By Chet Yarbrough
Being You (A New Science of Consciousness)
By: Anil Seth
Narrated by: Anil Seth
Anil Seth (British professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex.)
Anil Seth’s “Being You” is a difficult book to understand, in part because of its subject, but also because it requires a better educated reviewer. Consciousness is defined as an awareness of yourself and the world, a state of being awake and aware of one’s surroundings that emerges from one’s brain. Seth explains neuronal activity of the brain correlates with what “Being You” is you. Seth argues that without neuronal activity, there is no you.
Seth suggests the conscious self operates with a Bayesian view of the world.
Bayes’ theory is that decision making is based on rules used to predict one’s decisions. The example Seth gives is a person living in the desert who sees droplets of water on his lawn and presumes it either rained, or his sprinkler was left on when it should have been turned off. He looks outside and sees his neighbor’s lawn is wet and, with that added information, decides it must have rained. Then he notes his window is dirty and maybe he is not seeing water on his neighbor’s lawn. This reduces the possibility that it rained but not enough to change his mind about it having rained last night. The point is that one continually changes their state of understanding (their consciousness) based on added information.
The difficulty of a Bayesian view of consciousness is that human decisions are a function of human perception of data that is never 100 percent complete.
There are three fundamental weaknesses with a Bayesian view of the world as the prime mover of consciousness. One, humans do not always see clearly. Two, all that is seen is never all that there is to be seen. And three, human minds tend to pattern what they see to conform to their personal bias. The third is the most troubling weakness because, like in police line-ups used for eyewitnesses to identify perps when a crime is committed, mistakes are made. Eyewitnesses are no guarantee for identification of a criminal’s crime. None of this is to suggest Seth is wrong about what consciousness is but it shows consciousness is eminently fallible and only probabilistic.
Seth’s theory of consciousness reinforces the public danger of social websites that influence the public, particularly young adolescents trying to find their way in life. Their search for social acceptance leads them to internet sites that may lead or mislead their lives.
Another fascinating argument by Seth is that the mind is not the source of emotion. He suggests the mind is informed by the organs of the body. The heart begins to race, and adrenalin is released as somatic markers that send signals to an area of the brain that makes fight or flight decisions. Emotions do not originate in the brain. The brain responds to the cumulative effect of the body’s physical and chemical signals.
Seth notes various studies of human decision making that are based on external stimuli with a belief that the primary purpose of consciousness is to survive. Two methods of consciousness measurement are IIT (Integrated Information Theory) and PHI, a number meant to measure quality interconnections between bits of information of a given entity. The resulting number — the Phi score — corresponds directly to a measurement of an entities level of consciousness. A reader/listener should not be discouraged by this technical digression. Much remains in Seth’s book that is more comprehensible and interesting.
Seth explores some of the tests used for consciousness. The mirror test is one in which a living thing is shown itself in a mirror to see if it recognizes the image of itself.
Monkeys show some signs of recognition (dogs do not) which suggests a greater level of consciousness among primates. He notes the evolution of human perception of the world through the eyes of artists like Monet, Mach, and Picasso who see nature’s colors and planes of the face or body in the material world. One thinks of Monk’s insightful “Scream” that reminds some of life’s terror. He shows how a stationary drawing seems to have movement because of a trick of consciousness.
Seth expands that principle to show how consciousness can create a full body illusion like that of a Star Trek transporter that sends their body to another planet. A whole host of social problems can be created by image teleportation. Being able to create a perfect duplicate of one person that is televising false information might start a rebellion or start a war.
Seth argues humans have free will and that the brain’s pre-cognition for action is not because of pre-determination of life but a delay inherent in consciousness which is gathering information before acting, just like the sprinkler story alluded to earlier. As noted earlier, to Seth, consciousness is a Bayesian process, not a predetermination of action.
The end of “Being You” addresses Ray Kurzweil’s “singularity”, “a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed. Seth expresses concern and an element of optimism. The evolution of the beast machine bodes a possible end, an adaptation, or an evolutionary change of humanity.
Seth touches on research being done on cerebral organoids, artificially grown miniature organs resembling the brain.
Presently they are being used to model the development of brain cancer to aid in its cure but how far is this from the next step in machine learning, supplemented by the implantation of cerebral organoids?
The beast machine is consciousness.
Genetics discoveries and research hold the potential for creation, manipulation, and destruction of human life. Artificial Intelligence is on the precipice of a marriage between all information in the world and sentient existence of beast machines. The beast machine will have greater potential for creation, manipulation, and destruction of life.
Human consciousness has created the agricultural age, the industrial revolution and now this technological age. Humans have nuclear weapons of mass destruction that can end our world’s human habitation. The only note of optimism is that the history of human consciousness has generally led to positive changes for humanity, i.e., longer life spans, improved economic and social conditions, and new discoveries about life and living. The world is at its next great social and economic change.