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9
Consciousness as a
Limitation


Introduction to the Third Section
In the first section of this book, Chapters 1-5, we defined
the mind-body problem. The second section, Chapters 6-8,
showed how this paradox arises from the operation of the
subreality machine in the brain. In our third and last section,
Chapters 9-11, we explore a particular aspect of this mental
architecture, consciousness as a limitation.
By definition, computational machines process information.
Further, this information being processed may include details
about the internal activity of the computer itself. In other
words, computers can be self-aware. The question is, how does
this type of computational self-awareness relate to the human
experience of consciousness? Is self-awareness sufficient for
consciousness, or is something else required? And if something
else is required, what is the nature of this “extra thing?”
We begin this chapter with a brief review of the concepts
already covered. This leads us to the main topic of this section,
the idea that consciousness arises from limitations of our mental
capabilities. Our next stop is an examination of the “traditional”
view of the mind, and how it is based on a fundamentally
incorrect assumption. We end the chapter with a milestone in
our quest, a formal definition of consciousness.

Where We Are
We started our journey with an examination of the main
tool of science, the method of reduction. From this we learned
that everything in our reality is composed of only two types of
entities, Information and Elements-of-reality. This is the basis

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of modern science, as well as our everyday commonsense. It
has allowed us to understand everything from the structure of
the universe to the process of life.
The method of reduction has served 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. The third-person viewpoint sees the mind as pure
Information, nothing but the operation of the human brain. In
comparison, from the first-person the mind is seen to be one or
more Elements-of-reality, such things as qualia, free-will,
semantic thought, and the present tense. This paradox is the
mind-body problem in its most concise form. It is the heart of
what we are seeking to understand, stripped of all that is
superfluous and inessential.
This is a milestone in understanding consciousness for two
reasons. First, it allows us to condense a wide range of
subjective and poorly defined arguments into a single concise
definition. Our investigation can then be directed at the root of
the phenomenon, rather than its secondary effects. Second, it
defines what would count as a solution to the mind-body
problem. Since the problem is a paradox between two points of
view, the solution must explain how and why this paradox
arises. Further, this explanation must be compelling from both
perspectives; it must be formulated in rigorous scientific terms,
while simultaneously satisfying our introspective judgements.
This is the task at hand.
Our next step was to develop a concept called the
Information-Limited Subreality. This is something that could
logically exist in our universe. We understand how it could
arise, what its characteristics would be, and how it relates to the
known laws of nature. It is based on the idea that reality is
defined by observations, such as what we see, hear and feel, as
well as what our scientific instruments tell us. For instance, our
scientific and everyday observations indicate that we exist in a
physical universe consisting of three dimensions of distance and
Chapter 9: Consciousness as a Limitation 143

one dimension of time. This is what we observe; therefore, this
is our reality. Lacking evidence to the contrary, we are justified
in believing that these observations do indeed arise from an
external physical universe, just as they appear to. That is, we
conclude that the reality we perceive is genuine.
However, it is clearly within the laws of nature to alter
observations by manipulating or distorting information. The
Information-Limited Subreality takes this possibility to an
extreme by creating a totally artificial reality for an observer.
By definition, an observer trapped inside an Information-
Limited Subreality has no knowledge of the external physical
universe. Rather, this inner observer™s reality is consistent with
another physical universe, one that could exist, but does not.
While the inner observer will acknowledge the possibility that
he is trapped inside an Information-Limited Subreality, he will
dismiss this as an unacceptable belief. Both the inner and the
outer observers are justified and compelled to believe that their
reality is genuine. Of course, the outer observer knows that the
physical universe perceived by the inner observer does not
really exist.
Into this setting we bring The Inner Light, the story of a
scientist who becomes trapped inside an Information-Limited
Subreality. As all good scientists do, he uses the method of
reduction to classify the entities in his reality as either
Information or Elements-of-reality. The problem is, everything
that this inner observer classifies as Elements-of-reality will be
seen as pure Information by the outer observer. In spite of this,
each of these observers is complying with the most stringent
rules of the scientific method, philosophical logic, and plain
commonsense. They have reached the correct conclusion for
their respective realities. Further, this does not require the
observers to be conscious; it is a property of what is observed,
not who is doing the observing. We call this disagreement
between the inner and outer observers the Principle of Relative
Reduction. But what is most important, the Principle of Relative
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Reduction is something we fully understand; it may be strange,
surprising, and even a little disturbing, but it is not mysterious.
Now we make the critical assertion: the Principle of
Relative Reduction is the solution to the mind-body problem.
This means that 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. In short, we have shown two
things, (1) that the mind-body problem is a certain type of
paradox, and (2) that the Information-Limited Subreality has the
ability to cause this type of paradox.
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
consciously perceive is generated by a "subreality machine"
within the brain. 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.
This is where we are. Our next task is to take a broader
view of these ideas, searching for the general relationship
between information processing and this strange thing we call
consciousness.
Chapter 9: Consciousness as a Limitation 145

From the Building to the Bricks
The Inner Light Theory asserts that human consciousness
is based around an Information-Limited Subreality. This mental
architecture accounts for our perception of a detailed and
elaborate inner world, our ability to dream, results from change
blindness experiments, and the very way that we experience
reality. Most important, the Information-Limited Subreality has
the ability to make us see pure Information as Elements-of-
reality, the key aspect of the mind-body problem.
But now we want to expand our investigation to be as
general as possible. We will do this by using a result from the
last chapter. As illustrated by our perception of the color yellow,
the basic operations used in information processing also have
the ability to change Information into Elements-of-reality. This
is an inevitable result of presenting a thing, but at the same time
hiding how the thing can be reduced to more basic components.
To use the metaphor from the last chapter, the Information-
Limited Subreality is the building, while basic information
processing operations are the bricks. Taking this further, the
ability to change Information into Elements-of-reality resides
within the bricks, not the architecture of the building.
To be more specific, there are some aspects of human
consciousness that clearly arise from the structure of the
Information-Limited Subreality. This includes our perception
of a complex inner world, one that is distinct and different from
the external universe. However, there are other aspects of our
mind that can be adequately explained by much lower level
operations. For instance, a full-fledged subreality is not needed
to explain why we see yellow as a psychological primary color.
In developing a general theory of consciousness we want
our understanding and conclusions to be as broad as possible.
In particular, we do not want to define consciousness solely in
terms of the mental architecture present in humans. That is, we
want to accept the possibility that nonhuman creatures might be
conscious, even though their “bricks” may be arranged in a
different way.
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146

Accordingly, in the remainder of this book we will carry on
the discussion at the level of the “bricks,” providing as little
restriction as possible on how they are assembled. In short, we
are moving toward a definition of consciousness that rests upon
low-level information processing, and not the creation of a
detailed inner reality. The rationale for this is simple; we want
to consider an entity “conscious” if it views itself to be an
irreducible thing, regardless of the other properties that it may
or may not have.
A good starting point along this path is to revisit the
structure of the human brain. It is easy to lose sight of just how
complex an organ the brain really is. For instance, one might
take the mental architecture we have presented and try to
identify corresponding structures within our heads. Naively,
we might expect to find a section of the brain that is the
conscious observer, surrounded by brain tissue that creates the
subreality. But unfortunately this isn™t the case; science has
found no singular areas of the brain that implement these
functions.
It could also be argued that this relatively simple mental
architecture is inadequate to explain key aspects of our
introspective experience. If the human mind is an observer
trapped within a subreality, this would explain how we see
Information in the outside world as Elements-of-reality. For
instance, this could account for qualia being irreducible.
However, this doesn™t necessarily explain how the observer
could see itself as irreducible, such as experiencing semantic
thought or mental unity. As an analogy, imagine being trapped
with a translucent plastic bubble. Everything in the outside
world will look distorted and unclear; however, everything on
the inside of the bubble will still look as it truly is.
Figure 9-1 depicts a more realistic picture of the brain™s
exceedingly complex operation. It is clear from scientific
studies that the “observer” is broadly distributed over the brain.
For instance, vision is processed and understood in one area,
moral judgement in another, initiation of body movement in
Chapter 9: Consciousness as a Limitation 147




FIGURE 9-1
Distributed consciousness. The “observer” is broadly distributed
within the brain, with processed data passing along internal
pathways. The Information-Limited Subreality does not surround
this observer, but is inherently intertwined with the neural circuits
that create the observer.


another, and so on. These various areas are linked together by
interconnecting pathways, passing summaries and high-level
concepts among the fragmented and discontinuous regions. We
have a poor understanding of how these individual regions
interact; however, it is clear that there is no central place where
it “all comes together.” Many regions of the brain are involved
in this thing we call “consciousness.”
The point is, the Information-Limited Subreality within the
brain is not a single bubble around an observer. At the least, it
is a large number of smaller bubbles dividing the observer into
many isolated regions. More likely, the information processing
that creates the subreality is inherently intertwined with the
neural circuitry that creates the observer. It may not even be
possible in principle to say where one ends and the other begins.
The Inner Light Theory of Consciousness
148

In short, the human mind sees itself as irreducible because
of limitations distributed within itself. These aspects of the
brain are an inherent part of what we are, not some external
structure holding us prisoner.
This brings us to our next topic, a discussion of how the
traditional view of consciousness is mistaken. We will start
with two stories, the special child and the fully-aware being.

What™s so Special About a Special Child?
Suppose that sometime in the future you have a most
unusual house guest, an alien exchange student from another

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