Why you don’t know your own mind

Rethinking consciousness and eliminativism

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: ‘Grazian

Continue reading

Enjoy unlimited access to the world's leading thinkers.

Start by exploring our subscription options or joining our mailing list today.

Start Free Trial

Already a subscriber? Log in

Join the conversation

Karl Smith 28 May 2023

There is a lot going on here. I am sure a lot of philosophers have jumped on the fact that there seems to be a conflation between phenomenal consciousness and the metaphorical "me." Said, another way, a conflation between phenomenal consciousness and the notion I've experienced phenomenal consciousness. That latter presupposes so sort of entity which is in possession of some sort of thing, that is phenomenal consciousness.

Letting that lie, I'd like to pick up on Dr. Graziano's purported dispute with mystics. A political one at that. What's odd here is that the points that Graziano makes are precisely the ones that mystics make. Starting with his "the char think you see is not the same as the chair that is there."
This is a core point of Mysticism 101. I can't think of how mysticism could proceed otherwise, though many traditions, my own included, would consider this a provisional teaching. That is, we are going to later dispel this illusion, but we need somewhere to start.

Another nice step is that the chair that you think you see is not the chair that you see. This is great introductory training. Seeing seeing is not seeing.

Then he goes on to make some concessions that the mystic never would for they give up too much. I am not sure if Dr. Graziano actually believes these things or is simply conceding for the sake of moving along the conversation. For example,

"An internal dialogue? Sure, of course, we all have it." A lot going on here, not least of which I think is that the only question we are prepared to take is whether you have it. Even then are we quite sure? This matter requires some investigation.

"A mind spinning with thoughts and sensory impressions? Yes." A mind, of course, presumes a lot more than the mystic is willing to offer. At least at these preliminary stages. But, we do get to something which is the heart of mysticism. That which you see before. The Immediate, I sometimes call it. Take care that we are not presuming to say what, if anything, the Immediate is, just that when I point to the Immediate, you understand what I am pointing to. This in its various manifestations is where the acolyte must conduct his investigations.

One of the things virtually all mystics do is to drain the Immediate of its spinning-ness. To still it. This aids in the investigation and is the goal of much practice. Also, many mystics find it useful to get rid of those pesky thoughts. This requires some dedication and so some might choose to skip this step, but I think its indispensable.

This is our ground, where mysticism begins. Which is why find it strange to read Dr. Graziano's statement

"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."

Do we find something amorphous and ghost-like? Is that what the Immediate is like? On the contrary, the Immediate is like stone. Deadwood or ash others have described it as, though those, descriptions do not resonate with me. It is motionless, without extent, possessing no color, no texture, neither warm nor cold, unyielding, and outside of time.

Now, the slightest flutter of introspection, of seeing seeing, will flood the Immediate, but its clear this is a doing. Something added on top.

I am not sure how congruent this is with Dr. Graziano's work but I hope its clear that there is no fear of encroachment here. No, since there is something that is going to be dispelled for dispelling is the first step, the gateway as it were. Whatever, political dispute Dr. Graziano feels I think can be and should be put to rest.

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.