Looking through the keyhole

A Minimal-Model Hypothesis of Consciousness

The process of creating a ‘model’ of the mind, encompassing it’s myriad facets of perception, consciousness, emotion, and intelligence (all very ill-defined terms in this context) has awakened me to some rather fascinating revelations concerning ourselves. It matters not whether the subject is human consciousness, or that some other animal species – the mechanisms are, in all relevant aspects, the same.

This is the story of the beginning of a very strange tale..  a vision not so much of ‘how things are’ (meaning the reality of the Universe that is ‘out there’), as it is of how little we can see of it. It follows that coming to a realization of how removed and incomplete our mental understanding is – is quite important for the advances that I want to make.

A photo of the Orion Nebula

An alternative way of looking at consciousness is evolving within my mind. The most remarkable aspect of it? How it impacts how one might regarding the physical world. Re-reading over how I have explained it, I’m struck by how little there is within this that is actually new. There is, at this point, not much that you can pick up off the table and hold forth as groundbreaking or visionary. But as it has brewed in my mind these past few months (ever since Burning Man 2013) – it’s importance has grown.

In the beginning…

(yeah, it has to start like that. Sorry.)

from out of the primordial soup of fertile molecules that gave rise to animate life, that mysterious designer called Evolution (let’s abbreviate that to Ev) needed to create a functional brain. No so much ‘intelligent’, but really just functional. In fact – the term “intelligent” can be misleading. It assumes facts not in evidence. “Functional” is the operative word — in that it functions just enough to accomplish it’s purpose. Functional enough to enable these evolving creatures to survive long enough to bear offspring, and perhaps to hang out a little longer to help nurture them, and that’s it.  Ev didn’t actually care whether the world-view of these evolving creatures had any accuracy. Ev simply needed functioning little brains, to power these creatures through a short life and get the job done. For these little brain-mechanisms to work, they needed a mental-model. That is, a model that described the world around them. Let’s use the term “mental-model”, because that closely describes what it actually is. It’s in the same sense that we use the term “model” in applied mathematics or engineering.

Since a brain is a relatively expensive piece of biological machinery (in terms of metabolic demands upon the rest of the body), Ev had to economize. Ev had to be creative and design a mental-model that is so simple, that this primitive brain could operate it. After all, out of the vast Universe — only the immediate environ need be represented within this model. And when we say “represented” here, it’s not a photographic-image of that environ. It is more accurately described as a simplistic set of rules, an abstract algebra that defines operations upon those sensory inputs that yields useful behavior. Imagine yourself as a primitive salamander-thingy being set loose upon the jungle. What is needed for your brain? What does it have to accomplish? Just to get food, mate or whatever other process serves your species for reproduction, and avoid bumping into trees and shit as you move about. Add a few other details such as avoid water (if you can’t swim) or to use it for escape from predators (if you can), seek shelter, and scratch your butt.

The important part of this story — is the realization of how limited the mental-model held by the brain is, relative to what would be needed to truly model the world around us. Do note that the term “truly” is truly lacking in definition. We are on a track for which words struggle to carry their normal weight.

Ev created our mental-model on a tight budget. She gave us functional parts, but not a real understanding. Everything we can conceive, is just a composition of primitive physical conceptualizations. Objects. Empty space between those objects. Ground. Water. Movement amongst those objects. Other critters. Relationships between critters only insofar as it behooves our family-life. And that’s .. it.  We can do some abstract stuff — and that’s what saves us in a certain way. When you imagine some modern-day thing that didn’t exist in the early eons of our evolution, note how your inner model of that thing, is really very very primitive — often with a thin veneer of abstract-logic overlaid on top of it. For example, note our mental image of the atom: a nucleus with electrons orbiting around it. That’s a simplistic picture that our mind feels comfy with. We graft some additional layers over top of this – orbits being limited to certain definite energy-levels, spin, color.. but if someone says atom what do you envision in your mind? How are these represented within highschool textbooks? We always return to that crude representation. One which, I believe, is absurdly off.

But the limitations go beyond that. Far beyond.

I am theorizing that our conception of the passage of time, of ‘things’ moving along a path, the substance of the space around us — and the distinction between matter and empty-space — all of these are fictions that enable our mental-model to be simpler. And more economical for the brain-mechanism to implement.

Note that I have used intentional language to describe Ev’s process of creating our minds. That’s intentional. It expresses the idea of purpose, in the way that we sometimes ascribe intention to the seemingly random processes of natural selection. But intention and purpose, are il-defined terms, and I use them here loosely. Please do not infer from it that I am naming Ev a god status, or visa versa.

Our conventional world-view of our sight, for example, is simply that of a eye, receiving the light of the outside world, and that light being converted into electrical impulses whereupon they travel down the nerve-bundles to our brain. We “see” the world around us (by this view). This is how that process is depicted within our textbooks.

I suggest a different world-view: that light — and all of the other inputs from our physical senses — from the outside world is filtered and interpreted and changed far, far more severely than we ever imagined. Picture a painting — rich in myriad colors and shapes and motions, far far richer and multi-dimensional than I can convey in words. Now picture within that painting, a tiny circle the size of a pinhead. That circle represents our own mental-model. It is gray, faint, fuzzy, totally distorted beyond all recognition. But it is the only mental-model we have. Inside of that circle, is all that we can conceive. Outside of that circle, is everything else — which does not fit within our mental-model and thus we are incapable of perceiving, or even of conceiving it.

That, is a very severe limitation. The boundary of that tiny little circle represents the boundary of our comprehension. The normal animal brain, bumps into that boundary and stops. That might be a fuzzy boundary, in that some minds venture beyond it just a bit more than the others.

This, then, is why the things that we learn, once we progress beyond the immediate physical world that we evolved within — can seem so absurd to us. The foremost examples that come to my mind include the phenomena associated with quantum physics. Relativity. Electromagnetic energy. The particle-wave duality. And dark matter – which is theorized to make up the majority of the matter of our Universe.

I think it is more likely that it is us that is absurd. Or  rather, our mental-model. All of those afore-mentioned epiphenomena are just the real world.

Here are some corollaries of this view:

Our brains are limited to the tiny-circle, when it is operating as it commonly does – in the normal, sane state. But when the mind is not normal, as for example when hallucinating or crazed in some way — we may perceive some pretty strange shit. The vast majority of the time — that is just junk observation. The drink, the drugs, the medical-condition that gave rise to your crazed state — these yield crap. The neural signals are scrambled and yield only nonsense.  But, in a vanishingly-small portion of those cases, what was perceived was real. Regardless of how crazy it was: if you saw little green dudes hanging upside-down from your ceiling, it is a (vanishingly-small, but non-zero) possibility that you were getting a glimpse of something beyond that tiny circle. What you saw, could have been real. But you sound crazy when you try to describe it to others.


It is unfortunate that, in the vast majority of cases, people say nothing but stupid shit when coming back from such an experience. It is unfortunate because we could probably increase our understanding if we could only see what they saw. And if we had some means of discerning the nonsense from the narrow slivers of truth.

There is another, ‘area’, that is inevitably opened by these explorations, which we can usefully bifurcate into two topics:  magic, and religion.

While the explanations for how we came into being, and the origin of the Universe that are offered by the primary Abraham-based religious traditions are of course nonsensical, contemplating the implications of this theory of consciousness has lead me to wonder what else is radically different than what I had been assuming about the world. If all that we comprehend about the Universe is but a tiny dot on a page, then that begs the question: what else is out there? The question of whether there is a master creator, dissolves into smoke at this point for lack of any meaningful definition of intelligence, or intention. There is no way really to articulate what is the distinction between a universe that springs into existence as the result of a Big Bang, or is swept into being by a thought, or an intention, on the part some magical entity (both of which could be postulated to have occurred at the same time in the past, and to have left exactly the same evidence). But just because the fundamental underpinnings of one tradition of fairy-tales is proven false, does not mean that certain of the claims of those fairy-tales are not in fact ‘true’. You can rip apart an antique radio and prove that it contains only glass tubes and bits of metal and plastic; but someone else can then hook a source of voltage to it and show that beautiful music can come from it. Along this same line of thought: perhaps, just because we can demonstrate that all of the machinery of Life can be duplicated by assembling the right molecules into the right physical assemblage of human-being — does not disprove the possibility that there is ‘something’, that persists beyond the lifetime of that body.

I personally would group the reports of religious or spiritual experiences under the category of ‘paranormal’ phenomena. It is just a syntactical choice. If some ‘one’ has indeed floated over their own body during a medical emergency, or after a near-death experience (the salient point being that in this event they were revived such that they could give testimony concerning the event), then – if true – that would provide evidence that there is indeed something about a living thing that persists after death. Something non-material, in the sense of our present understanding of things material. What would you call that? Since I have never seen any definition of the term “soul” that has sufficient specificity to be of any use, that word is as good as any.  It should be borne in mind, however, that (I would suggest) humans have an unfortunate predilection for making things up. The vast majority of religious experiences, of paranormal phenomena, of miracles and other such – is fiction. Only a vanishingly-small proportion corresponds to an actual glimpse outside of the pinhole.

I think that Truth is more difficult to achieve, and more rare, than most of us had imagined.

Frog hidden amongst the algae

I’ll extend this exposition in the form of additional posts, before compiling into a cohesive paper. It would be good to get constructive feedback as this progresses.


About James W Hurst

a professional software designer since the beginning days of the desktop cptr and uC-controlled avionics, I today am focusing on C# and F# for building desktop and online applications under WPF, and Silverlight/ASP.NET along with the requisite HTML/CSS/JavaScript/Ajax for web applications. My database expertise is focused on Microsoft SQL Server and db4o, and my main area of interest is Artificial Intelligence and vision.
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