Comments by John Long on a Model Theory of Consciousness by Nick Collins

NC is a tennis club mate – sometimes partner and sometimes opponent. Hopefully, the same relationship will hold for exchanges, appearing in this post. I am reading his blog to give him some feedback, mostly in the form of questions seeking clarification. The latter generally relate to completeness, coherence and fitness-for-purpose.

I am also reading it with a mind to my own interest in approaches and frameworks for HCI research. The connection is NC’s claim, that his is a model theory. My interest in HCI research concerns the acquisition and validation of design knowledge as HCI Engineering Design Principles. Principles are a form of engineering, as opposed to scientific, theory.

Following NC’s advice, I am starting at the end of the blog, which is actually the beginning……

‘Who’s cat did I hear you say?’

Well….that did not take long, as it turns out. If you take the theory at its word, there is no way it can be assessed. Here is my Points 4 and 5, as an illustration, but they say it all.

I think the theory is a great achievement by someone working by themselves, but suffers from the same. It can be read for pleasure or fun or ideas to be scooped up and used elsewhere. I shall use it as an informal topic of conversation along with tennis elbow and how the weekend went.


JL 5. The self is not a given. It is some ongoing tension between our upbringing (a la Freud or somesuch) , the world we live in (a la Marx or somesuch) and what we are trying to make of it, all from moment to moment. This will take some serious conceptualisation, of which there is little or none at this time.

JL 4. The concepts making up a theory need to be identified as such. Otherwise, the theory cannot be operationalised and the operationalisation checked for completeness, coherence and fitness-for-purpose or other some such criteria. In the absence of their explicit identification, I made good the deficiency in italics on first occurrence of the concept.

A short history of the universe – and the brain of God!

Published January 30, 2020 consciousness , ideas , Uncategorized Leave a Comment 
Tags: 0 = 1 – 1Big BangInformationMathsmodelsPhilip Ballquantum theorySchrodinger

How time flies.  I finished the last post with the words “To be continued” and now I find it’s three years later!  But in the meantime I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and reading, especially about quantum physics, and in this respect I’ve just finished a really good book called “Beyond Weird”, by Philip Ball, which has prompted me to revisit this blog.

So, to continue…  Having convinced ourselves that consciousness is fundamentally “just information” we were considering the possibility that the whole universe is just information too.

How would this work?  Well, starting at the beginning, we might speculate that somehow, suddenly, the following simple mathematical equation comes into being:

0 = 1 – 1

Voila!  Out of nothing, we’ve got a something and an anti-something.  Call them matter and antimatter if you like. 

But the important thing is that we’ve got a couple of numbers to play with and out of them we derive the whole of mathematics, already known and yet to be discovered, through a series of increasingly elaborate equations, eg:

1 = 3 – 2;  3 = 12/4;  -1 = -4 + 3;  i = √ -1;   e^(pi*i) + 1 = 0;  and so on…

Pretty soon, we’ve got some really meaty mathematical structures such as Mandelbrot’s Set* and, in particular, Schrodinger’s Equation:

All this happens in the blink of an eye – more or less instantaneously – let’s call it the “Big Bang”!

Then a miracle happens: all this maths somehow “coalesces” or “crystalizes” into a vast soup of quantum objects which we can think of either as waveforms, defined by various forms of Schrodinger’s equation, or as the potentiality (an infinite network of probabilities) of various elementary particles – photons, electrons, quarks etc.  In other words we have created the “quantum world”; (note that, instead of using the term “think of”, I could have said that we can model the the quantum world either in terms of waves or particles).

The rest is fairly straightforward.  The particles combine to become protons, neutrons, atoms, molecules and all the elements of what we call matter in the physical world (and presumably other quantum objects become energy: heat, light, electromagnetic radiation etc) ; all this stuff clumps together under gravitational forces into galaxies, stars, planets; on one planet life emerges; the human brain evolves, and we have consciousness.  Simples!

Let’s go back to where the miracle happens.  There’s actually two rather tricky steps here (for the time being I’m treating the 0 = 1 – 1 bit as more or less an act of faith!):

Step 1: Information becomes the quantum world (strictly speaking I’ve only been talking about mathematics, but if this process works for maths then it seems reasonable to suppose it works for any type of information).

Step 2: The quantum world becomes the physical world, which we know and understand through the laws of classical physics and which exists “out there”.

Having read Philip Ball, I’m now fairly comfortable with Step 2.  If I understand him correctly, recent advances in quantum science now mean we can think of the physical world as being a special case of the quantum world.  Weird things like superposition and entanglement really are the way things are, and the only reason we don’t notice them at the human scale is because in practice any simple quantum system is surrounded by so much “environment” (heat, light, other particles etc) that its waveform “collapses” almost immediately, and through processes known as “decoherence” and “quantum Darwinism” we see what we see.  In particular, it seems we no longer need to get hung up on Schrodinger’s wretched cat and the idea that our observing or being conscious of the physical world somehow brings it into existence.  Similarly, we probably don’t need to worry about “spooky action at a distance”, or the quantum world constantly splitting into an infinite number of “multiverses” with different versions of me.  So that’s a relief!

Part 1 of the miracle is admittedly more difficult to swallow.  The trouble is that information is, or appears to be, extremely slippery, ethereal stuff.  It is difficult enough to imagine it floating about, out there, in the absence of anything else, never mind eventually somehow condensing into physical objects we can see and touch.  But Philip Ball, like Wheeler and Rovelli (see last post), clearly suspects that information is in some sense at the bottom of the “real” nature of the quantum world, in the same way that I’ve argued that information is fundamental to consciousness.  And if, as seems the case, the mathematics of quantum mechanics is an accurate and complete description of the quantum world – in other words, a good model – then isn’t it conceivable that matter, like mind, is fundamentally just information?

Perhaps what we have here is a hierarchy of models, all based on information processing:

  1. Consciousness is a model of the physical world
  2. The physical world is a model of the quantum world
  3. The quantum world is a model of mathematics – in other words pure information.

But I’m still uneasy with the concept of information just being out there, floating about without any obvious substrate, such as the paper it’s written on, or a magnetic disc, or a chip in a computer.  As described at length in this blog, I believe consciousness to arise out of an information model running on a substrate comprising the neurons in the human brain.  The physical world is in a sense an instance, or model, of the many forms which the Schrodinger waveform might take: its substrate is the quantum world.  And the quantum world is mathematics – just information – the purest and most abstract form of model imaginable.  But what does it run on, what’s its substrate?  The brain of God?

* Mandelbrot’s Set

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Information, quantum theory, entropy and other weird stuff

Published January 18, 2017 consciousness , ideas Leave a Comment 
Tags: consciousnessentropyInformationits from bitsmodel theoryquantum theoryrelativitywheeler

In the last blog I claimed that consciousness is an emergent property of a complex information system and that conscious experience is caused by our mental model observing itself recursively.  To Chalmers’ question what is it like to be conscious I’d have to answer, well, actually, it’s like having a little man in my head observing everything going on in there!

So have we solved the Hard Problem?  I’m not sure.  I suspect Chalmers would say no.  But I think we’re on the right track.  And like Chalmers, I have a hunch that the concept of Information is key to the problem.  Perhaps instead of information we should talk instead of “knowledge” to capture the idea of something which belongs to someone and is persistent over time and grows.  Consciousness could then be summarised as “knowledge which is aware of itself”.

In this blog I’m going to start exploring how the Model Theory of what happens inside our head relates to what modern physics tells us about what happens in the physical world outside our head.  In this respect, as part of a lifelong attempt to understand quantum mechanics, relativity and so on, I’ve been reading an excellent book by Carlo Rovelli entitled “Reality is not what it seems – the journey to quantum gravity”.  I still don’t understand it!  But I’ve learned some fascinating new things.

If, as I claim, consciousness is “just” information, albeit information configured in a highly complex and specific manner, then it’s tempting to speculate that perhaps everything else in the universe – matter, energy, space, time – is “just” information too.  Well it turns out that this is not a new idea.  A very eminent physicist called John Wheeler came up with the concept of “It from Bit” many years ago.  To quote: “It from Bit symbolises the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom — at a very deep bottom, in most instances — an immaterial source and explanation; that what we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and this is a participatory universe.”

What this refers to, I think, is something which I’ve never really been able to get my head around – all that business about Schrodinger’s cat and how you can’t say anything definitive about the position or velocity of an elementary particle until it’s been observed (ultimately by a human being, presumably).  Similarly, Einstein’s relativity seems to be about observers constrained by the speed of light which has an absolute and, to me, arbitrary value of 186,000 mph.  It gets worse!  I now learn from Rovelli that at the quantum level neither space nor time really exist!  All there is are “events” when elementary particles interact with each other and come into existence.  All very weird, but what’s exciting for me is that Rovelli seems to be saying that information is at the heart of it all.  For example: “In fact, the entire structure of quantum mechanics can be read and understood in terms of information, as follows.  A physical system manifests itself only by interacting with another. … Any description of a system is therefore always a description of the information which a system has about another system.”  Also: “Many scientists suspect today that the concept of “information” may turn out to be a key for new advances in physics.  …  I believe there is something important in this idea.”  But he’s kind enough to add in his chapter on information: “If this chapter seems particularly opaque, it’s not because your ideas are confused.  It’s because the one with the confused ideas is me.”  Phew!

The concept of information is also central to thermodynamics.  Recall that the Third Law of Thermodynamics states that Entropy, broadly conceived as the inverse of information, always increases.  Except in highly organised local systems such as living organisms or the human mind where entropy is reduced (and information, or knowledge, is increased) by effectively “feeding” on energy from the outside world.  Rovelli points out that the only way we perceive the passage of time at the macro level (remember that at the micro level it doesn’t exist) is through the evidence of entropy-increasing processes, like breaking glass, or decaying matter.  Is there a connection between the central importance of time to our conscious experience and the notion of the mind as an entropy-reducing, knowledge-creating information system?

To be continued …

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The Hard Problem

Published September 30, 2016 consciousness , ideas 3 Comments 
Tags: ChalmersconsciousnessHard ProblemHofstadterInformationmindmodel theory

I promised in the last blog to explain how Model Theory addresses Chalmers’ “hard problem”.  Well here we go…

Consciousness, it seems to me, is simply information organised in such a way that it observes itself.

I’m proposing that the way the mind works is in terms of a model or simulation of the known universe which includes a model of the self.  The challenge is to explain how the running of this model results in conscious experience.  My answer is that the mind model, just like any complex simulation, generates a huge amount of information.  This information is available to the sub-model of the self which uses selective attention to observe the model in action, including the sub-model itself.  The result is conscious experience.  How could it be otherwise?

Still not convinced?  OK, a little more about information.  Chalmers, as I understand him, more or less accepts that consciousness is an emergent property of information processing in the form of brain activity, but because he sees no acceptable reductive explanation of how this activity actually results in conscious experience he comes to the conclusion that consciousness is another “fundamental” property of the universe like matter, space or time (all of which are ultimately just as mysterious as consciousness!)  Interestingly, he then goes on to speculate that information is an important part of consciousness, but he makes a distinction between two aspects of information: the physical and the phenomenal.  Well as far as I’m concerned they’re the same.  Both the information in the mental model and the information available to us when we’re conscious is the same old information, which as an entity is reasonably well understood – we don’t need anything else in the form of a new fundamental property.

Admittedly, information is a rather slippery concept.  We can’t touch or feel it and in order to exist it needs to be encoded in some sort of substrate then accessed by some sort of information processing system.  Within a computer simulation the information is encoded in hardware and accessed by sub-systems implemented in software routines.  Within a mind the information is encoded in patterns of neuronal activity and accessed by other neuronal structures.  Of course we don’t have direct access to the information encoded at the lowest level of neurons firing.  The information is abstracted and aggregated into an enormously rich structure of symbols, concepts, algorithms and the like.  But this is true of information whatever its substrate.  The information in a book is abstracted into letters, sentences, descriptions, metaphors, analogies and narratives.  The information in a computer simulation is ultimately ones and zeroes – bits – but is manipulated, accessed and reported in the form of a range of complex data structures – numbers, characters, formulae, matrices, sets, images and so on, which are related in some way to the physical process being modelled.  I take it that the same sort of rich symbolic information processing underlies conscious experience.

Take any movie.  We know that it can be encoded entirely digitally.  In other words the movie is nothing more nor less than pure information encoded as a huge string of ones and zeroes.  This information is then re-encoded into patterns of pixels and sound waves and fed into our brains via our eyes, ears and sensory processing parts of the brain where it is experienced as being more or less identical to a narrative unfolding in the real world.  Now the information must have been re-encoded into the substrate of our mental model but it is still just the same information.  The only thing which has been added is our knowledge, partly innate, partly built up from experience, of how the physical world works – spatial structures, causal relationships, language and so on, which is presumably just more information, certainly in terms of Model Theory.  Note in particular that “qualia” within the movie – the redness of a rose, the sound of a gunshot – have also been encoded entirely digitally in the original movie, and that same information is presumably encoded within the mind, so I stand by my claim in an earlier blog that qualia too are in this sense “just” information.

OK, so the hypothesis is that consciousness is just information.  It’s not physical “stuff” but neither is it some mysterious ineffable quality.  There is a distinction between mind and matter but we don’t need to postulate some new sort of dualism.  The distinction is exactly the same in principle as that between the hardware and software on a computer or the narrative of a novel and the paper it’s printed on.  And there’s absolutely no problem about mind and matter interacting with each other.  The physical world impinges on us via sensory data which is experienced as information within a mental model.  And the information within our mental model can be used to fire motorneurons which send signals to our muscles which can impact the physical world.

At this point Chalmers would probably say that’s all very well but you still haven’t cracked the hard problem because just having the information in our heads isn’t enough; there’s a missing ingredient; you need something or someone to observethe information in order for it to become conscious experience.  Otherwise we might just as well be “zombies” as he puts it.

Well I propose that the missing ingredient is the recursive relationship between the model of the self and the overall mental model which contains the model of the self.  This is where our old friend J W Dunne comes in, as discussed in an earlier blog.  Recall that Dunne regards explanations in terms of an infinite regress as perfectly respectable and makes the point that we can only really understand systems which feature an infinite regress (of which there are many examples) when we examine the second term and its relationship with the first and third terms.  In the case of Model Theory I take this as meaning that the self model observes the model as a whole and is in its turn observed by a higher order model and so on.  Or more generally, the mental model both observes and is observed by itself.  I find it inconceivable that something like this could be going on without a “me” being conscious of it.

Another way of looking at this is in terms of the ancient and much derided idea of a homunculus or “little man” sitting inside our heads.  As explained in the earlier blog, I’m not sure this analogy is quite as outlandish as it’s usually painted and at least it has the virtue of feeling plausible in a common sense sort of way.  There is also some similarity between what I’m proposing and the ideas of Douglas Hofstadter and his “strange loops”.  Hofstadter wrote the celebrated book “Godel, Escher, Bach” and followed this up with “I am a Strange Loop”.  I think, like me, he’s claiming that the essence of consciousness is some kind of recursive or paradoxical feedback loop between different symbolic processing levels of the mind.  Unfortunately I find his writing almost completely impenetrable.  And like Metzinger and Dennet he concludes that the self is an illusion.  I simply don’t buy that.

So there you have it, for the time being!  My proposition is that I’m an information processing system and that my conscious experience is of information which is aware of itself.  Anyone out there like to comment?

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More Research and a Recap on the “Easy Problems”

Published September 21, 2016 consciousness , ideas 1 Comment 
Tags: consciousnessDavid ChalmersEasy ProblemsHard Problemmodel theoryNeuroscience

Returning to this blog after a gap of over two years, I thought I’d do some more research on what others have to say about consciousness.  There’s a lot of stuff out there!  But I find it all a bit dispiriting.  On the one hand there’s a lot of philosophers arguing about rather obscure distinctions between a huge range of “isms”; on the other hand there’s a lot of neuroscientists with theories about the brain processes underlying consciousness, which are more or less plausible but which don’t really throw much light on what I’ve learnt to call the “hard problem” of consciousness.

Which brings me on to David Chalmers, to my mind the most lucid writer on the subject (see, for example “Facing up to the Problem of Consciousness”, 1995).  Chalmers makes a distinction between “easy” and “hard” problems.

“Studying consciousness tells us more about how the world is fundamentally strange.  I think we have a few more revolutions to go yet before we get to the bottom of it”.  David Chalmers.

“Easy” problems (the term is a relative one!) relate to the brain processes underlying consciousness.  The “hard” problem is explaining how such processes result in the subjective experience of consciousness – the immediacy of qualia, the felt quality of emotions, my access to a stream of thoughts, the “what it is like to be me”.  Chalmers points out, and I agree with him, that whilst several of the neuroscience theories referred to above provide valuable insights into the potential neural correlates of consciousness, they do not address the hard problem.

Chalmers would no doubt level the same criticism at my Model Theory!  I plan to tackle the hard problem in my next blog.  But first let’s recap what Model Theory has to say about the easy problems.

OK, so like more or less everyone else, as far as I’m aware, I start from the assumption that consciousness is correlated with brain activity – neurons firing in a coordinated fashion.  For Model Theory much of this neuronal activity reflects the running of a model of the known universe, just like a sophisticated computer simulation.  Importantly, the model includes a model of the self.   Consciousness is regarded as an emergent property of recursive interactions between the model as a whole and the subset which is the model of the self – more on this in the next blog.

To reiterate previous blogs, it seems to me that this simple theory fits well with much of what we already know about the brain, the mind and the human condition.

  • The key assumption of a self-model within an overall model fits well with the experience of self-consciousness (as mentioned previously, I think Metzinger provides the best account of this – and I’ve now read his excellent book “The Ego Tunnel” – but he doesn’t really crack the hard problem!).
  • Everything we know about sensory perception fits; what we perceive is the model, not the outside (or inside) world directly.
  • Selective attention and our interactions with the outside world can be understood to be largely driven by a process of “testing hypotheses” against the model via a kind of “generalised corollary discharge” mechanism, as described earlier.
  • There is also a natural fit between modelling and testing out future scenarios to help with planning and thinking. Similar processes would underpin re-running events in the past.
  • I’m less interested in the actual neural correlates of how the model works but presumably it’s directly analogous to a highly sophisticated computer simulation, although massively parallel rather than serial. So there would need to be overall coordination of the firing of related neurons and neuron clusters all over the brain, and access to the current states of the model for motor responses and reporting purposes.  Tonini’s Integrated Information theory, Baars’ Global Workplace theory, and Crick & Koch’s idea of synchronised neuronal oscillations are probably all along the right lines.  I also have a hunch that the frontal lobes are key to consciousness and I like the various theories which posit recursive loops between the cortex and the thalamus (eg Llinas, Ward, Sporns etc).  See Anil Seth for summaries of all these theories.
  • Apropos of this, my feeling is that the raw firing of neurons is routinely processed and abstracted into “information” and higher order information such as symbols, and that the model is best thought of in terms of processing of this information rather than as a biological process as such.
  • On top of all this, as explained in previous blogs, I believe Model Theory to be consistent with several other aspects of human experience including dreamslanguagethe arts and the effects of hallucinogenic drugs.

So I’m fairly comfortable that Model Theory is a good way of describing “how the mind works” and as such is at least consistent with what we know about consciousness.  But I have to admit it doesn’t really solve the “hard” problem … yet! – see next blog!

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On LSD (don’t try this at home!)

Published December 24, 2013 ideas Leave a Comment 
Tags: consciousnessLSDmental modelmindmodel theoryserotonin

Like many of my generation, I “experimented with drugs” in my youth. The most interesting was LSD. The extraordinary and sometimes scary effects of this drug are still vivid in my memory today and I believe they are explicable in terms of Model Theory.

The most obvious effect of LSD is on sensory perception, particularly visual effects. The visual world swirls about, with intense colouring and shading and a wealth of vibrant details. We can explain this in terms of a lack of the filtering of sensory input which occurs normally in visual perception, as well as a breakdown in the “constancies” which keep the visual world stable – for example the corollary discharge mechanism described in an earlier blog. In other words what we see is closer to the “real” sensory input than the idealised model of a visual scene which our brains normally construct for us. Normally if we look at a blank white wall we see just that – a wall painted white. Under the influence of LSD we see what is really there – every brushstroke, considerable variation in the shade of white from place to place, coloured shadows, and so on. Conversely, the wall is not static and stable as we know it to be in reality, but writhes about and changes shape as the various feedback and feedforward mechanisms which normally maintain visual stability begin to break down and reflect the shifting patterns presented to our retinas.

LSD also has a powerful effect on attention and engenders “heightened awareness”. You find yourself spending what seems like hours fixated on a flower or a blade of grass, marveling at its significance and beauty. As we have seen, in terms of Model Theory, attention is the mechanism which we use to test out hypotheses about the outside world and our place in it. LSD’s effect is not so much on attention itself, which if anything is intensified, but more on our ability to shift attention.

The distortion of sensory perception together with attentional effects, heightened awareness and indeed heightened emotions often combine to give a sense of “oneness with the universe”, sometimes tellingly referred to as “ego-death”. This immediately suggests a breakdown not just of the mental model in general, but also specifically of the self-model which we have argued is the basis of our sense of self-consciousness. In a sense we are bypassing the mental model and experiencing the world more directly – what Metzinger would call a breakdown in the “Transparent” nature of consciousness. The effect is (I imagine) very similar to a religious experience, something else which Model Theory can potentially address.

It appears that LSD works by interfering with the effect of the neurotransmitter serotonin or 5-hydroxytryptamine. This makes sense when you compare molecular structures.

LSD Molecule                                  Serotonin Molecule

That leads to the prediction that serotonin plays an important role in the functioning of the mental model. For example based on the effects described above, we would expect it to be active within visual cortex (visual distortions) and pre-frontal cortex (attention and self-consciousness). Assuming serotonin has a predominantly inhibitory effect, LSD would act primarily by inhibiting this inhibition – a general excitatory effect.

One other striking effect of LSD is that time seems to slow down. I’m not sure how that fits in with model theory. In one sense, this maybe just reflects that so much goes on while the drug has its effects that a “trip” of eight hours or so seems to last for days, in retrospect at least. But maybe there is an explanation in terms of the running of the model. Computers all have a “clock” which keeps the steps in a program in synch – the faster the clock, the more powerful the computer. Maybe the mental model has a similar clock, intimately involved with our perception of time. More on this in later blogs perhaps.

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Model Theory and Art

Published December 4, 2013 consciousness , ideas 2 Comments 
Tags: artconsciousnessmetaphormodel theory

Well so much for the science, what about Art? What, if anything, can Model Theory tell us about our appreciation of paintings, music, literature and poetry? Like consciousness, art, however we define it, has always been an integral feature of the human condition since the beginning of time and across all cultures. Like consciousness, art is rather mysterious – “ineffable” is the word often used – and is not, as far as we know, shared by any other species. Is this all coincidence, or is there some meaningful or insightful relationship between the two concepts?

Needless to say, my answer is yes! How about this: all art involves some form of modelling which is directly analogous to the modelling which goes on in our brains and is, according to Model Theory, the basis of conscious thought. OK, a bit glib maybe, but let’s drill down a bit.

Painting is probably the most straightforward example. Every painting is in some way a representation – ie a model – of some aspect of reality. Since the earliest cave drawings, humans have felt compelled to represent objects, ideas and emotions in order to communicate with, entertain or inspire other humans. Note in passing that there is an element of communicating in a way which cannot be achieved by language alone. Over the years we have developed various techniques involving perspective, lighting, colour and so on to represent not just things or landscapes but also feelings, emotions and religious experiences. More recently with movements such as abstract expressionism or post modernism the representational aspect of visual arts is more subtle with an increasing self-referential element – a fascination with the modelling process itself and the medium or substrate underlying the model.

Music is about modelling in this more subtle form. I would claim that all music reflects in some sense the process of the mental model running in our brains, in the same way that a program runs on a computer. An important aspect of consciousness is the time dimension. Our self-model, and indeed our model of the universe including ourselves, is not a static representation but a continuous, coherent and dynamic simulation which extends from the past, through the present, and into the future. Like a computer program it “runs”, constantly looping back into the past to access memories or looping into the future to perform “what-if” subroutines, remembering, planning, reflecting, anticipating, always in the context of appropriate emotions and drives – the affective and conative aspects of experience. Music reflects this process, using a sequence of notes extending through time and devices such as pitch, tonality, rhythm, repetition, to “tell a story” or “paint a picture” or otherwise communicate in a specifically musical way some aspects of a person’s conscious experience to another conscious being.

Literature, and storytelling in general, is all about language and narrative, which as we noted in an early blog, are absolutely congruent with Model Theory. We can regard language as reflecting the model’s logic, and narrative as a direct representation of the model in action, telling a story about a particular situation in a particular world with particular characters which unfolds through time. This, I suggest, is directly analogous to the process by which we make sense of and interact with the world, through remembering what’s happened, anticipating what might happen, drawing conclusions, learning, regretting, hoping, once again with a background of appropriate emotions and feelings. Interestingly, if we are engrossed in a really good book – a “rattling good yarn” – we “lose ourselves” and become “immersed” in the story. What’s happening here, I suggest, is that our mental model is being driven entirely by the story – we largely lose consciousness of the “real” world and indeed of ourselves.

Poetry introduces the important notion of metaphor. For a masterful discussion of the role of metaphor in poetry I’d recommend William Empson’s classic, “Seven Types of Ambiguity”. If I remember correctly, he describes the haunting phrase in Shakespeare’s sonnet on old age “bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang” as being a metaphor for trees in autumn, which is itself a metaphor for old age, which is also suggested by ruined buildings, which hints at the dissolution of the monasteries, which happened “lately” in Shakespeare’s time, with a pun/metaphor on “late” as in the evening when the birds/choirboys sang in the evening, which brings us back to old age again. In other words, the phrase appeals to us because it uses metaphors to trigger several related but slightly different meanings which add up to a very rich, complex and emotionally satisfying communication. But what is a metaphor, ultimately, but a model – a process of expressing something in terms of something else. As such metaphor is central to language and the way we think, communicate and understand the world, as has long been recognised by psychologists and philosophers. More specifically, metaphor is absolutely central to Model Theory. Not only can our mental model itself be regarded as one gigantic metaphor for the world, but within the model, metaphor is clearly a pervasive and powerful tool for modelling cognitive phenomena, particularly more complex concepts and experiences.

So, representation, process, narrative and metaphor: all key components of works of art (without a capital A) to a greater or lesser extent, alone or in combination. And all central to Model Theory. Not exactly a proof, I’ll admit, but perhaps a smoking gun?

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Some research into similar theories

Published November 30, 2013 ideas Leave a Comment 
Tags: consciousnessMetzingermodelsTheories

To recap, what I’m calling the “Model Theory” is the idea that the way our minds work is by running a model, or simulation, of everything in the world, which, crucially, contains within it a model of our selves. This, it seems to me, explains consciousness, life, the universe and everything!

I’ve now done a little research on the subject and, not surprisingly, it seems several academics have come up with theories of consciousness which are close to what I’ve been blogging about. In fact it seems that consciousness is quite a hot topic again and a respectable subject for investigation and debate (this certainly wasn’t the case when I was a student). But most commentators are focusing only on parts of the issue and no-one really seems to share my extravagant claims for the theory. Maybe this is just the dry manner in which academics express themselves, or maybe I’m just deluded, but anyway, here’s what I’ve learnt, mostly from a site called Scholarpedia, which you can find at .

Thomas Metzinger probably comes closest to the mental model theory. His “Self Model of Subjectivity” (SMS) features a “Phenomenal Self Model” (PSM). He makes a couple of particularly good points. “Transparency” refers to us not being aware of the workings of the model. The “Phenomenal Model of the Intentionality Relation” (PMIR) refers to the PSM interacting with a model of an object rather than the real object. Or that’s what I think he’s saying – it’s not always easy to understand these guys :-). But even Metzinger seems curiously diffident about his theory. And oddly, the main conclusion he reaches is that “the self” is an illusion. Well, I think I see what he’s getting at but I’d conclude exactly the opposite. That “I” am real seems to me to be self-evident, haha. Anyway, his 2007 article on “Self Models” is well worth a read and he’s published a book called The Ego Tunnel which I’ve just ordered from Amazon – watch this space.

Revonsuo talks about a “World Simulation Metaphor” and is particularly interested in dreaming, which he interprets as the safe simulation of threatening situations.

Trehub has a so-called “Retinoid Model” of the brain, which conceives of a self-model at the centre of egocentric space.

Taylor describes a “Corollary Discharge of Attention Movements” (CODAM) model which seems very similar to what I was talking about in my last blog.

All these people and more feature in the Scholarpedia site, which also includes a useful summary of “Models of Conciousness” by Anil Seth. What’s really encouraging is that the problem of consciousness is once again being energetically addressed by a wide range of psychologists, philosophers, physiologists, computer scientists and others, and for the first time they seem to be communicating with each other!

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The Corollary Discharge

Published November 6, 2013 ideas 3 Comments 
Tags: consciousnesscorollary dischargedreamsHermann von Helmholtzmodels

Many, many years ago I did a PhD on whether an area of the brain called the frontal eye fields was involved in something called the “corollary discharge”.

A corollary discharge, or “efference copy”, was first postulated by Hermann von Helmholtz in the 19th century to account for the fact that when we move our eyes we don’t experience the visual world moving, even though the image moving over our retina would be expected to generate just such a sensation.  Helmholtz’s elegant explanation was that the motor command in the brain to move the eyes is copied as a corollary discharge and used to cancel out the apparent sensory signal coming from the eyes.  You can prove that this is what happens by gently pressing on one side of your eyeball – the visual world does appear to move in this case (sensory input but no corollary discharge to cancel it out).  I don’t recommend you try the next stage of Helmholtz’s proof which was to immobilise his eye then try and move it, which also caused a sensation of movement in the opposite direction (corollary discharge but no sensory input)!

My research provided zero evidence that the frontal eyefields were involved in this mechanism!  However, this area of the brain was clearly involved in selective attention in some way and this is what I concluded: “The function of the frontal eyefields is one of organising co-ordinated shifts of attention  … the mechanism underlying this function is that of a repeated testing of an internalised schematic map of the visual environment against afferent sensory information”.  This claim was criticised at the time for going beyond the evidence (these were the dark days of behaviourism) but forty years on I still reckon I was on to something.  Here’s how.

If instead of the “internalised schematic map of the visual environment” we generalise and call it a comprehensive “mental model”, and similarly generalise the “corollary discharge mechanism” to a fundamental process of “testing hypotheses about the outside world generated by the model against what happens when we interact with the outside world” then I think we have a valuable insight into how the brain might work.  Now let’s generalise a bit further to an internal model of the self interacting with an internal model of the outside world and only really paying attention when the sensory evidence from the real outside world is different from what the model predicts.  According to this interpretation we normally only need to process a very small fraction of our sensory input – the rest of what we perceive is internally generated.  But as soon as something unexpected happens (not predicted by the corollary discharge) we immediately pay attention and concentrate on finding out what’s new.  Generalise even further and I can start to envisage a mental model which includes not just a model of me but models of other people I’m interacting with, and once again, I think it’s helpful to think of myself continually testing out the “corollary discharge” of these interactions generated by the model inside my head with what actually happens in the outside world, helping me to plan accordingly and behave in a socially acceptable manner.

Whether any of this is anything to do with the frontal eyefields is besides the point, although, interestingly, the prefrontal cortex does seem to be very much involved with attention, perception, planning, personality, and all the other qualities we associate with higher consciousness.

Finally, what happens in dreams, where we only have the corollary discharge, so to speak, without any sensory feedback?  According to the theory, this should result in the internal representation of the outside world acting strangely in some way, by analogy with what Helmholtz saw when he immobilised his eyeball.  My personal experience is that my dream self’s interaction with its dreamed environment does indeed tend to be “difficult” in some way.  The clearest example of this would be those dreams where I’m trying to move – usually running away from something dangerous – and I find that I’m too weak, or bogged down in quicksand or otherwise constrained.  Familiar?  So what I think is happening here is that the “corollary discharge” of my action is not cancelled out by what I’d expect in the real world – the visual world streaming past me as I ran through it – so the model then tries to rationalise this by fabricating a narrative about me (weakness) or the world (quicksand) or whatever.  With a little imagination (ie going beyond the evidence big time!) it seems to me that a lot of the strange things which happen to me in my dreams make more sense in these terms – failing to complete some goal, getting lost in large cities, being interrupted just as I’m about to have sex (unfair!), people I know acting out of character, a general clumsiness of execution on the part of my dream self.  But maybe I’m just weird!

Hermann von Helmholtz 1821 – 1894

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J W Dunne and the infinite regress

Published May 20, 2011 consciousness , ideas 3 Comments 
Tags: attentionconsciousnesshomunculiinfinite regressJ W DunneMind and Matterperceptiontime

I don’t think anyone reads J W Dunne any more, but he was very popular in the 1930s and published two rather remarkable books.   In “An Experiment With Time”he claimed that our experience of time as linear is an illusion of human consciousness, and that in dreams we had simultaneous access to past, present and future.  In “The Serial Universe” he extended this argument to accommodate the then quite recent findings of quantum physics and relativity, and concluded that we are immortal! 

Personally, I don’t buy these claims.  I haven’t read Dunne sufficiently carefully to be able to offer a definitive refutation, but my instinct is that precognition and immortality are just plain wrong.

Dunne did have an insight, however, which I suspect is crucial to the understanding of human consciousness: namely, the idea of an infinite regress

From J W Dunne, “The Serial Universe”, 1936

An infinite regress is a series in which the truth of a term N is dependent on the truth of term N+1 and so on to infinity.  They are generally regarded as bad things – if you find yourself resorting to explaining a phenomenon in terms of an infinite regress you are generally regarded as having failed.  Dunne, if I understand him correctly, challenged this dogma – infinite regresses crop up in all sorts of situations and we just have to accept that they are a “real” feature of our universe.  Moreover, he pointed out that in any such series, it is only when we get to the second term that we reach a full understanding of the phenomenon under investigation.  For example in the series child – father – grandfather – greatgrandfather, and so on, it is only with the second term that we get the essential property that each term is both a father to the preceding term and a child of the next term.

In consciousness debates, an infinite regress is associated with the familiar and much derided idea of a “homunculus”, or “little man” who watches a screen on which is projected an image of the outside world, and is in turn watched over by another little man, and so on ad infinitum. 


Ridiculous, obviously!  Or is it?  Actually, it feels to me as if something like this is going on, and it fits in with what is known about the active nature of perceptionand the phenomenon of selective attention.  If I look out the window, I’m aware of the scene outside, but I’m also aware I’m looking at the scene, and I’m aware that I’m aware, and so on.  And if this goes on to infinity – so what – at least we’ve captured the recursive quality of consciousness as involving something which is both observing and being observed simultaneously.  We’ve also captured the idea of the self as a “model within a model” which can selectively observe different aspects of the model of the outside universe.

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Qualia – maybe not such a hard problem after all?

Published May 12, 2011 consciousness , ideas 3 Comments 
Tags: consciousnessMind and Matterphenomenologyphilosophypsychologyqualia

Let’s now tackle head-on the issue of “qualia” – those subjective conscious experiences such as the redness of an apple or the pain of a headache, sometimes referred to as “raw feel”.  The undeniable reality of qualia, coupled with their “ineffability”, has been taken to be a fundamental problem for materialist explanations of consciousness such as the Model Theory.

Well I don’t think so.  In fact I regard qualia as, ultimately, nothing more than information, albeit extremely complex, organised, self-referential information.

If you think about it, there’s lots of other “stuff” in the universe which is not physical matter but is nevertheless “real”.  The contents of a phone directory, a novel like War and Peace, a piece of music, the whole of mathematics.  All essentially information.  Although they are not matter, they are expressed through matter, as markings on a piece of paper, or recordings on a CD, or bits and bytes within a computer.  But they are all more than this – there is something which transcends the physical substrate which in a sense is pure information.  Would this something still exist if there was no human mind to appreciate it?  Yes, I think it would.  Would it still exist if there was no matter, no universe?  Well we’re now getting into very deep philosophical water, but again my answer would be “yes, in a sense”.

Now let’s think about a model or simulation, of, say, a weather system, running on a powerful computer.  The model consists of data structures such as tables of temperature gradients, or wind patterns, all operating on each other according to programmed logic, and running through time to generate a simulated weather system which is in some sense similar to the real thing, except that one has as a substrate the real world – air, water, land and so on – while other has as a substrate the circuits of a computer, and of course is much, much simpler.

Now imagine a much, much more sophisticated computer simulation, or, indeed, the model inside our head.  This model is much wider in scope and complexity, but fundamentally is still information – a vast, interacting set of data structures corresponding to sense data, feelings, memories, symbols, higher level abstractions of physical objects or concepts, and so on.  This is how I conceive of the raw material of qualia.

But hang on you say, “you haven’t explained the conscious nature of qualia – what it feels like to experience redness – I can accept that War and Peace as a story transcends the physical book it is written in, but War and Peace can’t appreciate itself”.  Well, the crucial point about our Mind Model is that it contains a “model within a model” which is the Self.  As the Mind Model runs, the Self sub-model interacts with other sub-models corresponding to entities which have properties corresponding to qualia such as redness, pain, the melody of a song, and so on.  It seems inconceivable to me that this could all go on in some sort of intellectual vacuum, or zombie state without the model itself having access to, experience of, and knowledge of what is going on inside it.  The net effect is consciousness.

OK, it’s not perfect, but to my mind, at least, it’s a reasonable explanation.  Legions of philosophers have of course agonised over this issue, but I think they get hung up on arcane “thought experiments” and just make the whole thing too complicated.  I may return to the vexed question of qualia, but for the time being my working hypothesis is that the Mind Model is in essence an extremely complex information system and that consciousness is an emergent property arising out of the self-referential features of the system.

Meanwhile, an intriguing thought.  In some ways, by conceiving of mind as consisting of information, which exists in a physical substrate, the brain, we are in a sense reverting to a duallist notion insofar as information is distinct from matter.  But what if all matter was ultimately information.  More on that later!

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Overview of the Model Theory in action

Published May 9, 2011 consciousness , ideas 1 Comment 
Tags: Mind and Matterphenomonologyphilosophypsychology

I’m looking out of the window and I’m conscious of the street outside and I’m also conscious of the fact that I’m looking at the street as well as lots of other things going on outside me and inside me.

Here’s what I think is happening.

Inside my head, running on my brain, is a model, or simulation, of everything.  It includes what I see on the street, everything else I sense about the outside world or the inside world of my physical body, everything I know, in the form of memories, and crucially, it includes a model of myself, as a subset of the overall model, which interacts with the model I have of the universe.

It seems to me that this theory explains, or is at least consistent with, most of what we know about human psychology; in brief:

Self-consciousness.  The idea of self as a “model within a model” is intrinsic to the theory.  If consciousness is an expression of the running of the model, then self-consciousness is inevitable.  [Note: this is both the easiest and most difficult part of the theory, and I’ll return to it; note for the moment that it ties in with Douglas Hofstadter’s idea of recursiveness or “strange loops”].

Perception.  One thing which is very clear from decades of psychological research is that sensory perception is an active rather than a passive process.  In other words what I consciously experience when I look out the window is not so much sensory data streaming into my eyes, but rather a much simpler, more abstract, internally generated model, with most of the detail filtered out.

Attention.  Central to the idea of active perception, and indeed to consciousness itself, is the concept of attention.  As I look out at the street, I’m able to focus successively on a particular tree, or a car, or the street sign.  More generally, either consciously or unconsciously, I’m continually shifting attention from one part of the model to another, driven either by external events or internal drives or aims or indeed sequences of thought.   What’s mainly going on here, I believe, is a process of testing hypotheses about the outside world – a kind of generalised “corollary discharge” (of which more later).

Drives, feelings, emotions …  As a biological animal I am driven by physiological impulses or drives such as the “four Fs” (fight, flight, food and reproduction!) and the model in my head has evolved to satisfy these drives and maximise my chances of survival.  Feelings and emotions are simply the conscious expression of these drives.  It would be exceedingly odd if the model, and particularly the model within the model corresponding to the self, did not have access in some way to the things which were driving it.

Purposive behaviour.  My stomach is rumbling, I feel hungry, and I’m starting to think about lunch.  In my head, I run a little simulation in which I get up, go to the kitchen, open the fridge, make myself a bacon sandwich, and so on.  Model theory fits very naturally with this sort of purposive behaviour and can be generalised to most other forms of planning and human activity.

Memory and time.  The model is a process which runs over time and operates on memoriesin a similar way that a computer simulation operates on data.  There’s a lot more to be said on this subject, but note for the moment that memory and time, which are of course central to consciousness, are also intrinsic to the model theory.

Language and narrative.  Language is conceived of as a particular and particularly abstract expression of the model.  In a sense, language is a model, and of course, there is a close correlation between language and thought.  Similarly, narrative in all its forms – storytelling, books, films – can be regarded as a form of modelling.  The fact that we respond so naturally to storytelling, and so easily become absorbed in a good story, fits well with the idea of a corresponding model in our heads.

Dreaming.  When we sleep, our model continues to drive itself, influenced by memories, emotions, but largely cut off from the external world.  We experience this as narratives which we call dreams – in some ways the purest form of the model.  Note that the sub-model we call the self is almost always present within our dreams.  A Finnish researcher called Antii Revonsuo has written persuasively on this subject, but he doesn’t seem to have made the leap to consciousness as a whole.

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The Model Theory of Consciousness

Published May 9, 2011 consciousness , ideas Leave a Comment 
Tags: Mind and Matterphenomenologyphilosophypsychology

OK, let’s jump straight in.

JL 5. The self is not a given. It is some ongoing tension between our upbringing (a la Freud or somesuch) , the world we live in (a la Marx or somesuch) and what we are trying to make of it, all from moment to moment. This will take some serious conceptualisation, of which there is little or none at this time.

Inside each person’s head is a model of everything outside.  This model of the universe runs in the physical brain, in the same way that a software program runs on a computer’s hardware.  Now here’s the crucial bit: obviously, the model contains within itself a model of the person to whom the brain belongs – the self.  The running of this model within a model is what we experience as consciousness.

JL 4. The concepts making up a theory need to be identified as such. Otherwise, the theory cannot be operationalised and the operationalisation checked for completeness, coherence and fitness-for-purpose or other some such criteria. In the absence of their explicit identification, I made good the deficiency in italics on first occurrence of the concept.

  • There is no distinction between mind and matter*.  In philosophical terms, this is a monist as opposed to a dualist theory.  Thinking and consciousness are regarded simply as emergent properties of a highly evolved biological system.
  • Similarly, we do not need recourse to unlikely concepts such as God, the soul, or other forms of mysticism.
  • In principle, a similar model could run on a physical substrate other than the human brain, for example a highly sophisticated computer.  So here’s a testable prediction: eventually we will see conscious computers.

JL 3. What are criteria for operationalising the concept of ‘conscious‘ such that the ‘prediction’ could be tested? Note that prediction normally partners ‘explanation’ to make up scientific or other forms of understanding. Explanation sounds much like the concept of account (see JL1).

JL 2. What is the field of study of the theory? The reason for asking is that the field may itself have some constraints/criteria, which need to be met, if a theory is ‘of this field’.

I hesitate to claim that this is an original theory.  I know that others have entertained similar ideas in fields such as philosophy, psychology, neuroscience and artificial intelligence, but I’m not aware of any attempt to bring these strands together in a single, complete, coherent account, and conversely, I’m not aware of any definitive refutation of such an account.  Hence this blog.

JL 1. So, it’s a ‘theory’, then? With criteria of being an ‘account’ and one which is ‘complete’ and ‘coherent’. As an account, the theory must have some ‘scope’, that is, the phenomena of which the account is being given.

* Rene Descartes would beg to differ.

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