Wednesday 17 March 2010

More on consciousness

In the New Scientist, 9 January (or online 7th January) Ray Tallis writes
MOST neuroscientists, philosophers of the mind and science journalists feel the time is near when we will be able to explain the mystery of human consciousness in terms of the activity of the brain. [...]

[M]y argument [...] is about the deep philosophical confusion embedded in the assumption that if you can correlate neural activity with consciousness, then you have demonstrated they are one and the same thing, and that a physical science such as neurophysiology is able to show what consciousness truly is.
Hear hear! If I am understanding what Tallis is saying, it's that 'most neuroscientists, philosophers of the mind and science journalists' are still wedded to a very reductionist view ('reductionism gone mad'), which thinks that if you understand materials engineering you know what a chair is (to use my own favourite reductionist analogy). I'd better admit, here, though, that I've not yet followed Robin Faichney's advice to read some of Dennett's recent work, so I'm almost certainly being unfair. But this is a blog, so I don't have to be fair, right?

Later in the same piece:
We cannot explain "appearings" using an objective approach that has set aside appearings as unreal and which seeks a reality in mass/energy that neither appears in itself nor has the means to make other items appear.
Notice the 'mass/energy, not even mentioning information. It's like suggesting that you could get some understanding of what I'm writing here from looking at which parts of the computer memory are storing the text. Actually I do know that Dennett talks about information, so there's certainly something missing there.

Another part of the article I want to highlight:
This disposes of the famous claim by John Searle, Slusser Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley: that neural activity and conscious experience stand in the same relationship as molecules of H2O to water, with its properties of wetness, coldness, shininess and so on. The analogy fails as the level at which water can be seen as molecules, on the one hand, and as wet, shiny, cold stuff on the other, are intended to correspond to different "levels" at which we are conscious of it. But the existence of levels of experience or of description presupposes consciousness. Water does not intrinsically have these levels.
This relates to something I've been worrying about with the layers I've been talking about earlier (see the posts on trapeziums). I argued that that there is a hierarchy of meaning: voltage levels 'mean' binary 1s and 0s, patterns of 1s and 0s forming ascii codes 'mean' letters of the alphabet, letters 'mean' words, and so on. The trouble is, I'm not sure whether the meaning in there in, say the ascii codes, or whether the meaning only ever exists in my head. It is like as if the meaning only comes from the observer sitting alongside, looking sideways at the pile of trapeziums, one on top of the other.


Robin Faichney said...
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Robin Faichney said...
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David Chapman said...

Following a brief email exchange with Robin, I suspect that Tallis is misrepresenting/misunderstanding what many philosophers of the mind, such as Dennett, are saying.