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Thursday, August 29, 2013
Brain / Mind ... Science ...

I just read another “theory of consciousness” article attempting to use scientific logic to convince us that our conscious being is nothing more than an illusion. This one is by a Princeton U neuroscientist named Michael Graziano. He calls it the “attention schema“, as it focuses on how we direct our attention and self-awareness.

Dr. Graziano is a clever writer, but ultimately his article is just another attempt to demonstrate that science has it all down and physicalism is all there is. According to the good professor, consciousness isn’t different from anything else that science understands, such as transistors and catalysts and carbon cycles and superconductivity. Dr. Graziano seems to think that he has a powerful conceptual tool that makes consciousness fall into place. He co-opts and then debunks outer body experiences and rays coming out of the eyes and such — kind of a cheap shot, I’d say. The article mixes a bit of information theory and evolutionary process with the human brains’ ability to imagine and conceptualize things that don’t exist, along with the human need to form social structures. Knowing the usual “question of mind” philosophy quandaries, he also tries to defeat “epi-phenomenalism” (or talk around it, in my opinion).

In sum, Dr. G defines consciousness in a way that fits his pre-stated objectives. That’s groovy. But is what Professor Graziano conceptualizes as “consciousness” really what we experience as consciousness? Or is this just some more begging of the question of conscious experience?

Well, once again . . . my response is “yawn”. Graziano is taking another unsuccessful shot at defusing a mystery that really upsets the world of science and scientists. Why, you might ask, is an article like this even needed after all the works and public discussions over the past 25 years dismissing consciousness as nothing more than a process of bosons and fermions, such works hailing from “theory of mind” luminaries such as Daniel Dennett and Susan Blackmore and Nicholas Humphrey and Ned Block ? All of these learned folk agree that “it’s all a grand illusion”. If so, then why is an “attention schema” even needed?

Still, Dr. G’s article got me thinking, so I wrote down some notes contra to his “schema” — i.e., how I would “explain” consciousness. Then I went back to my own “Consciousness, A Short Course” on this website, and it turns out that my “Substance Dualism Interpretation” section, written way back in 2008, is almost exactly in synch with what I just came up with!!! I had totally forgotten about this, I haven’t read in quite a while. So, great minds think alike !! And perhaps mediocre-if-overheated minds, like my own, also think alike over time. It’s nice to know that I’m consistent !! (Nonetheless, I did add some new thoughts, based on my updated reflections and some new research and constructive thinking on consciousness from the past 5 years, including Tononi’s “information integration” theory of consciousness.)

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:23 am      

  1. Jim, I really do not understand how scientists (and I guess the neuroscientist Michael Graziano) can attempt to “make” consciousness into a physical thing. It just seems to me that common sense would say that consciousness is at least intangible and thus not “physical”. Therefore, it seems to me to not fit into the category of science if science will admit only the physical.

    *Yet*, I find myself currently, and very slowly, reading a book that has me thinking; it’s The Unbearable Wholeness of Being by Ilia Delio. True, she relies a lot on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a favorite of mine since the early 1960s. But reading this material, that I’ve been away from for so long, has me rethinking concepts I long ago found so intriguing (and still do) and asking some questions that I would not have been able to ask back in the 1960s as some of the material she uses was written some time after 2000. Perhaps I should add that these questions, likely (as usual with me) are mostly tangential to the topic you have written; nevertheless, your topic has set me to thinking.

    Delio says: The “discovery of relativity and the mysterious nature of matter and energy has led scientists to conclude that matter is not composed of basic building blocks but rather comprises complicated webs of relations in which the observer constitutes the final link in the chain of observational processes.” She further quotes Fritjof Capra who writes that “matter . . . appears as a complicated web of relations between the various parts of the whole.”

    Reading this set me thinking a couple of tho’ts that seem to contradict themselves. First: If Einstein’s relativity theory leads to the idea that the observer is the “final link” in whatever process is going on, if there is no observer, do any of the “processes” come into being in the first place? One can take this question all over the place, so to say, in multiple examples. But a “for instance” and just one question here (but many more come to mind): Does the universe exist because scientists have gone looking for it? According to both Relativity and Quantum Theory, that seems to be a valid question, unless there’s something here I’m missing. Then a tangent of this question is: Who/what must the “observer” be? A human? Does an animal qualify as an observer? A tree? A small plant? When does “observing” end? When does “observing” start? Are things “there” only because someone/something has “observed” them? Would they be there if not “observed”?

    Then I wonder: If Quantum Theory is concerned with “relations between the observed and the observer, exactly *what* kind of “relation(ship?)” is called for here? Obviously, if Quantum Theory depends on relations or relationships, it cannot be talking about the physical but must be talking about the intangible – at least that, to say nothing of anything more mystical and/or spiritual.

    Thus I find thinking these tho’ts that the scientists who are talking about Quantum “things” but in an actual “physical” way are not in the right ballpark, so to say – or at least so it seems to me.

    I’m not very far into this book, just barely got a start; but it has me questioning, questioning, questioning. MCS

    Comment by Mary — August 29, 2013 @ 2:13 pm

  2. Jim, It has occurred to me (obviously too late) that the questions I wrote previously may be obvious to any scientist. Perhaps my questions only show how little I know about quantum theory and/or anything else scientific. Be that as it may, I still find myself wondering. MCS

    Comment by Mary — August 30, 2013 @ 9:46 am

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