12 October 2014

Poor title edition: "Are We Really Conscious?" in NYT

Article is by Michael Graziano from Princeton, "Are We Really Conscious?" posted Oct. 10, 2014.  I think the better headline would be "What Are We Really Conscious Of?" (I recognize that the authors usually don't pen the headlines).  In any case, Graziano has a theory about our awareness being a distortion of the reality, and that basic point is not a new one.  But there is one line which I object to, and it seems like Graziano himself contradicts it in the article.

Midway through, he writes: "But the argument here is that there is no subjective impression; there is only information in a data-processing device." ('Device' here referring to a brain). This is the classic reductionist move - it's only data processing. There's a non-recognition of the potential for levels of complexity and organization that give rise to interesting phenomena in their own right.  The reduction of a brain, which is a really interesting thing, not yet well understood, to a "device".

Further in the paragraph:  "The brain’s cognitive machinery accesses that interlinked information and derives several conclusions: There is a self, a me; there is a red thing nearby; there is such a thing as subjective experience; and I have an experience of that red thing."  Now this is at least a little more open to interesting investigation - what might we mean by self? what is a subjective experience?

My conclusion these days is that a coherent view of 'self' is at the very least the entire organism (i.e. my whole body), and probably it needs to go beyond that, to extend some way into the environment.  So does my self have experiences - yes, I think it certainly does.  My body (which obviously includes my brain) reacts to experiences.  Experiences appear to have an information processing aspect or basis, and that's very interesting, but to end there is missing at least half the story (IMHO).

By the end, Graziano writes: "In this theory, awareness is not an illusion. It’s a caricature. Something — attention — really does exist, and awareness is a distorted accounting of it."

Ok, so which is it - do we have subjective experience or not?

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