Illusions and Simulations


Issue #1: The 6th Day of March, in the year twenty-twenty-two of the Common Era. The First Days of The Year of the Tiger.

This text is from the first issue of my newsletter, published on 6th March 2022 and then subject to a rather extended hiatus while I overwhelmed myself.

This week:

  1. Real conversation and the illusion of dialogue
  2. Friendly simulations
  3. Islington Qualia

P.S. The war is savage and unfathomable and for the purposes of this newsletter goes undiscussed, but not forgotten. 🇺🇦🇺🇦🇺🇦

Real Conversation vs. The Illusion of Dialogue

I was speaking with a good philosopher friend last month (before the world started spinning faster). We dawdled under the heat-lamps outside a pub in Soho on an unseasonably warm February evening and discussed philosophy and literature and considered life. I wandered off into the night wondering about the world. 

It reminded me that ideas acquire shape in imprecise conversation with those we trust. The pandemic replaced many real-life conversations with hyper-focussed video catch-ups that lack the meandering quality of in-person conversations. 

Crucially, pub-philosophy is built on the trust that the other doesn’t want to win, but wishes to extract your ideas for collective benefit. And it can proceed no matter how ugly and ill-formed the idea may be in its first articulation. 

Reflecting on this, I became painfully aware that true conversation has been diminished by video meetings and the flood of instantly available discursive media – podcasts, lectures, televised conversations, twitters, informational tiktoks, the news. These media create what I call the illusion of dialogue

By merely witnessing conversation as an observer we are rewarded by the illusion that we’ve done the hard work of stumbling through a conversation to arrive at a conclusion. This half-way house between purely internal reflection and real conversation carries a danger. We feel the conclusions are ours. But they are slim, weak things, and quickly become entrenched.

When I think back at the number of real conversations I have had these past few years, I find the number wanting. And I worry at the loss of insight I’ve suffered by not seeking them out more often. 

So this is my plug for the delicate art of collectively lurching towards sense in a real, atoms-to-atoms conversation – pulling each other through the fog of ideas. 

Friendly simulations 

I’ve long been interested in the science and philosophy of consciousness. That interest is being amply rewarded now as new developments in computation have allowed deeper insights into the functioning of the mind and scientific/philosophical coverage of the subject has ramped up.

In his recent book “Being You – A New Science of Consciousness” Anil Seth, a professor of neuroscience and computation, argues that the brain is a complex prediction machine. To perceive, he argues, is not to receive and decode a steady stream of data from the world. Rather, our brain is making predictive best guesses about how things are in the world and updates its guesses based on sensory inputs. 

It’s a so-called ‘feet forward’ view of perception – because the brain is making the world up in advance of receiving most of the data. This view says that the brain operates a constantly updated hallucination of the world. The new information coming through our eyes and ears allows our brain to tweak this hallucination.

What surprised me was Seth’s subtler point that perception extends to more than just physical objects. It is intrinsic to our experiences of other people. Psychologists since William James have long recognised our ability to infer how others are feeling, known as “Theory of Mind”, which allows us to navigate complex social hierarchies and interact with others. What Seth’s work reveals is that Theory of Mind is in fact a facet of our normal prediction-driven perception of the physical world. 

When we see a friend smile at us, our brain takes the new input (the expression), infers the cause of that smile using its prediction machinery (happiness, sarcasm, whatever the expression implies) and delivers it as perception.

We experience the other’s emotion as a completely realised part of the world, as clearly as if we were observing a wave curling on the sea or judging the movement of an approaching frisbee. 

Perceptions of others are automatic and immediate but subject to improvement through practice. In general, the better we know a person, the more accurate we are at gauging their emotions from their actions and expressions.

Perceptions of others are automatic and immediate but subject to improvement through practice.

Another way of saying it is that we maintain and update a bank of simulations of the people we know. There is something compelling and quite beautiful about the idea that my friends all live in my mind as figments of a constantly updating hallucination. Thanks Anil. 

Islington Qualia

As I write this, the sun has been creeping onto a blank sky in tones of umber.

Only now it’s joined by clouds dusted in sherbet pink and orange. Pigeons ride the cold air and houses are beginning to pour steam into the roads. There’s a brutalist stepped building beyond Holloway, its tumble of glass cubes shines on the horizon. 

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