Being a beast machine

In my post on consciousness possibly being a simulation engine, I noted Anil Seth’s excellent Aeon article as one of the inspirations.  As it turns out, Seth talked at a TEDx conference and covered many of the same topics he addressed in that article.

As noted in my post, I think a lot of what Seth describes here is actually unconscious perception.  If I’m right, it’s when those predictive models trigger multiple emotional reactions from our limbic system and we have to do simulations on various courses of action to decide what to do, that what we call consciousness actually comes into the picture.

I like one point Seth makes about proprioception.  He demonstrates, using the famous rubber hand test, that proprioception is a construction, a model created by the brain based on exteroception (sense of the outside world, including the external body), and interoception (sense of internal body states).  It’s become fashionable to tout proprioception and many other related perceptions as senses beyond the basic ones.  But if these additional perceptions are built on top of the basic ones, I think calling them senses in and of themselves is questionable.

Seth’s closing points about the self are worth pondering.  The self is a model, in many ways similar to the models we create for the external world.  As a result, that model can be different from the reality.  It can be wrong, no matter how privileged our access to it might feel.

Idealists ask whether the external world exists, whether or not we live in a simulation.  What isn’t often appreciated is that we definitely do live in a simulation.  Each and every one of us lives inside a simulation constructed inside our brain, both of the outside world and of ourselves.  As Seth says, “a fantasy that corresponds with the reality”, except that the reality is often a simplified cartoonish view of the reality, one adaptive for survival but not necessarily for giving us an accurate view of the actual reality.

22 thoughts on “Being a beast machine

  1. Basically, for imagination to be a survival tool it must have a laboratory, a place where experiments can be run to see “what might happen if.” This, therefore requires an internal simulacrum of reality as that lab. Easy peasey. The problem is that we often tend to believe the imagined reality over verifiable reality. The “is that rustle of the grass due to wind or a lion?” scenario is a perfect example. But running simulations we can imagine outcomes based upon both hypotheses and realize that the safe outcome is to bet on the lion cause, because if we think it is a lion but it is the wind, the worst case is we could be inconvenience, but the reverse is catastrophic. The trap is when we convince ourselves and/or others that the lion was really there when we really didn’t know. (There be dragons … and gods … out there! Har!)

    Liked by 2 people

      1. . . . and, the self. Why is it that we can convince ourselves – that is to say, believe in – an intellectual idea that the self is purely a product of mentation (which it is), whilst simultaneously finding it all but impossible to disabuse ourselves of the belief that the self is real, and something more, within our lived experience? There are two beliefs going on, mutually contradictory.

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        1. Hariod,

          If you think self is purely a product of mentation, would you say that consciousness is also purely the product of mentation? Can you separate self and consciousness?

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Yes to the first question, but only in the sense of consciousness being content–driven, which it’s widely assumed to be (and which assumption I disagree with, fwiw). So, I think this common definition of consciousness as being content–driven is indisputable insofar as it goes, and only if by ‘consciousness’ we mean being ‘aware of (something)’ — i.e. things only appearing in awareness as a result of mentation, and mentation (for me) would include feelings, not solely what we regard as thinking. Consciousness is a highly selective situational report. No one knows how it comes to exist, but there it is.

            But as Mike often points out, we need to define what we mean by the terms we’re using — such as ‘self’, ‘consciousness’, ‘awareness’, ‘attention’, ‘thinking’, and so on. There’s no disputing the self exists as a projected social construct, or as an integrated state of flux–like physical entity, for example, but they tend not be the intuited sense we have of being a ‘self of me’. By my lights, that ‘self of me’ is something that inhabits us within a morphing stream of mentation including feelings, verbal/aural/visual thoughts, assumptions, predispositions, volitional tendencies, et al — Hume’s ‘bundle of perceptions’, one might simply say. It is isn’t anything other than that, so it’s a construct we ascribe to those things, but are mistaken in reifying that construct to an existent entity. That answers the second question in my terms, and fwiw.

            What do you think, Jeff — does the self exist independently of any conscious construct?


  2. Hi Mike and thanks – great post, video, and article(now that I’ve read it)!

    One of the things I find amazing is the continuous nonconscious updating of our reality models and the emotion of surprise that signals an update important enough to be passed on to conscious attention. Also of interest, mirror box therapy for phantom limb pain and looking glass self theory.

    “a fantasy that corresponds with the reality” – Seth credits Chris Frith in the article but I didn’t catch it in the video. See chapter 5:

    ‘Making Up the Mind: How the Brain Creates our Mental World’, Frith 2007

    Click to access frith_makingupthemind_2007_chapter6.pdf

    The link says “chapter6” but it looks like the entire book to me 🙂 Thanks again and I’ll be reading – “Extraspecially damned” – LOL(I really did)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Mark,
      Thanks for the book URL. Looks interesting. The “Extraspecially damned” went over my head; what does it refer to?

      I’ve just started reading a book by Jaak Panskepp on the neuroscience of affects (feelings of emotions). Looks like it will be a lot of work, but not more than Feinberg & Mallatt’s or Damasio’s books.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Correcting my typo – “Extra specially damned” – your SMBC tweet, the Red Button

        Panksepp – the name is familiar from his work being referenced, but I’ve not yet read anything of his. Joseph LeDoux is another I’ve got on my list related to emotion.

        I’m currently reading ‘Ritual and It’s Consequences'(Seligman et al 2008) – very interesting even though I sometimes come across a sentence or 2 and just go “Huh?”, but that’s what tells me I’m definitely going to learn something.

        Off-topic, how’s your shoulder? I’ve been experimenting(actually playing) with neural entrainment:

        ‘Scientists successfully tune the brain to alleviate pain’

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Ah, thanks. The SMBC didn’t come to mind when I saw it, but now it makes total sense 🙂

          ‘Ritual and Its Consequences’ looks interesting, particularly the part in the description that implies that ritual as many of the same purposes as play. (I’ve always thought one of the reasons I personally dislike ritual is how intolerant of play it typically is.) It’s all the more interesting because Panskepp breaks primary emotions down into seven systems, which he labels: Seeking, Fear, Rage, Lust, Care, Panic/Grief, and Play. According to Panskepp, all the other emotions are secondary or tertiary combinations of these.

          My shoulder’s doing well. Thanks for asking. Every so often it reminds me that it’s not the shoulder of my youth, but nothing along the lines of what happened a few years ago. For me, doing the physical therapy exercises, but spacing them out further (more rest days) than what the pamphlets recommended, seemed to eventually do the trick. I eventually found doing the exercises once very four days (instead of the recommended every second day) was ideal, for me. I fully realize that I was lucky. (Although I’ve fallen off the exercise bandwagon again, which is tempting fate.)

          Interesting on the neural entrainment. Do you have chronic pain? If so, I hope it helps.

          That said, for medical strategy, I’d be careful with the info you get from ScienceDaily. It’s generally a good source, but it’s largely university press releases relatively unfiltered. Due to the fact that those typically come from public relations people rather than the actual scientists, the content sometimes has questionable accuracy or can be over-hyped.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. SMBC – I wondered after posting the comment if crossing venues like that might be problematic. I’ll try to avoid it or be a little more explicit in the future.

            Panksepp – it’s Pan[ks]epp, Mike – you’re transposing the “k”and “s”. Good luck retraining your fingers. I am going to have to look into his body of work at some point.

            chronic pain – not sure if my arthritic knees technically qualify as they’ll get fixed someday. I don’t expect the neural entrainment is going to replace any medication or physical therapy, but if all I get is a little placebo relief I’ll take it.

            ScienceDaily – just like Wikipedia, always go to the referenced source:

            ‘Alpha-range visual and auditory stimulation reduces the perception of pain’, Ecsy, Jones, and Brown 2016

            Thanks for the cautionary reminder all the same. It’s all too easy to get overly excited about something you want to be true 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

    2. Thanks for the correction on Panksepp. (I actually almost did it again when typing that first sentence.) I’ll have to keep an eye on that, particularly if this turns into another series of posts.

      I can imagine painful knees making life very difficult. Hope you can find a way to get some relief.

      Good point about checking sources. And of course, I just wrote a post referencing a ScienceDaily article, so I’m definitely not anti-ScienceDaily.

      I definitely know the siren call of looking for any solutions to pain, even if they’re just placebos. I won’t talk about the things I looked into during my shoulder travails. It’s scary to think how willing I was to entertain some things that are, with the benefit of hindsight, pretty obvious quackery, but it wasn’t that obvious when I had been in pain for months.

      Not that I necessarily think entrainment is in that category. Unlike some of the stuff I looked at, it seems to be, at worst, harmless, and may actually help. I hope it does.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks, aside from the discomfort the knees limit activity more than anything. I won’t be planning an assault on Everest any time soon.

        On going to the source, yes, more than once I’ve read an enthusiastic press release and then gone on to the study and the author(s)’s cautions and caveats therein.

        I had my alternative medicine experience years prior to my knee problems on the recommendation of a friend so haven’t gone down that road this time. If I hadn’t figured out a regimen for consistently getting some quality sleep I might well be more open to some of those options myself. After all, we’re only extra specially damned humans 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Jeff,
      Unfortunately, it’s a stupid limitation in WordPress. It won’t give you a Reply button past a certain level of indention. I can increase the limit somewhat, but going further than it currently is causes formatting issues for mobile users.

      Your best bet is probably just to put a reply down here and explicitly address it to Hariod.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hariod said: “What do you think, Jeff — does the self exist independently of any conscious construct?

    I can’t find any evidence that ‘self’ exists independently of consciousness. And, for all intents and purposes, I can’t see consciousness existing independently of self. I also think the sense of self uses different mechanisms or systems of information that get defined as one self, for example, ego and true self, or I, Me, Mine. The one thing all these aspects have in common is the experiencing structure which is consciousness. This experiencing structure is a reflexive mechanism that is neither controllable nor definable and is part and parcel of being conscious. All experience is this structure. All experience is self experience. This is why there is no transcendence of self through experience.This is the house that collapsed according to the testimony of the Buddha and other figures from different cultures, religions, etc. As long as that structure is in place, self remains no matter what exalted experience one has. All the effort to understand and explain what consciousness is can only be within this sphere of information. Therefore, to reduce self to a ‘mistake’, or a mental construct, or brain activity in any capacity is not sufficient to live without this experience of a ‘self’ which is really what any philosophical or religious system is all about and the reason why anyone goes in search of an answer to all of these questions, imo.

    This subject is a very difficult one to comprehend. We can use words like understanding, paradox, and intuition, but the language itself cannot be experienced in the same way by everyone so there is no ‘universal agreement’ possible. Awareness of it all doesn’t change a thing. It is just a recognition of how things are and there is some ‘value’ in that. What one does with that ‘value’ is another matter. These are just some of my observations on the subject. I don’t think there is any ‘value’ in them other than in a conversation taking place in a specific moment.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with most of what you say here, Jeff. There’s a difference between an intellectual understanding and an intuited actualisation of selflessness. That is precisely why I said in response to Steve’s exchange with Mike above:

      “Why is it that we can convince ourselves – that is to say, believe in – an intellectual idea that the self is purely a product of mentation (which it is), whilst simultaneously finding it all but impossible to disabuse ourselves of the belief that the self is real, and something more, within our lived experience? There are two beliefs going on, mutually contradictory.”

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hariod, when you say ‘conscious construct’, it implies a construct that we knowingly undertake. I don’t think there is much ‘knowing’ in the constructing of a self. I’m also including awareness as a knowing presence that is also not constructing this. Am I misinterpreting what you are saying?

    Also, maybe you can clarify what you mean by the difference between an intellectual understanding and an intuited actualization of selflessness. I’m a bit lost with this terminology. Thanks.


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