Let’s explain away

What is the difference between explaining and explaining away? If I watch a magician do a trick and I witness some object appear from nowhere or simply disappear before my eyes, I of course want to know how these things happen. I want an explanation. But do I want an explanation of how matter can be created or destroyed or do I want an explanation of how the magician made it appear to me what matter appeared and disappeared in a flash? It depends on whether I believe that magic happens or whether I believe that magic is a misleading performance. So someone could say, “you have not explained the magic, you have just explained it away.” To this the answer is, “I have not explained the magic because it never happened and was an illusion but I have explained the actual events that caused the illusion.”

When Dennett published his book ‘Consciousness Explained’, the clever retort was that the book should have been called ‘Consciousness Explained Away’. There have been a few people lately explaining consciousness, that appear to be doing the same thing, explaining it away. Consciousness is not the problem – it is the insistent on a conscious mind that has to be explained away. As soon as people believe that they consciously think as opposed to being consciously aware of thoughts, then the problems occur. Wanting to know how we consciously think is like wanting to know how real magical magic happens. So it would be wise and reasonable to stop trying to explain how we have a conscious mind and concentrate on explaining how we are aware of our thoughts.

The latest explainer-away the I have encountered is a paper by Oakley and Halligan, Chasing the Rainbow: The Non-conscious nature of being, Frontiers in Psychology Nov 2017 here and a blog post by the same authors in Brainfactor, What if Consciousness is not what drives the Human Mind here . One of the first things they do is to change the names so that their meaning is clear. The contents of consciousness they refer to as the personal narrative and the experience of consciousness is a product of internal broadcasting resulting in personal awareness. The contents and experience are the result of a completely non-conscious system; they use the name non-conscious rather than un-conscious.

The model is illustrated by a figure – the Oakley-Halligan model. (click to enlarge)

The schematic diagram shows all current CES functions and other psychological activities as non-conscious processes and their products. The most task-relevant of these psychological products are selectedby a Central Executive Structure (CES) to create an ongoing personal narrative via the process of Internal Broadcasting. This personal narrative is passively accompanied by personal awareness – a by-product of Internal Broadcasting. Some components of this narrative are selected by the CES for further transmission (External Broadcasting) via spoken or written language, music, and art to other individuals. The recipients in turn transmit (internally then externally) their own narrative information, which may contain, or be influenced by, the narrative information they have received. The CES also selects some contents of the current personal narrative for storage in autobiographical memory. The contents of external broadcasts contribute (via Cultural Broadcasting) to an autonomous pool of images, ideas, facts, customs, and beliefs contained in folklore, books, artworks, and electronic storage systems (identified as “Culture” in the Figure) that is accessible to others in the extended social group but is not necessarily dependent on direct interpersonal contact. The availability of culturally based resources is a major adaptive advantage to the social group and ultimately to the species as a whole. The CES has access to self- and other-generated externally broadcast content as well as to cultural information and resources, all of which have the potential to provide information that supports the adaptedness of the individual and to be reflected in the contents of their personal narrative. As a passive phenomenon, personal awareness exerts no influence over the CES, the contents of the personal narrative or on the processes of External and Cultural Broadcasting. In the Figure non-conscious process are identified in green and personal awareness (subjective experience) in blue.

There is a great deal of interesting information and ideas in this paper – comparison of varies models, historical progress, clarification of the absence of conscious control, models of self. And I will probably write another post on some aspects. But I also have a couple of reservations. The authors seem to deal exclusively with human consciousness and put great stress on the social and cultural role of consciousness. I would have liked a little hint to how they thought other animals might differ. One might think from reading the paper that they thought other animals were not conscious. I also thought they played down the very important relationship between personal narrative and memory. I continue to suspect that one of the most important aspects of conscious awareness is in laying down memories. And one of the most important aspects of thought is the use of memory.

We can hope that there is much more coming to explain consciousness by explaining away the conscious mind.

One thought on “Let’s explain away

  1. Daniel Demski

    Explaining away, to my mind, differs from explaining in another way. Or, perhaps I should just split this into three categories. We can explain how magic is real (explain the internal narrative of the trick, which the audience is supposed to perceive, or a stronger version of it). We can explain how magic is not real, by giving the actual physical steps the magician took. Or we can explain a third thing: why the trick is compelling. This is often not necessary when speaking to human beings; but a magician’s trick has not really been explained if your explanation leaves out the motivation and perception of the magician and of the human beings involved.

    By analogy, then, I would be claiming that consciousness contains an illusion which is itself in need of explanation. I haven’t read Dennett’s book, but I get the impression that this is the difference between his book and Thomas Metzinger’s “Being No One”. Metzinger attempts to explain both how consciousness works, and how our mistaken sense of self functions.


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