What is consciousness?

Consciousness is a word that we can almost point at. When I say it I am fairly sure I don’t have to give a definition – I mean every one experiences consciousness and so they will know what I am talking about. But it is not so. As Inigo Montoya says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means”.

I read in a comment somewhere, long ago, that there were three ways to approach a physical explanation of consciousness: you could claim that as consciousness is not a physical thing, the explanation is impossible; or you could claim that it is physical but too mysterious to explain, the explanation is too hard; or you may claim that it is not what it appears to be and the explanation is obvious - it is not explained but explained away. It has been said that Dennett did this in his book Consciousness Explained – just explained it away.

As I said in a previous post (seeing past the trick) you cannot explain a magic trick as it appears but you can if you don’t believe the trick and look for the sleight of hand or the misdirection. If the subjective, non-physical, experience of a conscious mind is what has to be explained then that is a dead end and will remain a mystery. We have to give up our naïve sense of what consciousness is in order to understand it.

Michael Graziano did a piece in the NewYork Times Sunday Review (here) that portrays consciousness in a useful way.

… I believe a major change in our perspective on consciousness may be necessary, a shift from a credulous and egocentric viewpoint to a skeptical and slightly disconcerting one: namely, that we don’t actually have inner feelings in the way most of us think we do. …

How does the brain go beyond processing information to become subjectively aware of information? The answer is: It doesn’t. The brain has arrived at a conclusion that is not correct. 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. …

But the argument here is that there is no subjective impression; there is only information in a data-processing device. When we look at a red apple, the brain computes information about color. It also computes information about the self and about a (physically incoherent) property of subjective experience. The brain’s cognitive machinery accesses that interlinked information and derives several conclusions: There is a self, a me; there is a red thing nearby; there is such a thing as subjective experience; and I have an experience of that red thing. Cognition is captive to those internal models. Such a brain would inescapably conclude it has subjective experience. …

In the attention schema theory, attention is the physical phenomenon and awareness is the brain’s approximate, slightly incorrect model of it. In neuroscience, attention is a process of enhancing some signals at the expense of others. It’s a way of focusing resources. Attention: a real, mechanistic phenomenon that can be programmed into a computer chip. Awareness: a cartoonish reconstruction of attention that is as physically inaccurate as the brain’s internal model of color.

In this theory, awareness is not an illusion. It’s a caricature. Something — attention — really does exist, and awareness is a distorted accounting of it.”

I have picked out these bits of the argument but it is worth the time to read the original article. He (like philosophers Dennett, Churchland, Metzinger and others) is not explaining consciousness away but looking at what consciousness may actually be. Most scientists working on consciousness are also on this route – they are assuming that consciousness has a physical explanation, looking for evidence and, like Graziano, building theoretical models.

We cannot explain magic but we can explain why some things happen while appearing to be impossible. Look for what really happened and ignore what appeared to happen.

After writing this post but before posting it, I ran across a near perfect example of the problem. A philosopher called Mark Conard has a post called ‘When Science Gets Stupid’ (here). I doubt that he understood Graziano’s piece because he starts right out defining consciousness in exactly the form that it probably isn’t, “to be conscious is to be aware. It’s to have subjective mental states about one’s environment”. He does not refute Graziano’s argument but ignores it. Well, if you start with that as a firm definition, then you have already pre-judged the issue. You cannot explain scientifically ‘subjective mental states’ but possibly you can explain something that appears to be a subjective mental state. I have consciousness, personally, and I call it consciousness, but I very definitely do not feel I have subjective mental states. That is not the explanation I am looking for – I want an explanation of my consciousness not some other definition, subjective mental states, that seems meaningless. What on earth is a subjective mental state?

I found it offensive that Graziano was referred to as “a guy named Michael Graziano”. He is a very well respected scientist. Conrad also down grades Dennett and Churchland by implying that they are not somehow doing philosophy right (not with a capital P). “With it’s methods, science is wonderful, helpful, generates real knowledge about the world; but it’s incapable of investigating lived human experience in all its richness and meaningfulness. That isn’t to say, mind you, that there is no reasoned approach to human experience, no arguments to be made, no evidence to examine. It’s only to say that we need a different methodology–that of Philosophy!”As I had never encountered Conrad before, his pulling rank does not impress me. And his arguments just miss the point entirely. “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means”.

3 thoughts on “What is consciousness?

  1. Mark Conard

    Ms. Kwasniak,

    I didn’t misunderstand Graziano’s essay. I simply disagree with the way that he and Dennett and Churchland frame the issue. You seem to agree with them that neuro-physiology *must* be the solution to the problem of consciousness; that consciousness must be explained purely in physicalist terms.

    My claim (and it’s not original to me; I’m simply reiterating the points that others have made) is that natural scientific methodology is by its very nature simply unsuitable to answer certain questions. Because that methodology is incapable of dealing properly with the issue of consciousness, researchers like Graziano and Dennett and Churchland tell us that consciousness can’t be what we think it is; it has to be something else that *is* explainable in physicalist terms. My conclusion is that any theories that contradict so thoroughly our own experience (of course we’re conscious!) reveal the inadequacy of natural scientific methodology in this case. Until the physical sciences are better equipped to handle the problem, it’s best approached philosophically.

    To address a couple of your points:

    In defining consciousness as “awareness,” I wasn’t misunderstanding the problem. I was providing a working definition, a sense of what I was talking about, to my non-specialist readers. My piece wasn’t an academic essay, and it wasn’t meant for specialists; it was directed at lay-people who might be interested in the subject. You may charge me with question-begging; but to my mind, any theory that tells us that we’re not aware (of things in the world, our own thoughts, feelings, memories, etc.) is crazy.

    Second, I didn’t mean to insult Professor Graziano by saying “a guy named…” I was using a colloquial expression again for my non-specialist readers, who wouldn’t have heard of him.

    Third, saying the problem should be handled philosophically isn’t a matter of pulling rank; it’s again to recognize the limits of natural scientific methodology in handling this particular problem.

    I see that your sympathies lie with neuroscience and theorists like Graziano, Churchland, and Dennett. I was simply offering an alternate account of the issue (leaning on the work of John Searle—whom I would recommend to you), one that I think better accords with our experience.

    Mark Conard

    1. JKwasniak Post author

      Thank you for a clear comment. Actually I cannot speak for others. I would have called what I experience by the name consciousness and it certainly feels like awareness. These are ordinary words with ordinary meanings to me, but when reading Graziano or Dennett I read the words as they have defined them. Why can’t I do that with your definition? I am now 75 and all of my life since I was a teenager I have been unable (no matter who said it, how many times) to accept the ideas: that there are two minds - the only thinking I do is unconscious but I am aware of some of that thinking in my consciousness; and that consciousness is a accurate source, it is so-so accurate. This is me and I cannot understand how people can be so sure of something I doubt so deeply. But I accept that they do. In passing I will mention that I believe that free will and predestination are incompatible and also that neither is a reasonable position. Our decisions are not predictable even theoretically and they are also not without deep constraints. Thanks again for clarifying your position.

  2. Pingback: Discussion of “When Science Gets Stupid” | Mark T. Conard

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *