Sermon: I Hobbes: Life Lessons From a Stuffed Tiger, by Amit Mehta

2022 September 1
by DoMC

I, Hobbes: Life Lessons From a Stuffed Tiger

Amit Mehta, Ph.D. Biophysics

Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes chronicled the adventures of a precocious six year old boy with his tiger Hobbes, who appears as a stuffed animal in the presence of others but comes to anthropomorphic life when alone with Calvin.

We consider the comic strip a story of childhood.  Calvin dazzles with his creativity and delights with his gullibility.  But there’s something even more riveting about Hobbes.

Readers can forget that in the story he’s a stuffed animal, unlike Snoopy or Scooby Doo.  Hobbes the character is a fiction within a fiction.  After the fact, Calvin unknowingly imagines the running embellishment so vividly that it tricks Calvin, and us, into believing that in the story Hobbes is conscious.

In that, Hobbes has a still greater trick up his fur, a window into what it’s like to be us, an angle into the mind-body problem:  How does matter experience consciously?


That mystery lies at the heart of what it means to be human, and may extend far into the animal kingdom.  Any experimentally tested answer would hit the science-religion frontier seismically, making Darwin seem a minor tremor.  

All the same, the question feels mundane.  As a toddler, I intuit that there’s a “me” inside my head, experiencing the world.  Over decades, I build my reality atop that intuition.  It’s the most familiar thing there is.  To challenge it brings my reality crashing down, so I don’t.  Paraphrasing Descartes, William James called the existence of consciousness our “one indefectibly certain truth”

But in his day and ours, this stumbles on the mind-body problem.   How can unconscious stuff form an “I”?  Cognitive scientist Dave Chalmers famously called this the Hard Problem of Consciousness.  He expounds:

If all we knew… were the facts of physics and… information processing in complex systems, there would be no compelling reason to postulate the existence of conscious experience… the hypothesis would seem unwarranted, almost mystical.

A mystical and unwarranted hypothesis.  Kinda like God.  Unsurprisingly, the Hindu Mundaka Upanishad equates self with God.  Once you accept the self, God’s not such a leap:

“I” decide to say these words, then my brain signals my vocal cords, then my cords resonate, vibrating the air.  “I” trip that cascade of physical events by a mental act of volition, the “uncaused cause.”  

If we believe that, we need no leap to believe a super-conscious “uncaused cause” tripped a larger cascade of physical events by willing the world into existence.  That’s why philosopher Thomas Nagel suggests we ideate God as a straightforward extension of what we think we are.  

So the mystical “I” has undertones of God but also of something else.  When we encounter rabbits pulled from hats, what do we seek?  Something mystical?  Nope.  Someone in a black hat and red cape, using misdirection to make illusion look real.  What if the “I” is a parlor trick, no more real than Hobbes the character?

Absurd?  Insane?  Yeah.  Also our best answer.  I’ll get there and offer six practical takeaways, but not just yet.  Bear with me.  First, we need to presume consciousness really is what it feels like; that my internal experience now, as me, of you all is, at face value, a fact.

Some assume that given time neuroscience, maybe with new physics, will reduce such facts to unconscious components.  But from today’s vantage, that’s just a leap of faith. 

We’ve clarified how the brain encodes, processes, and integrates sense data; stores, links, and retrieves memories; drives emotions and behaviors; and develops.  But those facts could describe zombies.  They leave the Hard Problem untouched.

Since Aristotle, physics – and the chemistry and biology built upon it – analyzes how one configuration of matter and energy evolves into another, whether describing quarks, combustion, black holes, or brain wiring.  That kind of knowledge can’t explain why conscious experience accompanies this or that configuration.  The problem lies not in details but with the whole explanatory strategy.  As cognitive scientist Dan Dennett observes, “human consciousness is… the last surviving mystery,… a phenomenon that people don’t know how to think about.”  

This gaping hole makes the existence of consciousness in the universe ontologically dangerous.  It infects everything we think we know.  Thomas Nagel expounds:

The mind-body problem is not just a local problem, having to do with the relation between mind, brain, and behavior in living animals, but… it invades our understanding of the entire cosmos and its history… a true appreciation of the… problem must eventually change our conception of the place of the physical sciences in describing the natural order.

Put differently, the Hard Problem demands scientific revolution.  

Revolutions shouldn’t scare us.  In the last century we had three: Einstein, Heisenberg, Godel.  They capsized our intuitions about gravity, space, time, the truth of math, and what it means for something to be somewhere.  In each, weirder ideas knocked off less accurate ones.  Consciousness may need a revolution that kicks the weirdness ascent into high gear.

It may need more than we can muster.  As Emerson Pugh put it: “if the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.”

Undaunted, we float ideas like a murky proto-consciousness not reducible to mass and charge.  Our vantage resembles physics before Galileo: We can’t yet conceive of how nature structures and governs this murk.

Two vague proposals, of ancient vintage, include, first, panpsychism: All matter has proto-consciousness.  Physics studies how matter interacts but not what it is – a conceptual abyss where the Hard Problem’s solution may hide, as Greg Matloff sermonized last summer.  

The second notion is bolder still.  Idealism calls consciousness the primordial building block of matter, energy, space, and time, like it is when we dream at night.  As the most fundamental thing, consciousness needs no explanation.  In posing the Hard Problem, it goofed.  Consciousness obtusely tried to reduce itself to higher order concepts that themselves reduce to consciousness, an Escher staircase to nowhere.

That thinking brushes near theism.  Call primordial consciousness infinite, shared, everything, and coherent, and you get Sankaracharya’s Hinduism:  God plays hide and seek with us, and She hides in plain sight. 

Unlike insisting “consciousness just must be reducible to mass and charge,” these two proposals respect the mystery.  The game is afoot.  But now let’s sideline them and explore a less lofty idea: our cosmology is broadly right, but our intuitions about ourselves are not.  Nothing ontologically dangerous, no revolution needed.  We’ve fallen for a parlor trick.  


As my daughters repeatedly demonstrate, we learn by extrapolating, theorizing, then adjusting from error signals, which include discrepancy with what others say or our senses reveal.  We fall for illusions not by constructing a false picture but rather by forming a wrong theory and missing the error signal.  Computational neuroscientist Anil Seth elaborates:

it is natural to think of perception as a process of bottom-up feature detection—a “reading” of the world around us. But what we actually perceive is a top-down, inside-out neuronal fantasy that is reined in by reality, not a transparent window onto whatever that reality may be.

Evolutionary biology says that our theorizing need only help us survive and reproduce, not that it gets things right.  Wrong but more functional theorizing will beat out right.  That leads us to the most intimate thing the brain theorizes about, itself.  

Enter the parlor trick:  We are sophisticated automatons that internally represent themselves as conscious agents, then confuse the representation for the real thing. 

The ghost doesn’t animate the machine.  The machine animates the ghost!  

You might object that you, clearly and distinctly, consciously experience my voice now.  But intuition deceives you.  Your brain absorbs 1.4 megabytes of sense data a second.  You feel aware of under 8 bytes, after a half second delay.  That’s a 200,000-fold compression.  As Art Historian Ernst Gombrich observes, “there is no innocent eye,” why Immanuel Kant emphatically distinguished “thing in itself” from “thing as it appears” – a distinction especially relevant to the thing that appears as your own conscious self.  That thing is invasive unconscious interpretation.  


Unless you’re dreaming or on psychedelics, your brain uses sense data – including what others say – to test and adjust its theories.  But it cannot test its theory of self as conscious agent.  That’s private!  Your senses can’t probe it.  Instruments can’t detect it.  Other people, similarly theorizing, mutually reinforce it.  (Talk about groupthink!)  Once your brain interprets data using that theory of self, voila!  Your machine spins straw into gold, hallucinating conscious you into existence.  

You know how when someone gives too clean an autobiography?  You probably suspect they unknowingly superposed a clean story onto messy events after the fact.  

We all do that constantly!

We get the story wrong, even more than Calvin does.  Calvin writes about time travel with Hobbes (reference to wisdom story).  He unknowingly superposes that story onto the evening, remembering it as if it really happened.  Likewise, we unknowingly superpose a fantastic conscious agent narrative, within a half second, onto every remembered conscious moment, the one just now and all the ones before.  

That doesn’t explain consciousness but rather explains it away.  Still, Occam’s razor favors the simpler hypothesis for why it seems that we experience consciously.  The idea sounds straight out of a lunatic asylum, but less so than every other idea we’ve got.


All religions assert that we hallucinate.  Rev. Ana invoked this on Christmas Eve 2019:

“You are a divine elephant with amnesia trying to live in an ant hole.”  But that ant hole can be so convincing… special effects… so good, the people around us acting like ants… so often that… we forget who we are.

Like Plato writing his allegory of the cave, Rev. Ana means we hallucinate being less than our true selves.  I’ll swap a few words to make my opposite point, that we hallucinate being selves at all.  

Then what’s real?  Delusional zombies spinning magical stories.  Not Hollywood monster zombies but people – quirky, smart, alert, interactive but not conscious.  The lights are off inside.  Conscious, autobiographical “I” is not this zombie flesh machine.  This machine authors me, a running embellishment, a surreal fiction like Hobbes.  

That fiction has meaning, like Anna Karenina and Holden Caulfield have.  And they do: stories are the fabric of civilization.  Any intelligence could replicate our science and math, but none could achieve our art and literature, humanity’s crowning achievement, to which all machines contribute, and which “we” are.  Your machine creates, hallucinates, remembers, describes, and reacts to you, like Calvin creates, hallucinates, remembers, describes, and reacts to Hobbes.  And you affect your machine intimately and profoundly.  I mean, can you even imagine Calvin without Hobbes?

Stuffed Hobbes is the body that Character Hobbes mistakes as his.  Similarly, the machine is the body and brain you mistake as yours.  Intelligent and analytical, the machine grows, remembers, rewires itself, experiences emotion, avoids pain, gets laid, eats, defecates, philosophizes, plays, dances, loves, seeks pleasure, socializes, gives sermons.  It’s also an automaton, wholly embedded in nature’s causal order no less than a star, billiard ball, or stuffed animal.  But it’s very sophisticated.  That’s why psychology feels tangled.

Experientially, your machine has the now and a linked narrative.  Conscious, autobiographical you has no part in that now, but is that linked narrative, the story your machine imagines then mistakes as its own.  Other machines accept that story but you, like Hobbes the character, have no reality outside machine imaginings.  Your mystical first person perspective is fictitious embellishment, superposed on remembered events.  Even so, you are that fiction, not falsely, not mistakenly.  Asked “who are you?” your machine tells that fiction.  As linguist George Lakoff puts it, “life is a story.  This… metaphor [is] rooted deep in our culture.”  

The metaphor has detractors.  Through his character Antoine Roquentin, Jean-Paul Sartre laments self-narrative as inauthentically redacted and reorganized; a memory-corrupting escape, from saccadic reality into coherent fantasy.  

Fair point.  Precisely why the comic strip feels a little sad.  Like our automaton machines, Calvin mistakes his escape fantasy for reality.  As for Character Hobbes, he’s got no choice.  Like our conscious selves, he’s authentically nothing but the fantasy.  

OK, I’m Hobbes.  So what?  You’ll never viscerally convince yourself you’re not conscious.  Try it.  It’s self-defeating.  The harder you try, the deeper you’re stuck.  

I’ve got no red pill to offer; only blue ones.  

How can we respond to this predicament?  My suggestion, machine to machine: don’t stress about it.  Were it not an automaton, your machine would need worry, but it is, so it doesn’t, and you certainly don’t.  You, the conscious self, are in charge of nothing.  You’re not even observing.  Like Hobbes, you’re a running fiction added after the fact, so you might as well enjoy the ride. 

1. Challenge regret as a concept.  “If only I had…” sounds incoherent.  The machine learns from mistakes.  But wishing your machine had done differently is like wishing it hadn’t rained last Friday.  If we could rewind and replay, the only differences would be random.  You think you could’ve deliberately chosen otherwise only because that’s the self-theory your machine used to create you.

2. Challenge pride as a concept.  Consider pride in “my” decisions and perseverance.  Replace with gratitude.  You may be the masterpiece of a creative, intrepid, or streetwise machine.  It learned decision-making algorithms that crafted you into an interesting or comfortable story.  Or those algorithms just wrote a better story.  You deserve no more credit than Gatsby does for Fitzgerald.  

3. Rethink animosity, as a concept.  Rev. Ana challenges us to regard those we dislike, like MAGA activists replacing election officials, as doing the best job they can.  I’ll go that one further: regard them, like us, as automatons.  Regard even dangerous criminals like we today regard criminals with brain tumors.  We feel less humane towards criminals without brain tumors, because they decided “consciously.”  Need I say more?

4. Read literary fiction.  Good authors must.  Our automaton machines author literary fiction, and our lives literally depend on them being good at it.

5. Rethink mortality, as a concept.  Why did evolution prod your machine to create you then confuse you for itself?  Zoologist Nicholas Humphrey speculates that it did to create a decoy, to give the machine fondness for life so fear of death.  A sound strategy for evolution but not for us.  We dread oblivion because of opportunities we’ll miss.  But we don’t dread the far greater opportunities lost in the past before birth, during dreamless sleep, and in the places in the universe we’ll never visit or the potential waking experiences we don’t have.  We dread one over the others irrationally.  Machine, evolution compelled you to fear death through me, but you don’t have to.

6. Cherish the story.  Richer Oliver Twist than Monte Burns.  You, machine: consider your life’s masterwork, your mostly fictitious story.  Comfort, treasure, pleasure, power don’t hold a candle to the story.  Treat it that way.  Make it engaging, inspiring, one for the ages.  No riches can make good a dull story. 


Lynn Johnston, in her comic strip For Better or For Worse, aged her characters over the years.  Imagine Watterson doing that.  I’d enjoy an adolescent Calvin, but I yearn to see Hobbes discover he’s a stuffed animal.  Would Hobbes have felt shock? Horror?  Existential terror?  

Being Hobbes, I’ll answer: none of the above.  He’d identify not with stuffing but with his biography, the story Calvin’s unconscious mind created.  As he would, I feel liberated to recognize my “I “ as the story, transcending body and world, created by intelligence, and eternal, like any story.  

We’re not the universe waking up to itself but fantasizing to wake, as if it badly wanted to but couldn’t.  I am this machine’s dream but also its soul.

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