Subject to oneself

Is consciousness an illusion generated by the brain?  But how would we know it without the overview that enables our recognition?  So consciousness ‘looks on’.  And there can be no scientific discoveries without a sentient faculty of realisation.  Hence the dawning of awareness heralds a new kind of reality in which facts become identified as perceptual objects.  Likewise, self-awareness marks a new kind of realisation – evocative of ‘a self’ as the object of its own perception.

However, reality is not necessarily limited to that which is framed by perception.  And there is something odd about the nature of self-discovery because it involves the perception of facts that had hitherto escaped recognition – even when the recognisable element of such facts obtains imaginatively of the subjective realisations of insight.  Then what of science’s embrace of an ‘objective reality’ of things natural – is it inclusive enough to show that scientific knowledge represents nature’s insight into itself?

Mike Laidler



Think about it – a cause of consciousness.  What does it mean?  Does it mean that the cause is operative in the identification of itself?  Or does it mean that the cause and effect work in some kind of relationship brought about by a difference occasioning an interaction?

But how are we to identify a difference without a point of comparison that is particular to the nature of consciousness?   And how can the observation of parallel changes in the operations of consciousness and its physical support processes prove sufficient to explain any differences or show that they are one and the same thing?

Mike Laidler

Grey matters

We may feel that we can get to know a thing better by explaining it in terms of something else, indeed science depends upon this philosophy, but there is also a sense in which it doesn’t make sense – and the best example is ourselves.

Consider the perceived difference between our thoughts and the brain.  First we must recognise a difference in order to talk about a cause, otherwise there is nothing to talk about.  Then we suppose that the cause must explain things – especially if there is nothing else to see.  Yet something else remains evident in the change, now perceived as an effect.  However, saying that the cause has changed to create that difference leaves the fact of the change unexplained and renders the effect redundant.  Typically, we diminish the reality of the difference in order to explain it by attributing the emergent properties of the effect to the cause – as if ‘causality shows us’ that change doesn’t really occasion a shift in reality.  Thereby we conclude that new events, such as thought or consciousness, are really superficialities that cannot amount to changes in the nature of nature.  In other words, we concede, for the sake of explanation, that change is not all it seems – as if a talking nature is really not so different in kind from one that never did, now seen as the cause.

Moreover, the mind and the body amount to differences in reality which we can’t explain by supposing that reality must be a singular ‘thing’.  Indeed we are no more able to explain reality in terms of ‘things real’ than we can explain the existence of existence.  In fact, we can’t pin the ‘it’ down.  And perhaps reality is a fact we cannot define because it can also be seen to define us – in more ways than one.  So when people say that mind and body are one and the same thing, they are calling them the same in the name of an incomplete explanation – as if causality is a thing in existence that explains the origin of things in existence and automatically clears-up the problem of change.  Also, we are looking at ‘the reality’ retrospectively by leaving out of the analysis the significance of the looking – as if the change to observation can be seen as a subsidiary effect.  But we have yet to explain the change to perception, together with the evidence, of itself, of the effect that occupies an additional reality to the cause – a difference that cannot be accounted for by saying that there is no real change, as if the fact of change is subsidiary to the cause instead of the other way round.

Mike Laidler


Turing’s Avatar

Can a machine think? Can a thinking machine tell us something about ourselves – or does it need to ask its own questions?
Abstract: The Turing test poses problems for explanation in supposing that different causes, synthetic and biological, can converge upon the same effect, namely intelligence. In particular, the recognisable change from cause to effect depends upon a capacity for recognition that cannot be subtracted from the appearance of intelligence or its explanation.

Historical background: Alan Turing was a pioneer in the field of Artificial Intelligence. In 1950 he devised a famous thought experiment as an objective means of assessing the equivalence between an intelligent machine and a human competitor: If an independent examiner, who can’t see whether he is dealing with a man or a machine, cannot discriminate between their performance, then it is reasonable to assume that the machine is intelligent, indeed thinking for itself, and that thinking and intelligence can be explained as a programme. Various advances have been made since then plus diverse claims about the prowess of thinking machines. There is an annual competition called the Loebner Prize which is broadly based on the Turing test. The 2014 competition was held at Bletchley Park and won by a machine called Rose, which was awarded a bronze medal. If a machine eventually passes the Turing test, a special prize will be awarded and the competition will end.
Causality is a conundrum. Everything we know about atoms and molecules doesn’t tell us what comes next until we see what comes next. So it is by the nature of the effect that we are able to establish the nature of the causal properties of the atom – observable in the changes attributed to it. These attributions reassure us that the change is within bounds, but those bounds are discoverable by observation of the recurrent fact of the effect, not the continuing presence of the cause in its original state. So all we have really established is that things change, with implications for both the cause and the effect.

In fact all we see is change as a fact of change. The causality is a fact we have construed. Our causal proof is based on the fact that the cause came first, in its unchanged state, plus the ‘fact’ that there is nothing else to observe – save for the effect that results. But this observational framework is directly challenged when it comes to our understanding of our own thinking – because here the effect comes first, as an active observational prerequisite, and all the facts we can observe as causes can’t match the nature of the effect we seek to explain.

Likewise, we attribute consciousness to its causes knowing that any comparison is based on the change to consciousness – an effect that supplements the cause, meaning the cause is less than the effect – a difference that calls into questions the explanatory power of our causal proofs. However, the Turing test proposes a situation in which the difference disappears when comparing our version of thinking with an ‘intelligent machine’ – suggesting that if we can’t tell the difference we can dismiss it, and implying that we can also ignore the physical differences in its causes. Also, we can begin to understand the mind as a physical process, knowing that the Turing machine is an entirely material thing.

But what does the machine know? Is it aware that it knows – of knowing as a state of awareness? Is awareness no more than a physical process? Presumably an alert machine would recognise this much of itself and could simply tell us or show us, providing the answer from the material information in its operating systems and programmes – the corollary being that the reality equates to its physical activities, that there can be nothing more to our thinking, knowing and understanding. In this vein, the ‘change’ to awareness is seen as a feature and function of its physical causes; but it was the change to awareness that led us to identify this feature with its causes, and without the effect emerging as something else we have no cause to attach any function to the cause. Furthermore, the possibility of different causes, biological and synthetic, leading to the same effect also endorses the significance of the effect as a real change. Whichever way we look at the facts we can’t escape the fact that the special nature of our state of awareness is really its special nature as something else, which can’t be the nature of the cause as it was.

An explanatory gap lurks within our theories of where thinking comes from, as if its properties can and need to be known as the output of something else – to the point that we can also identify our awareness with that something else, in its cause. Current reasoning avers that we can’t really know what knowledge amounts to in ourselves, subjectively, without observing it objectively as an objective fact in the world, with the unknowing unconscious physical cause instated as the complete explanation. This is the same reasoning that subsumes the nature of the effect to that of the cause. Accordingly, reason itself is seen as belonging to the properties of an external world and as such gives our reasoning its authority. However, the universe is an unthinking fact occupied by a thinking fact – in one sense it can be seen to give the thinker their thoughts, but in another, very real sense, it cannot – for it has no thoughts to convey.

Even though science hasn’t explained the physical nature of consciousness ‘it’ remains sure that there is a physical explanation in its causes. But causality is a conundrum. It comes down to the fact that we know the conscious mind is possible, but we are expecting the impossible of it in trying to explain it away in the properties of something else that is less than conscious – in the unconscious causes of the physical world. These material proofs attempt to reconstruct the mind as an avatar, by which we might know it better. However, even the ‘thinking machine’ cannot show us what its thinking is really like without doing something really unusual, without joining us in the speculation over its own faculties and their origin – for it is evident that the reality is simultaneously one thing and another, being one thing as the cause and another as the effect. It appears that we introduce our own reasons for wanting the appearance of appearances to be a reality we must explain in terms of its insentient causes.

Mike Laidler

The Sound of Silence

Science is a reality proceeding to its completeness through the realisation of possibilities and the discovery of what is there. A prerequisite for this exercise is the capacity for knowing which the knower uniquely brings to the facts under study in a reality now extended by a new and different kind of realisation – one that takes place in the mind.

This process of completion began long before we invented science. Hearing a sound extends the reality from its physical state into a co-existing mental state. It is futile to argue whether the one or the other is the more real, they both add up a new reality – a reality that has already changed with the advent of its perception. We now know that we occupy both versions of this new reality – knowing that the physical waveform of sound is not everything to know, that perception brings sound to life and without that living perception the ‘sound’ remains in the silence of its physical state. Meanwhile the forests may fall and the mountains crumble without the full reality of sound having made its appearance.

Scientists know that the reality of knowledge is incomplete without an objective basis, yet tend to overlook the fact that the objective basis is incomplete within a wider reality that is known to obtain – that the world is incomplete in the oblivion of its physical completeness without the presence of a knowing realisation to change what happens next.

Mike Laidler


The consciousness uncertainty principle

Consciousness is bigger than anything we can set-up in consciousness as the form of our awareness.  


We are certain that we are conscious and yet we cannot discern its nature in any preconscious state of nature.  Nor can we prove that such preconscious states relate to the fact of consciousness without relying implicitly on the very fact we are trying to establish explicitly in terms of those other facts.  In other words, we can know the essential nature of consciousness only from within and must start from that knowledge in order to assess any fact about its nature and origin.

Furthermore, every time we probe the form of our consciousness in order to find out something new about it we alter the state of our awareness in the wake of our discovery – we generate a new state of consciousness, so ensuring that there is always something new to learn.  And if, as it would seem, consciousness remains bigger than any fact we can determine about it, then our awareness of that paradoxical fact holds the key to expanding our horizons.   

Mike Laidler