Sensing, perceiving, awareness, consciousness

[From Bill Powers (960502.0500 MDT)]

Rick Marken (960430.1400) --

     Implicit in the method of levels is the idea that the direction of
     the arrow of consciousness is always "downwards" in the control

While I agree that this is the only natural way to say it, this language
is misleading. It implies that consciousness or awareness does something
to whatever is the object of consciousness or awareness. We have the
same problem with talking about perception: we say "look at" or "listen
to," as if looking and listening were active processes like pushing or

In fact, perception is a process of receiving-from, not doing-to. When a
camera "views" a scene, the only outward-going causal process is in the
motor that turns the camera; the "viewing" is a result of light entering
the camera, being focused on its silicon retina, and generating signals
that pass through the circuits and away from the scene toward the
transmitter and the ultimate human viewer far away. When we "look at"
something, we rotate ourselves and our eyes so that light from part of
the outside world can enter and generate neural signals that pass inward
and upward through the brain.

So it is that I imagine awareness to operate. Awareness is some kind of
receiver. The only active, outward-bound process is the one that alters
the switching that determines the source of information that reaches
awareness. When we alter the focus of awareness, we are doing something
internally that is analogous to rotating the eyes in the head. We are
selectively altering the part of the brain from which information is
being brought into the receiver. We can also alter the level in the
nervous system from which this information is being received -- starting
with exactly the same input information, I can attend to the brightness
of a light, or I can attend to the realization that someone left the
light on all night again.

And there it is again: "attend to" seems to be the only available
language for saying that we are "receiving from" some aspect of brain
operation. I think that this general confusion in language is the result
of not understanding the difference between the action that affects the
world that is being perceived, and the perception that changes as a
consequence of the action. Language evolved before anyone understood
this closed loop phenomenon. We don't have any well-established and
therefore graceful ways to describe perception or awareness
appropriately to what we now understand. We have to say it the long way:
"Please direct your eyes to receive information from the left-hand
figure" (Look at the figure on the left). Or "Please prepare your
awareness to receive information from the audible sentence that your
father is about to utter" (Pay attention to what your father is going to
tell you). Our language simply doesn't give us any easy ways to talk
about perceptions or awareness that expresses the direction of the
physical processes correctly. Maybe there are languages that do it right
-- I don't know.

RE: Soft and Hard PCT.

     The Hard school doesn't think a separate consciousness model is
     needed, either because 1) they don't understand that that the
     ability to observe their own controlling implies the existence of
     an observer system that is separate from the controlling system or
     2) they imagine (without demonstration) that one sufficiently
     "complex" or "organized" system can be, at the same time, both a
     controlling system and the system that is aware of its own
     controlling (this strikes me as being like imagining that a
     sufficiently complex and organized TV can be, at the same time,
     both the producer of an image and the observer of that image).

That is extremely well said, except that I think the view which Bruce
dubbed "Soft" is actually the more realistic one, in that it doesn't
offer any explanation that goes beyond what we do understand about
perceptual processes. There is something magical about the idea that
mere complexity or coherence or reverberation can create a new physical
phenomenon that would require us to speak of awareness or consciousness
instead of just signals moving around in a physical system. It is
"Harder" to admit that while some process of receiving information is
clearly going on in our own experience, we can't explain how this


Your image of the TV is an excellent one because it clearly separates
the process of creating a visual image from the process of viewing (that
is, receiving information from) that visual image. I'd like to carry
that example a little further, to help explain the distinctions among
sensing, perception, awareness, and consciousness that Richard Thurman
has been enquiring about. Imagine with me.

Suppose you're at a football game in a bad seat, where you can't see
much of the action. You can, however, see the big TV screen where they
show the plays as seen by various cameras around the stadium. This TV
screen is fed, at a given time, by a camera with its optical axis aimed
toward the line of scrimmage or other key locations. Optical information
enters the camera where it is turned into electrical signals; the
signals are transmitted to a truck in the parking lot, which transmits
the signals to the giant display system, which creates an array of
colored dots on your retina, which your brain turns into neural signals,
which pass upward through your brain to some system that is concerned
about the fact that the time remaining is 6 seconds, the ball is on the
15-yard line, it is fourth down, and your team is trailing by 4 points
so a touchdown is required for a win.

At this point, your attention is focused not on the pillar in front of
you or the backs of the people standing in your direct line of vision,
and not on the fact that your eyes are directed toward the giant TV
screen, nor on the fact that the signals on the screen are arising from
a truck in the parking lot and ultimately from a camera somewhere else,
but on the quarterback and the play he is about to execute. The ball is
snapped, the quarterback backpedals (A pass play! Just what you
expected), and he's looking for a receiver. Ah, here's a receiver in the
end-zone, and there's the quarterback sending the ball on a soft little
arc toward the corner, and there's the receiver leaping in the air for
it. He's got it! Will he come down with both feet in-bounds?

At this point it is completely irrelevant to what is on your conscious
mind that you are not actually looking at the quarterback, but at a
giant screen full of dots mounted high over the scoreboard at the end of
the field opposite to the action. You aren't aware of the camera moving
to receive information first from the quarterback, then from the running
receiver, then from the ball arcing through the air, and finally from
the part of the end-zone where the receiver is coming back down from his
leap with the ball precariously clutched with one hand against his side.
As far as you are concerned, the information you want simply appears,
and you are completely unaware of the fact that you are looking with
eyes at a TV picture provided by a camera somewhere else. You have
become totally identified with the system that is providing all this
information, and your attention is on the situation in the game and the
outcome that is going to be determined in the next half-second. One foot

Sensing is what the remote camera does. Perceiving consists of the
electrical signals, the giant TV screen, your retinas, the signals sent
from your retina into your brain, and the subsequent levels of signals
generated by further input processing in your brain. Awareness consists
of receiving information selectively from within the field of
perceptions, so you focus on the quarterback, the ball, and the
receiver, and not the flags waving in the wind, the greenness of the
grass, the rain that is falling on your head, the brightness of the
lighting, the color of the helmets, or the stripes on the referee's
shirt. A conscious experience is the result, which requires both the
information in perceptual signals of the right level and awareness of
some part of the field of perceptual signals at some level of

When the receiver comes down with the second foot in-bounds, you might
be surprised by a lack of reaction from the home-team crowd. But in a
few seconds, you see the explanation; there's Brian Gumbel on the
screen, and now you realize that the receiver was wearing the colors of
the Miami Dolphins, who are not in the game you are attending. In fact,
you have been watching a brief report on another game. Climbing on your
seat and peering around the pillar, you see that the Denver Broncos are
just starting to line up for the final play of the game. Oh, agony -- we
have not won, we have to go through the whole bit again. And this time
John Elway runs the ball into the end-zone himself. At least that is
what you see on the TV screen.

This time, however, the experience is not quite so involving. You are
conscious at another level: you are aware of the TV screen as a TV
screen, and realize that what it depicts is not necessarily what is
really happening here in this stadium. Your awareness has become
somewhat dissociated from the perceptions of the game, and it now
includes perceptions of a higher level. You have lost some of your
identification with the operation of the system. You are still quite
happy that your team has won, but now the happiness is happening outside
you, the observer. You view your own happiness as a reaction to winning,
which means that you are not _being_ happy, but _observing your own
happiness_, which is quite different. You remember being happy the first
time while you thought you were seeing this game, so your own emotional
responses have taken on a new appearance. You wonder how you could have
missed the fact that the receiver's helmet was green, not orange, and
that the defenders leaping up to spoil the play were dressed in black,
not white. When you replay the memory of the first touchdown, you
realize that you could see the colors, that the quarterback didn't move
like John Elway, and that the play was taking place on a sunny day, not
in a rain shower. You were seeing everything, but you didn't SEE.

Then you become very self-conscious. Did everyone around you think you
were nuts when you leaped up and yelled "Way to go!" after the Dolphins'
touchdown? You are now aware of embarrassment, and of thoughts that are
busily doing something about it. You brain says "Maybe they just think
I'm a Dolphins fan -- I hope so." You laugh at yourself for being so
worried about what they think, but it's hard to turn the thought off.
You are starting to bounce around the levels, both higher and lower than
the ones involved in the first experience. You are reorganizing. You
will go home from the football game a wiser person, with your awareness
in touch with more aspects of yourself than you knew about when you came
to the game. You will have great insights, become a famous guru, and win
the Nobel Peace Prize, which is worth over $1 million.

So the moral of this story is that if you fail to learn from your
experiences the differences among sensing, perceiving, being aware, and
being conscious, you will lose out on a million bucks.
Best to all,

Bill P.

[From Bruce Gregory (960502.1345 EDT)]

(Bill Powers 960502.0500 MDT) responding to

(Rick Marken 960430.1400)

  That is extremely well said [I agree -- BG], except that I think the view
  which Bruce dubbed "Soft" is actually the more realistic one, in that
  it doesn't offer any explanation that goes beyond what we do understand
  about perceptual processes. There is something magical about the idea
  that mere complexity or coherence or reverberation can create a new
  physical phenomenon that would require us to speak of awareness or
  consciousness instead of just signals moving around in a physical
  system. It is "Harder" to admit that while some process of receiving
  information is clearly going on in our own experience, we can't explain
  how this happens.

This and the football story are beautifully done, and very clear.
The problem, as I see it, is that the receiver (not on the football
field, but in the nervous system) _seems_ to be skirting
the edge of being a homunculus looking at a screen similar to the one
in the stadium and subject to changing perceptions. Most of us,
including you and Rick, I suspect, would be happier if the receiver
could be modeled by a control system. But happiness is not always
granted us. Your description is surely accurate and seems to be the
best we can do at this time.

Bruce G.