In this post I present the first few hypotheses that I can think for why people insist on a metaphysical aspect to consciousness, and develop one in some detail: a "reality is simulated" hypothesis.
Please contribute your own hypotheses. Why is there a persistent belief that consciousness is metaphysical?
I offer some hypotheses for why people have the illusion of a metaphysical aspect to consciousness:
- the lack of spatio-temporal information in our thought processes. We have no idea where thoughts occur since there are few physical sensations in our brain when we think. The sense of "another dimension" to thought might disappear if people grew up with images of different parts of their brain lighting up in different patterns as they thought -- even when they think deep, profound and poignant thoughts.
- when we think about something, that something can be located anywhere. I can think of a tree on the moon. This may give the feeling that consciousness is spatially 'infinite' and non-local.
- If I think about a tree on the moon, I can make someone else think of a tree on the moon without presenting a tree on the moon. This gives the impression that ideas are put into and pulled out of an omnipresent aether.
- To some extent in everyday thought, and especially during certain mental states, our thinking actually simulates reality. For example, while dreaming and during so-called "out-of-body" experiences.
Perhaps all of these hypotheses contribute to the impression that consciousness is fundamentally non-physical (outside the physical; meta-physical). It is the last hypothesis that I would like to expand upon in this post. That we actually simulate reality in our thoughts -- and this simulated reality is the dual reality that dualists speak of.
Reality is Simulated Hypothesis
I know that when I look at my hand, the experience is not as immediate and straight-forward as it seems. It's not me "looking at my hand" -- if by 'me' I mean my conscious self. Instead, my brain is putting together an image of my hand based on sensory information it is receiving from my eye. Nor is it even so simple as "it is me that is aware of a constructed image of my hand". Because the part of me that 'sees' the image is still not my conscious 'me'. What is actually going on is that I imagine 'myself' seeing my hand -- that is, I imagine a 'me' and I imagine this 'me' is seeing a hand. So when I think about it quite carefully, I realize that when I think to myself that I am seeing my hand, this means I am simulating myself seeing a hand.
Level 1: I see my hand. (where I = my brain and my hand = my hand -- this is equivalent to the way a non-sentient creature "sees")
Level 2: I think, "I see my hand". (the I in "I see my hand" = my conscious self-awareness; the hand in "I see my hand" = an imagined / simulated hand)
This sounds very complicated, but it goes on all the time that we're consciously self-aware. (Without it being consciously observed -- that would be Level 3.)
So my brain constructs an image of a hand. One very closely related to the simulated hand that I see when I imagine myself seeing my hand. So 'I' never see a hand; I only see my simulation of a hand.
I'm describing this at Level 2 but it also happens at Level 1. I'm sure many of us relate to the concern as children whether or not our loved ones 'see' things the same way we do, as this seemed impossible to ever verify. ('What does blue look like to you? How do I know you're not seeing green, but have learned to call it blue?') The conundrum dissolves when you realize that there is nothing behind the experience of 'seeing green' or 'seeing blue' beyond the set of experiences the meaning of those words point to. (Eliezer has posts on this, for example the first two paragraphs here.)
So at the end of the day, my dad and I do reliably have the same concept of the blue box on the table, because what's relevant about our concept of the box is it's weight, color, texture, etc. -- all the empirical things about it.
By now in this post though, if I'm explaining myself clearly, we'll observe that our concept of the box still includes more than all the empirical things about the box. When we consider the blue box, we're still simulating the blue box in our minds; perhaps in a simulation of ourselves seeing the blue box. The simulation of the blue box (the box in our mind's eye) needn't be exactly like the blue box. Indeed, it will be missing any information we don't have about the blue box or don't feel that is necessary to retrieve for that particular simulation. The simulated blue box is an idealization of the actual blue box. A platonic idealization of a Blue Box. Even if I examine the blue box and notice that the corner is chipped, I will then consciously observe that I am observing that the blue box is chipped only by simulating myself seeing a blue box with the chip. A platonic Blue Box With A Chip.
Thus qualia. We never interact with anything else, if 'we' is restricted to mean our conscious self-aware identities.
So that's my thesis: consciousness is the simulation of reality run on the hardware of our brains, and qualia is the Level3+ observation that the reality we perceive is simulated.
Now imagine: when people describe consciousness as being metaphysical, perhaps they are observing that the simulation is metaphysical.
... I would agree that a simulation can be metaphysical. But it's still simulated meta-physicality. I imagine/simulate a platonic Blue Box, but a platonic Blue Box doesn't exist. Not empirically.
Or does it? If empirical is defined as that which we most immediately experience; wouldn't qualia be there, right between ourselves and the observation of reality?
I've observed before (and would be willing to argue in more detail ) that a simulation is just as real as reality if it doesn't need to model the exterior reality to model itself self-consistently. But when consciousness is in the act of observing reality (and thus reality is simulated in our consciousness) the simulation is only used to model reality, so some confusion about which is internal and which is external is understandable. This is the 'eye looking at the eye looking at the eye' sensation that Eliezer describes, somewhere. In any case, I wouldn't say that our experience of qualia is not real (genuine), but that we're only beginning to find the right words for it. I think the word 'simulation' is fine. (I note the meaning of simulation has changed in the last 15 years to accomodate my meaning; it takes time for words to evolve to fill new gaps.)
As evidence (ironic cough) I would like to present a conversation I had recently with someone who said they believed in out-of-body experiences.
Me: What do you see with during these experience? With your actual physical eyes? (Aren't they closed?)
G: Not really, it's like a third eye. (translation: mind's eye)
Me: Could you use this technique to spy on people?
G: No... (some discomfort)
Me: Could you pick up a video camera and video yourself sleeping on the bed?
G: No! It's not like that. (translation: it's not empirical)
But you can see things in a different way, discover things that you intuitively know. (translation: discover information that might be imbedded in the simulation, like being able to recall that the box was chipped or it belonged to your grandmother before she died)
... kind of Matrix-y, but why not? While simulating our simulations, why not code some extra information in the wall, in a favorite childhood tree, in the image of a horse being whipped?
And now some of the mataphysical stuff I've heard doesn't sound half as crazy after all, if they mean that actual-reality and simulated-reality form a dual universe. I can see how people might feel that the simulated reality is the genuine/ordinant reality: reality cannot be perceived without perceiving the simulated reality, but simulated reality can be perceived without perceiving reality. (For example, I can't see a doughnut without also imagining it, but I can imagine a doughnut without seeing it.) I can also see how dualists would see physical objects as embedded with meaning. "But not physically," they'll say. But yet -- it is the physical object that has the meaning? "Not exactly,"they'll say. Kind of like some platonic entity that is associated with it...