Is Consciousness a Battle between your Beliefs and Perceptions?


Now you see it… Magician Harry Houdini moments before ‘disappearing’ Jennie the 10,000lb elephant at the Hippodrome, New York, in 1918. Photo courtesy Library of Congress

Hakwan Lau | Aeon Ideas

Imagine you’re at a magic show, in which the performer suddenly vanishes. Of course, you ultimately know that the person is probably just hiding somewhere. Yet it continues to look as if the person has disappeared. We can’t reason away that appearance, no matter what logic dictates. Why are our conscious experiences so stubborn?

The fact that our perception of the world appears to be so intransigent, however much we might reflect on it, tells us something unique about how our brains are wired. Compare the magician scenario with how we usually process information. Say you have five friends who tell you it’s raining outside, and one weather website indicating that it isn’t. You’d probably just consider the website to be wrong and write it off. But when it comes to conscious perception, there seems to be something strangely persistent about what we see, hear and feel. Even when a perceptual experience is clearly ‘wrong’, we can’t just mute it.

Why is that so? Recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI) shed new light on this puzzle. In computer science, we know that neural networks for pattern-recognition – so-called deep learning models – can benefit from a process known as predictive coding. Instead of just taking in information passively, from the bottom up, networks can make top-down hypotheses about the world, to be tested against observations. They generally work better this way. When a neural network identifies a cat, for example, it first develops a model that allows it to predict or imagine what a cat looks like. It can then examine any incoming data that arrives to see whether or not it fits that expectation.

The trouble is, while these generative models can be super efficient once they’re up and running, they usually demand huge amounts of time and information to train. One solution is to use generative adversarial networks (GANs) – hailed as the ‘coolest idea in deep learning in the last 20 years’ by Facebook’s head of AI research Yann LeCun. In GANs, we might train one network (the generator) to create pictures of cats, mimicking real cats as closely as it can. And we train another network (the discriminator) to distinguish between the manufactured cat images and the real ones. We can then pit the two networks against each other, such that the discriminator is rewarded for catching fakes, while the generator is rewarded for getting away with them. When they are set up to compete, the networks grow together in prowess, not unlike an arch art-forger trying to outwit an art expert. This makes learning very efficient for each of them.

As well as a handy engineering trick, GANs are a potentially useful analogy for understanding the human brain. In mammalian brains, the neurons responsible for encoding perceptual information serve multiple purposes. For example, the neurons that fire when you see a cat also fire when you imagine or remember a cat; they can also activate more or less at random. So whenever there’s activity in our neural circuitry, the brain needs to be able to figure out the cause of the signals, whether internal or external.

We can call this exercise perceptual reality monitoring. John Locke, the 17th-century British philosopher, believed that we had some sort of inner organ that performed the job of sensory self-monitoring. But critics of Locke wondered why Mother Nature would take the trouble to grow a whole separate organ, on top of a system that’s already set up to detect the world via the senses. You have to be able to smell something before you can go about deciding whether or not the perception is real or fake; so why not just build in a check to the detecting mechanism itself?

In light of what we now know about GANs, though, Locke’s idea makes a certain amount of sense. Because our perceptual system takes up neural resources, parts of it get recycled for different uses. So imagining a cat draws on the same neuronal patterns as actually seeing one. But this overlap muddies the water regarding the meaning of the signals. Therefore, for the recycling scheme to work well, we need a discriminator to decide when we are seeing something versus when we’re merely thinking about it. This GAN-like inner sense organ – or something like it – needs to be there to act as an adversarial rival, to stimulate the growth of a well-honed predictive coding mechanism.

If this account is right, it’s fair to say that conscious experience is probably akin to a kind of logical inference. That is, if the perceptual signal from the generator says there is a cat, and the discriminator decides that this signal truthfully reflects the state of the world right now, we naturally see a cat. The same goes for raw feelings: pain can feel sharp, even when we know full well that nothing is poking at us, and patients can report feeling pain in limbs that have already been amputated. To the extent that the discriminator gets things right most of the time, we tend to trust it. No wonder that when there’s a conflict between subjective impressions and rational beliefs, it seems to make sense to believe what we consciously experience.

This perceptual stubbornness is not just a feature of humans. Some primates have it too, as shown by their capacity to be amazed and amused by magic tricks. That is, they seem to understand that there’s a tension between what they’re seeing and what they know to be true. Given what we understand about their brains – specifically, that their perceptual neurons are also ‘recyclable’ for top-down functioning – the GAN theory suggests that these nonhuman animals probably have conscious experiences not dissimilar to ours.

The future of AI is more challenging. If we built a robot with a very complex GAN-style architecture, would it be conscious? On the basis of our theory, it would probably be capable of predictive coding, exercising the same machinery for perception as it deploys for top-down prediction or imagination. Perhaps like some current generative networks, it could ‘dream’. Like us, it probably couldn’t reason away its pain – and it might even be able to appreciate stage magic.

Theorising about consciousness is notoriously hard, and we don’t yet know what it really consists in. So we wouldn’t be in a position to establish if our robot was truly conscious. Then again, we can’t do this with any certainty with respect to other animals either. At least by fleshing out some conjectures about the machinery of consciousness, we can begin
to test them against our intuitions – and, more importantly, in experiments. What we do know is that a model of the mind involving an inner mechanism of doubt – a nit-picking system that’s constantly on the lookout for fakes and forgeries in perception – is one of the most promising ideas we’ve come up with so far.

Hakwan Lau

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

Quantum Mysticism

Our bodies are like a radio device. They have the unique ability to serve as the suitable instrument to allow the soul to flow through us, animate us, and receive expression through us. Each of our distinct bodies possesses a unique frequency which is perfectly set to ‘pick up’ the waves of only our soul. My body is set to a frequency to serve as the home to my soul, and your body is set to a frequency to serve as the home to your soul.

This concept contains profound meaning when we consider death. When someone dies, we all ask the question, “Where did the soul go?” The real answer to this is that the soul didn’t go anywhere. It already exists everywhere. The only thing that ‘went somewhere’ was the body.

But in addition to teaching a lesson about death, this concept teaches an even greater lesson about life. Our life’s perfection can only be accomplished if and when our bodies are precisely in sync with the frequency of our soul. Only then can our soul be fully integrated within us, and can our bodies serve as perfect conduits to give expression to our soul’s desires, passions and destiny. Only then can we exist completely ‘in our element’, in perfect harmony and inner peace.

– Rabbi Eliezer Wolf

niels bohr quote

Quantum Mysticism

Quantum mysticism is a set of metaphysical beliefs and associated practices that seek to relate consciousness, intelligence, spirituality, or mystical world-views to the ideas of quantum mechanics and its interpretations. Quantum mysticism is considered by most scientists and philosophers to be pseudoscience or “quackery”.

Early Controversy and Resolution

Quantum mysticism in the sense of consciousness playing a role in quantum theory first appeared in Germany during the 1920s when some of the leading quantum physicists, such as Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg, leaned toward such interpretations of their theories. Others, such as Albert Einstein and Max Planck, objected to these interpretations. Despite the accusation of mysticism from Einstein, Niels Bohr denied the charge, attributing it to misunderstandings. By the second half of the twentieth century the controversy had run its course—Schrödinger’s 1958 lectures are said to “mark the last of a generation that lived with the mysticism controversy”—and today most physicists are realists who do not believe that quantum theory is involved with consciousness.


In 1961 Eugene Wigner wrote a paper, titled Remarks on the mind–body question, suggesting that a conscious observer played a fundamental role in quantum mechanics. A part of the Von Neumann–Wigner interpretation. While his paper would serve as inspiration for later mystical works by others, Wigner’s ideas were primarily philosophical in nature and are not considered “in the same ballpark” as the mysticism that would follow.

Appropriation by New Age Thought

In the early 1970s New Age culture began to incorporate ideas from quantum physics, beginning with books by Arthur Koestler, Lawrence LeShan and others which suggested that purported parapsychological phenomena could be explained by quantum mechanics. In this decade the Fundamental Fysiks Group emerged, a group of physicists who embraced quantum mysticism while engaging in parapsychology, Transcendental Meditation, and various New Age and Eastern mystical practices. Inspired in part by Wigner, Fritjof Capra, a member of the Fundamental Fysiks Group, wrote The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism (1975), a book espousing New Age quantum physics that gained popularity among the non-scientific public. In 1979 came the publication of The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav, a non-scientist and “the most successful of Capra’s followers”. The Fundamental Fysiks Group is said to be one of the agents responsible for the “huge amount of pseudoscientific nonsense” surrounding interpretations of quantum mechanics.

Modern Usage and Examples

In contrast to the mysticism of Schrödinger and Heisenberg, today quantum mysticism typically refers to its New Age incarnation that combines ancient mysticism with quantum mechanics. Called a pseudoscience and a “hijacking” of quantum physics, it draws upon “coincidental similarities of language rather than genuine connections” to quantum mechanics. Physicist Murray Gell-Mann coined the phrase “quantum flapdoodle” to refer to the misuse and misapplication of quantum physics to other topics.

An example of such misuse is New Age guru Deepak Chopra’s “quantum theory” that aging is caused by the mind, expounded in his books Quantum Healing (1989) and Ageless Body, Timeless Mind (1993). In 1998 Chopra was awarded the parody Ig Nobel Prize in the physics category for “his unique interpretation of quantum physics as it applies to life, liberty, and the pursuit of economic happiness”.

The 2004 film What the Bleep Do We Know!? dealt with a range of New Age ideas in relation to physics. It was produced by the Ramtha School of Enlightenment which was founded by J.Z. Knight, a channeler who said that her teachings were based on a discourse with a 35,000-year-old disembodied entity named Ramtha. Featuring Fundamental Fysiks Group member Fred Alan Wolf, the film misused some aspects of quantum mechanics—including the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and the observer effect—as well as biology and medicine. Numerous critics dismissed the film for its use of pseudoscience.

I love that in quantum physics for some reason it’s become an excuse to mock all of science. See it’s nothing real, nothing true and whatever you think, that’s how the world is. So if you think positively you remake the world positively according to this pseudo scientist explanation.

 – Barbara Ehrenreich, Royal Society of Arts


Further reading: Quantum Approaches to Consciousness