The Inner Light Theory of Consciousness is based on an extraordinary assertion:
human awareness exists within a manufactured reality, something that is
distinct and separate from the external physical universe. Our ability
to dream shows that the brain contains the neural machinery to accomplish
this feat. Further, the nature of human perception provides strong
evidence that this reality creating machine is activated whenever we are
conscious, and that we can be aware of nothing but this artificial reality.
When we are awake, this inner reality is constructed to coarsely represent
the physical environment around us. When we dream, the reality creating
machine is running amok, creating an inner reality that is chaotic and
unrelated to the outside world. This mental architecture is
consistent with evolutionary adaptation, the human perception of reality,
and the nature of dreaming. Perhaps most important, it provides a
solution to the mind-body paradox, where the first-person and third-person
perspectives see the mind as fundamentally different things.
The human mind appears to us in two completely different ways. On
one hand, science sees the mind as the operation of the brain, the electrochemical
activity in a vast network of nerve cells. But on the other hand,
we each see ourselves as a conscious being, capable of thinking, feeling,
and experiencing the world around us. We see the redness of a rose,
smell its fragrance, and appreciate its beauty. We contemplate the
meaning of life, and freely decide how to think and act. These aspects
of the mind seem to entail something beyond the physical world, something
that is fundamentally different from the machine-like operation of the
brain. But how can this be? How can the mind appear as one thing
from the outside, but as an entirely different thing from the inside?
The Inner Light Theory of Consciousness is directed at solving this paradox.
Our starting point will be an examination of how we understand reality,
and why this results in the mind-body paradox being such a mystery.
Our task is to precisely identify the problem, and just as important, outline
what would count as a solution. The findings of this section are
absolutely critical to the overall theory. Properly defining the
question takes us more than halfway to the answer.
This is followed by discussing a strange situation that could exist in
our universe, what we will call an Information-Limited Subreality.
This leads us to a key property of how we observe and understand reality,
the Principle of Relative Reduction. It is within this principle
that we find the solution to the mind-body problem. However, there are
consequences to this solution, requiring us to change the way we view reality
and ourselves. The scientific evidence for these assertions is examined,
from the origin and function of the human brain, to the strange world of
We Understand Reality
The first step in understanding consciousness is to examine how we understand
other things in the world. The human mind inherently tries to understand
complex things by breaking them into simpler components. This
is a basic strategy we have all used since childhood; it is a fundamental
part of the way we think. Analyzing problems in this way is called
reduction, since it reduces something that is complex into something that
is more elementary. It is the single most important method used by
both scientists and everyday people to understand the world around them.
As an example, suppose that we encounter a grandfather clock for the first
time and want to understand it in the greatest possible detail. We
start by dismantling the clock piece-by-piece, taking great care to record
how the individual components fit together. This disassembly leaves
us with a few hundred parts spread out on our work table, plus a notebook
full of sketches and descriptions that indicate how the parts can be assembled
into the original object. At this point we ask the question: "What is a
grandfather clock?" Our answer is simply: "A grandfather clock is
the several hundred parts resting on the table in front of us, assembled
in the way indicated by the notes we have taken." In other words,
we have reduced the original object to two things: (1) a set of smaller
objects, and (2) the assembly instructions.
Being good scientists, we want to continue this analysis to its fullest
conclusion. This means we need to consider each of the individual parts
one-by-one, trying to reduce each to even more basic components.
For instance, we might find that the face of the clock is a steel plate
with a white background and black numbers. Accordingly, we stop thinking
of the clock face as a single thing. Rather, we begin to view it
as a sheet of metal and two kinds of paint, assembled in a specific way
that we write down in our notebook.
As we continue this process, we eventually encounter objects that are composed
of a single material, for instance, the glass window that the clock face
is viewed through. We can no longer reduce this type of object by
simple mechanical disassembly; the chemistry of the materials must be examined.
For this particular example, a chemist may tell us that the glass is composed
of atoms of silicon and oxygen, combined in a certain molecular and physical
way. To fully reduce the object we must specify the type and exact
location of each and every atom that forms the object. In addition,
we also need to specify the state of each of these atoms, such as how they
are bonded to neighboring atoms to form molecules, as well as similar properties
that chemists and physicists know about.
Of course, this level of reduction is impossible for our current technology.
The important concept is that the principle of reduction allows us to understanding
the world by breaking it into smaller and smaller components. But
where does this end? At what point can reduction no longer be carried
out? A simple answer can be given to these questions. The method
of reduction ends when the things being considered can no longer be broken
apart; that is, when we have reached things that are irreducible. Identifying
these irreducible things is one of the primary goals of science.
If you open an introductory textbook on physics you will find many irreducible
things discussed. This includes subatomic particles, such as electrons,
protons, and neutrons, the components that form atoms. It also includes
forces, such as magnetism and gravity. Even stranger, we must include
the dimensions that we exist in, namely, distance and time.
Day-after-day we exist in something we call reality. It is what we
perceive with our five senses: vision, hearing, touch, taste, and smell.
It is what we measure with our instruments, such as thermometers, rulers
and clocks. Reality is as familiar as anything can be. But
what is it? The method of reduction is an attempt to answer this
question by separating reality into two categories: (1) those things that
are irreducible, which we will call the Elements-of-reality, and (2) the
assembly instructions, which are Information.
Definition of the Mind-Body Problem
method of reduction serves us well, but when we use it to examine consciousness
we come to a disturbing contradiction. This arises because we can
observe the mind from two different perspectives, the third-person and
the first-person viewpoints. The third-person view of the mind is from
the outside, the objective world of science and medicine. In comparison,
the first-person viewpoint is based on introspection, where the individual
turns his attention inward to examine his own mind.
From the third-person view, the mind is nothing but the functioning of
the brain, complex electrochemical activity in a massive network of nerve
cells. All of the things that we associate with consciousness, such
as thinking, emotions, and memory, arise from machine-like operations in
a mere three pounds of meat. Science and medicine can find nothing
more, and need nothing more, to explain our mental abilities.
Taking this a step further, we know that the brain is formed from ordinary
materials assembled in an exquisitely complex way. For instance, consider
the difference between a brain and a rock. Using reduction,
we find that both objects are composed of the same Elements-of-reality,
that is, the electrons, protons, and neutrons that form all ordinary matter.
The difference between a brain and a rock is in how this raw material is
assembled. The brain has an incredibly intricate biological and chemical
structure, while the rock is relatively random and unorganized. It
is this difference in structure that allows the brain to support a mind,
while the rock is a mindless lump. Science sees the mind as arising
from the structure of the brain, not the raw materials. In other words,
the third-person perspective sees the mind as Information, and not an Element-of-reality.
On the other hand, the first-person view of the mind is nothing like neural
activity or the operation of a machine. We each see our own mind
as a unified entity, a thing in itself, something that cannot be broken
into components. Other aspects of the mind are also readily apparent
by self examination. We experience qualia, raw sensations such as the taste
of an apple, the blueness of the sky, and the terrible feeling of pain.
Our thoughts are semantic, that is, they have a meaning or significance
beyond mere words, definitions, and syntax. Even further, we
have vast control over our minds and bodies, with the free-will to think
and act in the manner we choose.
These aspects of consciousness are very familiar to us; they are the things
that define who we are and how we experience reality. We refer to
them in our everyday conversations, fully expecting that those around us
will know what we mean. The problem is, these introspective qualities
defy objective definition, and are often contradictory to established scientific
knowledge. For instance, science knows nothing of the "blueness" of blue
or the "meaning" of an idea. Even worse, when people speak of "mental
unity" and "free-will," science cries hogwash! From the viewpoint
of science, the mind is the interaction of one-hundred billion individual
nerve cells, all following the deterministic principles of classical physics.
The mind seen by science is far from unified or free.
The point is, the first-person view of the mind has many aspects that cannot
be objectively defined or easily reconciled with science. Nevertheless,
these things are as real as anything we know; they define our reality;
they are a fundamental part of what we are. Even though they cannot
be seen from the outside, their existence is self-evident through introspection.
Further, we find that these first-person mental qualities are irreducible,
they cannot be broken into more basic components. Accordingly, such things
as mental unity, qualia, semantic thought, and free-will are Elements-of-reality.
In short, our primary tool for understanding the world is the method of
reduction, which divides reality into two categories, Information and Elements-of-reality.
From the third-person viewpoint, the mind is pure Information, nothing
but the operation of the human brain. In comparison, the first-person
perspective sees the mind as one or more Elements-of-reality, such as mental
unity, semantic thought, qualia, free-will, and so on. This discrepancy
is known in philosophy as the mind-body problem. It is a classic
paradox, two points of view that should agree, couldn't disagree more.
And when scientists and philosophers have tried to force them together
in some way, the results are unsatisfying, and often in conflict with established
knowledge. Something seems to be missing, a fact, an explanation, a property,
or something else that provides understanding and unification. This
dilemma is presented to us each second of our waking lives. We see
the redness of a rose, smell its fragrance, and appreciate its beauty.
We contemplate the meaning of life, and freely decide how to think and
act. How can these things be nothing but electrochemical activity
in nerve cells?
Of course, there are other mysteries about the brain's operation that are
not included in the mind-body problem. For instance, science does
not yet understand how learning and memories come about from synaptic changes.
However, this is a completely different category of problem; it is a mystery
totally contained in the third-person perspective. In other words,
it is a matter of simple ignorance; we observe something and cannot immediately
understand how to consolidate what we see with our previous knowledge.
In comparison, in the mind-body problem we seem to understand what we are
observing, but those observations are inherently contradictory.
There is one and only one issue in the mind-body problem: How can the mind
be seen as Information from the third-person perspective, but as one or
more Elements-of-reality from the first-person viewpoint? This is
the question we are seeking to answer, the heart of what puzzles us about
consciousness. Furthermore, this also specifies what is required of a solution
to this puzzle. Solving the mind-body problem is the same as explaining
the discrepancy between the first and third-person observations. No more
is required, and no less will suffice.
Now we will turn our attention away from consciousness for the moment.
The central topic of this section is the Information-Limited Subreality,
an objective and physical phenomenon that we can scientifically define
and describe the properties of. The well-known story of "the brain
in the vat" is a good introduction to this concept. It goes something like
this. One night while you are deep asleep, a scientist enters your bedroom,
surgically removes your brain from your body, and carries it back to his
laboratory. He plops it into a vat of nutrient solution to keep it alive,
and then goes to work attaching electrodes to the ten-million or so neurons
that enter and exit your brain. In the morning you wake up and start
your daily activities, completely unaware that all of your perceptions
now originate from an electronic computer. Everything that you see,
hear, feel, touch, and taste is not real; they are nothing but computer
algorithms generating the appropriate neural signals into your brain.
Even though you believe you are walking, talking, and otherwise moving
your body, it is nothing but an illusion. And the most amazing part,
you can't tell that anything has changed in the night; everything seems
the same as the day before.
But what if the scientist doesn't want you living the same life you had?
By typing a few commands on his computer keyboard, he can change everything
that you perceive. One moment you are sitting at your kitchen table
enjoying your morning breakfast, and the next you are an astronaut exploring
the surface of a distant planet, or a ballerina dancing across a stage.
In the next instant, you have no physical substance at all; you are a disembodied
spirit floating effortlessly through the air, able to move yourself and
objects around you by mere thought. You are at the scientist's mercy;
he can give you pleasures beyond imagination, or pain and horror exceeding
your worst fear. Even stranger, the physical laws in this inner reality
are up to the scientist's whims; gravity may cause objects to fall upward,
matches may burn before they are struck, and our bodies might be able to
move through solid objects. Even more bizarre, this inner reality
may be composed of a different dimensional structure, say, four dimensions
of distance, two dimensions of time, and one dimension of phase-shift (something
that is completely alien and unknown to us). The inner reality does
not even need to be consistent; its characteristics might abruptly change
for no apparent reason. Indeed, the nature of this inner reality
could be virtually anything.
Using the "brain in the vat" as a guide, we will now define the physical
phenomenon called an Information-Limited Subreality. Two observers, which
we will call the outer observer and the inner observer, exist in a physical
universe. The outer observer has the ability to perceive this universe
directly, without distortion or misrepresentation. This means that
the reality perceived by the outer observer is genuine; it originates from
and represents exactly what it seems to, an external physical universe.
In comparison, the inner observer is in a much more complex condition,
being totally unable to observe the physical universe. This handicap results
from the information accessible to the inner observer being systematically
distorted by some process. Moreover, this distortion is not random,
but has two key characteristics. First, it blocks all knowledge of
the physical universe to the inner observer. Second, the distorted
information is completely consistent with another physical universe, one
that could exist, but doesn't. Of course, the inner observer
does not know that what he perceives is an illusion; it is as real to him
as real can be. It is the only reality that he knows. But the outer
observer can see this situation as it truly is, a false reality that is
generated by manipulating information. For this reason, the outer
observer would refer to the experiences of the inner observer as an Information-Limited
Subreality. Since this is such a long name, we will call it an "inner
reality" for short. Likewise, we will refer to the reality experienced
by the outer observer as the "outer reality." Of course, the inner
observer would not use any of these terms; to him there is only reality.
The Information-Limited Subreality is a phenomenon that could logically
exist in the physical universe as we know it. As such, it is something
that we can examine, classify, and determine the properties of.
This brings us to The Inner Light, a story that allows us to understand
the most extraordinary property of the Information-Limited Subreality,
the property that is the root of consciousness.
The Star Trek movies and television episodes have become an icon of popular
culture. Their contribution has reached far beyond mere entertainment;
they have provided unique commentary on social issues and helped to shape
our vision of the future. The Inner Light, Episode 125 of Star Trek:
The Next Generation, is one of the most highly acclaimed stories in these
collective works, and it holds a special place in our search for the nature
The story begins with the starship Enterprise passing through an unknown
region of space. Its commander, Captain Jean-Luc Picard, stands diligently
on the bridge, surrounded by his first officer and bridge crew.
The ship's sensors detect an alien probe of unknown design, and they approach
it with caution. Without warning, the probe begins to emit a narrow nucleonic
beam (a 24th century term) which engulfs the Captain, causing him to fall
to the floor. His first officer kneels over him to give care.
As Picard looks up from the deck he sees his world change; the face of
his first officer fades away and is replaced by that of a young woman,
obviously relieved to see him regaining awareness. Picard looks around
and finds he is no longer on the bridge of the Enterprise, but in the living
area of an unfamiliar residence, wearing unfamiliar clothing. As
is common in his century, Picard believes he has been abducted from the
Enterprise by a teleportation beam. "What is this place?" Picard
demands. The woman seems genuinely confused by the question, as she
tenderly responds, "This is your home, of course." She pleads with
him to remain calm, explaining that he has been feverish for over a week.
He ignores her advice, and leaves the residence in search of answers.
Picard finds that he is in the small community of Ressic, on the planet
Kataan. The residents know him as their longtime friend Kamin.
The woman he awoke to is Eline, his wife of three years. Those
around him dismiss his claims of being a starship captain as delusions
of the fever, stealing the memories of his true life. Over the next
days, weeks, and years, Picard struggles to find the reason he has been
taken from the Enterprise, and to find where in the universe he is being
held. But all is in vain; he can find no evidence to support his memories.
All that he encounters tells him that he is Kamin, an ironweaver in the
community of Ressic, husband to Eline.
Even after five years we find that Picard is still struggling with the
memories of his former life. But absent any evidence, and in deference
to the wife he has grown to love, Picard puts these memories aside and
accepts his new existence. He becomes Kamin, and silences the inner
voices that know him as Jean-Luc. Over the next 30 years, Kamin lives
a happy life with Eline. He has children and grandchildren, becomes
a member of the community's governing council, and spends his days in scientific
pursuits and exploring the countryside. He also experiences the human
tragedies of life, the death of friends and family, unfulfilled dreams
for those he cares about, and struggling against hopeless situations.
In one particularly poignant scene, Kamin tells Eline how realistic his
memories still seem, even after many years. He looks at her and the
village around him, and softly utters, ‘It was real; it was as real as
this is.’ Now, the viewer knows that this is a very strange
statement, since Picard hasn't gone anywhere; he is still laying
on the deck of the bridge of the Enterprise. The nucleonic beam is
controlling his brain, making him perceive that he is a mere ironweaver
from Ressic. Picard's mind is trapped in an Information-Limited Subreality.
His lifetime of experience as Kamin is being played out in only a few minutes,
as the Enterprise's medical staff furiously labor to end the attack.
The other details of this story are not important to our investigation
of consciousness, so we won't give the away the ending. Suffice it
to say that it is haunting and memorable. In 1993, The Inner Light
won a well-deserved Hugo Award for best dramatic science fiction presentation.
The aspect of The Inner Light that makes it relevant to our present
work is Picard's understanding of his reality. In particular, Picard
is a trained scientist, in addition to being a starship commander.
Not surprising, he carries his scientific methods and attitudes into his
life as Kamin. During his 30 years on Kataan, Kamin engages
in a wide variety of scientific research, such as microbiology, astronomy,
and climatology, to name just a few. He carries out these activities
as he would in his former reality, and the results are just as consistent
and well behaved. Kamin has as much ability to be a scientist
as Jean-Luc Picard.
The primary tool used by science is the method of reduction, which Kamin
instinctively uses to understand his reality. Just as in his former
life, he finds that everything he observes can be divided into two categories,
Information and Elements-of-reality. While the Information he finds
is not especially interesting to us, the Elements-of-reality are critically
important. When Kamin examines his world he finds such things as elementary
particles, electric and magnetic fields, and the dimensions of time and
distance. He observes these things to be irreducible, and therefore
by definition, Elements-of-reality. Of course, none of this seems
strange or unusual to Kamin; it is the same as he has always known.
But now we must look at this from the perspective of the medical team working
to free Picard from the nucleonic beam. They can also use the method of
reduction to examine the situation. If they are clever enough, they
may even be able to tell what Picard is thinking, feeling, perceiving,
and so on. But from their vantage point, they will only observe Information,
nothing but the activity in the nucleonic beam and Picard's brain.
Everything that Picard observes to be an Element-of-reality, the medical
team observes to be pure Information. And the reason for this is
simple, the medical team sees the situation as it truly is, while Picard's
observations are compromised by the Information-Limited Subreality.
This example leads us to an inescapable conclusion: the method of reduction
is relative. By this we mean that a phenomenon can appear as Information
to one observer, but as an Element-of-reality to another observer.
Further, each of these observers is fully justified in their belief, having
reached their conclusion through the most stringent rules of the scientific
method and plain commonsense. It should be emphasized that this result
does not rely on any of the observers being "conscious." This same
answer would be found, for example, if the two observers were mindless
computers, programmed to observe their environment and classify entities
as Information or Elements-of-reality.
We will call this crucial finding the Principle of Relative Reduction.
In short, the inner observer of an Information-Limited Subreality will
perceive Elements-of-Reality, while the outer observer will see these same
things as nothing but Information. This is a purely physical phenomenon,
something that we can examine and understand in the finest detail.
Subreality Machine in the Brain
Now we make the critical assertion regarding consciousness: the first-person
and third-person perspectives view the mind differently because there is
an Information-Limited Subreality separating them. The first-person view
is inherently from the inside of this Information-Limited Subreality, while
the third-person view is from the outside. Introspection is the inner observer,
while the world of science is the outer observer.
On the face of it, this explanation has the general form to explain what
is needed to be explained. That is, it uses well understood scientific
principles to show how introspection can see the mind as one or more Elements-of-reality,
while science sees the mind as pure Information. However, this explanation
requires us to accept a most extraordinary claim: human consciousness exists
within an Information-Limited Subreality. This is an unsettling notion,
completely at odds with our everyday perception of how our minds operate.
We instinctively believe that the mind is an observer of the physical world;
we seem to be directly aware of objects and events external to ourselves.
But the Inner Light theory tells us that this is not true; everything that
we perceive and experience has been created for us by manipulating information.
And the perpetrator of this act is none other than our own brain.
To begin the justification of this assertion, look around and concentrate
on what you experience. Perhaps it is a warm summer day and you are sitting
on an outdoor patio. You see a deep blue sky and smell the fragrance
of the flowers in bloom. Wind blowing through the branches of a nearby
tree provides a soothing melody. You feel the texture of these papers
in your hands, and can still taste the last sip of your beverage.
Of course, your experience will be different; you may be in a university
library, at your desk at work, or relaxing on the couch in your home.
You may be smelling the fragrance of flowers, the sweetness of newly baked
cookies, or the lingering odor of disinfectant. You undoubtedly will
be experiencing many things from your five senses, plus an introspective
view of your mind's operation. These are the things you perceive, and are
therefore the things that define your reality.
But now imagine that you suddenly awake and realize it was only a dream.
The things you had been experiencing can now be seen from an enlightened
perspective. Before you awoke, you justifiably believed that the
sights and sounds you experienced were genuine, originating in an external
physical universe. The tree, papers and patio seemed more that just
your perception of them; they were real objects with an independent existence.
Or so you thought. But now that you are awake you have gained
a greater knowledge, the knowledge that your previous reality was not genuine.
The things that you had been perceiving exist only in your mind, and nowhere
The lesson here is extraordinary. Our unconscious mental activity has the
capability of placing our conscious mental activity in an Information-Limited
Subreality. We know this for a fact; it is clearly demonstrated to us each
night as we dream. It is undeniable that the machinery to accomplish
this feat is present in each and every human brain. The nature and extent
of this "subreality machine" remains for us to determine, but one fact
is indisputable, it is there.
The Origin of our Conscious Experience
The Inner Light theory takes this a step farther, asserting that this "subreality
machine" is also activated during our waking hours, just as during our
dreams. The unconscious processes that create our dream reality,
also create our waking reality. This is not to suggest that the external
physical world is an illusion. On the contrary, when we are awake
and perceive an apple, we have every reason to believe that the universe
contains such an object. However, we do not, and cannot, experience
the physical apple directly. The best we can do is to capture clues about
the object's nature. These clues come in the form of light photons,
sound waves, molecules of various chemicals, and mechanical interactions.
These are the physical principles that underlie our five senses, resulting
in neural signals being sent to the brain. These indirect clues are
all we know about the physical universe, and the only things we can know
But of course, our conscious perception of an apple is nothing like photons,
sound waves, or neural activity. We see an apple as red, feel it as smooth,
and taste it as sweet. This is our introspective experience, because this
is the representation that the subreality machine has created for us.
Our unconscious mental processes fused the multitude of sensory data into
the thing we recognize as an apple. Everything that we are conscious
of has been created in this way. Our consciousness exists
in this inner reality, not the physical world. When we are
awake, the inner reality is constructed to mimic our external surroundings.
When we dream, the inner reality exists on its own, without regard for
anything outside of our brains. But either way, all we can
consciously experience is the subreality created for us by our unconscious
We know that our brains contain the machinery required to place our conscious
activity in an Information-Limited Subreality. This is proven by
our ability to dream. But is their evidence that this same machinery
is also activated when we are awake? The answer is yes; experiments
show that the world we are conscious of is far more than can be explained
by what enters our senses. For instance, human perceive that their
vision is a faithful and true representation of the world around them,
much like a high-quality photograph or motion picture. We seem to
see all that there is to see, from our friends around us, to the mountains
in the distance. Our conscious experience is that vision provides us a
complete and unbroken picture of the world.
The problem is, experiments clearly show that we cannot possibly see what
we think we see. For instance, the human eye is blind in quite large
areas of its field-of-view, a result of blood vessels and the optic nerve
disrupting the surface of the retina. Even more dramatic, experiments show
that humans are often unable to detect large-scale changes in the scenes
they are viewing, a phenomenon known as change blindness. In short, much
of what we seem to see does not correspond to the physical world around
us, but has been created from within ourselves. This is strong evidence
that at least some aspects of the "subreality machine" are active when
we are awake.
But there is a far more compelling argument that the subreality machine
is fully switched on whenever we are conscious. This can be shown
by examining the structure of the three different realities that humans
deal with. The first of these realities is the physical universe.
This consists of all the things that scientists study, such as force fields,
particles, distance, time, plus all the entities that can be created by
combining them. This is the unfeeling and uncaring world that activates
our sense organs, such things as light photons, sound waves, molecules
of various chemicals, and mechanical interactions.
The second reality we must consider is that of our dreams. As we know,
this reality is constructed by the unconscious activity of the brain, and
has little or no correspondence to the structure of the physical universe.
In fact, its characteristics are nothing like those of the physical universe.
Rather, its Elements-of-reality are the entities such as qualia, mental
unity, semantic thought, and free-will. This is the reality where
we see an apple as red and taste it as sweet, we feel love and anger, and
experience our thoughts as having meaning.
The third reality to be examined is that of our normal waking consciousness,
the reality you are experiencing at this very moment. The question is,
where is this third reality coming from? Is it being generated by
the subreality machine, or does it correspond to the external physical
universe? The answer to this could not be more clear. The reality
of our waking consciousness is virtually identical to the reality of our
dreams, but is totally dissimilar to that of the physical world. In other
words, reality three is the same as reality two, but completely different
from reality one. The conclusion is straightforward; the subreality machine
within us creates not only our dreams, but all of our conscious reality.
When we are awake, this inner reality is constructed to mimic our external
surroundings. When we dream, this inner reality exists on its own,
without regard for anything outside of ourselves.
The Function of the Subreality Machine
For us to understand why the brain contains a subreality machine, we need
to understand the survival advantage of this mental architecture. How can
the creation of an inner reality facilitate our finding food, attracting
mates, or escaping enemies? Just what problem did evolution overcome by
endowing humans with a subreality machine? And of all the different
information processing architectures that could have developed in the brain,
why do humans have one that generates a seemingly detailed and elaborate
Our focus will be on sensory analysis, consolidating the multitude of neural
signals from the senses into a consistent representation of the immediate
environment. As well know by computer scientists, this is an enormously
difficult task. For instance, imagine that a blind person gives you
a photograph and asks to you tell him what it is about. Without apparent
effort, you immediately recognize the people in the picture, the activities
they are engaged in, and their general surroundings. Now suppose that we
ask a present-day engineer to construct a computer to perform this same
task, that is, to look at a photograph and describe what it is about.
Can the engineer help us? Not even close; current computer systems
cannot begin to match the sensory analysis abilities of the human brain.
Given our current rate of learning, this is the kind of task that technology
might be able to tackle in 50 to 100 years.
How does the brain achieve such astonishing performance? To answer
this, imagine that you walk into a new room and see a chair. You
recognize the object as a chair very quickly, perhaps a tenth of a second.
But how long would it take you to recognize it as one very specific chair,
say, one that was part of your family's furniture when you were growing
up? Since this is a more difficult task, it will take much
longer, perhaps a few seconds. This is important because we live
in a world where critical movements need to be made in a fraction of a
second. If it took you a few seconds to identify a nearby alligator, you
would be his lunch! The point is, the brain must identify its general environment
in a fraction of a second, the timescale that critical events happen in
our world. Within this key time constraint, the brain can sort objects
into general categories, but not recognize specific entities, or search
for particular characteristics.
However, the brain requires detailed information about nearby objects in
order to move its body in a productive way. It needs to know what
the objects are for, what their characteristics are, how they are used,
their potential dangers, and so on. Since the brain is not powerful
enough to deduce this information in real time, it is forced to rely on
its own memory, what it has previously learned about objects in these particular
categories. In this example, the brain would retrieve its accumulated knowledge
concerning "chairs" and assume that this particular chair has the same
characteristics. While these stored generalizations may not be accurate,
they are the best that the brain can do, given the time constraint it is
The end result of this sensory analysis is an idealized representation
of the local environment that can be used by the brain in planning and
executing movements. Given that sensory analysis is extremely difficult,
it is reasonable to expect that this representation is composed of two
parts, coarse information about a few key elements in the nearby environment,
with the remaining details filled in from stored memories. In short, the
subreality machine creates an inner reality that is consistent with previous
memories, and is free from noise, interference and ambiguity. When we are
awake, this inner reality is constructed to coarsely represent the physical
world. When we dream, the subreality machine is running amok, creating
an inner reality that is disconnected from the outside universe.
The Definition of Consciousness
The human brain performs an enormous amount of information processing.
Although much of this activity is poorly understood by present-day science,
we have every reason to believe that these mysteries will eventually be
solved. In other words, we can confidently say that the third-person
viewpoint is capable of understanding the complete and full functioning
of the brain.
other hand, most of the brain’s operation is hidden from the first-person
perspective. Introspection allows us to see selected high-level mental
activities, but tells us virtually nothing about the vast low-level processing
being carried out. Specifically, we are aware of the idealized representation
of the world that is created by the brain, but not the raw data or methods
used in its construction. Introspection sees the end result
of the brain’s sensory analysis, but is completely blind to the foundation
upon which it is built. Human consciousness exists within an inner reality
because evolution had no need for us to know anything more.
To understand this better, imagine that a group of scientists constructs
an artificial person, an android that mimics human thought and behavior.
They give their creation a body that appears very human-like from the outside,
even though it is made from mechanical and electrical components, not biological
tissue. The android's “brain” is an advanced computer, carrying out algorithms,
programs, neural networks, and other sophisticated information processing
techniques. The android can perceive the world around him by means
of his camera-eyes and microphone-ears. Further, he can understand
what this sensory data means, being able to recognize objects in the environment
and reconcile them with previously learned concepts. He can understand
and generate speech, with the ability to carry on intelligent conversations.
In short, the scientists design their creation to interact in the world
the same way as you and I.
But most important, the android is designed such that he can monitor everything
about his internal information processing. He knows the exact status of
each and every digital bit and analog signal. He can observe the raw information
gathered by his electronic senses, monitor its consolidation with previous
memories, and examine how it affects his current mental status. There is
nothing about his internal computational activities that he does not know.
If you offer the android a cup of tea, he will send it away with a wave
of his hand, and then apologetically tell you that he does not drink. But
then he can discuss with you in the finest detail the billions of computer
operations that were needed to carry out these actions. This is what
we will refer to as a fully-aware being, a computational machine having
a complete and detailed knowledge of its internal states. The question
we want to pose and examine is this: Is this android conscious?
The “traditional view” of consciousness tells us no, there is nothing contained
within this android that could result in it being conscious. According
to this view, consciousness is something above and beyond computations
and information processing; it is something “extra” that must be added.
To complete their creation, the scientists must open the android's head
and pour in a quart of "consciousness stuff," so to speak. Without
this extra ingredient the android is nothing but a collection of mindless
gears and cogs. The rationale behind this view is very straightforward.
The world of science sees the brain as a machine. In contrast, introspection
sees a mind that cannot be reduced to machine operations. In fact,
the mind has aspects that cannot be reduced to anything; such things as
qualia, mental unity, and semantic thought are irreducible. Therefore,
according to the traditional view, consciousness must be something in addition
to the machine-like operation of the brain.
Of course, this is where the bottom falls out. The problems associated
with this traditional view are severe and deep. For instance, if
consciousness is something beyond information processing, why is there
not the slightest scientific evidence for this “extra thing?” Worse
yet, how can something that is not detectable by science interact so easily
with the human body? And just as troubling, why should we have this
"consciousness stuff" at all? If information processing is
sufficient to control our behaviors for mating, escaping enemies, and finding
food, why would evolution give us consciousness in the first place?
The traditional view is filled with these types of seemingly unsolvable
problems. The more you try to grasp the thing, the more it slips
through your fingers.
And here is the reason why; the traditional view of consciousness is based
on a flawed assumption. Consciousness is not some entity beyond full-awareness.
Rather, it is a limitation, a deficit in one’s ability to perceive and
understand oneself. Introspection sees the mind as being irreducible
because of these limitations, not because an extra entity is present.
Consciousness is not created by adding something to full awareness; it
is created by taking something away.
As an example of this, our fully aware android perceives the world through
his camera-eyes and microphone-ears. Just as in humans, this raw
sensory information must be processed before it is meaningful. For
instance, the visual field must be broken into regions of similar color
and texture, these regions grouped together into objects, and the objects
recognized. Lastly, the relevance of the objects must be evaluated.
Is this a face? Whose face is it? Is this an enemy or a friend?
Hearing and the other senses have a similar hierarchy of information processing.
The important point is that our fully-aware android can perceive and understand
each and every step in this process. He can perceive it all, from
the raw data, through the intermediate stages, to the final result.
If we show him a picture of George Washington, he will not only recognize
it, but can tell us in the finest detail how he recognizes it. By
definition, this is what it means for our android to be fully-aware.
But now we want to give our android a human-like mental experience.
We do this by blocking his ability to perceive the lower stages of this
information processing. We allow him to experience the result
of the process, but not the process itself. To test our modifications
we show him the picture of George Washington and ask him what he sees.
As before, he tells us that the face is of the first president of the United
States. But when we ask him how he knows this, we receive a blank
expression. He does not know how he knows, only that he does know.
The experience of seeing and recognizing the face has come to him without
explanation, support, or evidence; it just appears in his mental processes.
The experience that “this is George Washington” is now an irreducible part
of his world. While our fully aware android saw the event as nothing
but Information, our “conscious” android experiences it as an Element-of
reality. This is the Principle of Relative Reduction in its most
basic form, a blockage of Information flow resulting in pure Information
becoming an Element-of-reality.
The Inner Light Theory tells us that human consciousness is something less
than full-awareness, not something more. If we were fully-aware beings,
we would know each and every operation being carried out by our brains,
from the firing of individual nerve cells in our sensory organs, to the
large-scale patterns of neural activity that represent our higher thoughts.
There would be no mystery to our minds whatsoever; introspection would
provide a complete and detailed understanding of exactly what we are.
But of course, this isn’t our nature. Our physiology does not allow us
to be fully-aware; the information in our brains is segmented into local
groups without global accessibility. The low-level workings of the
brain cannot be examined by the high-level workings. We do not know
how we recognize a face, experience pain, or develop a thought, only that
we can do these things. Our internal mental world appears to us as
results without process, conclusions without justification, and things
that exist in themselves without a supporting structure. Therefore,
all of these things appear to the first-person perspective as irreducible.
However, this is not because they are entities above and beyond the brain’s
activities, but because of the brain’s limited ability to perceive its
This leads us to a formal definition: Consciousness is the irreducible
entity a computational machine perceives itself to be, as the result of
(1) an ability to observe its own high-level workings, and (2) an inability
to observe its own low-level workings.
Is There Something More?
This paper endeavors to make two general points. First, the human
brain is extremely limited in its ability to perceive its own operation.
Second, these limitations are completely sufficient to account for
the human description of conscious experience. That is, everything
we think, say and write about consciousness can be explained by examining
the information flow within the brain. This is essentially a description
of consciousness from the third-person perspective.
Now we want to look at these arguments from the first-person viewpoint.
Deep inside your mind you ask the question, is this really what I am?
Even if you accept the ideas in this paper, your instinctive reaction may
be to assert that your consciousness consists of something more.
‘My mind is different,’ you might say, ‘it involves an awareness that cannot
be explained by these information processing concepts.’ You may further
claim that this knowledge is intrinsic and self-evident, based on first-hand
experience, something that you just know. The question we want to
examine is this: Are you justified in believing this assertion?
The answer to this question is no. To be justified in believing that your
mind consists of something more than information processing, you must be
able to distinguish between the two cases. That is, you must be able
to divide the entities of your introspective world into two different categories:
(1) things that are irreducible because of limitations in the available
information, and (2) things that are irreducible, but not explainable as
an information limitation. In other words, we are not trying to directly
determine whether your assertion is true or false. Rather, we are
examining your credibility to make such a claim. Specifically, if you cannot
tell the difference between these two categories, your contention that
consciousness involves entities from category 2 is baseless and without
Fortunately, we know the answer to this; introspection cannot distinguish
between these categories. In fact, it is logically impossible for
any observer to have this ability. By definition, if a thing is perceived
as irreducible, its underlying structure is totally unknown. Therefore,
the first-person claim that consciousness arises from something beyond
information processing must be rejected, because the first-person perspective
has no ability to make this determination.