Anil Seth, professor of cognitive and computational neuroscience, in his 2021 book Being You: A New Science of Consciousness does an excellent job of examining big, important ideas about mind and mathematics, intelligence and evolution. What Seth calls "the real problem of consciousness" is to "explain, predict, and control the phenomenological properties of conscious experience" — that is, understand the connections between patterns of body-brain activity and subjective experiences. This is better-defined than the fuzzy-philosophical so-called "hard problem" of the relationship(s) between mind and body.
Seth argues that progress is possible on the real problem in much the same way that progress was made on understanding life during the past century. Biologists and chemists worked on "describing the properties of living systems, and then explaining (also predicting and controlling) each of these properties in terms of physical and chemical mechanisms." Seth concludes that what seems impenetrably mysterious about mental phenomena now may not always be incomprehensible — once the underlying mechanisms are figured out for components of consciousness.
There's much more to be said, and the bulk of Being You is devoted to examining various facets of consciousness. The three big themes are:
- level — the amount of consciousness we have, from nothingness up to full awareness
- content — what we are conscious of, including sensations, emotions, thoughts, beliefs
- self — the experience of "being you", inhabiting a particular body, having memories of the past, feeling a "free will" ability to make choices, etc
Seth discusses objective measures of brain neural activity and their connections to mental states via the "Integrated Information Theory" of consciousness — "IIT". He explains the "top-down" theory of perception, specifically "controlled hallucination" and how:
- "the brain is constantly making predictions about the causes of its sensory signals, predictions which cascade in a top-down direction through the brain's perceptual hierarchies"
- "sensory signals — which stream into the brain from the bottom up, or outside in — keep these perceptual predictions tied in useful ways to their causes ... as prediction errors registering the differences between what the brain expects and what it gets ... [so] perception happens through a continual process of prediction error minimization"
- perceptual experience "is determined by the content of the (top-down) predictions, and not by the (bottom-up) sensory signals. We never experience sensory signals themselves, we only ever experience interpretations of them."
In other words, stand the usual notion on its head: conscious minds don't see the world through sensory organs, but rather they see a "hallucination", internally generated and updated based on prediction errors.
That's an awesome inversion, one that needs much work to wrap one's mind around. Seth provides excellent examples, explains Bayesian reasoning, and offers evidence to make a strong case for that new model of mind. He discusses other kinds of consciousness, in animals and machines. He examines the challenges of controlling bodies in the countless ways needed to stay alive, thrive, and reproduce. He distinguishes between intelligence and consciousness, and explores moral issues as well as technological ones.
|Bottom line: Being You is a wonderful tour of an important emerging field of science, worth reading and re-reading.