The Consciousness Rabbit Hole: Where Are We?

In fact, although people talk about being conscious of what is happening now, that’s the one thing you cannot be conscious of”

Once you start trying to write or think about consciousness, you realize it’s the weirdest, craziest, most confusing, yet beautiful thing.  After all, it’s the one thing you have control over that pushes the levers for everything in your life - emotions, reactions, desires, goals, outlooks, thoughts, physical feelings.  

Imagine being able to understand and control it.  Fully.  You’d be like Bradley Cooper in Limitless, except with zero downsides. I’m sure you probably have many ideas around what consciousness is, but how can you dive further into what and how it actually is?  

One of the most illuminating and unique takes I’ve read on consciousness came from The Emotion Machine by Marvin Minsky, one of the co-founders of MIT’s AI Lab and a cognitive scientist.  

In general, he writes a lot about the definition of consciousness and the inner workings of our brain.  Two main themes emerge: the self as we know it does not exist and consciousness as we think of it generally is wrong.  

You are not you: you are no one

When we generally think of ourselves, we think of our being as a singular person, static and remaining the same over time.  Sure, we change our thoughts and desires and we grow older, but we like to think that who we are remains the same and never changes.  We can feel confident that we can point to ourself and stand out against the backdrop of the universe.

Minsky gives a hard disagree on that.  

There is no “self”. What we view as the self is just many different mental processes and resources competing in different methods. Consciousness is misunderstood: it is a suitcase word that encompasses many other processes and experiences that can’t be explained well at a high level

He says something incredibly important here: consciousness encompasses an incredible amount of mental processes that constantly change and turn on and off at any given moment.  It’s almost like the Uncertainty Principle applies here: you can’t know X about consciousness or a state of mind without sacrificing Y, which also remains critical to uncovering its secrets.  

Minsky goes on to discuss the different mental models that we practically use day to day:

Whenever you think about your “Self,” you are switching among a network of models, each of which may help to answer questions about different aspects of what you are.”

But:

When you think of yourself as a single thing, this gives you no clues about issues like these: What determines the subjects I think about? How do I choose what next to do? How can I solve this difficult problem? Instead, the Single-Self concept offers only useless answers like these: My Self selects what to think about. My Self decides what I should do next. I should try to make my Self get to work.

Unsurprisingly, he thinks that these networks cannot examine their own roots.  Falling into the trap of thinking of yourself as a singular Self also cannot answer any meaningful questions about why one does anything, or feels anything, or lives the way they do.  

For by nature I am a sort of meeting place of countless streams of ancestral tendency…. I am a collection of impulses. There is no one desire that is always present to me.”

Have we been wrong about the standard view of consciousness?


Here’s where Minsky drops some insights around consciousness that I had never heard before.  The standard view of consciousness familiar to me revolved around the ideas taught by mindfulness; that is, our consciousness and the nature of it and be experienced through paying attention to our senses.  Feeling, smelling, touching, tasting,  Recognizing sensations in the complete moment and observing your mind via this mechanism.  

Minsky turns this on its head:

However, it also seems clear that when we tackle more difficult problems, we increasingly need to divide those problems into parts, and focus on these sequentially. This means that our higher, reflective levels of thought will tend to operate more serially. This may also partly account for our sense of having (or being) a “stream of consciousness.”

In other words, it seems to me, the apparent “directness of experience” is an illusion that comes because our higher mental levels have such limited access to the systems we use to recognize, represent, and react to our external and internal conditions.

It’s important to understand what he’s saying here: our lower level mental processes manage our senses and deliver the feeling of a “direct experience.”  However, our high level mental processes sit so far away from those that collect the information “on the ground” that it’s impossible for us to access that sense data DIRECTLY without losing lots of information.  

The result being: we are physically inhibited from even knowing the truth behind what we’d consider a “direct experience” within consciousness. 

It might sound like a stretch.  How could our brain not preserve that information?  Minsky has a biological answer for us.

Let’s give this argument a name: The Organism Principle: When a system evolves to become more complex, this always involves a compromise: if its parts become too separate, then the system’s abilities will be limited—but if there are too many interconnections, then each change in one part will disrupt many others.

You’re probably thinking Minksy hasn’t taught us much about how to better understand our own consciousness.  You’d be right:

All these arguments suggest that there is little to gain from wondering what consciousness “is”—because that word includes too much for us to deal with all at once.

Seems like this entire post is futile….

Thinking about consciousness from a pragmatic perspective 

I recently watched old home videos of myself as a baby and a prepubescent boy.  This coupled with thinking about consciousness got me thinking: who the HELL is that baby in that video?  It sure as shit aint me!  Watching those videos gave me some sense of existential dread.  I have no recollection of those videos being taken.  I see similar people (i.e. my parents) in the videos acting in a recognizable way towards me.  But seeing that young boy?  I barely recognize him.  How can I be certain that’s me, besides it slightly looking like me and everyone else telling me so?  

Here’s another piece around these ideas of consciousness that I can’t seem to triangulate; clearly the baby in the videos IS me.  But what does IS me mean?  

This got me thinking about the Ship of Theseus.  Imagine a ship that leaves port, and returns home 10 years later.  Throughout its long journey, it’s lost sailors to other cities, sails to the wind, and its wooden structure to rot.  The materials constituting the ship have been replaced, removed, and rebuilt over time. The ship that comes back into the home port 10 years later does not contain the same wooden planks, sails, or sailors that it once did.  Is it still the same ship?


You can see how this applies to seeing yourself as a baby, or as a young kid.  All of the cells in your body have been replaced.  Some memories exist, but many more do not.  Your behavior, cognition, mental models, desires, interests, and relationships have all changed.  Nothing about that kid you see on the screen exists anymore.  

Since Minsky argues that all of the different mental processes that govern your cognition and consciousness change over time, and rejects the idea of an “I”,  I’d (lol) imagine he’d say that nothing links the person watching the screen of the old home video to the younger version in that video. After all, there’s no single “thing” that could possibly link me today to my younger “self”.  My consciousness doesn’t necessarily persist because the different mental processes that create my sense of consciousness and identity MUST constantly change and update as I get older.  

Sounds pretty weird.  Here’s the other side of the coin.  

I find the chainmail idea the most convincing about how we can retrace our mental steps back to younger versions of ourselves.      

This idea borrows from Derek Parfit’s idea of psychological connectedness.  Think of our brain and identity as links in a suit of chainmail.  The chainmail has links intersecting at certain points, adding new links to the chainmail over time that represent our new beliefs, ideas, goals and desires.  Over time, the links at the opposite end of the chainmail disappear (i.e., old memories and emotional states).  In essence: you can think of your identity persisting as a long chain that both grows and shrinks over time.  

As you can see, questions around consciousness and psychological connectedness do not have easy answers.  Intellectually I can understand these arguments.  They’re tough to truly wrap your mind around though and understand the essence of what they convey.  Maybe that’s by design.  How could the brain muster enough power and finesse to study itself?  

Minsky sums this up better than I can:

For if a mind could make changes in how it works, it would face the risk of destroying itself. This could be one reason why our brains evolved so many partly separate systems, instead of a more unified and centralized one: there may have been substantial advantages to imposing limits on the extent to which our minds could examine themselves!

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