Tuesday, October 21, 2008

05:43 Conversations On Consciousness

Conversations on Consciousness: What the Best Minds Think about the Brain, Free Will, and What It Means to Be Human

Edited by Susan Blackmore

Susan Blackmore spent thirty years trying to find scientific evidence of various paranormal activity (esp, out of body experiences, psychokinesis, etc.) before concluding, as she puts it on her website “I found no psychic phenomena -- only wishful thinking, self-deception, experimental error and, occasionally, fraud.” Her focus then shifted to studying consciousness and her methods changed from scientific experiments and the academic life to research and journalism. “Conversations on Consciousness” is a collection of interviews with neuroscientists and philosophers as they wrestle with the latest discoveries about how our brains work, how thought is created, and who is this “I” that is thinking.

Blackmore asks essentially the same questions to each interviewee, so there is a certain amount of repetition. She is curious about the brain creates consciousness: if we eventually account for how specific functions of the brain create consciousness, then will we have explained away the individual sense of self and free will? The focus of her questions is a “philosopher’s zombie,” a theoretical creature who has all the brain functions of a normal human but does not have corresponding consciousness. Could such a creature exist? I understand the concept and its use: Blackmore is trying to work out if consciousness is just a result of brain activity or if there is something extra, an ingredient X, which different and separate from brain processes. I have to admit, however, I was sick of reading about the philosopher’s zombie halfway through the book, to the point that I mentally cheered at the following comment by philosopher Petra Stoerig:

In fact I hate zombies because there’s so much paper wasted on a thought experiment. I think they are logically possible and they may be interesting in that respect for philosophers – well, obviously they are! But as a biologist I think it’s a waste of all the trees that go into this paper, because it’s not biologically possible; there is not a single being that we know of that’s able to behave like you and me but with nothing inside.

This argument is, in essence, why I’ve studied very little philosophy.

The best explanation of brain activity creating consciousness which doesn’t account for an ingredient X is from John Searle.

So you can summarize the relation between consciousness and the brain by saying, first, brain processes cause consciousness; lower-level neurobiological processes cause conscious states; and second, these conscious states are themselves high-level features of the whole brain system. So it’s a bunch of neural firings that cause the conscious state, but the conscious state is not identified with any particular neuron: you can’t pick one out and say, this one is thinking about your grandmother.

My favorite passage comes from Thomas Metzinger, discussing how philosophical theories of self may effect the real world. It’s a long passage but worth reproducing in full, as it seems to me the heart of the book.

But what I think many people, including many professional philosophers, don’t understand is that nobody ever said self-knowledge is emotionally attractive, or that it cannot also as sobering or outright depressing effects on you.

There are hard theoretical issues, which can only talk about with philosophers and scientists, but they are also what I call “soft issues” and these soft tissues had been making me more and more concerned recently, because I think something is coming towards us as mankind, and it’s coming very fast, and we are not prepared for it.

Let me give you some examples. There is a new image of man emerging out of genetic and neuroscience, one which will basically contradict all other images of man that we have had in the Western tradition. It is strictly unmetaphysical; it is absolutely incompatible with the Christian image of man; and it may force us to confront our mortality and much more direct way than we have ever before in our history. It may close the door on certain hopes people have had, not only scientists and philosophers but all of us, such as that maybe somehow consciousness could exist without the brain after death. People will still want to believe something like that. But just as people will actually still think that the sun revolves around the earth – people whom you basically laugh at it and don’t take seriously any more. So there’s a reductive anthropology that may come to us, and it may come faster than we are prepared for it; it may come as an emotionally sobering experience to many people particularly in developing countries, who make up 80% of human beings, and still have a metaphysical image of man, haven’t ever heard anything about neuroscience, don’t want to hear anything about neural correlates of consciousness, want to keep on living in their metaphysical world–view as they have for centuries.

Now here we come in these rich, decadent, non-believer Western countries, and we suddenly have theories which work very well in medicine and in treating psychiatric disorders, and which say “there is no such thing as a soul,” and “you’re basically a gene- copying device,” and it is not clear what that will do to us. A chasm will open between the rich, educated, and secularized parts of mankind on the planet and those who for whatever reason have chosen to live their lives outside the scientific view of the world, and outside the scientific image of man.

Our image of ourselves is changing very fast, but there’s a problem associated with it: that image, in a very subtle way, influences the way we all treat each other everyday life. One question is, for instance, whether a demystification of the human mind can take place without a desolidarization in society. What has held our societies together and has helped us to behave have been metaphysical beliefs in God or psychoanalysis or other substitute religions like that.

The question is, can science offer anything like that to keep mass societies coherent after all these metaphysical ideas have vanished, not only in professional philosophers and scientists, but in ordinary people as well? If everybody stopped believing in a soul, what effect would that actually have in the way we treat each other? All this may have cultural consequences which are very hard to assess presently; it may have a broad effect on the way we view each other, and it is very important that crude, vulgar kind of materialism is not what actually follows on the heels of this neuroscientific revolution. For this, transported through the media, makes people believe in simplistic ideas such as that human beings are just machines, and that the concept of dignity is empty, and there never has been such a thing as reason, or responsibility.


Iva said...

I have read this particular blog entry two or three times and I admit that I simply cannot understand what is said. I guess that is why I was unable to do well in the few (thank heavens!) philosophy courses I had when I was in college.
I also noticed that there are no responses to this blog...seriously, do you think that most people are unable to grasp it?

the hanged man said...

As I understand it, what the excerpt from the book is saying is that, due to scientific discoveries, we are completely revising old ideas of what it means to be human. We are explaining away that mysterious element - the mind, the soul, whatever you want to call it - in favor of biological reasons for behavior, whether due to genes or brain functions.

If this new idea of what it means to be human (basically, meat machines) takes hold and we reject old notions best expressed by, say, Shakespeare's "What a Piece of Work is Man," then the changes in societies, both in the West and in less developed parts of the world, may be devastating.

It's something that concerns me, too. The passage accepts that ideas can have unintended consequences to society at large.