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Razib Khan's Unsupervised Learning

Sep 15, 2023

Today, Razib talks to Erik Hoel, host of the Substack The Intrinsic Perspective and author of The World Behind the World: Consciousness, Free Will, and the Limits of Science. An academic neuroscientist by training, in The World Behind the World Hoel outlines the emergence of modern neuroscience, and where it went wrong in terms of the field’s researchers' focus. But first, Hoel discusses human understanding of the mind, and how it has changed over time. He gives his take on Julian Jayne’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, and explains that it is unlikely that consciousness emerged after the Bronze Age as posited in the book. Instead, The World Behind the World argues that the differentiation between the inner world and the outer world, the intrinsic perspective of literature and psychology and the extrinsic perspective of physics and biology arose with the Classical Greeks 2,500 years ago. Hoel also observes that a modern perspective on one’s inner world and psychological complexity so evident in Greco-Roman texts rapidly fades again after the fall of Rome and the regression during the Dark Ages, when literacy declined and text became refocused exclusively on the functional external world, whether it be tax records or agronomy manuals.

The World Behind the World is a book-length argument fleshing out Hoel’s contention that understanding consciousness is, and must be, at the heart of neuroscience. Though studies of the biology and chemistry of axons and glial cells make sense from a reductionistic perspective, Hoel makes a convincing case that contemporary neuroscience models fail to understand how the brain works. The World Behind the World suggests modern neuroscience is pre-paradigmatic, like biology before evolution or physics before Newtonian mechanics:  merely a collection of fascinating observations and detailed mechanisms. Hoel maintains that a true neuroscience theory with consciousness as its center and organizing principle is necessary to understand how the intrinsic world emerged and functions.