The “real” problem of consciousness: a review of Being You by Anil Seth

In my fifth post in this series, I review Anil Seth’s 2021 book Being You. See here, here, here, and here for the previous posts. I read a Guardian review of this book in August 2021 which raved about it, as did various other reviewers. So, I went out and bought it, and when it came, I started to read it. It annoyed me so much (see below) that I put the book aside until recently. Seth is a Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Surrey, highly cited for his publications, and also a prolific popularizer of his views on consciousness (New Scientist, Scientific American, TED talks etc).

Seth starts well in the Prologue, with the comment that “consciousness is a mystery that matters. For each of us, our conscious experience is all there is. Without it there is nothing at all: no world, no self, no interior and no exterior.” But he continues with “For me, a source of consciousness should explain how the various properties of consciousness depend on, and relate to, the operations of the neuronal wetware inside our heads. The goal of consciousness science should not be ‑‑ at least not primarily ‑‑ to explain why consciousness happens to be part of the universe in the first place.”

The book is divided into four parts. In the first, Seth describes his approach to the study of consciousness. He also deals with attempts to measure the presence and level of consciousness. The second examines how the brain produces the contents of consciousness, and the third examines the sense of self and conscious selfhood. The fourth and final part, examines what his approach to the study of consciousness has to say about animal consciousness and the possibility of sentient machines.

The hard problem of consciousness

Seth defines consciousness as “any kind of subjective experience whatsoever. …. Whenever there is experience, there is phenomenology; and wherever there is phenomenology, there is consciousness.” He quotes Chalmers’ description of “the hard problem” before going on to say that his preferred philosophical position, and the default assumption of many neuroscientists is physicalism (synonymous with materialism, the view that consciousness is an emergent property of arrangements of physical stuff). At the other extreme to physicalism is idealism, the idea that consciousness or mind is the ultimate source of reality and matter emerges from mind. Seth then notes that various forms of dualism “sit awkwardly in the middle” and few philosophers or scientists now sign up for dualistic views. He doesn’t explicitly mention Chalmers’ naturalistic dualism, though he does describe functionalism as an influential form of physicalism. Functionalism is the idea that consciousness does not depend on what a system is made of, but only on what the system does, on the functions it performs. Chalmers is actually a functionalist, though not a physicalist.

Seth also mentions panpsychism and mysterianism. Panpsychism is summarily dismissed as not leading to any testable hypotheses, and mysterianism as unjustly pessimistic.

He then defends physicalism through an attack on so-called `zombie’ thought experiments. He argues, in my view fairly correctly, that the ability to imagine a philosophical zombie is an extremely weak argument that may have no bearing on the actual possibility of such a creature.  However, he does not mention any of Chalmers’ other four arguments for the non-supervention of consciousness on the physical. To my simple mind, Seth just assumes that consciousness is an emergent property of physical brains without argument and ignores completely the mystery of how a first-person subjective experience can emerge from an arrangement of physical things, by their nature objective and third-person. How can an interior emerge from exteriors: the hard problem.

The `real’ problem of consciousness

Seth then explains that his aim is to address the “real” problem of consciousness, not the hard problem. According to the “real problem”, the main aims of consciousness science are to explain why a particular conscious experience is the way it is, in terms of physical mechanisms and processes in the brain and body. Why does a particular pattern of brain activity map to a particular kind of conscious experience? 

This is of course an interesting question, but for me Seth is essentially avoiding the hard problem. He recognizes it exists (unlike Dennett) but simply decides that science should be about what seems tractable to him, and that is mapping and understanding the correlations between the brain activity and the conscious experience. As Chalmers also recognized, of course consciousness is systematically associated with physical structures and functions (see previous post). Seth is dismissive of the hard problem, saying: “the real problem is distinct from the hard problem, because it is not, at least in the first instance, about explaining why and how consciousness is part of the universe in the first place. It does not hunt for a special sauce that can magic consciousness from mere mechanism.”

In the rest of this first part of the book, Seth sets out to identify various neural correlates of consciousness (NCC). He first examines the search for NCC to identify how conscious someone is, on a scale from complete absence of conscious experience (eg. in a coma or under anaesthesia) all the way to “vivid states of awareness that accompany normal waking life”. No mention of altered or non-ordinary states. A chapter follows in which Seth describes various advances in using EEG, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to analyse brain function and identify levels of consciousness in terms of a measure of the “algorithmic complexity” of certain brain waves./i

Seth describes meeting the psychedelics research Robin Carhart-Harris and applying his “algorithmic complexity” measure of consciousness level to the brain scans of people who had taken psychedelics. He found that the level was increased relative to the baseline level of waking rest. Seth describes several similar measures of brain order-disorder and says none of them work very well. I’m not surprised, the theory itself is misguided and probably has little or nothing to do with consciousness.

In the next Chapter, Seth reviews an even more elaborate information-based measure Φ (phi), which is supposed to be the additional amount of information generated by the system as a whole, over and above the information generated by its parts. Apart from the fact that Φ cannot be calculated or measured for a brain (which Seth admits), its proponents make the claim that Φ (or integrated information) is identical to consciousness. This claim is completely unbased in any evidence, theory or argument and strikes me as typical of people who want their science to be “physics-like” and simply borrow concepts such as entropy and claim they explain something else.

This is the point I got to in my first attempt to read the book where I got so annoyed that I put it down for over a year. This sort of idiocy could only be dreamed up by the one third of people who simply don’t think the hard problem really exists, and that of course includes most neuroscientists.

Creating the contents of consciousness

On my second reading, I pushed past the Φ nonsense into the second part of the book, which how the brain creates the contents of consciousness. In brief, Seth argues (correctly) that the contents of consciousness are essentially controlled hallucinations, in which the brain generates predicted perceptions about the causes of sensory inputs, and continually corrects and updates these perceptions as new or clearer sensory inputs become available. What we perceive is tied to, controlled by, causes in the world, but is not just a reflection of “things out there”.

Seth examines how this occurs for various senses, including a few beyond the traditional “five senses” such as proprioception. I found these chapters very interesting.

A brief aside now. He discusses our sense of time and states categorically that we have no internal pacemaker, our time perception comes from a “best guess” about the rate of change of sensory signals, without any need for an inner clock. He quotes a number of experiments that he thinks confirms this. But my direct experience contradicts this.

My first example is a time when I was had a fairly large garden project and used self-hypnosis to give myself a command to wake at 5 am each morning to do a couple of hours work on it. I did not want to use an alarm clock so as not to disturb my wife. I actually woke within a minute or two of five o’clock almost every day for over two months. My second example is an experience I have often had when using an alarm clock to wake each morning for work. Every now and then I experience a period of several days, sometimes more, where I wake each morning one minute before the alarm goes off. I either have an accurate internal clock or while asleep my brain is able to tap into sensory signals of some sort and very accurately predict how much time is passing, to the minute. I mention this because it seems to me a typical example where neurologists extrapolate unjustified conclusions from fairly primitive experiments on limited samples and do not think to review the broader experiences of large numbers of people or identify individuals who may have outlier abilities.

This second part is well worth reading, and I agree with most of it, but it has little to do with the hard problem, though Seth thinks it makes the hard problem a non-problem. I am guessing that like the philosophers Seth has no experience with meditation, or of consciousness when its contents drop away. As I described in my previous post, it is possible to eventually turn your conscious attention away from other sensory contents and thought and back on itself. To sit simply aware of awareness. That is the fundamental essence of the hard problem: how does that awareness arise. It simply cannot be an emergent property arising from the brain and its production of perceptions because the awareness that experiences those perceptions is not those perceptions and remains when perceptions of everything except first-person awareness drop away.

The illusion of the self

In the third part of the book, Seth examines the sense of a “self” that we usually feel is what is experiencing consciousness. He notes that Buddhists have “long argued that there is no such thing as a permanent self and through meditation have attempted to reach entirely selfless states of consciousness” though he does not seem to understand that many meditators do reach such selfless states, albeit usually only for a short period of time. It’s the selfless stage of consciousness that is rarely reached.  The experience of selfless states is empirical evidence, albeit first-person data not the outside observer data that Seth is more comfortable with as a scientist. Seth also notes that psychedelics can result in experiences of no-self (and in my experience, also in drastically altered senses of self).

Seth identifies several types of selfhood that we experience: the embodied self (our experience of our body) the perspectival self (our first-person perspective), the volitional self (our perception that we have free will), the social self (how I perceive that others perceive me) and the narrative self (our remembered past and anticipated future). Seth argues (convincingly to me) that these diverse elements of selfhood are normally bound together in a unified experience, together with a perception (not really accurate) that our selfhood is enduring and little changing. He argues that the brain has evolved to produce this sense of selfhood in a similar way to how it produces predicted perceptions as a tool to enhance the survival of the individual. The self is another controlled hallucination that operates to support the fundamental biological drive to survive and reproduce.

Seth appears to think that losing the sense of the reality of the self is bodily regulation gone deeply awry, a severe psychiatric problem. That may be the case in some specific psychiatric conditions but is certainly not the experience of meditators who taste the no-self state, quite the opposite.

This part of the book finishes with yet another chapter on a pretend-physics theory of living organisms and a chapter on free will. The free will chapter is excellent and thought-provoking but I will leave that topic for a later post.

Animal and machine consciousness

The last part of the book examines the issue of whether other animals are conscious and whether machines can be conscious. The animal chapter is a fascinating read. Other than mammals which Seth argues likely mostly have some form of consciousness as their brains are so similar to ours, Seth explores the very alien consciousness of the octopus and this is indeed a fascinating read. Highly recommended.

The chapter on machine consciousness makes the very valid point that intelligence and consciousness are not the same thing and many make the assumption that achieving artificial general intelligence will automatically bring consciousness. Seth is sceptical and also is agnostic on the requirement of functionalism, the idea that consciousness depends only on function not on the material from which a system is made. Another excellent discussion, which I mainly leave for a separate post on machine consciousness.

In summary

Anil Seth is one of the one-third of people who simply don’t “get” the hard problem of consciousness. He thinks progress on his “real” problems will not solve but dissolve the hard problem. The parts of the book where he delves into pretend physics theories of consciousness are annoying and silly. But the rest of the book where he addresses the way that the brain produces perceptions via “controlled hallucinations” and that the sense of self is one of these controlled hallucinations is an excellent and enjoyable read. I learnt a lot about how visual and other illusions provide evidence of how the brain produces perceptions adjusted for its best guesses of the errors in the sensory inputs.

Seth has looked at some aspects of psychedelic experiences, though he largely ignores the very large body of subjective first-person evidence of non-ordinary states of consciousness and the theoretical work to develop maps of states and stages of consciousness.  He also completely ignores first-person evidence from meditative experiences, and indeed seems to see the Buddhist insight that the self is an illusion as a belief not as a result of empirical observations.

A book well worth reading but try not to let the sections on pretend-physics grand theories put you off completely. Take them lightly or skip them; the rest of the book is full of fascinating information and arguments.