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Why you don’t know your own mind

Rethinking consciousness and eliminativism

Why you dont know your own mind

This article was inspired by a recent piece on IAI News entitled The Mysterious Disappearance of Consciousness, in which philosopher Bernardo Kastrup analysed the work of leading illusionists and eliminativists, including Michael Graziano. What follows is Graziano's response to Kastrup's argument.

The scientific work that I do on the brain basis of consciousness is sometimes misunderstood - a misunderstanding which I think comes mainly from the political divide between mystics and materialists. I am a materialist, and reactions to my work tend to follow along the lines of: ‘keep your scientific hands off my consciousness mystery’. 

This kind of argument often devolves into distortions and phrases examined out of context – in short, the wooly thinking of philosophy that’s lost its integrity. Among the most common and puzzling reaction I get goes something like this: ‘Graziano says that consciousness does not exist; that we lack an inner dialogue; that getting stuck by a pin, or walking into a wall, is ethereal’. None of these statements are true, of course, but I do often hear them coming from the nonscientific, or often pseudoscientific, political side.

As an attempt to get across the reality of what I work on, I’ll start with a simple example: suppose you’re looking at something obvious, like a chair. There it is, in front of you. The truth is that the chair you think is there is not exactly the same as the chair that is actually there – a strange thought for most people, but a very familiar one to neuroscientists.

The brain builds models of things in the world around you and models of its own internal events, and in every case the models are simplifications.

We can break this situation down into four steps. Information about the chair enters your visual system; your brain builds a simplified, ‘quick-and-dirty’ version (a simulation or model as it’s sometimes called); your cognition has access to that model; as a result, you can talk about the chair.

The brain builds models of things in the world around you and models of its own internal events, and in every case, probably without exception, the models are simplifications; they are not perfectly detailed or accurate.

Let’s follow this logic. You claim to have a conscious experience. You make that claim because you think it’s true – your higher cognition has hold of that information. You think it’s true because it resonates with your deeper, intuitive models constructed beneath the level of higher cognition. What you intuit, think, and claim, are based on information constructed in the brain.

I would say with certainty – that whatever consciousness you actually have, it is different from the consciousness that you think you have.

There is no wiggle-room about it. It must be true. But that information is almost certainly not perfectly accurate. Therefore, we know – I would say with certainty – that whatever consciousness you actually have, it is different from the consciousness that you think you have. That’s a thought and a half. People always have a hard time wrapping their minds around it.

Some of the attributes of consciousness that you claim to have, you probably don’t have. Some of the attributes of consciousness that you actually have, you probably don’t know that you have. One of the main stumbling blocks for naïve theories of consciousness, especially the mystical theories, is that they tend to take intuition as literally accurate. They fail to grasp the necessary gap between reality and what we intuit and think.

An internal dialogue? Sure, of course we all have it. A mind spinning with thoughts and sensory impressions? Yes. The pain of being stuck by a pin, happiness, memory, a moment of decisiveness, a moment of indecision? Yes, all of that is present, in some form. Consciousness? Yes, indeed.

My interest as a scientist is this: what parts of the consciousness that we think we have are accurate, and what parts are inaccurate? Literally, physically, the brain processes information through the interaction of billions of neurons. But when we introspect, when we dip into our intuitions and thinking, we report something totally different – not electrical impulses and synapses, not interacting chunks of information, but something amorphous and ghost-like.

Philosophers have been trying to put words to that fuzzy extra essence for millennia, but none of the vocabulary really pins it down. It is the brain’s detail-poor model of its own actions.

Science has a habit of encroaching on mystery; that’s among the most exciting and worthwhile aspects of what it does.

What networks in the brain construct that fuzzy self-model? What happens when those networks are damaged, or stop functioning correctly? Can we build similar networks, similar self-models, into artificial intelligence? These questions are the focus of research in my lab and many other labs around the world. 

I can understand the visceral dislike, maybe even fear, from people who think this scientific approach encroaches on their sense of mystery. My empathy is somewhat limited, however.

Science has a habit of encroaching on mystery; that’s among the most exciting and worthwhile aspects of what it does. I urge anyone curious to delve deeper; read the books (I’ve published some) and peer-review articles, try to approach the underlying concepts from a non-partisan position, and make up your own mind.

 

If you want to hear from leading thinkers like this debating renowned philosophers, cutting edge scientists, headline-making politicians, and beloved artists, come to HowTheLightGetsIn Hay 2020 for four days of debates and talks alongside music, comedy and parties.

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Eric Hiatt 27 January 2020

The fact is that we make assumptions about nature of reality that we assume are "rational", but aren't.

We assume there is a "physical" world that is qualitatively different than the subjective phenomena of the mind. That's a curious jump to make.

Subjective phenomena seem as part of a different realm entirely than the physical. While having utter dependence on the physical, the "is-ness" itself doesn't apparently have interactions with the physical (e.g. you can change your "visual field" with drugs - altering the supposed physical substrate of its dependence - but the field itself is "virtual").

How is it rational to assume a qualitatively different world from the "virtual" using "evidence" that can only manifest virtually?

What if everything is as "virtual" as subjective phenomena? Everything is "virtual informational relationships" or some such?

That doesn't means "simulation hypothesis" or panpsychism or anything but to suggest that the idea of "the physical" as qualitatively different than "the virtual" is suspect.

This also has nothing to do with mysticism. It already seems like nothing "solid" actually exists. The idea of a "virtual" reality (no actual "space" is a consequence of this) is not any more strange than the existence of subjective phenomena themselves.

hammyburger11 27 January 2020

As science is based on observations, Prof. Graziano's essay seems to be self refuting. Science, per se, does not do anything. It does not have habits: encroaching or otherwise. It's humans, with consciousness, that try to make sense of the observations of "information constructed in the brain": scientific or otherwise.

John Gavel 25 January 2020

My grandfather said what if the smallest things (particles) had free will. He was speaking on quantum mechanics. Yet from that I asserted a question, what makes us think we have free will or choice?

The evolutionary sense might stem from the need to eat to survive. Hunters trying to find a pattern in their pray to out think them. Yet if we brake down the time of seeking out the pattern all that's left is knowing, or understanding, where something will be a moment in the future. If we digress to the simple equation of knowing or seeing one second into the future our choices change form not knowing or seeing that one second.
So my thoughts were not on memory or any actual physical locations of objects. They were on that advantage of seeing just one second into the future, however the mind may construct it. If our conscious weighs our senses, comparing one moment to the next and our minds deliver patterns it also compares. Perhaps the conscious is ghostly to us because it resides in a future moment where our thoughts exist primarily in past moments.

Michael Aparicio 25 January 2020

I went through graduate school taking for granted that introspection not only is reliable, but more reliable than empirical observations. Arguments that refer to such evidence were taken seriously, and the problems that arise from them defined my understanding of the mind. One couldn't have a complete account of the mind unless one accounted for the mind's qualitative nature. That is, I didn't just expect accounts to explain the causes of my introspective experience, but I assumed that the nature of the mind was as I experienced it through introspection.

At the time it seemed obvious and Eliminativists seemed as blind as that hypothetical Mary.

However, if introspective observations are't reliable, insisting that the nature of the mind must include accounts of Qualia, for example, begins to seem like someone looking at a stick in water and insisting that the nature of sticks is that they have a "bending quality." It's one thing to expect an account to explain why the stick appears bent, and problematic to assume that the stick really is bent.

Most of my life I didn't consider introspection problematic. I considered it reliable. I now doubt that reliability. I still expect research to explain why my introspective experiences are as I experience them. I still expect an account to explain the causes. But I nolonger assume that the nature of the mind is as I experience it introspectively.

Suddenly, I don't consider it implausible when I read that there is no single mental faculty called "memory," but multiple recall abilities. Suddenly I don't dismiss it as implausible when someone hypothesizes that mental states may be physical.

None of this is to claim we know enough to have a theory of the mind. We remain at that stage where we are considering hypotheses. But suddenly Eliminativist hypothesizes seem plausible; and when I read hypotheses relying on introspective observations I can't help but wonder if they're simply assuming that stick really is bent.

Jon Burchel 25 January 2020

Also... I can't help but notice how averse anti-materialists are to being called what they are - mystics. They doth protest too much...

Jon Burchel 25 January 2020

Bravo! Attention Schema Theory will someday get the respect it deserves and lame condescending "philosophers of mind" will have to eat their own words...

LE Sacks 24 January 2020

This should have been titled "What Is It Like to Be a Human?"
Clearly we have little more insight into that than we have into what it's like to be a bat. Maybe a few more perceptions through our thought sensory system (aka consciousness). We call that tiny tip of the thought iceberg "knowing"... but it (our fist hand conscious experience) is, finally, rather thin gruel.

Marco Masi 23 January 2020

I know of no philosopher of mind, neither materialist nor dualist, that denies that the brain builds "simplified models of things in the world and of its own internal events". Nobody doubts that. This is one of the first elementary understandings that everybody learns when dealing with the issues of the mind-body problem, etc. So what? It doesn't in the least encroach on mystery, let alone explain consciousness.

Moreover, I have long studied mystical theories and never ever heard of "mystical theories that tend to take intuition as literally accurate" or that "fail to grasp the necessary gap between reality and what we intuit and think." Be it Western or Eastern mystical theories all say exactly the contrary, namely that what our mind takes for real is a construct (ever heard of the illusion of Maya? Just to mention one popular example). It is not even a construct or "model" as the naive anthropomorph current scientific neurobiological paradigm believes, but a "symbol", which is something even farther removed from what we take to be "real".

His description of what our brain does is therefore not only in line with the spiritual experience but shows that neurobiology now finally recognizes the insights it had for millennia. Already the title of this article speaks volumes: spiritual teachings have always been about knowing ourselves (and not only our mind). Graziano's invitation to "introspect" and "dip" into ourselves couldn't be more mystic.

Sammy Sung 22 January 2020

"The brain builds models of things in the world around you and models of its own internal events" So this implies that "the brain" and the "you" are not one and the same, because, as stated, the brain is building a model of the world, in a way it can be digested by consciousness. What developed such a smart tool? It's like an interface between raw data and the observer.

Jeff Wunder 22 January 2020

"The consciousness you think you have is different from the consciousness you actually have"

You admit the existence of our awareness of some kind of reality, even if it's not the "real" reality, but how does this explain this awareness in physical terms? Consciousness is not behavior of any kind -- that's the point. Your awareness, consciousness, feeling, qualia, etc is scientifically unobservable, no matter how much complex neural machinery you have. No matter what physical process you cite. Do unobservable properties, even illusory ones, emerge from observable systems? As Liebniz understood long ago, there is no observable mechanism for generating unobservable properties. Therefore, if consciousness exists, it is not physical. That's not hard to understand

Natasha Matthews 22 January 2020

*Cheers to being a functionally diverse social organism.*...phones...

Natasha Matthews 22 January 2020

It does sound as if you're a rather political player yourself lol.

I often use, "What I resist, persists," to start making out the vague outlines of what I'm not yet conscious of in myself. It's usually political...lol. But when you find the mystery you've been hiding in your heart, I hope it's welcomed.

But anyway, I enjoyed the article and found it well written and saucy. The beauty and mystery that neuroscience has begun to unravel is only just beginning, and just as you are sure to agree, we can't yet imagine what we are a part of, so what's so wrong with a little woo-woo here and there? Besides, neurodiversity got us this far (just dominating the planet, nothing to see here...), who are we to say everyone should think like a scientist?

Cheers to being a functionally diverse. Cheers to us waking to that reality.

Martin Helmer 21 January 2020

Framing the whole discussion as a political exchange is a new approach for me. It has its merits. The stakes are certainly high.

The more disturbing that what follows immediately after is essentially an ad-hominem attack on anyone who doesn't identify themselves as a materialist by categorizing them as Mystics. I'm sure this text works perfectly fine for self-validating purposes, but if you're honestly trying to get people on the other side to understand your point of view, I think there are better approaches.