Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Talking About Magic!

Sunday's New York Times featured a little piece by Michael A. Graziano on the question Are We Really Conscious? Graziano is a Psychology and Neuroscience professor at prestigious Princeton University.

His article reminds me why I have become less and less taken with reductionistic science. Now I'm no scientist. However, sometimes I feel some of this is more philosophy of science. (Of course, I'm no philosopher, either!) So I don't feel I'm being anti-science if I withhold my acceptance of some of the more radical and counterintuitive (and Graziano readily admits that his theory of consciousness is counterintuitive) ideas scientists come up with.

If I understand him correctly, the brain functions as a machine that processes data. It processes information but lacks true subjective awareness. He explains it briefly:

How does the brain go beyond processing information to become subjectively aware of information? The answer is: It doesn’t. When we introspect and seem to find that ghostly thing — awareness, consciousness, the way green looks or pain feels — our cognitive machinery is accessing internal models and those models are providing information that is wrong. The machinery is computing an elaborate story about a magical-seeming property. And there is no way for the brain to determine through introspection that the story is wrong, because introspection always accesses the same incorrect information.

The more humans are reduced to "meat machines," the more I tend to rebel. So consciousness is a "ghostly thing" and "magic-seeming property"?

But why can't our intuition be correct here and our consciousness be a genuine thing? Are the implications just too troubling for some?


  1. I remember when I used to do environmental work, a fish ecologist told me a story (maybe true, maybe apocryphal) which I only half remember now, but was something like this. A research team concluded that only fish larger than 5 cm survived in a lake - until someone remembered that their net had a 5 cm mesh.

    This guy seems to me to be the same. He's defined his reality as what can be established by science and then concluded that reality doesn't include consciousness. He might be right, but he can't really prove it until he establishes methods to demonstrate the unreality of that which he dismisses, rather than methods which cannot measure consciousness.

    CS Lewis commented that we know all the universe from the position of an observer - except ourselves, which we know from the inside. Science is good for observers but not for insiders.

    The scary thing is, it already seems we value human being less - humans can be collateral damage, customers, population, robots made of meat, just another animal (he says "twigs on the tree of evolution"), etc, so Peter Singer and others can believe that it might be OK to kill newborn babies under certain circumstances. If "we" are just illusions, how can it be any different to kill me than to kill a sheep?

    1. It matters, I do believe, whether or not we are cosmic accidents.