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Consciousness: Three New Books, Same Dilemma, Still Fascinating

Consciousness studies are getting markedly crazier, if we go by the traditional standards of science

We have been assured for decades that a complete materialist understanding of life is just around the corner. Yet, as science writer Dan Falk notes, in an essay review of three new books on the subject, when you ask for details, “Get ready to dive down the rabbit hole”:

First, a defence of panpsychism (everything is conscious)—as a serious science proposition—in The Feeling of Life Itself: Why Consciousness is widespread but can’t be computed (MIT Press, September 2019) by Christof Koch of Seattle’s Allen Institute:

Koch argues that everything is a little bit conscious, a view known to philosophers as panpsychism. This, in Koch’s view, gets rid of the puzzle of how consciousness emerges from non-conscious neurons (or atoms); if he’s right, consciousness was there all along.

Dan Falk, “Three New Books on Human Consciousness to Blow Your Mind” at Undark

Others have suggested, maybe the universe itself is conscious. Or maybe your coffee mug is.

Falk, a traditional science writer, found another recent offering even harder to take. In The Case Against Reality: How Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes (Penguin, August 2019), UCLA cognitive scientist Donald D. Hoffman argues, as the title suggests, that our perceptions have evolved to be wrong. One senses Falk’s frustration with that view:

But surely our perceptions map in a mostly true way onto the real world, right? No, Hoffman says: He argues that Darwinian evolution would favor an organism with less-accurate perceptions over one that perceived the world as it really is. He calls this wildly counter-intuitive proposition, on which the rest of the book rests, the “fitness-beats-truth” (FBT) theorem; he says it can be proven through computer simulations.

Dan Falk, “Three New Books on Human Consciousness to Blow Your Mind” at Undark

Well, if the computer simulations were wildly wrong, how would Hoffman even know?

Falk cites insights from physicists to unpack and contest Hoffman’s view. But he seems to miss the underlying point: Darwinism is by nature a nihilist perspective. It cannot accommodate a mind that perceives reality; only a mind that produces more offspring. It is not possible to go beyond that perspective within Darwinism. It is, of course, possible to go beyond Darwinism.

And then there’s Princeton neuroscientist Michael Graziano’s Rethinking Consciousness: A Scientific Theory of Subjective Experience (Norton, September 2019), which argues that consciousness originated in animals’ to model the world around them with increasing sophistication and eventually “sense of an inner being led to empathy and formed us into social beings.” Falk seems much more sympathetic to this view:

As Graziano sees it, this meta-level tally of what our brains are paying attention to simply is consciousness; it explains why looking at a red apple also “feels like” having such an experience. This extra layer of processing — the attention schema — “seems like such a small addition,” Graziano writes, “and yet only then does the system have the requisite information to lay claim to a subjective experience.”

There is no ghost in the machine, but attention schema theory offers an explanation for why we imagine that there is.

Dan Falk, “Three New Books on Human Consciousness to Blow Your Mind” at Undark

Falk likes the idea that Graziano’s approach reduces the Hard Problem of consciousness to a mere “meta-problem.”

Maybe. The maneuver of redefining the Hard Problem as a “meta-problem” recalls researchers’ recent claim that they had discovered a mechanism for how the Big Bang was ignited. Well, if the Big Bang was “ignited,” what was the fuel?

In a popular jest, Satan boasts to God that he too can make a man from nothing—if God would just give him some dirt. God, slightly surprised, responds, “No, the whole idea is, you create your own dirt from absolutely nothing. Then we’ll talk.” Likewise, redefining the Hard Problem doesn’t really change much.

From other recent discussions of consciousness, we learn:

● The rabbit hole of illusion is the only thing that is real:

In the movie The Matrix (1999), Morpheus offers Neo a red pill. If he takes it, he will discover that reality as he knows it is an illusion created by machine overlords to keep humans enslaved. I am going to offer you a different pill, which – if it works – will convince you that your own consciousness is a sort of illusion, a fiction created by your brain to help you keep track of its activities. This view – which I call illusionism- – is widely considered absurd (it’s been described by Galen Strawson as ‘the silliest claim ever made’), but it has able defenders (pre-eminently Daniel Dennett), and I want to persuade you that it isn’t absurd and might well be true. Are you ready to see how deep the rabbit hole goes?

Keith Frankish, “The consciousness illusion” at Aeon

● But then we read about how our self-conscious minds can help us overcome our innate selfishness in order to save the planet:

Like all living things, humans are organisms, biological entities that function as physiological aggregates whose constituent parts operate with a high degree of cooperation and a low degree of conflict. But unlike other organisms, humans possess a rogue component – a brain network that can, at will, choose to defect and undermine the survival mission and purpose of the rest of the body…

The kind of consciousness supported by our unique kind of brain has enabled us to conquer frontiers. We have the power to change the environment to meet our needs; satisfy our whims, desires and fantasies; and protect ourselves from our fears and anxieties. Imagining the unknown inspires us to find new ways of existing. Pursuing these comes with risks, but we can also anticipate them and conceive of possible solutions in advance.

Joseph LeDoux, “Can our self-conscious minds save us from our selfish selves?” at Aeon

But there is no consensus whether the mind exists or for that matter whether free will exists (as implied by LeDoux above). So it’s not clear to what these exhortations to save the planet are directed or what is directing them.

Rigorous naturalism, taken seriously, brought us to this place where illusion calls to illusion about things that can, by definition, have no meaning. There is no other place naturalism can bring us to.

You may also be interested in these articles:

Quest for Consciousness: A historic contest is announced. The two theories to be tested pit “information processing” against “causal power” as a model of consciousness. One side must admit it is wrong.

Why some scientists think that science is an illusion: It’s a useful illusion, they say, but our brains are not really wired to know the facts. (Donald Hoffman’s point of view is explored.)

Neuroscientist Michael Grazia no should meet the p-zombie. To understand consciousness, we need to establish what it is not before we create any more new theories (Michael Egnor)


Consciousness Studies Is a “Bizarre” Field of Science

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Consciousness: Three New Books, Same Dilemma, Still Fascinating