Tuesday, 24 February 2015

On Human Nature...

How the brain generates the mind. How truth and evil arise. The cause of war and prayer, pinball, pairs and why bread always falls butter-side down...

The 'Tree of Life', Palace of Shaki Khans, Azerbaijan. 17th Century


Our world and its universe, as I dare say you've noticed, is really quite extraordinarily complicated. I mean, really, really amazingly complicated. Which is really, really extraordinary. One of the few things which might be even more extraordinary is that we humans have managed to make some sort of sense of it.

And how did we do that? By gathering information, sorting it out, tidying it up, and making it into simplified sets of rules-of-thumb. And using these rough 'Models' we can know with certainty things we can't even see. We can predict what will happen in the future. And we can prepare for it. Which allows us to do vastly more stuff in less time, more usefully and with fewer mistakes. Which what has brought us to where we are now. Well done us!

I suppose realising that there's a regular day and night, then working out a calendar to predict the cycle of the seasons, might be one of the earliest of Models. But days aren't really all the same size, weeks and months are just made-up and the length of a year is notoriously tricky to measure, and so calendars, like all our Models, are never quite right. The trick is to make a Model which is right enough to do the predicting things, but simple enough for a human to use.

I've always been especially impressed by the 'Almagest' made by Claude Ptolemy in the Egyptian bit of the Roman Empire about two thousand years ago. It added up to a list of numbers which showed how each star in the night sky would look depending where you were. Unfortunately Ptolemy didn't quite understood how the solar system works, so The Almagest Model involves some excruciatingly fiddly mathematics. All the same, it was good enough to guide Christopher Columbus over the Atlantic and Vasco da Gama round Africa to India.

Impressed too by John Dalton, the 1800's Manchester schoolmaster who constructed a predictive Model of the complete and entire world of physical stuff, which, with no knowledge of how atoms fastened together, still managed to build the whole huge edifice of the Victorian chemical industry. In similar vein, there was Isaac Newton's Model to predict what gravity does, without ever even hinting in the slightest as to what gravity is.

I've been less impressed by Moses Harris, whose Model of colors, that you could make any of them from just three 'Premitives' [sic], red, yellow and blue, was still being taught when I was at school in the 1960's. When I complained that I couldn't make proper orange using the R-Y-B formula, Mr Grinley the art teacher told me that it was because our pigments weren't perfect, as, no doubt, someone had once told him. They were both wrong. We now know, thanks to the 1860's color photographs by John Clerk [sic] Maxwell, that the 'primaries' are a bit off-centre, like reddish, yellowish and sort-of-bluish. The Harris model might have irritated the 11-year-old pedantic me, but it worked for the Pre-Raphaelites. As to why nobody put the art teachers right for 150 years, we'll come to a bit later.

The one thing we've just never been very good at generalising about, let alone Modelling, is ourselves.

Humans (and I don't think I'm alone in saying this) seem to be impossible to make sense of. When you're just dealing with one or a few familiar ones you can usually sort-of understand of them. But en-masse? Human are weirds. Completely, and infuriatingly, unpredictable. Except, of course, when they're entirely, and infuriatingly, predictable.

The human genius for sorting things out seems to be matched only by their ability to screw things up. Many of them believe in entirely stupid things, or (which is even weirder) they'll openly announce that they do. They often act entirely against their own interests, and they do so entirely knowingly and deliberately. What the fuck is going on here?

How do we know what we know? By what mechanism do we make sense of the world and discover our place in it? How do we really make decisions and know right from wrong?

So, wouldn't it be useful to construct a complete working Model of our Reason? An Almagest of Human Nature, which will show how and why humans do the stuff they do. Even if it was a bit rough-and-ready, it could help overcome a lot of the fears and confusions which so much human trouble is heir to.

It has been tried before. From Plato and Socrates in ancient Greece and the Sage Kapila in ancient India, to Thomas Hobbes and John Locke about three centuries since.

David Hume, the genial 18th Century Scottish billiard-playing historian', never quite finished his own "Science of Human Nature". He hoped that such a system could; "gradually diffuse throughout society and bestow correctness on every art and calling. The politician will acquire greater foresight, the lawyer finer principles and the soldier more caution." Well, let's hope so...


So, where to start? Where I'm not going to start is with any assumptions about how 'mind' works and then find some, perhaps physical explanation for it. That's been done. Lots. I'm going to do it the other way round. The place I'm going to start is with the human brain, and see if I can discover all that feeling and decision-making and mental what-not from there.
My brain, courtesy of the Wolfson Brain Imaging Centre. Thank you.

If it seems obvious to begin with brain, do remember that many people still assert that the mind arises, at least in part, not from the physical brain, but from some non-physical 'spirit'. But three thousand years of people getting hit on the head, and the observation that such-and-such alteration to the brain always matches some particular change in ways of thinking has, I think, pretty much settled the matter.

You can go back to the Egyptian medical textbook we call the 'Edwin Smith Papyrus' and find that ancient surgeons knew that "If you treat a man for a fracture in his temple … you may call him, but he is dazed and does not speak to you". We now name the bit of brain behind your left temple 'Broca's Area', after the French physician who discovered that it is associated with the formation of speech.

Then there was Camillo Golgi who discovered that a silver-based dye would only colour the little nerve fibres which make up the brain, so they could be seen individually for the first time.

Now there's all those PET and fMRI scans with nicely-coloured images of brains purporting to show where the 'chocolate-desiring nodule' or the 'music appreciation zone' has been discovered, or even that the 'believing in God area' is above your right ear.

But those brain-spot pictures are rarely quite as clear and simple as the papers make out. The whole thing is really very much more complicated. This bit seems to do one thing this time, but different things the next, and which bit is connected physically to which other bit, and what? And where?

Even if where we clearly know which brain zones do what, they're still just bits of brain, even while they're doing it. The 'knowing pears' bit doesn't contain a picture of a pear or even glow or throb when pear is present. If we're going to have any chance of making simple sense of it all, clearly a quite different approach is needed.

So, I've decided not to even try to make sense of it all. I'm not going to look for specifics, be they chocolate, or music, or God, or pears. Instead, I want to go in search of the basic general principles of 'desire' and 'like' and 'believe' and 'know' which seem to be precisely the same for all those things, and, indeed, for everything else.

We tend to assume that something complex and subtle like out own mind must arise from something equally so. But it is the history of useful Modelling that simple principles have been found to explain complex phenomena, though it is not without difficult observation of the world that one accepts that quarks give rise to nuns.

So, if the general principles of mind are the same everywhere in mind, and if mind is caused by brain, we need to first find that which is the same everywhere in brain.

Which is easy. The whole brain system - and nothing else - is made up of little fibre-like neurones, each like a bit of frayed string. They differ in shape and size, but they all work in precisely the same way.

The neurones together form a vastly complicated communication system with myriads of connections and multitudes of branches. Perhaps 20 thousand million neurones in the wrinkly outer cortex of a human brain and another 60 thousand million or so across the various fiddly little brain-organs on the inside.

Neurones carry impulses round the brain, so it has been tempting to think of them as being like wires and the whole system as something like a telephone exchange or a computer. But this is a very wrong analogy, which has led to considerable confusion.

It is a wrong analogy because electrical impulses in wires can be strong or weak, they can operate at different frequencies. They can have polarity one way, or the other. The electrical potential in a wire affects the whole wire. It can be tapped-into at any point and directed-off in any number of directions simultaneously. Electrical signals can carry information, even several different informations in the same wire. It can stop and start instantly. Neurones aren't like any of that.

There are much better analogies for how the neuronal system works. The one I suggest using is that of the old-fashioned pinball game machine.


The journey of an impulse along a neuronal track is rather like the journey of a shiny ball along the track of a pinball machine.

With pinball you can't get the ball rolling directly. You have to bash - or pull - a knob, which puts energy into a spring. It is then, not the initial impulse, but the spring which releases that energy in its own way and shoves the ball along a track to go about its business.

Likewise, the impulse which starts the ball rolling along a neuronal 'track' has to be strong enough to energise the start mechanism. If it isn't strong enough, the ball just stays where it is.

If the impulse is strong enough then it properly energises, or 'pulls back', the starting spring and away the ball goes. If the impulse is very strong or even very, very strong, it makes no whit of difference. It is the spring which does the work. Pulling the knob harder or faster don't not make no difference at all.

Pulling it bit-by-bit over time won't make any difference either - you can't pull and then wait in the hope that your effort will be saved-up for later. It has to be one impulse strong enough to fully energise the spring, at one go, acting on only one ball.

One ball at a time, and only one ball in only one direction. Always at the same speed, and the same sort of ball every time, everywhere. And what's more, you have to wait for one ball to go on its way before the next one can be fired off.

Neurones really are a bit like trackways, but the 'ball' isn't a steel sphere of course. It is sometimes called an 'action potential' - a sort of bundle of electrical charges - which dashes down the track transferring bits of itself back-and-forth with he track as it goes, keeping up its speed.

Where it gets interesting is what happens when the 'ball' arrives at a junction. Will it go this way? Or that? This isn't just "the moment of decision" in any abstract sense, it is actually what happens in your brain to make decisions one way or the other. It is the process of Reason.

Strangely, perhaps opposite to what you might imagine, the ball will always go towards the route least like itself. It is a bundle of fizzing electrical charges and, as they say 'opposites attract'. It will go towards the route with the electrical charge most unlike itself. Same at the next junction. And the next.

And then? When it reaches the end of the neuronal fibre, what then?

The funny thing about the structure of the brain is that the ends of the fibre tracks don't actually meet each other. There's always a tiny gap - the synaptic gap - between each end and the next thing. This gap is a difficulty, a problem, for the ball, but the same rule as always applies - it will go to the thing on the other side which is, in terms of electrical potential, most different to itself.

And when it gets there, all the ball does is bash the spring of the next neurone and start the whole process over along another little trackway.

From spring to spring across many synaptic bridges, the 'ball' can go on forever. Reaching the end of one trackway to energise the next.

'Complicated', anyone know who this is by?

How does the journey end? When the ball comes to the end of a neuronal branch and finds there, not a potential different to itself, but one precisely the same - a perfect match. Then the energy of the ball has nowhere to go and it is finally taken up into the system. That is the end.

There is one other thing - what is called 'habituation'. The process whereby a track once followed is rather more likely to be followed the next time. The process is not yet (2015) comfortably understood, but you can think of it being a bit as if the ball smooths-out a route for itself as it goes along.

There you go then, here's the essence of the Model; The brain just a grand system of comparison. Stuff comes in and only gets accepted if it nicely matches stuff which is already there. If it doesn't match, the search for a match goes on, smoothing-out the route for the next time.

OK, that's a hugely simplified explanation, and it has been done with words, which are never a very reliable guide to the world of real things. All the same, as far as it goes, it is quite a good explanation.

Unfortunately it is also one of those explanations which get called 'reductionist' - it reduces the problem to a mechanism, but doesn't really show what it does. A bit like taking an idea to apart to see how it works, and then leaving the bits all over the floor of the philosophical workshop. Now, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a reductionist explanation, as long as I can put the bits back together and make the edifice tick again. Which, here, means that if I want to show how the brain constructs the mind, I need to show that this explanation of what the brain does actually matches our observations of what the mind does.

Which I will now proceed to do.


Remember the ball? The system is absolutely all-or-nothing. Either this one thing matches that one thing. Or it doesn't. There isn't any half-matched or a bit matched, or match-this-not-that. Nor is there any strong or weak match. Nor any match these-two to those-three to that other. It is all or nothing, one thing or the one other.

Now the world 'out there' isn't like that, black and white. The world is a place of subtle graduations, variation, fuzz, wobble and bits of this and that. But because of the way our neurones work, human Reason puts stuff into pairs - where one 'matches' and the other doesn't - even when the world isn't. We pass judgement only in dichotomies.

Of course, there are occasions where things are actually black and white, for instance if one thing is black and another white. But when we have only a limited data set, which is a way of saying "don't have much experience", or "most-of-the-time", our neuronal system picks one-and-the-other all-or-nothing judgements, which make for easy comprehension, but which usually just aren't there.

Consider the commonplace practice of referring to people as 'black' and 'white' according to their skin colour. Why such a judgement ever happens ought to be a puzzle, because it is entirely ludicrous. Paper is white and ink is black, but not even albino Norwegians have white skin nor do suntanned Namibs have black skin. Yet this false duality is so pervasive that it may sometimes be necessary to point to a cosmetician's colour chart to show that humans are actually all variegated pinky-brown. Black and white are opposites, and humans do not by skin tone belong in opposing camps.

Then there's the whole class of 'boundary problems', where we think that it is very important for us to decide where one thing becomes the other thing. Like the ancient 'sorites' question "how many grains of sand do you need to make a heap of sand", or the general 'demarcation' problem of deciding what is 'science' as opposed to 'guesswork'. For the most part these problems can't be solved by observing the world, and the solutions usually don't matter much anyway. They exist as 'problems' simply because our mind is only content when it finds a match-non-match pair.

If you'd like some more examples; Yes and No. Good and Bad. Faith and Doubt. Fast and Slow. Forward and Backward. Hard and Soft. Crooked and Straight. Angels and Demons. Beautiful and Ugly. Mind and Body. Blunt and Pointed. Bright and Dark. East and West. Far and Near. Acid and Alkali. Guilty and Innocent. Communists and Capitalists. Fat and Thin. God and The Devil. Happy and Sad. Left and Right. Legal and Illegal. Accepted and Rejected. Light and Dark. Long and Short. Love and Hate. Heaven and Hell. Help and Hindrance. Honesty and Deceit. Fine and Coarse. Old and New. Fact and Fiction. Friends and Enemies. North and South. Gay and Straight. Friend and Foe. Hot and Cold. Common and Rare. Humans and Animals. In and Out. Induction and Deduction. Major and Minor. Heavy and Light. Clean and Dirty. Native and Immigrant. Nature and Nurture. Now and Then. Odd and Even. Open and Shut. Me and You. Here and There. Men and Women. Metal and Non-Metal. True and False. Universal and Particular. Yours and Mine. Natural and Fake. Up and Down. Pass and Fail. Subject and Object. People and Animals. Monism and Pluralism. Order and Chaos. Success and Failure. Tall and Short. The Reds and The Blues. Them and Us. Top and Bottom. Tough and Weak. Partial and Complete. Past and Present. Positive and Negative. Rationalism and Empiricism. Realism and Idealism. Organic and Inorganic. Rich and Poor. Right and Wrong. Rough and Smooth. Self and Others. Sensible and Stupid. Slow and Fast. Us and Them. Wet and Dry. Positive and Negative. Win and Lose. Smooth and Rough. Spiritual and Material. Wise and Foolish. Yes and No. Yin and Yang. Rulers and Ruled. Off and On. Kind and Cruel. Real and Imaginary. Science and Supposition. Pure and Defiled. Art and Craft. Home and Away.

Administrative politics is a great case. There, the subtle and complex interplays of the world are crushed down to a simple right and wrong. 'Our party' offers absolute improvement and lasting joy in every sphere of life, while 'their party' guarantees only failure and misery. This is rubbish, of course, but we are made of the same flabby brain-matter as the politicians, and we go along with it.

Do you agree? Or disagree? Is that right? Or wrong? Even where it seems that something is 'a bit right', you find that you have no choice but to determine how many individual bits of it are right, and then do a calculation which ends up saying something like 'that is 70% correct' or 'it's ¾ true'.


Indeed our whole process of number calculation is a formalising of precisely the comparison-and-match process of the neurone, using an 'equality' sign to show which one set of things is compared to what one other. Maths is, after all, only the art of saying the same thing in different words.

The principles of logic and mathematics are not simply true because we volitionally choose never to allow them to be anything else, they are true because they match the very system on which our brains and our minds operate. It is not surprising, therefore, that mathematics is held in such high esteem as an inviolable source of proofs which humans ought to accept.

Though it may sometimes seem, as Galileo said, that the universe is written in the language of mathematics, rather, mathematics is the written language of Our universe.


This 2-way comparison and match is the 'first knowledge', the long-sought 'a priori' on which everything known is built. It brooks of no exception of any sort. It is the centre of all our decisions and of everything which is human.

I'll call this Model the 'ToC', the Theory of Comparison.


Central to the ToC is that when the incoming thing matches what is already there, it is accepted, and thereby marked as 'good', 'right', 'proper', 'correct', 'true'.

According to this theory, Truth is robbed of its independence. Facts are never true. They only become true in comparison with something else. Truth resides in the logical space between two facts. It is the comparison which creates Truth, not the things being compared.

But what compared to what? One situation is where new information is compared to the natural world, or to a recollection or report of the state of the natural world. This 'Natural Truth' is the perhaps the commonest type of truth-comparison, and is the basis of what we call the Natural Sciences. 'Natural Truth' has the advantage of being largely independent of human systems - so we can always go out there to check again if some assertion does really match the world. But Natural Truth is not the only possible truth.

Our experience of making comparisons and so creating truths tends to inform us that there is only one match, and so there can only ever be one truth, making it very puzzling when another person asserts a different truth regarding the same subject-matter.

There is indeed only ever one possible truth, because the truth-making system is of one thing compared to one other thing and either it matches or it doesn't. But it is easy to forget that it is the process of comparison and match which constitutes the truth, not the things compared.

So, if one person judges the truth of some bit of information by comparing it with the Natural World, but another by comparison with the pronouncements of The Holy Book, or the words of The Great Leader, or simply with 'the way Our Gang usually do it', there is absolutely no point whatever the one declaring the other wrong. There is equally no point in trying to show that any particular comparison-base, say, the Great Founding Document, is itself wrong when compared with some other - even if the other is the Natural World.

In the judicial system, 'justice' - the circumstance where events are matched with equity to their outcomes - may or may not coincide with 'law', where circumstances are compared with the established written records. When Justice v. Law themselves don't match, this is seen as bad and wrong.

To His followers, if new stuff matches the teachings of The Wise Sage, then it is true. And it is quite genuinely and completely True, for them if not for you.


So, you must make a comparison to make a judgement. But what to compare stuff with? Well, there's one thing always available to compare things with - ourselves, our own bodies, our own minds and abilities. This makes the comparison to 'self' most important, and from it we discover not just ourselves but all others. We find that we match features of the creatures around us, and that they with us are correct and true and right. We discover an intersubjective world, and construct the 'gangs' we are part of.

In this way, gang allegiance is always some sort of extension of self, is always available to match things to, and so can be extraordinarily strong. It can be as strong in accepting things which match as it can be violently opposed to things which don't.

Nations, States, clubs, work-groups, religions, sporting clubs, political parties, academic institutions and 'our culture' are all gangs, all can be constructed in the same way, and with much the same consequences. 'Our Gang' is completely right, not because it has any unusually advantageous features, but simply because it matches what we're used to.

It is often asserted that religion is the cause of wars - this is not the case. Rather religion and war both have the same genesis.

Understanding humans is substantially the matter of understanding how they form gangs, and which one each believes they rightly belong to.

Where the first encounters with other humans are with ones very closely matching oneself, in looks, speech and style, then everything around is 'correct' and 'good'. This circumstance seems to create a wonderfully strong, contented, sense of gang membership and 'belonging', but it can leave people genuinely terrified by the prospect of even slightly different - non-matching - people or manners. It can also leave them prey to Hermann Göring's Principle that; "The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked..."

If, on the other hand, self comes to be compared to a wide range of different human types, the result is less 'belonging', and so a much stronger sense of individual identity. The 'self' is central and all is compared to it. Such people seem to be significantly insecure but much more adaptable and not so easily frightened or controlled.

If that sounds a bit like the sociologists idea of 'socially-actualized' versus 'self-actualized' persons, then so it is, and there you have the mechanism behind it. But pause a moment. As usual, there aren't really just two opposed socialisation types, there's a whole host of fiddly variants. I can't seem to escape from the ToC, even while trying to explain the ToC.


If you do want to control people, to get them to laud you, then give them an enemy. Show them how their gang - long-suffering, noble and radiant with virtue - does not match some dangerous enemy. Choose an enemy they don't know, so you can decide what non-matches to offer. And it mustn't be anyone who might 'come round' to your side, because then followers might waste their time proselyting, or even meet the enemy and see humane matches of themselves there. Then you'd have no enemy, and you'd be screwed. So foreigners and homosexuals are a popular choice, or vague out-groups, or distant barely-understood organisations, or even invented chimera.

The politician who famously said that you can't build a politic just out of opposition was quite wrong.

It has sometimes been suggested that a racial identity is 'built-in' to humans. This is not so. Rather, what is built-in is simply that-which-matches is 'good' and that-which-doesn't-match is 'bad'. Just depends what you're accustomed to match against.

A similar process can also lead us, idiot children and distinguished professors alike, to make the 'Central Mistake' of assuming that "everybody knows..." the same things we know.


People don't like things because they are good, they like them because they are familiar. Whether something is 'right' or 'wrong' is determined by whether it matches what we have previously come to know. If it is the case that the new thing matches the other known thing then we ought and must accept it as 'correct'. This simple rule is the rule of human conduct.

My behaviours are 'correct' and 'good' when they match the behaviours previously presented to me. This presentation could be behaviour descriptions passed to me in laws or other social rules. It could be by matching what everybody else is doing. Or it could be by observing that other persons match me in many respects, so they should match what seems nice for me.

So strong are such rules that it sometimes seems as if they ought to have some real, definitive and factual basis beyond just the relative correctness of human opinion. And they do indeed have such an unshakeable and independent basis - it is , as always, the process of comparison and match itself.


'Good' is what matches, and 'good behaviour' is just that which is customary. Problem is - what to do when a new situation arises which doesn't quite match the usual practice, or which could match more than one custom, and more-than-one won't do. It has to be all or nothing. Then you have a 'moral problem', and just have to pick the solution which nearest matches what everyone around is used to. That's it.

Human societies have different rules on all sorts of bits of life, but there is no society which does not laud; Honesty, Faithfulness, Justice, Diligence, Fairness, Freedom and Courage. Yet there is no technical reason why any of these should be considered necessarily good. They don't, in themselves, bring any practical advantage either to the individual or to the gang.

There are some puzzlingly clear demonstrations that humans don't generally act for their advantage, but are led by the absolute need to find a matching thing.

For instance, there are traits so prized, simply because they involve accurate matches, that it is even customary to laud those who use them to disadvantage. "He may have made a rubbish job of it, but, hurrah! he diligently carried it out to the end!" Or, "None of us got enough of the stuff to do anything with, but at least it was fairly distributed!" "We didn't want to hear it, and I wish I hadn't, but he did tell the truth!" Foolish warriors in pointless wars still get medals.

Equally oddly, we commonly decry people who do a great and helpful job, but didn't abide by some matching thing. Consider the politician who changes a policy to improve it, and is then, not praised, but shouted down for 'inconsistency' and 'hypocrisy'.

Human value-judgements often seem deeply puzzling. But it isn't necessary to pretend a solution by invoking some mystical origin. Nor is it necessary to try to show that they are derived from any need to create benefit - sometimes they do, but they often don't. The Necessary Virtues are simply embodiments of the neuronal rule that things which match are accepted. That's it.

Honesty means "what I offer" matches "what I do", Faithfulness means "allegiance now" matches "allegiance then" and so on. Were it not for the rule of the ToC, 'fairness' would just be somebody's random preference.


Give a human a plan of behaviour, and they'll usually make sure their actions match it. Unless it conflicts with some previous plan. There appears to be no limit to this in Reason, though it can be limited by simple human ability.

The functionary at Nuremberg expecting their "I was only following orders" to be accepted or the daily irritation of petty officials and parking wardens "only doing their job" are equal instances of precisely the principle that if a thing (my plan of behaviour, my orders) matches (my actual behaviour) it is necessarily correct and right.

What ought to be baffling here is that the excuse is often accepted.  - another demonstration that there is no special moral sense in humans beyond 'it matches'.


We identify the world about us as 'real', 'genuine', 'true', because it possesses continuity. Every new instance of it which we experience substantially matches the previous instance, and the next one.

But dreams are identified as not-correct because they don't match other experiences. When we wake from dreaming sleep we find a world around us which correctly matches the world which we left behind when we went to bed. It is then that we realise that our dreams didn't match what is around us, and so dreams get marked as 'wrong' and 'incorrect'.

How and why world of dreams runs into a channel of its own and seems so real and so complete (as long as there is nothing else to compare it with) is closely bound up with the nature of consciousness itself ...


Consciousness. Everybody knows what it is. It is the absolutely easiest thing to understand, because consciousness is simply we ourselves understanding that we're understanding things. But it is a Hard Problem to find any way of explaining OUR consciousness to other people in words they can understand.

Actually, not a just a Hard Problem, but an insoluble problem. Why? Because the essence of consciousness being that it is internal and personal means that there isn't really anything outside itself to compare it with. And, if you can't make a comparison, you can't define a thing. Judgement is the making of comparisons. Everything has to first be like something to be known. That's the ToC.

All the same, consciousness seems to be important, so it deserves some sort of explanation.

About the only thing you can say of consciousness with any concord is that it is more than just 'awareness'. A thermostat is aware of the temperature around it. But our experience of consciousness is set apart by a certain reverberance - I'm aware that I'm aware, I know that I'm knowing, I can 'see' that I'm seeing and so on. How does this arise? And why and when?

Which brings us up against the BIG Problem of Consciousness, the problem of trying to explain it when any explanation is likely to be clouded by the assumptions forced on us by consciousness itself - particularity the assumption that consciousness is frequent or even particularity important to the bureaucracy of mind.

The Big problem is that the resonating back-on-itself nature of consciousness means that the only thing we're ever conscious of is always itself an aspect of consciousness. You'll never find yourself 'just conscious', you're only ever conscious of something.

I'll just have to ask you to suspend judgement for a bit. Sort-of try to ditch your consciousness of being conscious for a bit. Which isn't easy.

Go back to neurones and that rolling ball. What happens if the ball-on-a-track doesn't find a match for itself? It just keep going on. And in going on, it can form a loop where it meets itself. Seeing itself, so to speak, in its own mirror. This is how consciousness arises.

This, oddly simple, explanation solves a number of puzzles about consciousness, and leads to a number of conclusions which may, at first, seem rather strange...


Consciousness, according to the ToC, only arises where there is not a readily available match. If a new input arrives in the neuronal system which pretty-much exactly matches a thing found before, then the route will have already been 'smoothed out' for it and a match is quickly found. No round-and-round searching is needed, so no consciousness arises.

If that seems difficult to comprehend, then try stopping reading for a moment while you consider precisely how conscious you were about the shape and size and position of every letter and word. Everyday reading by an skilled reader gives rose to consciousness only inasmuch ass it present new stuffs.

Consider the way you can travel a familiar root, perhaps even carrying out very complex tasks of walking, cycling or driving, with absolutely no recollection of having done so. Consider the famous 'cheese-in-the-fridge' problem - the piece of Gouda which has puzzlingly been invisible for a year, until a foul smell or visible fungus calls it to consciousness.

Consider; typing, playing a musical instrument with skill, catching a ball, lying, opening a packet, picking-up a dropped thing.

Or consider the puzzle of prayer. I don't mean the sort of contemplative prayer or communal invocation of sympathy or hope which anyone can rationally join in with. I mean the sort of intercessory prayer where the supplicant petitions a divine being to alter the course of the universe. This just doesn't work, so why do so many people think it does? Especially those who do it a lot, who, you'd have thought, would have the most experience of it not working.

Do the same thing over and again with the same result and it will soon cease to create consciousness, so that the occasional rare instance of, say, a prayer actually matching what does happen becomes the only occasion you're ever aware of it.

Which similar reason is why a person may be entirely oblivious to the glorious spectacle of our astonishing planet, and the amazing theatre of its inhabitants right in front of them, while being highly conscious of, and even distressed, by, a minor change in the bus timetable.

I like breaking the rules! No you don't. You like breaking just a very tiny bit of them - enough to make others conscious of your effort.

Only the unusual creates consciousness. A feature extremely difficult to test, because as soon as you ask about it then you've introduced an unusual input. So the answer to the question "are you currently conscious of..." is pretty much always "yes".


There is no 'conscious mind' and 'unconscious mind'. There is only 'mind', parts of which occasionally flicker with consciousness. But why?

It is a precious achievement to manage to get yourself into a situation where life is secure.
In such a happy circumstance things will tend to be much the same every day, so very little ever rises into consciousness. But any change in the world around - bringing a new set of inputs to the brain - may likely represent a danger. Inputs from such possible risks can't find a straightforward match - they have to do a lot of whizzing around the brain, and in the process give rise to instances of consciousness.

We have big brains, each, hopefully, with a lot of the old stuff we call 'experience' ready and waiting to be found to match new situations. Consciousness is a bit of the procedure of finding out how to cope with change.

It has always seemed obvious that consciousness is something to do with choosing, but never been quite clear what. By the ToC Model, consciousness is neither the absolute cause nor the effect of human decision making. Rather, it is a part of the decision-making process.

Which is great for human adaptation. But terribly depressing for news and gossip, where we discover that the things which get attention do indeed tend to be the dismal and dangerous ones. 'Everything is just normal' isn't noticed, and doesn't make a headline. "No one" as Lord Russell put it, "gossips about other people's secret virtues."

Troublesome, too, for management and administrations where both the everyday ordinariness of the excellent, and the true crap of 'we've always done it that way', can both get forgotten alongside the glow of the new thing.

Consciousness-free Zombies, were they to exist, would behave normally, but have great difficulty adapting to new situations.


So far I've sort-of presented the whole comparison-match business as if it consisted of isolated 'inputs' being processed one-at-a-time. Which it isn't. Even just touching something with your fingertip may fire up a dozen sensory neurones or more. Observing things, experiencing stuff and whatnot, of course, consists of a myriads of comparisons being made more-or-less simultaneously. There has to be a certain aggregation.

Wonderfulness arises when a thing gives rise to enough familiar matches to be 'correct' but enough new bits to enter consciousness and so be 'interesting'. Which is why fascinating things have to have an element of the new. And why there's no perfect art.

The ToC would suggest that the most delightful form of a class of thing will be the one with the most matches to other elements of itself and to other things. Which means that the most beautiful form of a class will not be, as you might have supposed, the most outstandingly unusual version but actually be characterised by averageness and symmetry. But with just enough oddness to give rise to consciousness and so make it significant.

Think of what poets do - mix ordinary writing up with odd weird stuff. Think of theme and variation in music.

The ToC shows that the long-held assumption that Truth and Beauty, if not quite the same things, do have the same mental origin, is correct.


Contentment comes in situations where almost everything nicely matches expectations. And when contentment can't be found, we can create artificial contentment through the comforting correctness of ritual. We put an awful lot of energy into rituals of all sorts. Often without naming them as such.

I could go on to: The power of the shared lie. How comedy works. Envy. Bistable images. The allure of symmetry. Deference. Hats. The curmudgeon paradox. 'Reflex-Loop' reasoning. The nonsense bunny-hop. Wabi-Sabi. The terror of being proved wrong. Wonderfulness.

But now I'm very ill and too, too, tired to neaten it out.

So that's that. There's your model of Reason. A bit scratty and incomplete. But I dare say you get the gist, and perhaps you can explain it better. Fill in the gaps. Point out where the ToC is useful or damaging, help or hinderance. Good or bad? True or false? What do you think?