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Reductionism as a Dead End in Neuroscience — Captured in an Essay

From the evidence that he presents, Anil Seth could at most show that animal consciousness is more complex than previously thought

University of Sussex professor of cognitive and computational neuroscience Anil K. Seth, during a routine dismissal of René Descartes (1596–1650), assures us, “It looks like scientists and philosophers might have made consciousness far more mysterious than it needs to be.”

More mysterious than it needs to be?

As noted earlier, what makes understanding the human mind necessarily complex is that it is both the entity we are trying to perceive and the tool by which we hope to perceive it. Such a problem is like trying to imagine a five-dimensional box in relation to the real world. Unlike the five-dimensional box, consciousness is part of the life experience of every human being.

How would Dr. Seth unravel the problem? In a classic essay, he reassures us,

Once, biochemists doubted that biological mechanisms could ever explain the property of being alive. Today, although our understanding remains incomplete, this initial sense of mystery has largely dissolved. Biologists have simply gotten on with the business of explaining the various properties of living systems in terms of underlying mechanisms: metabolism, homeostasis, reproduction and so on. An important lesson here is that life is not ‘one thing’ – rather, it has many potentially separable aspects.

Anil Seth, “The real problem” at Aeon (November 2, 2016)

Well, wait. We know a great deal more than we did centuries ago about the circumstances that enable a life form to keep itself alive and pass on that state to a further generation. But we are still at a complete loss as to the origin of life.

This is despite hundreds of speculative papers published every year. Eminent chemist James Tour has often remarked on — well, expostulated about — this problem. It’s fascinating. It is especially relevant to the search for life on other planets in our galaxy. But looking for evidence of life’s existence is quite different from explaining life’s origin.

Origin of consciousness is in roughly the same state as origin of life. We have vast amounts of useful information about being conscious but we have no idea how it comes about.

What does Dr. Seth say about consciousness (or “selfhood”)?

Of the many distinctive experiences within our inner universes, one is very special. This is the experience of being you. It’s tempting to take experiences of selfhood for granted, since they always seem to be present, and we usually feel a sense of continuity in our subjective existence (except, of course, when emerging from general anaesthesia). But just as consciousness is not just one thing, conscious selfhood is also best understood as a complex construction generated by the brain.

There is the bodily self, which is the experience of being a body and of having a particular body. There is the perspectival self, which is the experience of perceiving the world from a particular first-person point of view. The volitional self involves experiences of intention and of agency – of urges to do this or that, and of being the causes of things that happen. At higher levels, we encounter narrative and social selves. The narrative self is where the ‘I’ comes in, as the experience of being a continuous and distinctive person over time, built from a rich set of autobiographical memories. And the social self is that aspect of self-experience that is refracted through the perceived minds of others, shaped by our unique social milieu.

In daily life, it can be hard to differentiate these dimensions of selfhood.

Anil Seth, “The real problem” at Aeon (November 2, 2016)

The problem isn’t so much that it is hard to differentiate these dimensions of selfhood as that it is hard to believe that a simple, reductionist approach to the question will provide much insight.

One thing that doesn’t help is reductionism (reducing everything to “nothing more than”)

For example, Dr. Seth writes, “The specific experience of being you (or me) is nothing more than the brain’s best guess of the causes of self-related sensory signals.” That seems inconsistent with the “council of selves” that Dr. Seth himself sketches out in the paragraph quoted above. If he is right, your local town council votes may be less frenetic at any given time than what is going on in your own mind… but that is not an argument for reductionism.

It becomes even more confusing when Dr. Seth tells us,

This returns us one last time to Descartes. In dissociating mind from body, he argued that non-human animals were nothing more than ‘beast machines’ without any inner universe. In his view, basic processes of physiological regulation had little or nothing to do with mind or consciousness. I’ve come to think the opposite. It now seems to me that fundamental aspects of our experiences of conscious selfhood might depend on control-oriented predictive perception of our messy physiology, of our animal blood and guts. We are conscious selves because we too are beast machines – self-sustaining flesh-bags that care about their own persistence.

Anil Seth, “The real problem” at Aeon (November 2, 2016)

So, contemplating the vast mystery — as well as complexity — of consciousness, Dr. Seth asserts that it shows that “we too are beast machines.”

Actually, it provides a convincing demonstration of how reductionism does not work well in neuroscience. At most, it would mean that animal consciousness is more complex than we have earlier supposed. For that, at least, we have a growing body of evidence.

You may also wish to read: Psychiatry has always been difficult but … it’s unclear how trashing almost every philosophical tradition from which it is approached will really help. Understanding the human mind is necessarily complex because it is both what we are trying to perceive and the tool by which we hope to perceive it.

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Reductionism as a Dead End in Neuroscience — Captured in an Essay