Archivi tag: consciousness

From autopoiesis to consciousness?


Thompson’s idea in Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind. Harvard University Press, 2010, is that the explanatory gap (with which he identifies the Chalmers’ hard problem) can be “reduced”, if not solved, on the basis of the analogy between the autopoietic mode of functioning of the living being and that of consciousness. Ultimately it is the problem of understanding why we are conscious (in my view: why is it that certain things that happen in our brain appear to us as conscious experiences? and: why couldn’t our brain be just as effective at whatever it is it does if we were not conscious?).
(On a whole other basis – evolutionary – it also seems the intuition that inspires the Simona Ginsburg and Eva Jablonka’s book The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul: Learning and the Origins of Consciousness, MIT Press, Massachusetts, 2019, in which the markers of the origin of life are treated as “analogous” to the markers of the origin of consciousness).

To understand in what sense Thompson posits this analogy (between the form of life and the form of consciousness) we must remember the meaning of “autopoiesis” (originally defined in the book written by Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana Autopoiesis: the organization of the living (1972) expanded and integrated with a previous paper on cognition in Autopoiesis and Cognition, Dordrecht, Netherlands, Reidel, 1980): a living being is basically a machine capable of continually regenerating itself. In particular, it is marked by self-organization, that is, it produces the components that, by interacting with each other, produce themselves and the whole of which they are part.

It is an interesting antireductionistic approach (for in the living would operate a downward causation from the whole to the parts, such that the whole is “greater than the sum of the parts”, in a holistic sense), but admittedly deterministic and mechanistic (it is not believed that “final causes”, “morphogenetic fields”, “occult forces”, “souls” or otherwise non-material entities operate as in vitalism).

What interested me in this approach was the fact that even the “boundary” of the organism is determined by the organism itself and, in turn, it determines the development of the organism, as in the paradigmatic case of the cell. According to the authors, the “autopoietic machine”, unlike a computer, does not work with input/output information and information processing, but only tends to reproduce itself: external “inputs” are only “perturbations” not unlike those that might come from inside the machine, to which the living machine reacts by reworking itself to maintain its self-organization. This process is also a form of cognition (we would say: learning or adaptation).  Moreover, not only are the boundaries established by the living being itself while it lives, but also the environment (the ecological niche) as a whole is co-determined by the organism. Each living being has the universe it deserves, we could say (we perceive certain light frequencies and space in a certain way, but an amoeba lives in a completely different environment; moreover each organism, together with the other conspecifics, is not only conditioned by the environment but contributes to define it).

As explained in the book written by Thompson with Francisco and Eleanor Rosch, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, MIT Press, 1991 (in which the concept of autopoiesis mysteriously disappears, in favor of a simple, but synonymous “self-organization” – autopoiesis reappears anyway in Mind in Life) the interaction between organism and environment has “enactive” character. The action is influenced by the perception and the perception by the action in a circle of unceasing feedback in which information would not be processed in a computer sense, but would take place a process that is cognitive and “adaptive” together (and where the environment is also “produced” to some extent). Although with different language it is not a very different approach, in my opinion, of those of Seth and Hoffman: the “mind” would “bayesianly” work projecting on the “world” their own hypotheses or expectations  and would gradually correct the shot based on the feedback he receives (in my opinion the model is the way a young child learns to grasp objects by trial and error without any “gene” having predetermined the exact mode of operation to succeed).

What struck me was this idea of co-evolution or co-determination between organism, with blurred boundaries, and universe. I saw an embryonic form of extreme monism (like that to which I adhere). It is as if the organism were the universe itself that assumes a certain configuration, without clear boundaries between the part and the whole (we must not forget that the boundaries are fixed by the organism itself and apply only to it; in other words they do not have an objective character and do not mark a real external world, as suggested by the fact that the organism cannot really distinguish between inputs from outside and perturbations generated inside it).

This is where it becomes important to understand the difference between “life” (thus or otherwise conceived) and “consciousness”. Mind in Life seemed, in this regard, very promising.

Thompson, who is a philosopher, first of all develops an interesting discussion on the epistemological limits of the cognitive sciences, highlighting the transcendental (my term) function  of consciousness (and, therefore, the epistemological “need” of philosophy and especially of the phenomenology of Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty etc.). The cognitive scientist often does not question the fact that, when dealing with consciousness, he puts his own consciousness into play, without having thoroughly analyzed its phenomenological traits (He can get so, e.g. , to demonstrate that, because consciousness has evolved only to promote fitness, it is not at all reliable cognitively; but he does not realize that, in this way, he makes the neuroscientific knowledge itself uncertain). Consciousness is not only an object of investigation, but also a means by which the investigation is conducted. In particular, the subjective consciousness of the researcher operates occultly as a comparison term even in those “objectivistic” approaches that try to limit themselves to the “data” obtained from brain scanning and to reports (which are in turn subjective interpretations!) of test subjects. The researcher must in fact compare what is reported with his own experience to give it a meaning.

Unfortunately, when Thompson comes to talk about consciousness, introducing his “neurophenomenology” (inspired by Varela), that is, a form of naturalized phenomenology, in which phenomenological self-analysis illuminates the experimental data and vice versa, while making very interesting observations, in my opinion, it fails in any way to reduce the explanatory gap.

The vague analogy between the “holistic” functioning of consciousness (which, in turn, as well as the brain, should not be seen as an information processor, but as a system that self-organizes itself homeostatically etc.) and that of the cell does not help us to understand the transition from one systems to another.

Thompson only lashes out against the Cartesian dualism , which also underlies Chalmers’ theory, the “representation” theories like Jerry Fodor’s, Jaegwon Kim’s etc. If you “reduce” nature, even biological, in a deterministic-mechanistic-physicalistic etc. way, you will never be able to derive consciousness. If, however, biological phenomena are understood as irreducible to physical ones, for the former have a capacity for self-organization, the gap with subjective phenomena, characteristically “intentional”, of consciousness would be reduced (it is interesting that Thompson recognizes to Kant the merit, in the Critique of Judgment, to have introduced for the first time the notion of “circular causality” to interpret the living beings and, in Mind in Life, going well beyond Maturana and Varela, admits also the notion of “final causality”, even if detached from any idea of transcendent “design”, as “purposiveness” intrinsic to autopoietic organization).

This strategy seems promising, but in my opinion it is very problematic. It is precisely the analogy between the two types of phenomena (life and consciousness) that makes the problem worse: if life is so “powerful” as a process capable of self-organization even when it is unconscious, why did consciousness evolve at some point?

Among other things it is curious that Thompson “attacks” also the theory of evolution by natural selection. But, so to speak, even if some of his arguments are convincing, he attacks it from the “left” (while the writer, more sensitive to the sirens of intelligent design or, better, a certain interpretations of the anthropic principle, tends to attack it from the “right”). That is, the idea is that organisms evolve spontaneously (it also borders on lamarckism, underscoring the possibility of epigenetic or “cultural” transmission of acquired characters) and that natural selection is limited to eliminating individuals that are irrimediably unfit. There would be no tendency to optimize fitness, but only a tendency to keep in place organisms minimally or sufficiently adapted. The basic thesis is that autopoiesis and not evolution would characterize life. Evolution would be a mere “historical” phenomenon (it is roughly the thesis of Piantelli Palmerini and Fodor in the book What Darwin got wrong, Profile Books Ldt, 2011). Selection, to operate, presupposes life, does not create it.

This kind of criticism, in my opinion, does not go far. Instead of explaining life and intelligence (or consciousness) it dismisses the explanation, giving an excessive role to chance, unless we want to reintroduce something like élan vital, final and formal causes, morphic fields or, finally, again, an intelligent design.

Moreover it seems to me a sophistry to say that selection presupposes life and not vice versa. Of course, in Darwin this is literally true. But what prevents us from assuming that selection operates on chemistry? Indeed, autocatalytic hypercycles, although not yet fully autopoietic structures, could be the precursors of life. Finally, if you want to keep yourself within a materialistic horizon, you must also explain the origin of the first autopoietic cell. If you give up selection, you have to rely on chance.

My criticism “from the right” is based on the fact that, on the contrary, the evident, even if progressive, optimization of the functions of the living beings cannot be the result either of chance or of mere selection, but requires a more “strong” explanation, the need for consciousness to arise. Consciousness, in my model, would be both the ultimate goal of evolution, and, circularly, the condition of “transcendental” possibility (since it introduces time, previously absent) of evolution itself.

But this is me, not Thompson.

Anyway the problem of the transition from life to consciousness remains unanswered. In my perspective, the question is what determines (or reveals) the universe’s ability to observe itself. Is it the fact of owning (or representing) a nervous system (treated by Thompson as a self-organized system) with certain traits, e.g. the neocortex? Or is it the fact of maximally reducing the internal entropy (interesting that Thompson unifies the idea of a closed self-organizational system, to characterize the living being, with that of a dissipative structure energetically open, far from the state of thermodynamic equilibrium, but able to “maintain” in this condition)? In short, what is the correlated (in my opinion not with causal role, but only of trigger) of consciousness?

Is reality an illusion?


Donald Hoffman’s book, The Case Against Reality. How Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes (2020) proposes two largely acceptable though revolutionary theories on consciousness and reality, linked together, but not dependent on each other. These are highly speculative theories, but Hoffman exposes them to empirical checks according to the scientific method, which he defends with conviction. Several experiments, cited by Hoffman, seem compatible especially with the first of the two theories.

According to the interface theory of perception (ITP), the world we perceive is not objective, nor does it bear any resemblance to the objective world. Not only the classic “secondary qualities”, such as colors, sounds, flavors, but also the classic “primary qualities”, such as space and time, would depend more on our perceptual system than on “objective reality”. They would be the way we encode our experience. The objects we perceive would be, relative to the underlying reality, like desktop icons are relative to the sequences of bytes they represent, as these sequences actually and physically exist in a computer.

To support this thesis, for which he appropriately refers to Kant, Hoffman resorts to his theorem “Fitness-Beats-Truth” (FBT), proven on the basis of game theory. According to this theorem, the more complex an organism is (in terms of internal “states” corresponding to hypothetical “states” of the external world), the less likely it is that the world it perceives is real. If this were not the case, the organism could not survive and reproduce with the necessary effectiveness. In short, natural selection would favor organisms that perceive the world in a “useful” way rather than in a “true” way. Space and time would thus be “doomed”, in line with certain interpretations of quantum mechanics.

This theory seems to me absolutely convincing insofar as it highlights the subjective character of the world as it appears to us. References to physics are certainly appropriate (and correspond largely to those I make on this website, coming to conclusions similar to those Hoffman’s).

Hoffman’s use of the theory of evolution by natural selection is less convincing. Since natural selection seems to take time, but time is ultimately an illusion, it is unclear “where” and “when” evolution may occur.

Furthermore, Hoffman often alludes to the fact that living beings must consume “energy” to obtain resources. But it is not clear what “energy” (a magnitude corresponding to the product of the force applied to a body by the displacement it undergoes in space) could mean if space and time are doomed.

In my view, Hoffman’s reasoning, taken to its extreme consequences, shows that the theory of evolution by natural selection is ultimately self-contradictory: if the theory were true, we would perceive a false world; but, if the world were false, the theory of evolution that we know would be false, as it presupposes illusory entities, such as space and time.

Hoffman defends his theory by saying that his theory only questions our perception of the world and not, instead, our logical-mathematical skills (on which he bases his theorem FBT). However, if evolution had selected us to identify what is useful for us to survive and to reproduce rather than to understand the truth, it is not clear why this blindness to truth should not also concern mathematical truth. It is true that having a “correct” basic mathematics could be an advantage for our survival, but what’s the advantange of having the advanced mathematics that Hoffman needs for his theory? Our primate cousins would certainly not know what to do with it.

In general, I think the trust that Hoffman rightly has for the scientific method cannot be based on the random evolution of our “mind” (I do not say “of the brain”, because this, in Hoffman’s perspective, is only an icon of the mind). Such evolution would not guarantee the viability of science, not even as a set of fallible, but for the moment convincing hypotheses. I think we must posit that there is a more immediate and direct relationship between our mind and the truth.

With these epistemological limitations, Hoffman’s interface theory of perception appears in any case convincing, at least as a metaphor, and in accordance with my tenet on the subjectivity of space and time.

The second theory that Hoffman introduces, to complement the first, but as a theory not dependent on it, is the theory of conscious realism. Compared with ITP, it is a much more speculative theory, a real research programme that Hoffman is launching. Nevertheless he expects empirical checks on it to be carried out sooner or later.

According to this theory it is impossible to fix the issue of the origin of consciousness by adopting a physicalistic approach, that is, by trying to understand how consciousness can derive from an objective reality, made of quarks, atoms, molecules, neurons etc. pre-existent to consciousness itself. The hard problem (why we are conscious instead of not) cannot be solved this way. On this point I wholeheartedly agree with Hoffman.

Hoffman therefore proposes that consciousness doesn’t derives from “matter”, but it is something original. I fully agree also with this tenet.

But Hoffman affirms that everything consists of a network of “conscious agents”. What puzzles me is that consciousness must be “multiplied” into these countless conscious agents (re-edition of the monads of Leibniz?) that would pervade the universe from the level of the Plank scale up to “God”, a hypothetical cosmic super-consciousness constituted (“instantiated”) by the conscious agents of gradually higher level (up to the Plank scale).

The least we can say is that this theory seems to violate Ockham’s razor, which Hoffman, instead, invokes as a guiding criterion. Why all these “conscious agents”? Hoffman starts from the fact that, if I look in the mirror, behind the icon of my face there is a world of feelings and emotions, expressed, say, by a smile. So also, probably, there is a similar world behind the icon of the face of my beloved, of my friends and so on. Even a chimpanzee can maybe express emotions. If I feel less and less “empathy”, going down the scale of the living beings, according to Hoffman it is not because these living beings are less “conscious”, but because their way of being conscious would be different from my. So quickly we get to the electrons and the Planck scale!

Therefore, if I look at a mountain, what I look at would be a swarm of conscious agents whose “actions” would constitute for me many “experiences”. Hoffman also proposes a mathematical model of how conscious agents would experience and react “freely” to it, while retaining their memory. To this end he assumes that conscious agents work as universal Turing machines and make choices that can be interpreted as transitions through Markovian kernels in measurable spaces (whose fundamental dimensions would be that of the experiences and that of the corresponding actions).

In this way Hoffman tries to bring back the “visible” mechanisms of natural selection to a hypothetical “mathematical” root in the “thing-in-itself”. However, the above perplexities about Hoffman’s use of the theory of evolution remain. In fact, these conscious agents seem to take “time” to operate. Perhaps it is a different time from the illusory one? Yet this time, to work, should be linear and oriented in the past-future direction as well as the illusory one…

The mechanism by which these agents choose is also unclear. Are these random, “improved” choices for trial and error? Does Hoffman intend to reinterpret free will? And why should this mechanism be conscious instead of not? Is the hard problem really solved?

Interesting is that Hoffman distinguishes between experiences by definition conscious and actions that would follow, intrinsically unconscious. However, he states that we would indirectly experience these actions (consciously) for their effects and this make us correct gradually the shot. This gives me some ideas about the “heterogeny of ends” that I could use to improve my model.

In my opinion, if space and time really are “doomed” or better, to be precise, if they are understood as a manifestation of the consciousness itself and not as something antecedent to it, this proliferation of conscious agents that could or could not unite to “instantiate” others of a higher level is something redundant (if not inconsistent, as it seems to assume, if not a space, at least a “time” in which this “network” can develop).

If space and time have no objective character, nothing “really” separates me from you, my reader. It seems to me sufficient to posit that there is only one consciousness, which we can attribute to the universe itself. Looking at my wife I guess behind her smile nothing but a form that the consciousness of the universe has assumed or will assume at a different time from now, when the universal consciousness dwells in me.

It is not at all necessary to attribute consciousness to electrons, nor is it necessary to attribute it to the cells of my body. These are only parts of the icon (to use Hoffman’s terminology) behind which hides, from time to time, the only one consciousness, which takes on the most diverse forms (but not necessarily all possible and impossible forms). Even my body deeply sleeping (or my immune system) is part of the icon. If space and time are subjective, what appears to be separated in space and time can be part of the overall figure that, from time to time, the consciousness assumes, “io dico l’universo” (“I say the universe”, as Galilei wrote), seen as a Moebius strip in which perceptions and emotions are only two sides of the same coin. But this is only my point of view…

La realtà è illusoria?


Il volume di Donald Hoffman, The Case Against Reality. How Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes (2020), che ho letto nella traduzione italiana L’illusione della realtà. Come l’evoluzione ci inganna sul mondo che vediamo, Bollati Boringhieri, Milano 2022, propone due teorie sulla coscienza e sulla realtà, tra loro legate, ma non dipendenti l’una dall’altra, altrettanto rivoluzionarie quanto in gran parte convincenti. Si tratta di teorie altamente speculative, ma che Hoffman espone ai controlli caratteristici del metodo scientifico, di cui è assertore. Diversi esperimenti, evocati da Hoffman, sembrano compatibili soprattutto con la prima della due teorie.

Secondo la teoria dell’interfaccia percettiva (TIP) il mondo che percepiamo non è oggettivo, né ha qualche somiglianza con il mondo oggettivo. Non solo le classiche “qualità secondarie”, come colori, suoni, sapori, ma anche le classiche “qualità primarie”, come le grandezze di spazio e tempo, dipenderebbero più dal nostro sistema percettivo che dalla “realtà oggettiva”. Si tratterebbe del modo attraverso il quale codifichiamo la nostra esperienza. Gli oggetti che percepiamo sarebbero icone sul desktop della nostra percezione e non corrisponderebbero in alcun  modo ad alcunché  di reale. Per sostenere questa tesi, per la quale egli opportunamente evoca Kant, Hoffman invoca il c.d. teorema “fitness batte verità”, dimostrato ricorrendo alla teoria dei giochi. Secondo questo teorema quanto più complesso è un organismo (in termini di “stati” interni corrispondenti a ipotetici “stati” del mondo esterno), tanto meno è probabile che il mondo che esso percepisce sia reale, se l’organismo deve conservarsi e riprodursi con la necessaria efficienza. Insomma, la selezione naturale favorirebbe gli organismi che percepiscono il mondo in modo “utile” piuttosto che in modo “vero”.  Spazio e tempo sarebbero così “condannati”, in linea con certe interpretazioni della meccanica quantistica.

Questa teoria mi sembra assolutamente convincente nella misura in cui mette in luce il carattere soggettivo del mondo come ci appare. I riferimenti alla fisica sono senz’altro pertinenti (e corrispondono in gran parte a quelli che faccio anch’io su questo sito per giungere a conclusioni simili a quelle a cui giunge Hoffman; interessante in particolare il riferimento al cosiddetto QBism, interpretazione “bayesiana” radicale della meccanica quantistica).

Meno convincente appare il modo in cui Hoffman ricorre alla teoria dell’evoluzione per selezione naturale. Poiché sembra che la selezione naturale richieda tempo, ma il tempo risulta alla fine illusorio, non è chiaro “dove” e “quando” l’evoluzione possa verificarsi. Inoltre, Hoffman allude spesso al fatto che i viventi debbano consumare “energia” per procurarsi risorse. Ma non è chiaro che cosa “resti” di ciò che intendiamo come energia (una grandezza corrispondente al prodotto della forza applicata a un corpo per lo spostamento che questo subisce nello spazio) se spazio e tempo sono aboliti.

Nella mia prospettiva il ragionamento di Hoffman portato alle sue estreme conseguenze mostra il carattere in ultima analisi autocontraddittorio della teoria dell’evoluzione per selezione naturale: se la teoria fosse vera, noi percepiremmo un mondo falso; ma, se il mondo fosse falso, la stessa teoria dell’evoluzione che conosciamo sarebbe falsa, in quanto essa presuppone entità illusorie, come lo spazio e il tempo.

Hoffman si cautela in un passaggio affermando che la sua teoria mette in discussione soltanto la nostra percezione del mondo e non, invece, p.e. la nostre capacità logico-matematiche (sulle quali si basa la teoria dei giochi, sulla quale, a sua volta, egli basa il suo teorema “fitness batte verità”). Tuttavia, se l’evoluzione ci avesse selezionati per individuare ciò che ci è utile per sopravvivere e per riprodurci piuttosto che per comprendere la verità, non è chiaro perché questa cecità nei confronti della verità non debba riguardare anche la verità matematica. È vero che possedere una matematica di base “corretta” potrebbe essere vantaggioso per la nostra sopravvivenza, ma non si tratta certamente della matematica avanzata di cui Hoffman ha bisogno per la sua teoria (di cui ad es. i nostri cugini primati non saprebbero certamente che farsi).

In generale la fiducia che giustamente Hoffman nutre per il metodo scientifico non può fondarsi sull’evoluzione casuale della nostra “mente” (non dico del “cervello” che, nella prospettiva di Hoffman, è solo un’icona della mente). Tale evoluzione non garantirebbe la veridicità della scienza, neppure come insieme di ipotesi fallibili, ma per il momento convincenti. Bisogna supporre un rapporto più immediato e diretto tra la nostra mente e la verità.

Con questi limiti epistemologici la teoria dell’interfaccia percettiva di Hoffman appare in ogni caso convincente, almeno come metafora, e consonante con quanto su questo sito argomento circa la soggettività di spazio e tempo.

La seconda teoria che Hoffman introduce, a completamento della prima, ma come teoria non dipendente da essa, è la teoria del c.d. realismo conscio.  Rispetto alla TIP si tratta di una teoria molto più speculativa, di un vero e proprio programma di ricerca che Hoffman lancia, rispetto al quale, tuttavia, egli si attende che possano prima o poi venire effettuati controlli empirici.

Secondo questa teoria è impossibile risolvere il problema dell’origine della coscienza adottando un approccio fisicalistico, cioè cercando di capire come la coscienza possa derivare dalla “materia”, cioè da una realtà oggettiva, fatta di quark, atomi, molecole, neuroni ecc., preesistente alla coscienza stessa. Lo hard problem (perché siamo coscienti anziché no) non può essere risolto per questa via. Su questo punto il mio accordo con Hoffman è totale.

Hoffman propone quindi che non sia la coscienza a derivare dalla “materia”, ma il contrario o, per meglio dire, che tutto sia costituito da una “rete” di “agenti coscienti”.

Pieno accordo sul fatto che la coscienza sia alcunché di originario, ma ciò che mi lascia perplesso è che la coscienza debba essere “moltiplicata” in innumerevoli agenti coscienti (riedizione delle monadi di Leibniz) che pervaderebbero l’universo dai livelli della scala di Plank fino a “Dio”, un’ipotetica super-coscienza cosmica costituita (“istanziata”)  dagli agenti coscenti di livello via via inferiore (fino, appunto, alla scala di Plank).

Il meno che si possa dire è che questa teoria sembra violare quel rasoio di Ockham che Hoffman, invece, invoca come criterio guida.

Perché tutti questi “agenti coscienti”? Hoffman parte dal fatto che, se mi guardo allo specchio, dietro all’icona del mio viso c’è un mondo di sentimenti ed emozioni, tradite magari da un sorriso ecc. Così anche, probabilmente, c’è un simile mondo dietro l’icona del volto della mia amata, dei miei amici. Anche uno scimpanzè può tradire emozioni ecc. Se scendendo nella scala dei viventi, provo sempre minore “empatia”, secondo Hoffman, non è perché questi viventi siano meno “coscienti”, ma perché il loro modo di essere coscienti sarebbe diverso. Si arriva così rapidamente agli elettroni e alla scala di Planck!

Dunque, se guardo una montagna, ciò che guardo sarebbe un brulicare di agenti coscienti le cui “azioni” costituirebbero per me altrettante “esperienze”.

Hoffman elabora anche una matematica del modo in cui gli agenti coscienti farebbero esperienza e reagirebbero “liberamente” alla stessa, conservandone memoria. A questo fine egli suppone che gli agenti coscienti funzionino come macchine di Turing universali e che facciano scelte interpretabili come passaggi attraverso kernel markoviani in spazi misurabili (le cui dimensioni fondamentali sarebbero quella delle esperienze e quella delle azioni ad esse corrispondenti).

In questo modo Hoffman cerca di ricondurre i meccanismi “visibili” della selezione naturale a un loro ipotetica radice “matematica” nella “cosa in sé”. Tuttavia, le perplessità sopra avanzate sull’uso che Hoffman fa della teoria dell’evoluzione rimangono. Infatti, questi agenti coscienti sembrano richiedere “tempo” per poter operare. Forse si tratta di un tempo diverso da quello illusorio? Eppure questo tempo, per funzionare, dovrebbe essere altrettanto lineare e orientato nella direzione passato-futuro di quello illusorio…

Anche il meccanismo con cui questi agenti scelgono non è chiaro. Si tratta di scelte casuali, “migliorate” per prova ed errore? Hoffman intende così reinterpretare il libero arbitrio? E perché questo meccanismo dovrebbe essere cosciente anziché no? Lo hard problem è veramente risolto?

N. B. È interessante il passaggio in cui Hoffman distingue tra esperienze per definizione coscienti e azioni che ne seguirebbero, intrinsecamente inconsce, ma delle quali faremmo indirettamente esperienza (cosciente) per i loro effetti, inducendoci a correggere via via il tiro.  Ciò mi ispira alcune idee sull’eterogenesi dei fini che potrei sfruttare per migliorare il mio modello.

Inutile dire che, secondo me, se davvero spazio e, soprattutto, tempo sono “condannati”, cioè, per la precisione, vengono intesi come manifestazione della stessa coscienza e non qualcosa di antecedente ad essa, questa proliferazione di agenti coscienti che si potrebbero o meno associare per “istanziarne” altri di livello superiore è del tutto superflua (oltre che contraddittoria, in quanto sembra presupporre, se non uno spazio, almeno un “tempo” in cui tale “rete” possa svilupparsi).

Se spazio e tempo non hanno carattere oggettivo, nulla mi separa “realmente” da te, mio lettore. Mi sembra sufficiente postulare che la coscienza sia, di volta in volta, una sola, quella che possiamo attribuire all’universo stesso. Guardando mia moglie indovino dietro al suo sorriso nient’altro che una forma che la coscienza dell’universo assunse o assumerà in una fase diversa da questa, in cui la coscienza universale abita in me.

Non è affatto necessario attribuire coscienza agli elettroni, come non è necessario attribuirla alle cellule del mio corpo. Si tratta di parti dell’icona (per usare la terminologia di Hoffman) dietro la quale si nasconde, di volta in volta, la sola unica coscienza, la quale assume le forme più diverse.  Anche il mio corpo che dorme di sonno profondo (o il mio sistema immunitario) è parte dell’icona. Se spazio e tempo sono soggettivi, ciò che appare separato nello spazio e nel tempo può benissimo essere parte della figura complessiva che di volta in volta la coscienza assume (“io dico l’universo”, visto come nastro di Moebius in cui percezioni ed emozioni non sono che due facce della stessa medaglia).

About Being you


Anil Seth’s book, Being you. A New Science of Consciousness, Faber & Faber, London 2021, proposes an intriguing theory of consciousness that seems quite convincing, although it explicitly refuses to confront the hard problem of consciousness, as David Chalmers calls it, and so evades the crucial question in my opinion.

What, then, are the main reasons for the volume’s interest?

The basic interpretation of the consciousness that Seth provides is convincing: it would be a system that, based on a predictive approach (“bayesian”), “hallucinates” a “functional” reality, not necessarily similar to the “true reality” (Seth himself in the epilogue recalls the Kantian distinction between phenomenon and noumenon and alludes to the possibility that even the three-dimensional fabric of space – unfortunately he does not speak of time, which is very close to my heart, – can be a “perceptive effect”).

Within certain limits it also convinces the “naturalistic” point of view adopted by Seth, who assigns more relevance to the “real problem” of consciousness, as he calls it, than to the “hard problem”. I intend this as follows: any interpretation of the functioning of consciousness must be consistent with empirical data: although consciousness, as a subjective experience, is not the brain, nothing prevents (indeed everything suggests) that there is a close correlation between consciousness and brain (or body), between “inside” and “outside”. So it is right to “naturalize” the problem of the consciousness not assuming only a “transcendental” perspective (This “naturalization” does not exclude such a trascendental perspective: phenomenological analysis, simply, cannot be incongruous with the empirical data: e.g. it cannot be that I perceive a cat if my brain sends the waves typical of deep sleep).

It must be said that, although Seth is a neuroscientist, his theory appears more speculative than “scientific”. Seth certainly takes inspiration from observations and experiments of his own and of others, but what gives meaning to the volume is an overall interpretation that is certainly authorized by empirical data, but is not the only possible.

In my point of view a problem, as mentioned, is that Seth, despite his speculative “drift”, claims to evade the “hard problem”.

He claims to distinguish what he calls real problem  (the problem of explaining “scientifically” consciousness) from “easy problems”, as Chalmers calls them, which would concern the “functioning” of consciousness.  Yet, in the end, Seth also explains consciousness functionally (with his Bayesian theory) taking for granted the phenomenology of consciousness. But this phenemology is exactly what distinguishes consciousness as first-person experience. This should have been a matter of explaining. But Seth doesn’t follow this way.

Seth ultimately fails to “justify” the very existence of consciousness. Why couldn’t its effective Bayesian functioning be implemented by an unconscious system, as are, according to Seth, some different forms of artificial intelligence?

The reductionist approach, in general, to nature is useful but not exclusive (as Seth presents it with epistemological fallacy in my point of view).

Let’s consider the reductionist approach to life in modern biology, which Seth considers paradigmatic. It merely shifts the “hard problem” (what life is and why it exists), doesn’t dissolve it into a cloud of metaphysical smoke, as Seth thinks.

The same applies to the problem of the existence of consciousness (Chalmers’ hard problem, in fact). If I am a self-regulating system whose goal is to survive, why do I need to be conscious? You can build systems that self-regulate themselves based on the inputs they receive without being alive and conscious.

The right distinction that Seth makes, in the last chapter before the epilogue, between consciousness and intelligence suggests (cf. the pages on which he guesses unlikely that a machine capable of “predictive processing” is aware) that this “predictive processing”, which according to him characterizes consciousness, can characterize also simply an intelligent system capable of self-regulation, but unconscious.

Seth also discusses the interesting paradox of teleportation: if a certain Eva entered, here on Earth, into a teleportation machine that would disintegrate her and then rebuild her elsewhere, e.g. on Mars,  could you say that Eva is always Eva? Would her consciousness be the same? And if, due to a machine failure, the “terrestrial” Eva survives and a second Eva, identical to the first, is reproduced on Mars, which one would Eva be? (Seth also evokes somewhere the “split brain” and the interesting real case of the Siamese twins united by the brain).

In all these cases, in my opinion, we continue to escape the problem. It is not enough to say “both women are Eva”. You who have entered the machine, will you find yourself on Mars or on Earth? My answer is: on Earth . On Mars there is a clone (with your memory). It cannot be physical identity that determines the continuity of consciousness. If anything, the opposite. Everyone who enters a transporter machine dies instantly even if no one notices.

Likewise the representation of a “diffused” consciousness in the octopus, which Seth presents in the last chapter, does not seem justified to me. Seth can recognize that parts of the octopus move with great autonomy and intelligence (after all, our heart and our immune system do too). But a consciousness that is not “one” is unthinkable. Whatever it was, it would not be what we mean by consciousness.

Attention: I don’t’ claim that whoever is conscious (someone in particular or the universe itself) must conceive of himself or of herself necessarily as one and as a body. This may well be a hallucination. One can identify himself or herself with this or that, but who identifies himself or herself  with this or that – suppose erroneously  – cannot but have one consciousness if he or she has consciousness. It makes no sense to say that he or she can have two or more “consciousnesses” or a “diffused” consciousness, whatever this means. If two people had the same consciousness, exactly as two parts of an animal, they can simultaneously perceive themselves suppose both in Rome and in London: they must have only one consciousness with two or more perceptions (as I now see more colors). If they have this “consciousness” at different times, they still has only one consciousness that simply moves and becomes filled in time with different contents.

Seth roots consciousness in life rather than intelligence. Interesting and plausible. But how to prove it?
It’s just a conjecture.
Many living activities, even human and even very complex ones, take place unconsciously. Perhaps the function of consciousness is linked to the possibility of experiencing pleasure and pain to orient oneself in the world between opportunities and dangers? But even an unconscious mechanism emulated by a robot could do it…

About function of plesure and pain see my recent post.

We come, finally, to the epistemologically pivotal issue, in my opinion.

If everything is controlled hallucination, including external objects, even the limbic system or the cerebellum or the neurocortex are hallucinations, even the living body is a hallucination that seems to us to occupy a three-dimensional space, even space and time  themselves: Seth assigns them a role just because he needs to believe that they exist as external objects in order to survive (as a neuroscientist rather than as a mystic?). It is the “mise en abime” that distinguishes every radical naturalism (taken to its extreme consequences) that ends up making it an idealism.

For the truth, on page 272 Seth seems to apply his theory of consciousness to itself: as consciousness works as predictive, not “objective”, so also a theory of consciousness works if it obeys a Bayesian epistemology. But it is like saying that his theory can safely be also false! In short, it does not fall into the paradox of the liar?

In this “idealistic” perspective I can agree with Seth that the self is a hallucination, not unlike other “objects”: maybe the One (God, Shiva etc.) identifies himself erroneously with me and with you (and with Seth and so on).
But Seth seems to think that “who” is wrong in these identifications is not the One, but my or your or his “living body”, This is because, in my opinion, he ends up committing the same mistake that he unmasked, assigning to a phantom living body a fundamental reality, while on the basis of its own criteria and results it must be considered a hallucination, a construct functional to life.

In general, however, this book is really very interesting and inspiring, everyone should read it.

But with a warning: as mentioned above, many of Seth’s theories (e.g. that consciousness is linked to life or is predictive), as many other intriguing theories that Seth cites (e.g. Friston’s Free Energy Theory), are not immediately derived from experiments but seem speculative interpretations of experiments (which is fine to me, I find it inevitable) and provoke further speculative hypotheses.


With a pun you could say that the theory of predictive consciousness is not itself… predictive (controllable by experiments that could falsify it). Too much Bayesianism, after all, can inebriate, as Popper argued!