Ultimate reality – what if anything is the truth?

“Whether you’re a scientist of not, 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 self, no interior and no exterior.”

So writes Anil Seth, Professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex in his book Being You. And in writing it, of course, he explodes the myth, as espoused by Tartaglia in the previous blog, that neuroscientists have to abandon the concept of consciousness. This is true of some neuroscientists and neuro-philosophers, but by no means all of them. Of course, Seth still has to make his case that consciousness can be captured in a satisfactory way by materialism, but he is in no doubt that his ‘preferred philosophical position…is physicalism’ or materialism as we have been calling it here. In this the fourth, and final, blog on this subject – for now at least- we explore his materialist approach and try to find a solution to the great materialist v idealist debate.

Anil Seth

In a really simple and effective way he points out that materialism and idealism have similar, indeed, mirror problems. Whereas for materialists it’s the problem of how the mind emerges out of matter, for idealists it’s ‘how matter emerges out of mind’ – although, as we have seen, the philosopher Gilbert Ryle argues that this is a pseudo problem because mind and matter should not have been split asunder by philosophers like Descartes in the first place.

Seth begins his climb up from brute matter to consciousness by claiming that there are actually several levels of consciousness which are linked to the idea that ‘every conscious experience is both informative and integrated, inhabiting the complex middle ground between order and disorder’. He simplifies this claim by writing that ‘a system is conscious to the extent that its whole generates more information than its parts‘. But Seth goes further than this and his position rests on the argument, much like Kant and Schopenhauer as we have seen in previous blogs – and indeed Tartaglia – that the world as we perceive it is a ‘construction of the brain’ or, as Seth puts it, a ‘controlled hallucination’ in order to distinguish it from the uncontrolled hallucination of our dreams.

The mystery of consciousness

In short, Seth argues that the brain is a ‘prediction machine’ and that what we ‘see, hear, and feel is nothing more than the brain’s “best guess” of the causes of its sensory inputs’. Interestingly, if true this would furnish a materialistic account of intentionality, or aboutness, so beloved by some idealists who argue that matter simply can’t accommodate this aspect of consciousness. What Seth is saying is that matter, in its particular manifestation as the brain, can.

According to Seth our perception of a cup of coffee, for example, is caused by our sensory signals but the image itself is constructed by our brains as its best guess of what is out there. He writes: “We never experience sensory signals themselves, we only ever experience interpretations of them.” This, again, is very close to the transcendental idealism of Kant and Schopenhauer, both of whom acknowledge the existence of an ultimate reality that lies forever beyond out knowledge.

Still further Seth argues that what the brain is doing is deploying Bayesian logic or abductive reasoning, often referred to as ‘inference to the best explanation’, the insights from which are central to understanding how conscious perceptions are central to ‘understanding how conscious perceptions are built from brain-based guesses’.

For Seth all this has a profound impact on who we are – or think we are. For him the ‘ground-state of conscious selfhood’ is ‘formless, shapeless, control orientated perceptual prediction about the present and future physiological condition of the body itself. This where being you begins, and it is here that we find the most profound connections between life and mind, between our best machine nature and conscious self’.

Curiously, both idealism of Tartaglia and the materialism of Seth have the same basis – the Self. For Tartaglia that leads to his form of idealism which thinks of ‘ultimate reality as something within each of our perspectives, while materialism does not’. As we have seen, however, this is a mischaracterization of materialism, or at least the positions of materialists like Seth. Tartaglia’s position is also in danger of falling into solipsistic abyss in which each individual flails around unconnected to any other Self. It also ignores the possibility, as Seth suggests, that our internal experience is formed by the physical world, even if we have no direct intuition of that world.

Is the world a construct of the brain?

Seth also dodges the solipsistic problem by acknowledging that even though there is no actual essence of self, part of what gives us the sense of selfhood is what he calls the ‘social self’, which is ‘all about how I perceive others perceiving me’. And he adds: “It is the part of me that arises from me being embedded in a social network.” Accordingly, the ‘social self emerges gradually during childhood and continues to evolve throughout life.’

We have come a long way since the first blog on ultimate reality was posted last year. It has felt sometimes that there is no principled way of deciding between idealism and materialism – and dualism doesn’t seem to solve the problem because it too has the seemingly irresolvable mind/body bifurcation. Maybe there simply isn’t a single ultimate reality. Maybe it’s a bit like the wave/particle dualism of photons or the duck/rabbit illusion.

Is it a duck or a rabbit?

On the other hand either idealism is true or materialism is true – but not at the same time!

But if one were forced to make a decision then it could be argued that materialism just edges it mainly because it avoids the problem of solipsism and acknowledges that Ultimate Reality resides outside of us as individuals. No doubt there are idealists out there who have answers to meet these problems and nothing that has been written here suggests that either side has a knock-down argument. But for now at least that’s all folks, and this blog will move on to other topics.

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1 Comment

  1. I found two sentences in this essay which I thought interesting to comment on. ( Much of the rest seemed to thrash the meaning out of a few abstract words, so I will just deal with those.) The first was near the beginning. “For each of us, our conscious experience is all there is.” This becomes a more meaningful tautology if you delete the last three words. It then reflects what seem to me to be two important truths:-
    1. What we are talking about here is our individual and unique self, not something common or shared. If it is different from anyone else’s: why is that? Because of unique DNA; on which builds up, over time: (A) a huge, immeasurably complex wealth of sensory experiences, (B) accumulated memories of those, (C) a history and record of UNconscious mental computations based on those and, finally, (D) conscious manipulation of all the aforementioned stuff. Isn’t the self just the working of the bits of brain that are concerned with (D)?
    2. Back to that tautology: suppose we highlight the word “conscious”? Or leave it out? After all, the greater part of our brain activity is UNconscious. I am regarding direct sensory experience as unconscious (which I will justify with the example of a bad smell – which is not repulsive to your nose, but to your mind). It seems to me that memories are UNconscious, since they can lie in storage in your grey cells all your life, waiting for your mind to come and pick them out like a computer system with its data. Likewise subconconscious are the emotional flags which attach themselves to the material originating from the individual’s life-experience.
    The other striking sentence, which finds itself near the pink head illustration, says: “The social self emerges gradually during childhood and continues to evolve throughout life.” I don’t know that “emerges” is quite the word,
    because it suggests a butterfly emegring fully formed from the pupa, so I should prefer it to “appear” – will that do? It seems otherwise a reasonable view. I have tried to express it in (1 D), above. And its validity and relevanceare confirmed if yu try it without the word “social” : because the NON-social self also appears and evolves, as you watch people growing up if they happen to be afflicted with autism – where the social self does not evolve normally.
    Just one more subject I want to bring to your attention: social insects. In particular, Bees which, despite the small dimensions of their individual brains, develop within their colony an impressive multiple social self (and individual altruism), which is interesting to compare and contrast with the egocentric individual version of a social self that we humans have,based not so much on instinct as on life experiences and the memories of them over time.

    I’m wondering, as I have in the past, whether I am doing a good thing writing all this? It is a waste of time if no one gets to read it. But since I have not in the past had feedback from my comments, perhaps they were found stupid or annoying, and that would be a waste oftime, too. I should like to know whether to bother in future, please. C.B.


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