Michael Graziano: Are We Really Conscious?

He raises the question in the New York Times Sunday Review:

I believe a major change in our perspective on consciousness may be necessary, a shift from a credulous and egocentric viewpoint to a skeptical and slightly disconcerting one: namely, that we don’t actually have inner feelings in the way most of us think we do…

How does the brain go beyond processing information to become subjectively aware of information? The answer is: It doesn’t. The brain has arrived at a conclusion that is not correct. When we introspect and seem to find that ghostly thing — awareness, consciousness, the way green looks or pain feels — our cognitive machinery is accessing internal models and those models are providing information that is wrong…

You might object that this is a paradox. If awareness is an erroneous impression, isn’t it still an impression? And isn’t an impression a form of awareness?

But the argument here is that there is no subjective impression; there is only information in a data-processing device. When we look at a red apple, the brain computes information about color. It also computes information about the self and about a (physically incoherent) property of subjective experience. 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. Cognition is captive to those internal models. Such a brain would inescapably conclude it has subjective experience.

I agree that our intuitions about consciousness are likely to be faulty, but I don’t think that Graziano has resolved the paradox he mentions. My brain models other people as having subjective experiences, but this obviously has no bearing on whether they really do, or don’t, have those experiences. Given that, why should the fact that my brain models me as having subjective experiences suddenly become magically relevant to the question of whether I really do, or don’t, have those experiences?

317 thoughts on “Michael Graziano: Are We Really Conscious?

  1. I worry that Graziano is conflating consciousness with introspection. Just because introspection is not “reliable,” that doesn’t tell us anything about what consciousness (or self-consciousness is).

    R. Scott Bakker, a fantasy/sci-fi novelist who actually knows a stupendous amount of neuroscience and philosophy, has a similar account to Graziano’s that Bakker calls “the blind-brain theory”. Briefly, his thought is that brain models limited, partial aspects of the environment and of itself — but there’s no evolutionary need for the brain to be able to model the process whereby the models are generated. So it just omits that data, and that’s why it mistakes its own models for reality. Not only is there metacognitive neglect, but there is also metacognitive neglect of metacognitive neglect. That’s why introspection seems reliable — because introspection is made possible by ignoring all the information that would show that introspection is not reliable!

    But this tells us not much about consciousness as consciousness of one’s bodily movement, perceptual sensitivity to affordances, or social interactions.

  2. If we can be wrong about something so central to all our knowledge or thinking, what can we be right about? Does G address this?

  3. Paul Amrhein,

    It’s an interesting question, but it’s important to avoid treating Cartesian epistemology as if it were the necessary, indispensable method of all epistemology.

    If the authority of science were grounded in the authority of introspection, then a science which undermines the authority of introspection would undermine itself. But I think we have plenty of good reasons, from Peirce through Dewey to Sellars, for thinking that the authority of science is not grounded in the authority of introspection at all in the first place.

  4. Kantian Naturalist:
    I worry that Graziano is conflating consciousness with introspection.Just because introspection is not “reliable,” that doesn’t tell us anything about what consciousness (or self-consciousness is).

    But this tells us not much about consciousness as consciousness of one’s bodily movement, perceptual sensitivity to affordances, or social interactions.

    I don’t think he is denying subjective experience, only trying to explain it and possibly deflate any mystery. However I agree the article is short and open to interpretation.

    He makes clear in the book that he is only trying to understand why we become aware. He is not trying explain the contents of our awareness.

    He says awareness is a model of our attention. Where we pay attention is determined by unconscious processes

    Why did we develop a capability to model where we pay attention? We are social animals and it is advantageous for evolutionary ancestors to model where others were paying attention. That modelling capability is applied and enhanced to our own attention, leading to awareness of that attention. He does say that he is agnostic on which came first: modelling our attention versus modelling others.

    Why is our model of attention of ourselves more vivid (qualia-laden, if you like, although he does not use the word “qualia” much or at all — it is not in the index).

    He mentions five possibilities, which may all contribute: you have direct, continuous access to your attention; you have direct access to your body’s perceptions and sensations; there is some kind of “strange loop” in your model of your own attention; you will bind our visual awareness with your attention, not someone else’s as part of the general process of binding related properties of a modeled object that occurs in our brains; the internal modelling process creates a resonance that is a positive feedback loop.

    Why is introspection limited? It would require extra resources and extra time to understand (model) all of our subconscious processes and that would lower fitness.

    I think he makes clear in his book that he is not trying to answer your last three questions. I would guess that he would answer that the processes that let us do those things are not conscious and so outside the scope of his explanation. It is only when we focus our attention (which [ETA: can be] itself an unconscious process) and we model that attention that awareness enters.

  5. I also wonder to what extent the “mysteries” Graziano is keen to debunk are culturally-specific. Would a Buddhist philosopher find Graziano’s theory as “counter-intuitive” as someone whose discursive practices for talking about the mind were shaped by millennia of Christianity and hundreds of years of Cartesianism?

  6. @KN

    Can you say a little more about introspection versus consciousness? I think I know what you mean but I’m not sure.

  7. @KN

    Meanwhile let me refurbish my question. If these huge errors are due to the structure of the brain, what hope is there of overcoming them? Do we simply wait until those who do not suffer from these illusions become, through evolution, more numerous? Some claim that there are ways to do away with the me feeling. Susan Blackmore claims to have done away with it for herself. But I ramble.

  8. Personally, I’m waiting until after I die to opine on the existence of consciousness. Because my ostensible memory of a bright light will be proof positive, according to some authors in the (no doubt unassailable major) journal Resuscitation.

    By Sarah Knapton, Science Correspondent

    12:00AM BST 07 Oct 2014

    Death is a depressingly inevitable consequence of life, but now scientists believe they may have found some light at the end of the tunnel.

    The largest ever medical study into near-death and out-of-body experiences has discovered that some awareness may continue even after the brain has shut down completely.

    It is a controversial subject which has, until recently, been treated with widespread scepticism.

    But scientists at the University of Southampton have spent four years examining more than 2,000 people who suffered cardiac arrests at 15 hospitals in the UK, US and Austria.

    And they found that nearly 40 per cent of people who survived described some kind of ‘awareness’ during the time when they were clinically dead before their hearts were restarted.
    One man even recalled leaving his body entirely and watching his resuscitation from the corner of the room.

    Despite being unconscious and ‘dead’ for three minutes, the 57-year-old social worker from Southampton, recounted the actions of the nursing staff in detail and described the sound of the machines.

    “We know the brain can’t function when the heart has stopped beating,” said Dr Sam Parnia, a former research fellow at Southampton University, now at the State University of New York, who led the study.

    “But in this case, conscious awareness appears to have continued for up to three minutes into the period when the heart wasn’t beating, even though the brain typically shuts down within 20-30 seconds after the heart has stopped.

    “The man described everything that had happened in the room, but importantly, he heard two bleeps from a machine that makes a noise at three minute intervals. So we could time how long the experienced lasted for.

    “He seemed very credible and everything that he said had happened to him had actually happened.”

    Of 2060 cardiac arrest patients studied, 330 survived and of 140 surveyed, 39 per cent said they had experienced some kind of awareness while being resuscitated.

    Although many could not recall specific details, some themes emerged. One in five said they had felt an unusual sense of peacefulness while nearly one third said time had slowed down or speeded up.

    Some recalled seeing a bright light; a golden flash or the Sun shining. Others recounted feelings of fear or drowning or being dragged through deep water. 13 per cent said they had felt separated from their bodies and the same number said their sensed had been heightened.

    Dr Parnia believes many more people may have experiences when they are close to death but drugs or sedatives used in the process of rescuitation may stop them remembering.

    “Estimates have suggested that millions of people have had vivid experiences in relation to death but the scientific evidence has been ambiguous at best.

    “Many people have assumed that these were hallucinations or illusions but they do seem to corresponded to actual events.

    “And a higher proportion of people may have vivid death experiences, but do not recall them due to the effects of brain injury or sedative drugs on memory circuits.

    “These experiences warrant further investigation. “

    Dr David Wilde, a research psychologist and Nottingham Trent University, is currently compiling data on out-of-body experiences in an attempt to discover a pattern which links each episode.

    He hopes the latest research will encourage new studies into the controversial topic.

    “Most studies look retrospectively, 10 or 20 years ago, but the researchers went out looking for examples and used a really large sample size, so this gives the work a lot of validity.

    “There is some very good evidence here that these experiences are actually happening after people have medically died.

    “We just don’t know what is going on. We are still very much in the dark about what happens when you die and hopefully this study will help shine a scientific lens onto that.”

    The study was published in the journal Resuscitation.

    Dr Jerry Nolan, Editor-in-Chief at Resuscitation said: “Dr Parnia and his colleagues are to be congratulated on the completion of a fascinating study that will open the door to more extensive research into what happens when we die.”

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/11144442/First-hint-of-life-after-death-in-biggest-ever-scientific-study.html

  9. walto:
    Personally, I’m waiting until after I die to opine on the existence of consciousness. Because my ostensible memory of a bright light will be proof positive, according to some authors in the (no doubt unassailable major) journal Resuscitation.

    Been there, done that experiment, a long time ago. Lavoisier has, anyway.

    Or maybe not.

  10. Bruce,

    I don’t think he [Graziano] is denying subjective experience, only trying to explain it and possibly deflate any mystery.

    His statements in the article are pretty unambiguous:

    How does the brain go beyond processing information to become subjectively aware of information? The answer is: It doesn’t.

    And:

    But the argument here is that there is no subjective impression; there is only information in a data-processing device.

  11. Consciousness comes first in our experience, it’s not something accessed after the fact, or why do we experience so much more than ends up in memory? The present involves a consciousness of a huge number of data, mostly from the present, but also from the past, and there is no way of reconstructing a single moment from models and/or memory.

    It’s convenient to pretend that consciousness is just a way of constructing the past–or even the present–but it’s there before we even have complex constructive abilities–such as what linguistics allows. Then you can just ignore the raw fact–and very high information status–of momentary consciousness and reduce it down to the nail that your hammer of constructionism finds convenient. It just doesn’t explain what we actually experience.

    Could what we experience be a mirage, though? How? How do your eyes flit from one scene to the next, almost immediately changing the information and experiences of the conscious subject, and be some sort of illusion? Consciousness just is what we know (we can nibble around the edges using the unconscious and subconscious as a sort of “knowing” that’s not conscious, but even that mostly needs to get to consciousness to have much effect), if it’s an illusion we’re apparently just a bunch of illusions.

    More importantly, how could we even have unconsious brain areas if he’s right? And by all accounts we do, notably before the consiousness of sensory data. We’re not conscious of the “raw data” coming from our eyes, but we are conscious of it once it is processed, although I’d argue that consciousness is part of the finishing process. We’re not conscious of unconscious memories and impulses, but these may affect consciousness, or, eventually, reach consciousness. Why isn’t the unconscious simply modeled as the conscious is, except that it has to reach the level of processing that gets us to consciousness?

    I’m sure you could save your consciousness-obliterating model from the question of the unconscious by speaking of access to construction by models, or some such thing (which in a way is how we view conscious regions anyway–they are the areas that can construct models, but most of us aren’t willing to pretend that the experience of consciousness is thereby illusory). But what is the point? By all that we experience, there simply is consciousness in some brain processing, and not consciousness (or at least separate consciousness not consciously known to the “conscious regions”) in the rest, and there is no apparent reason why we should distinguish them except that consciousness simply is what we know and live firsthand. The unconscious does have to be “dressed up” as if it were something of which we are conscious, true, but that process is reasonable enough to explain by its having to become conscious to be registered (in the model or abstract sense) and communicated in the first place.

    Yes, the unconscious ends up being modeled. The fact, though, is that consciousness contains a great deal of data that immediately disappear as these no longer are conscious, and are not modeled (beyond the necessary processing to become conscious, that is) in any sensible way at all.

    I can never understand either the eliminativist impulse or how it is supposed to solve anything, especially the differences in the conscious and the unconscious areas of the brain. Ad hoc explanations for that divide can be composed to save elimination of consciousness. However, elimination of consciousness itself by no means explains consciousness vs. unconsciousness in the brain.

    Glen Davidson

  12. Ridiculous question. Of course we are conscious ! Why would anyone want an explanation at all ?

  13. Even if they meet only to go off in different directions, there is a tiny meeting point here between science and religion. Many religions try, in their various ways, to downplay the importance of the ego. The interesting question is – what would be left if the West rejects it too?

  14. Paul Amrhein:
    Even if they meet only to go off in different directions, there is a tiny meeting point here between science and religion. Many religions try, in their various ways, to downplay the importance of the ego. The interesting question is – what would be left if the West rejects it too?

    What does that mean?

  15. I would back up a bit. Words like consciousness and ego do not have operational definitions. I think arguing about them is pretty much the same as arguing about angels dancing on the heads of pins.

    I find mysticism entertaining, but not informative. I read through threads like this and remember nothing, because they contain nothing that would change the way I live.

    That isn’t particularly kind or diplomatic, but It’s the way I see things.

  16. petrushka,

    I read through threads like this and remember nothing, because they contain nothing that would change the way I live.

    Really? You think the only things worth remembering are those that change the way you live?

  17. petrushka,

    “ I read through threads like this and remember nothing,”

    Astrology has the same effect on me. I just can’t seem to keep it in my brain.

    The Dali Lama has regular talks with scientists. He volunteered some of his monks for experiments. The scientists measure what’s going on in their brains while they meditate. The Air Force is trying to develop a helmet that will allow pilots to control a plane with thought. So maybe someday “ego” will have an operational definition.

    I suppose I could learn Astrology if I actually calculated a some horoscopes. I find the star symbolism interesting. I’m not interested in forecasting the future by it. I suppose you could learn more about these esoteric terms by practicing some form of meditation, if you can get through all the “woo.” Meditation can contribute something to your life. And in the end you don’t have to buy into the woo if you don’t want to.

  18. keiths:
    petrushka,
    Really?You think the only things worth remembering are those that change the way you live?

    I remember things that are entertaining, but in general, things I find entertaining affect the way I relate to people. Either by including knowledge of how the way the world works, or how the way people work, or perhaps, just stuff to talk about with other people.

    I assume there are communities that find talking about philosophy to be entertaining in and of itself, but I don’t. I find it pretty much indistinguishable from theology. Just talk about talk.

  19. Brains are complicated, and there’s no telling what avenues of research will contribute to understanding. But I suspect in the long run the most productive will be efforts to emulate brains.

    Right now I think we are not far from cargo cult science in AI.

    We are emulating the visible outward aspects of mental activity. Language and reason. All the good stuff is buried in evolutionary history. The language and reason stuff is commercially valuable, but I don’t think it leads to consciousness.

  20. petrushka,

    I remember things that are entertaining, but in general, things I find entertaining affect the way I relate to people. Either by including knowledge of how the way the world works, or how the way people work, or perhaps, just stuff to talk about with other people.

    Consciousness is part of “the way people work”, no?

    Also, I find lots of things intrinsically interesting. The fact that I can discuss them with others (at TSZ, say) is just a bonus. I’d remain interested in them even if there were no one to share them with.

    Cosmology is a great example. It doesn’t “change the way I live”, but it sure is fascinating.

  21. petrushka,

    Right now I think we are not far from cargo cult science in AI.

    We are emulating the visible outward aspects of mental activity. Language and reason. All the good stuff is buried in evolutionary history. The language and reason stuff is commercially valuable, but I don’t think it leads to consciousness.

    Intelligence is the main goal of AI, not consciousness. The creation of a human-level (or higher) artificial intelligence would be momentous even if it weren’t conscious.

  22. I’m not convinced it’s gonna happen. What we are seeing is expert systems. Some of them very useful and clever. I expect cars to gradually become crash proof, and I really hope that medical diagnosis will be outsourced to silicon.

    These are power extensions of human reason in the same sense that machines are extensions of human muscles. Commercially valuable.

    But the human that philosophers are interested is not defined by the ability to reason. Computers already run rings around humans as reasoners. What is missing from computers is a few hundred million years of evolution. The difference between I and AI is like the difference between GMO and OOL.

  23. petrushka,

    Well, if you do think that consciousness should be a goal of AI, then I would expect you to be more interested, not less, in the topic of this thread.

  24. I don’t know what is or should be the goal.of AI. I suspect the direction of AI research will be steered by commercial considerations. Or military.

    I suspect consciousness is analogous to antlers or peacock tail feathers in evolutionary terms.

    I will find the problem interesting as it becomes tractable. At the moment, the discussion seems unteathered. I see no entailments to any formulation.

  25. petrushka,

    I will find the problem interesting as it becomes tractable.

    It ain’t gonna become tractable if people don’t work on it.

    I’m unpersuaded by Graziano’s eliminativism, but I applaud the effort. Consciousness is a mystery well worth investigating.

  26. By working on it I would mean doing actual research and attempting AI emulations. What surprises me on this site is the lach of interest in early child development. That would seem to be relevant to how language and concepts occur.

    One thing I find particularly is the fact that children become fully proficient in language by age three, but forget nearly everything that happens between birth and five. All those experiences are vital to what we become, but are lost.

  27. keiths: It ain’t gonna become tractable if people don’t work on it.

    I’ve been working on it.

    I’ve “solved” it.

    You see me as having a “nutty” view.

    Those are all related. Philosophy, as it is currently done, cannot understand consciousness. The methods and starting assumptions of philosophy rule that out.

  28. Neil Rickert: Those are all related. Philosophy, as it is currently done, cannot understand consciousness. The methods and starting assumptions of philosophy rule that out.

    I would just say that philosophy without testable entailments is untethered. It can be self-consistent, like plane geometry, but not descriptive of or relevant to reality..

  29. petrushka,

    I forget which in which dialogue he said it, but somewhere Socrates or Plato raises the question of what makes humans better as such, not so much better lawyers or shipbuilders, but better humans. The method Plato recommends turns out to be dialogue. That’s the original point of philosophy, making humans better. It is a matter of regret among many contemporary philosophers that philosophy seems to have turned into something superficial or hollow.

  30. Paul Amrhein: It is a matter of regret among many contemporary philosophers that philosophy seems to have turned into something superficial or hollow.

    I don’t think it has become superficial or shallow. I think it has evolved into science, in much the same way that astrology evolved into astronomy and alchemy evolved into chemistry.

    I appreciate that philosophy involves the discipline of examining statements for self-consistency, but I lack interest in discussions that are not tethered to entailments.

    If you make a statement, please tell me how you would test it.

  31. The trouble is, even physics still presupposes untestable things.
    “As an example, physics presupposes the following three things: (1) that there exists a physical reality independent of our mental states; (2) that the interactions of the stuff constituting this reality conform to certain general laws; and (3) that we are capable of grasping physical laws and obtaining evidence that favors or disfavors specific proposed laws. These are certainly not the only philosophical presuppositions of physics […]” from *Contemporary Metaphysics* by Michael Jubien page 1
    Also, as Karl Popper pointed out, metaphysical or philosophical propositions can become testable. His example was the atomic theory of Democritus. It took centuries for it to become testable. Fortunately it wasn’t discarded outright for being untestable. Popper had a similar attitude about debates about words to yours. He deplored, for example, debates about the meaning of the word “existence.” He’s a philosopher of science you might find readable.

  32. Paul Amrhein: “As an example, physics presupposes the following three things: (1) that there exists a physical reality independent of our mental states; (2) that the interactions of the stuff constituting this reality conform to certain general laws; and (3) that we are capable of grasping physical laws and obtaining evidence that favors or disfavors specific proposed laws.

    I don’t think physics presupposes these things, even if physicists do. Physics could do its thing in a solopsistic existence. As for the general laws, science invents them as models and tests them. I don’t see any reason why reality or general laws must exist independently of our models, even we prefer to think so.

    I can see why it is entertaining or amusing to discuss these things, but since they are never resolved to the general satisfaction of all participants, I do not see the discussion as being anything other than entertainment. Perhaps like music and art. There is nothing wrong with music and art, but I have never been able to convince anyone to love Corelli who doesn’t love him already.

  33. IOW, materialism has no capacity to explain consciousness, so let’s do away with it.

  34. petrushka: What surprises me on this site is the lach of interest in early child development.

    A bit sweeping!

    I am very interested in early child development but currently lack experimental material. My daughter is aware of the problem. 🙂

  35. William J. Murray:
    IOW, materialism has no capacity to explain consciousness, so let’s do away with it.

    Which? consciousness or materialism?

    Just because science has no answers currently is no reason to give up on hypothesizing and hypothesis testing.

  36. Alan Fox: A bit sweeping!
    I am very interested in early child development but currently lack experimental material. My daughter is aware of the problem.

    When I say no interest, I mean the topic hasn’t been mentioned, except by me. And I have received zero responses.

    I think it’s interesting, in the context of discussions of perception and concept formation, that no one here appears to be interested in how conceptual language emerges in children. I find it more interesting that my grandson would point to a food bowl and say “kitty” than whatever a philosopher would have to say about concepts. One thing I have noticed is that children are quite different from each other in the way they learn language.

    I just think it’s an interesting mystery.

  37. petrushka: I just think it’s an interesting mystery.

    Central to what makes us human.

    Possibly the difficulty of progressing in a subject as broad as the development of the human intellect is that it crosses many disciplines and the evidence of social and cultural development in early human society is almost non-existent.

  38. petrushka,

    I thought of mentioning *The Math Instinct*, but then forgot about it. I don’t remember the author’s name. But I’m sure you can find it on Amazon.

  39. William,

    IOW, materialism has no capacity to explain consciousness, so let’s do away with it.

    Dualism and other forms of immaterialism don’t explain consciousness either. They just assume it.

  40. Paul Amrhein:
    petrushka,
    I thought of mentioning *The Math Instinct*, but then forgot about it. I don’t remember the author’s name. But I’m sure you can find it on Amazon.

    Just for fun:

    .” As it was pointed out, most “school math” is focused on exact answers whereas in “real life math” the focus is usually more on estimation. “The problem is that humans operate on meanings. In fact, the human brain evolved as a meaning-seeking device. A computer can be programmed to obediently follow rules for manipulating symbols with no understanding of what those symbols mean. People do not function this way. Mastery of school arithmetic involves the acquisition of some kind of meaning for the object involved & the procedures performed in them.”

  41. petrushka: I think it’s interesting, in the context of discussions of perception and concept formation, that no one here appears to be interested in how conceptual language emerges in children. I find it more interesting that my grandson would point to a food bowl and say “kitty” than whatever a philosopher would have to say about concepts. One thing I have noticed is that children are quite different from each other in the way they learn language.

    I find that question fascinating myself. I don’t talk about it here because I’m not yet conversant in the topic.

    But it is true that any account of conceptual language, whether ‘philosophical’ or otherwise, which does not explain how concepts are acquired, or how conceptual language is attained by a being that doesn’t already have it, must be deficient. The initiation into the space of reasons is on the one hand something of a mystery, and yet it cannot be utterly inexplicable, because we all do it successfully between the ages of two and six.

  42. petrushka,

    When I say no interest, I mean the topic hasn’t been mentioned, except by me. And I have received zero responses.

    If you do an OP on the topic, I’ll bet you’ll get some responses.

  43. Its simple. We are immaterial souls and that is what does all awareness.
    When asleep our souls simply have the memory machine turned down. in fact we dream because our souls can only access past memories. Our soul does not need to sleep but the memory. at least, does. Yet our soul grasps for some memories to observe.

    We never have seen red apples or anything ever. We only see quick memories of red apples. Right quick but not live. Our souls are not looking out the window. Only at a screen. A virtual reality machine is the brain.
    These guys saying there are brain divisions can’t understand why one division watches another. So it makes no sense.
    It makes plenty of sense from a soul stance and it working with a memory machine(brain).
    The memory only helps thinking. it doesn’t think itsef.

  44. keiths, to petrushka:

    It [the problem of consciousness] ain’t gonna become tractable if people don’t work on it.

    Neil:

    I’ve been working on it.

    I’ve “solved” it.

    Neil,

    Is there anyone besides you who thinks you’ve “solved” the problem of consciousness?

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