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What This Chapter is About, and Not About
Previous chapters have laid out the problem: observations
from the first and third-person perspectives disagree about the
nature of the mind. The solution to this paradox will become
apparent in this chapter. But first, a word of caution: this
chapter is not about consciousness; it is about physics. It is
about the way that the universe operates, and how we can
observe and understand that operation.
The central topic of this chapter, the Information-Limited
Subreality, is an objective and physical phenomenon, something
that we can scientifically define and describe the properties of.
Its relevance to the mind-body problem will be discussed in
upcoming chapters. For now, our task is one of physics, not
philosophy or psychology. This is important because we will
use the concept of the Information-Limited Subreality to define
what consciousness is. Therefore, we must take care not to
explain the Information-Limited Subreality in terms of
consciousness, thus leading to a circular definition.

The Observer
In the last chapter we introduced Special Relativity, a
strange area of physics developed by Albert Einstein in 1905.
A key topic in this work is the concept of the observer. For
instance, in the last chapter we saw that a person on earth will
see the universe differently than his twin brother in a speeding
spaceship. In short, Einstein showed that how you view the
world depends on your condition, such as your velocity,

The Inner Light Theory of Consciousness

acceleration, and even the gravitational field you are in. For
instance, consider a group of scientists on the earth, a single
astronaut in route to a distant star, and a sophisticated robotic
probe exploring the intense gravitational field of a black hole.
Since each of these entities is in a different condition with
respect to how they observe the universe, we refer to them as
three different “observers.” The important point is that being an
“observer” refers to your condition, not to what you are. As in
this example, an “observer” may be a group of people, a single
individual, or even a nonconscious computer.
For instance, look at how Einstein used the concept of
different observers to explain the equivalence of acceleration
and gravity, a key part of the General Theory of Relativity:
“We imagine a large portion of empty space, ... far
removed from stars and other appreciable masses, ... let
us imagine a spacious chest resembling a room with an
observer inside who is equipped with apparatus.
Gravitation naturally does not exist for this observer. He
must fasten himself with strings to the floor, otherwise
the slightest impact against the floor will cause him to
rise slowly towards the ceiling.
To the middle of the lid of the chest is fixed
externally a hook with rope attached, and now a “being”
(what kind of being is immaterial to us) begins pulling at
this with a constant force. The chest together with the
observer then begins to move “upwards” with a uniform
accelerated motion ... But how does the man in the chest
regard this process? The acceleration of the chest will be
transmitted to him by the reaction of the floor of the
chest. He must therefore take up this pressure by means
of his legs if he does not wish to be laid out full length
on the floor. He is then standing in the chest in exactly
the same way as anyone stands in a room of a house on
earth. ... and he consequently comes to the conclusion
Chapter 6: Information-Limited Subrealities 83

that the chest is suspended at rest in a gravitational
“On the other hand, an observer who is poised freely
in space will interpret the condition of things thus: The
rope must perforce take part in the accelerated motion of
the chest, and it transmits this motion to the body
attached to it. The tension of the rope is just large
enough to effect the acceleration of the body.”
In short, the observer inside of the chest sees a gravitational
field, while the observer outside the chest sees acceleration.
While there is only a single phenomenon, it can be viewed from
two different observational conditions.

Descartes™ Evil Genius
The basic idea of the “Information-Limited Subreality” is
very old. The first systematic account was provided by Ren©
Descartes in 1641 (See Fig. 6-1). Descartes was troubled that
philosophy was very subjective and controversial, especially
when compared to the certainties of mathematics. Of principal
concern was the possibility that we may hold false beliefs, such
as being deceived by others, ourselves, or the natural world.
For instance, he notes the delusions of the insane:
“...certain persons, devoid of sense, whose cerebella are
so troubled and clouded by the violent vapors of black
bile, that they constantly assure us that they think they
are kings when they are really quite poor, or that they are
clothed in purple when they are really without covering,
or who imagine that they have an earthenware head or
are nothing but pumpkins or are made of glass.”
While Descartes dismisses these ramblings of madmen, he has
a more difficult time with dreaming, where normal people
encounter gross deceptions about their existence. Of this
problem he writes:
The Inner Light Theory of Consciousness

“How often has it happened to me that in the night I
dreamt that I found myself in this particular place, that I
was dressed and seated near the fire, whilst in reality I
was lying undressed in bed! ... I see so manifestly that
there are no certain indications by which we may clearly
distinguish wakefulness from sleep that I am lost in
astonishment. And my astonishment is such that it is
almost capable of persuading me that I now dream.”
This potential for deception prompted Descartes to
undertake a philosophical method designed to avoid error at all
costs, a search for those things that could be known with
absolute certainty. In doing so, Descartes intended to elevate
philosophy to the same high stature as mathematics. He does
this by considering a worse-case scenario, that an all-powerful
being is intentionally trying to deceive him about the nature of
his existence. He first considers that this deceiver may be God;
however, he soon rejects the idea that a supremely good being
would perpetrate this type of deception. This leads him to the
idea of an evil genius, powerful enough to deceive him as God
could, and malicious enough to do so:
“I shall then suppose, not that God who is supremely
good and the fountain of truth, but some evil genius not
less powerful than deceitful, has employed his whole
energies in deceiving me;...”
The problem now facing Descartes is to determine what
things this evil genius could deceive him about, and what things
he could not deceive him about. Certainly, an all-powerful
deceiver is capable of making us dream, as well as driving us
mad. Therefore, anything we can potentially experience in
either of these two states is something that we can be deceived
about. As Descartes notes, the evil genius could even deceive
us about the very nature of our existence:
Chapter 6: Information-Limited Subrealities 85

Ren© Descartes (1596-1650). Ren©
Descartes, a French physiologist
mathematician and philosopher, is
best known for founding analytic
geometry, and defining the mind-
body problem. The quotes in this
chapter are taken from his most
influential work, the Meditations,
first published in Latin in 1641.
Descartes was one of the greatest
thinkers of the 17th century, and the
starting point for all discussions on
the nature of consciousness.

“... I shall consider that the heavens, the earth, colors,
figures, sounds, and all external things are nought but the
illusions and dreams of which this genius has availed
himself in order to lay traps for my credulity; I shall
consider myself as having no flesh, no blood, nor any
senses, yet falsely believing myself to possess all these
Given that the evil genius has such great power of
deception, is there anything that we can be sure of, or is
everything that we believe under a cloud of doubt? Descartes
comes to the logical conclusion that there is something that he
could not be fooled about, no matter how powerful the evil
genius. And that something is that his mind exists. As Descartes
reasoned, even an all-powerful being could not fool him into
believing that his mind was real, if there were no such thing as
his mind. The simple mental act of thinking that you exist is
completely sufficient to guarantee that you do exist. As
eloquently put in his famous passage:
“I think, therefore I am.”
The Inner Light Theory of Consciousness

Descartes extended this line of reasoning to identify the
basic nature of the mind-body problem. That is, the mind is the
thing that thinks and is guaranteed to exist, while the body is a
separate thing that we perceive with our senses and we might be
deceived about. Further, Descartes had some recognition of
how the method of reduction further separates these two things:
“... we cannot conceive of body excepting in so far as it
is divisible, while the mind cannot be conceived of
excepting as indivisible. For we are not able to conceive
of the half of the mind as we can do of the smallest of all
bodies; so that we see that not only are their natures
different but even in some respects contrary to one
Or as we phrased it more precisely in the last chapter, the
third-person view sees the mind as Information, while the first-
person perspective sees it as one or more Elements-of-reality.
Descartes™ solution to the mind-body problem was dualism,
that the mortal body is a separate and distinct thing from the
immortal soul. He even speculated on the exact site within the
brain where the interaction between the physical body and the
immaterial mind occurs, the pineal gland. This is a small organ
located deep within the brain (see Fig. 3-6). It is about the size
and shape of a pine nut, after which it is named. Descartes
identified this as the seat of consciousness for two reasons, (1)
the pineal gland is the only body in the brain that does not have
a duplicate in the left and right halves, and (2) it is found only
in humans, not animals. Both of these are now known to be
incorrect. To this day, some spiritual groups identify the pineal
gland as the gateway to the soul. Of course, medical science
doesn™t hold this view. The pineal gland is known to release the
hormone melatonin in response to environmental lightness and
darkness changes, part of the subject™s biological clock.
While questions about the relationship between the mind
and body have been around since man began to think, Descartes
Chapter 6: Information-Limited Subrealities 87

was the first to place these issues into a systematic framework.
This has made Descartes widely regarded as the father of the
mind-body problem. As far as the Inner Light Theory goes, we
want to focus on one very specific aspect of Descartes™ work:
everything that we perceive might be an illusion, something
completely different than the true physical world.

The Brain in the Vat
In the mid 1900s this same idea reentered philosophy in a
scenario known as The Brain in the Vat. In the 300 years since
Descartes, medical science had learned the basic operation of
the brain. In particular, it became known that the brain can only
experience what enters its neural inputs, and can only
communicate and instigate body motion by means of its neural
outputs. This paves the way for Descartes' evil genius,
something that no one really believes to exist, to be replaced
with something even more terrifying, technology.
Imagine the following scenario. 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. The neural output from your
brain is being monitored by the scientist's computer, which then
generates the appropriate signals back to your brain. The
computer signals make you believe that you "see" the scenery
change, "feel" your body parts move, and "hear" the sound of
your footsteps. And the most amazing part, you can™t tell that
The Inner Light Theory of Consciousness

anything has changed in the night; everything seems the same
as the day before. This strange story is illustrated in Fig. 6-2.
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

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