodic memory.