randombio.com | science commentary
Thursday, Jan 14, 2016
ots of people out there are trying to be hard-headed about consciousness. Daniel Dennett is one, and he has inspired a cadre of followers who are promoting the idea that the so-called ‘hard question of consciousness’ is only an illusion.
There's nothing wrong with being hard-headed. But there's a lot wrong with throwing babies out with bathwater. A guy named Michael Graziano is doing just that. In an article titled “Consciousness Is Not Mysterious” he writes:
The mythos of consciousness is every bit as confusing and nonsensical as the purity of white light, and the source of the confusion is the same. The brain constructs inaccurate models of the world. ... The human brain insists it has consciousness, with all the phenomenological mystery, because it constructs information to that effect. The brain is captive to the information it contains. It knows nothing else.
The brain processes information. It focuses its processing resources on this or that chunk of data. That's the complex, mechanistic act of a massive computer. The brain also describes this act to itself. That description, shaped by millions of years of evolution, weird and quirky and stripped of details, depicts a 'me' and a state of subjective consciousness.
This is why we can't explain how the brain produces consciousness. It's like explaining how white light gets purified of all colors. The answer is, it doesn't. Let me be as clear as possible: Consciousness doesn't happen. It's a mistaken construct. The computer concludes that it has qualia because that serves as a useful, if simplified, self-model.
Just like the comments on the article, which almost immediately go off on a wild irrelevant tangent, this argument almost grasps the issue, and then immediately soars off into irrelevancy. Like Daniel Dennett's materialistic argument, this argument comes so close to sinking the basket, and then falls flat on its face, and bounces off into the stands.
Of course there are mechanistic processes in the brain. Of course the brain creates a model—a narrative that there is a ‘me.’ But that says nothing about the fundamental distinction between a ‘me’ and an ‘everybody else.’ We observe this every day. We might call it subjectivity, individuality, or consciousness.
No matter how much our brain fabricates, the evidence that we are individuals is indisputable. Thus, if we conclude that consciousness is a mistaken construct, at best it means we're talking about the wrong thing.
Perhaps that's not surprising. Little progress has been made on defining our terms, and there is even disagreement over whether phenomena like qualia are relevant. Tononi's Integrated Information Theory (now, he says, up to version 3.0) is a heroic attempt. But to claim that consciousness does not exist would goes against our everyday experience.
The hard problem of consciousness is the question Why am I me and not you? I am conscious of my thoughts over here, but there is somebody else who is conscious over there whose thoughts are inaccessible to me. What causes that? What causes that ‘internalness’ of the information in our brains? By asking these simple questions, anyone can demonstrate that there is something very fundamental and very important—and, yes, mysterious—that we don't understand.
There is simply no way you can answer that question by saying this is what the brain does—that it is how the brain makes sense of the world. You would be asking one question and answering another, still interesting, but different question.
It is true that there's been a lot of muddled thinking on the subject. Some have asked whether one person sees the color red in the same way as another. There is widespread confusion on whether subjective experiences, called qualia, are really relevant, but there can be no doubt that materialism has run amuck if it causes us to doubt that we have subjective experiences.
You don't have to be Descartes to notice when you look out the window that you are perceiving information about the world at one specific point in space and time. You are conscious of it. There is more going on than one chunk of matter and sodium ions moving down concentration gradients. There is a ‘you’ there. There is a clear qualitative difference in the fact that the information is being perceived, a unique spatio-temporal reference point and an internality that an objective material description cannot capture.
The answer might not even be in the brain at all. It might be a universal property of matter. It might be that information itself has two aspects. But wherever it resides we can't just sweep it under the rug by pretending it doesn't exist. This guy calls that eliminativism.
What we can do as scientists is to explain how the brain constructs information, how it models the world in quirky ways, how it models itself, and how it uses those models to good advantage.
As the Borg would say: Quirkiness is irrelevant. Models constructed by the brain are irrelevant. Using models to good advantage is irrelevant.
We can study how the brain constructs information and how it models itself until we're blue in the face and not answer the hard question of consciousness, because those physiological and biochemical experiments are not addressing the question. Neither are our computer models. It would be like saying the posterior hypothalamus sends less histamine to the cerebral cortex, so we fall asleep, and we lose consciousness, and therefore consciousness is just histamine. You'd be answering the wrong question.*
There is nothing mystical or supernatural about the hard question of consciousness. It is a legitimate scientific question that can and should be studied by experiment guided by theory. But it will take new theory and new experiments. Most of all, it will take a recognition that it is a real problem, not an illusion, and it will not be solved by tracing neuronal pathways and injecting brain proteins into a mass spectrometer.
Pretending that consciousness is an illusion will not make it go away. What it will do is destroy the field by conflating the term ‘qualia’ with brain function. If people come to believe that talking about consciousness is just mysticism, the field will fall into disrepute and it will become unstudyable. And that would be a darn shame, because I've watched it happen so many times before in science.
* Other brain regions, including the mesopontine nuclei and the reticular formation, and many other neurotransmitters besides histamine, are also necessary to produce wakefulness, as this McGill article beautifully describes. But all that is irrelevant to my argument.
Scientific materialism and the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness
Some scientists assert that subjective phenomena cannot be studied scientifically. But subjectivity is an irrefutable fact of nature. Understanding it will be essential to understanding the mind.
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