Newton in doubtConsciousness is not a problem, says Michael Graziano in an Atlantic piece that is short and combative. (Also, I’m afraid, pretty sketchy in places. Space constraints might be partly to blame for that, but can’t altogether excuse some sweeping assertions made with the broadest of brushes.)

Graziano begins by drawing an analogy with Newton and his theory of light. The earlier view, he says, was that white light was pure, and colour happened when it was ‘dirtied’ by contact with the surfaces of coloured objects. The detail of exactly how this happened was a metaphysical ‘hard problem’. Newton dismissed all that by showing first, that white light is in fact a mixture of all colours, and second, that our vision produces only an inaccurate and simplified model of the reality, with only three different colour receptors.

Consciousness itself, Graziano says, is also a misleading model in a somewhat similar way, generated when the brain represents its own activity to itself. In fact, to be clear, consciousness as represented doesn’t happen; it is a mistaken construct, the result of the good-enough but far from perfect apparatus bequeathed to us by evolution (this sounds sort of familiar).

We should be clear that it is really Hard Problem consciousness that is the target here, the consciousness of subjective experience and of qualia. Not that the other sort is OK: Graziano dismisses the Easy Problem kind of consciousness, more or less in passing, as being no problem at all…

These days it’s not hard to understand how the brain can process information about the world, how it can store and recall memories, how it can construct self knowledge including even very complex self knowledge about one’s personhood and mortality. That’s the content of consciousness, and it’s no longer a fundamental mystery. It’s information, and we know how to build computers that process information.

Amazingly, that’s it. Graziano writes in an impatient tone; I have to confess to a slight ruffling of my own patience here; memory is not hard to understand? I had the impression that there were quite a number of unimpeachably respectable scientists working on the neurology of memory, but maybe they’re just doing trivial detail, the equivalent of butterfly collecting, or who knows, philosophy? …we know how to build computers… You know it’s not the 1980s any more? Yet apparently there are still clever people who think you can just say that the brain is a computer and that’s not only straightforwardly true, but pretty much a full explanation? I mean, the brain is also meat, and we know how to build tools that process meat; shall we stop there and declare the rest to be useless metaphysics?

‘Information’, as we’ve often noted before, is a treacherous, ambiguous word. If we mean something akin to data, then yes, computers can handle it; if we mean something akin to understanding, they’re no better than meat cleavers. Nothing means anything to a computer, while human consciousness reads and attributes meanings with prodigal generosity, arguably as its most essential, characteristic activity. No computer was ever morally responsible for anything, while our society is built around the idea that human beings have responsibilities, rights, and property. Perhaps Graziano has debunking arguments for all this that he hasn’t leisure to tell us about; the idea that they are all null issues with nothing worthwhile to be said about them just doesn’t fly.

Anyway, perhaps I should keep calm because that’s not even what Graziano is mainly talking about. He is really after qualia, and in that area I have some moderate sympathy with him; I think it’s true that the problem of subjective experience is most often misconceived, and it is quite plausible that the limitations of our sensory apparatus and our colour vision in particular contribute to the confusion. There is a sophisticated argument to be made along these lines: unfortunately Graziano’s isn’t it; he merely dismisses the issue: our brain plays us false and that’s it. You could perhaps get away with that if the problem were simply about our belief that we have qualia; it could be that the sensory system is just misinforming us, the way it does in the case of optical illusions. But the core problem is about people’s actual direct experience of qualia. A belief can be wrong, but an experience is still an experience even if it’s a misleading one, and the existence of any kind of subjective experience is the real core of the matter. Yes, we can still deny there is any such thing, and some people do so quite cogently, but to say that what I’m having now is not an experience but the mere belief that I’m having an experience is hard and, well, you know, actually rather metaphysical…

On examination I don’t think Graziano’s analogy with Newton works well. It’s not clear to me why the ‘older’ view is to be characterised as metaphysical (or why that would mean it was worthless). Shorn of the emotive words about dirt, the view that white light picks up colour from contact with coloured things, the way white paper picks up colour from contact with coloured crayons, seems a reasonable enough scientific hypothesis to have started with. It was wrong, but if anything it seems simpler and less abstract than the correct view. Newton himself would not have recognised any clear line between science and philosophy, and in some respects he left the true nature of light a more complicated matter, not fully resolved. His choice of particles over waves has proved to be an over-simplification and remains the subject of some cloudy ontology to this day.

Worse yet, if you think about it, it was Newton who first separated the two realms: colour as it is in the world and colour as we experience it. This is the crucial distinction that opened up the problem of qualia, first recognisably stated by Locke, a fervent admirer of Newton, some years after Newton’s work. You could argue therefore, that if the subject of qualia is a mess, it is a mess introduced by Newton himself – and scientists shouldn’t castigate philosophers for trying to clear it up.


  1. 1. Jochen says:

    I think that the analogy with earlier mistaken scientific hypotheses that eliminativists like to make in various versions—phlogiston, élan vital, and so on—is in general misplaced. Those things that were eliminated by later, more accurate science were explanatory hypotheses, postulated to account for certain data; however, consciousness is not an explanans, but an explanandum. Our phenomenal experience is data; we can’t do away with it that easily (we can, of course, reinterpret that data, as being for one sense or another illusory—although this still leaves the question of how something that has no experience can have illusions).

    So, analogous to the phlogiston of a bygone era would rather be some kind of account of consciousness—say, a panpsychist one, in which consciousness is just the special sauce sprinkeld upon the physical. That we could get rid off by a better theory.

  2. 2. Tom Clark says:

    Thanks Peter. Graziano says about conscious experience:

    “It seems non-physical, ethereal, more like an energy than a substance, by definition private and therefore not objectively testable. And the fact that it seems like anything at all is the thing itself—the seeming.”

    If there really is a seeming, as G says, it’s a real seeming, not an illusion of a seeming, or, as you put it, a mere belief about a seeming. And it’s really private and really qualitative, and just as real as the physical objects that get presented to us in terms of experience. So the eliminativist ploy G defends can’t get off the ground since the seemings – the experiences – can’t be eliminated, or so it seems to me (sorry!).

  3. 3. Arnold Trehub says:

    I wonder how Graziano would explain the publically shared hallucinations in the SMTT experiments.

  4. 4. Greg McAllen says:

    I agree with you, Peter.

    The most worrying detail about this essay is Graziano’s profession, professor of neuroscience. I worry that opinions like this are common nowadays among neuroscience researchers, the very sort of scientists one might expect ought have a more informed view of the philosophical difficulties behind consciousness.

    I can understand Graziano’s opinion on a scientific level, but not on a philosophical level.

  5. 5. vector shift says:

    Some people are afraid that consciousness involves considerations outside a materialistic world view. I don’t think that they realize that physical reality is itself a metaphysical concept. Metaphysics though means outside of experience so consciousness would definitely not be metaphysics. Physics doesn’t need “physical reality” to develop theories, in fact quantum mechanics has serious problems with the concept, (Bell’s inequalities , Aspects experiments etc.) Graziano’s article indicates how hard the hard problem is since he clearly doesn’t understand the situation. It’s hard not just because we don’t know how to address it but also because it’s psychologically disturbing to some people that their notion of physical reality is in question.

  6. 6. Christophe Menant says:

    Like Greg I agree with you Peter,
    But there is a point on which I would not be so adamant: ‘Nothing means anything to a computer’.
    Let’s compare an animal and a robot facing an event uncompatible with what they have to do (uncompatible with a constraint they are submitted to).
    The sight of a cat means ‘danger’ for a mouse submitted to a ‘stay alive’ constraint. As a consequence the mouse will implement an action aimed at satisfying the constraint (hide or run away). The constraint and the generated meaning are intrinsic to the mouse.
    When a robot programmed to reach an outlet faces an obstacle it will implement an action to avoid the obstacle. Why not consider that it is as if the robot had generateds a meaning like ‘presence of an entity not compatible with the ‘reach outlet’ constraint? There the meaning and the action are derived from the designer of the robot. They are not intrinsic to the robot.
    Such meaning generation for constraint satisfaction (whatever the agent) allows to easily discriminate artificial agents from living entities. It also puts the focus on the merger of living entities with atificial agents for a possible future AI.
    There is an APA newletter paper on that subject (

  7. 7. Sci says:

    This is the guy who thinks puppets are conscious entities right?

  8. 8. Jochen says:

    Apparently so. As they say, one person’s strange and striking consequence of their theory is another person’s reductio

  9. 9. Sci says:

    Ah, thanks Jochen. Now I don’t need to bother reading this book.

  10. 10. james says:

    Do I get a whiff of the mereological fallacy here? Little inner homuncular chappie’s constructing specious “models of awareness” which they use to ascribe/attribute to the big retard upstairs and his all his deluded cohorts? And all the while the “model” doesn’t even have an extensional counter-part in the world- it’s not even a model of anything. Isn’t this like saying we made a model of a car out of used toilet rolls and sticky tape, then we tricked ourselves into thinking it was a real car. Consequently I drive mine around on a routine basis and I’m none the wiser; and “shit!” there’s actually no such thing as a car anyway. Trust a cognitivist to have nary a clue as to what he means by the word “representation” (or any of its cognates, vis. “model”).

  11. 11. andyman says:

    I think Graziano was unconscious when he wrote his piece.

  12. 12. Sergio Graziosi says:

    @All, and Sci in particular.
    I will try to go against the general consensus, while striving for a balanced stance, knowing very well that I’m facing very real difficulties.
    First, the difficulties:
    1) My own ETC looks to me almost identical to some of the things proposed by Graziano and collaborators. Thus, hoping my view to be balanced is probably self-delusional.
    2) I don’t know precisely what Graziano thinks, as to my eyes some of his claims may contradict one-another. I’ll discuss this below, and yes, I am actively trying to find out more as well.

    Graziano’s work attracted my attention a long time ago. Back then, the focus was on social cognition. The way I understood it, the main claim was that consciousness enables social cognition, and that’s why it exists (why it’s a product of natural selection). This is the period where the puppet played a prominent role. At that time, I agreed with lots of the details, but disagreed with the main point.

    Right now, the situation appears different, Graziano’s Attention Schema focuses on modelling as in “Model-Based Control” (see link above), and I find this stance both convincing and worthy of more developments.

    While changing my mind (from broadly critical to broadly supportive), I’ve noticed that all the elements which convince me know have been there all along, but my own focus was originally on the things that didn’t convince me, so I somehow missed or undervalued the parts I appreciate now. Thus, my current impression is that Graziano has a much more sophisticated view than what one would normally notice, and this is why I’m writing this comment (I’m basically saying that the current dismissive consensus is due to the same kind of mistake I attribute to my previous self).

    Take for example the specific point that Graziano is making here. The example of a delusional patient, convinced he has an actual squirrel in his head allows Graziano to tackle very complex philosophical problems in a very simple way. People may say simplistic, but it remains the case that the point he’s trying to make is very relevant to all our discussions here. One of the concepts he’s touching is the distinction between illusion as in “it’s different from what you think” and “it doesn’t exist”, and the way it is explored is suited to undergrads (it’s a lesson!) and in general to a public which isn’t too familiar with the endless disquisitions we enjoy here. Thus, I was misled by apparent simplicity and hurried to label the point “simplistic”. I now think I was wrong, and for this reason I think the general consensus here is wrong as well.

    Having said this, I’ll try to regain some balance, and note that the drive toward “simple explanations” is tricky, because in the end, it confuses me far too often. In the Atlantic article referenced by Peter, Graziano writes:

    Let me be as clear as possible: Consciousness doesn’t happen. It’s a mistaken construct.

    and compare it with a statement from a different essay (Aeon July, 2015. My emphasis):

    A popular trend in some circles is to dismiss consciousness as an illusion. It doesn’t exist and therefore can’t possibly serve any purpose. When people first encounter the Attention Schema theory, they sometimes put it in that iconoclastic category. That is a mistake. In this theory, consciousness is far from useless. It’s a crucial part of the machine.

    [As a side note: I much prefer this older essay myself.]

    Thus, on one side he clearly is saying that Consciousness is an illusion of the “it doesn’t exist” kind, but just a few months earlier he said that Consciousness does really exist and is damn useful as well. The easy conclusion would be that the guy is confused. But I think it’s a wrong conclusion. In this particular case, the quote from the Atlantic piece is preceded by the following:

    What’s mysterious is how we get to be conscious of all that content. How do we get the inner feeling? And what is that inner feeling anyway?
    It’s been called awareness, phenomenology, qualia, experience. It seems non-physical, ethereal, more like an energy than a substance, by definition private and therefore not objectively testable.

    Now, recall the distinction between the two types of illusion: in this case here, the running definition of Consciousness is something “non-physical, ethereal, more like an energy than a substance, by definition private and therefore not objectively testable”. Graziano then declares this an illusion of the “doesn’t exist” kind, i.e.: there isn’t anything non-physical, ethereal and by definition private. From the other article, he is talking about consciousness as the mechanism that generates the above illusion, and he thus can say that it is a crucial part of the machine (implying it does exist). In other words, to see why he isn’t contradicting himself one needs to ignore the simplistic appearances, take him seriously and double check what it is that he is actually saying.

    Thus, I will be reading his latest book, and I think that Sci should as well!

    Let’s see if the quote provided by Jochen, now makes more sense:

    It seems crazy to insist that the puppet’s consciousness is real. And yet, I argue that it is. The puppet’s consciousness is a real informational model that is constructed inside the neural machinery of the audience members and the performer.

    What is he talking about? What exactly is supposed to be real this time? He is claiming that the puppet’s consciousness is a real “informational model” inside the audience’s heads. In other words, he’s noting that ventriloquist acts are entertaining because of the illusion they do generate. Not so mad, after all.

    Finally, I do realise that overall (assuming my reading is right!), Graziano’s strategy seems at least in part counterproductive: by trying to make his ideas easily accessible, he does foster confusion and makes it much easier to dismiss his work as simplistic, instead of engaging deeply. That’s why I wanted to find the time to write the above: I had to work in order to realise that there is more than meets the eye, so now I’m willing to share that work with you all.

    Disagreements are always appreciated.

    PS: of course this doesn’t imply that I disagree with Peter on “if the subject of qualia is a mess […] scientists shouldn’t castigate philosophers for trying to clear it up”!

  13. 13. Sergio Graziosi says:

    I’ll add a separate, self serving side note (with apologies):
    My whole disquisition above is curiously mirrored by the discussion I’m having with Jochen here.
    If you define qualia as spooky stuff that can’t have any consequence on the physical world, then one has to conclude that you are discussing an illusion of the “doesn’t exist” kind. Qualia defined in this way don’t exist.
    Otherwise, if you widen the scope, and define consciousness as the strange thing which makes us hypothesise the existence of qualia as defined above, then behold, such a thing (the cause of our spooky hypothesis) must be something, right?
    [Going meta on steroids!]

  14. 14. vector shift says:

    Die hard materialists seem willing to make outlandish claims about consciousness not existing in their attempts to avoid needing something not material in order to explain it. There is however what would probably be even more disturbing situation for them if countenanced , that the concept of matter itself has fallen apart due to quantum mechanics. The basic ‘stuff’ of physics doesn’t qualify as matter itself. It’s just quantum fields which doesn’t have physical properties, can’t have, inbetween what are called ‘interactions’ although ‘events’ would be better. The notion and behavior of what we call matter only emerges as a kind of approximation of the actual behavior. If anything is an illusion it is matter like motion in motion pictures.

  15. 15. Sci says:

    @ Sergio – A worthy defense, thanks for taking the time. I’ll at least glance at the book though perhaps it should be you writing books instead of Graziano, or perhaps he should be seek you out to clarify his own thought processes.

  16. 16. Tom Clark says:


    “Graziano then declares this an illusion of the ‘doesn’t exist’ kind, i.e.: there isn’t anything non-physical, ethereal and by definition private.”

    If there’s nothing private, then this means my pain is a public object, accessible to anyone in the vicinity just as my brain is in principle accessible. But my pain is obviously not thus accessible – it exists only for me and it’s not an illusion. So I don’t think Graziano has quite eliminated qualia just yet as merely mistaken hypotheses the brain cooks up.

  17. 17. Sergio Graziosi says:


    If there’s nothing private, then this means my pain is a public object, accessible to anyone in the vicinity just as my brain is in principle accessible. But my pain is obviously not thus accessible – it exists only for me and it’s not an illusion.

    I can’t and won’t try to speak for Graziano, so what follows are my own thoughts.
    I’ve been on record defending the view that pain is as real as it gets, but in neuroscience terms, the whole project is about finding out how brains produce minds so that mental events will become “accessible” (public), pretty much as my brain is (luckily, only in principle). I thought we shared that much: that pain is currently private because we don’t know how it works, not because it is inherently private and inevitably different from everything measurable.
    In parallel to my other discussion with Jochen, declaring qualia to be inherently and inevitably private implies that there can’t be a science of consciousness, because we can’t probe it, which is manifestly false, to my eyes. I could type this until my fingers bleed: if brains produce minds, eventually we’ll get some idea of how.

  18. 18. Sergio Graziosi says:

    @ Sci,
    careful there, you’re feeding a greedy monster!

  19. 19. Jochen says:

    In parallel to my other discussion with Jochen, declaring qualia to be inherently and inevitably private implies that there can’t be a science of consciousness, because we can’t probe it, which is manifestly false, to my eyes.

    I’m not really looking to get embroiled in yet another discussion, but perhaps I should intercede here to point out that I don’t believe in the epiphenomenal nature of qualia; indeed, I think they’re as bound up within a chain of causality as any physical event. But I also believe that such a world is entirely consistent—i.e. that there is no metaphysical objection (that I know off) to consciousness being just like a user’s looking at a screen—the computation will proceed whether or not there is a user present, and nothing the user does influences the course of the computation (for computations that don’t depend on external input—a paradigm under which any computation can be brought).

    At the very least, the sort of epistemic argumentation that if such a scenario is true, we could not find a science of consciousness (which I find dubious in itself—one could certainly find a science of users before computers!) has no teeth here, because the world simply is under no obligation to arrange itself such that it is easily described under one paradigm or another.

  20. 20. Jochen says:

    (I should add that I don’t intend the metaphor of a use looking at a screen to be in any sense a theory of conscious experience; as such, it would immediately incur the homunculus objection. But nevertheless, provided we have a conscious mind—while being mute on its workings—the relation between it and the physical world could be exactly parallel to the relation between the user and the computation.)

  21. 21. Tom Clark says:


    “…the whole project is about finding out how brains produce minds so that mental events will become “accessible” (public), pretty much as my brain is (luckily, only in principle)…”

    Alternatively, the project might end up explaining why experience is necessarily private, since on the face of it *is* private. I see privacy (that experience exists only for the subject), along with the qualitative nature of consciousness, as being the primary explanatory targets. It could be that that the final theory of consciousness will end up eliminating both, showing them to be illusions of some sort (Graziano’s approach). But if we agree that pain is real as it gets, and that you really can’t feel my pain (and you don’t, and never will), then it’s difficult (for me) to suppose that pain or any other experience will ever be shown to be a public object like the brain.

    To borrow Jochen’s point, this wouldn’t mean that we can’t have a philo-science of consciousness, but only that the physicalist hope of completely externalizing experience won’t be realized. And the final theory of consciousness might show exactly *why* it can’t be realized. Again following Jochen: Why should the world, and in particular the nature of representation, conform to the expectations of naive physicalism?

  22. 22. VicP says:

    The entire celcius temperature scale is based on the special properties of H2O between zero and one hundred degrees. We speak about the forces of nature but we are the forces of nature which manifest under special conditions of biology structure and energy.

    Graziano actually distinguishes the easy problems as the observables vs the non observed which are happening between and inside neurons.

    He’s on the right track because philosophers and pseudo scientists have spurned this cottage industry of mysterianism and poor thinking.

  23. 23. Arnold Trehub says:

    I don’t see how it can be argued that 1st-person experience is not private.

  24. 24. John Davey says:

    “If there’s nothing private, then this means my pain is a public object, …”

    Your pain is a public object which is experienced privately by only you. No contradiction. It doesn’t have to be “accessible” by other persons to be public.

    The subjective nature of mental experiences doesn’t affect their status as objective universal facts. This seems to be a bit of a tautological mix up – common enough in these discussions. Apologies if I’m misrepresenting you Tom

    Only you are sleeping-tom-clark at any one time, but I can still talk about “Tom Clarks’ sleep” – and an anaesthetist could measure it.


  25. 25. John Davey says:


    have to say I agree with 99% of what you say.

    In a sense though he’s right. It is contemporary modes of thought that are making consciousness a mystery when it isn’t. Specificially, the compulsive fixation – most common amongst non-physicists – that physics has an explanation for everything.

    Accepting that physics could at best give only a partial account of what goes on in the brain(as seems likely) would be more than enough intellectual progress to allow consciousness to be no longer the great mystery it is claimed to be. But no – computationalists are physics fascists. It’s got to be all or nothing, a total explanation in syntactical mathematics, with the necessary conclusion that consciousness is an evolutionary joke – an old line, and well refuted by many

    For instance – if consciousness IS a joke, then that doesn’t answer things. All we want to know now is “how does this joke – consciousness – work ? What is the science on which the joke is based ?” . What Graziano is saying is that it’s beyond explanation. Well – if it’s beyond explanation, that means it must be magic. So the conclusion of the magic-denying computationalists is – after much searching – that it is magic after all. Maybe a problem with the toolkit of ideas these people are using ?

  26. 26. Tom Clark says:


    “Your pain is a public object which is experienced privately by only you. No contradiction.”

    I don’t see what’s public about my pain. To be a pain or other phenomenal experience is just to be a certain felt quality for an individual conscious subject. The physical and behavioral correlates of experiences are public, but if experiences themselves were public you wouldn’t need to infer what I’m experiencing from my reports, behavior, MRI scans or other observables. But in fact you do need to make such inferences.

  27. 27. Sergio Graziosi says:

    @Tom (21)
    Thanks, I think I understand your point now, and I find little to disagree with.
    First, physics (well science in general) can never produce complete, 100% precise, 100% reliable “explanations”, so one possible outcome is to make some dent on the irredeemable privacy of qualia (conceding that it is a desirable outcome, and I have my worries about this).
    But it also depends on where you put your “explanatory signposts” in the sense that one could consider the problem solved when we’ll have a brain scanner which is able to somewhat represent the mental events experienced by the person under the scanner. The moment such a sci-fi instrument is able to detect and report pain, some people may be inclined to say that the privacy of qualia has been broken. Some other might say “not at all, the sensations are still only experienced by the one person, we are merely able to pick up and translate a rough sketch of the real experience”.
    I’m not in the business of picking one or the other view, as both are right in their own terms, and of course innumerable other options are on the table as well. The one thing I can quibble about is defining pain or experience as a (public or private) “object”, to me one important explanatory step, which can be done while still sitting on the armchair, is recognising that experience is something that happens, a kind of action, so I much prefer talking about mental events instead of objects. (Sophistry, I know, but I couldn’t resist).
    Anyway, yes, I do think think some of the privacy is here to stay, but I also think that fixating on it at the present time is a very good way to hinder genuine progress.

    This links into what John (25) has to add:

    Accepting that physics could at best give only a partial account of what goes on in the brain(as seems likely) would be more than enough intellectual progress to allow consciousness to be no longer the great mystery it is claimed to be.

    To me, accepting that physics (science) can at best give only partial accounts of anything, not “just” consciousness, is the necessary first step for doing any progress at all. Picking the right question (or framing the question in the most productive way) brings you half way through, but also opens up the problem of people responding with “hang on, you’re just neglecting the difficult stuff”. In this sense, the analogy with the purity of white is, ahem, illuminating ;-).
    Re privacy and its opposite, communicability, I wonder if you’ve stumbled upon this book (Hirstein 2012). I haven’t read it myself, so can’t comment, but it might tickle you in some antagonistic way.

    Yes, this ties into our other discussion and I can resist the temptation of answering you here. I’m cooking up a reply for you there, at my normal, barely measurable, speed…

    I’m not sure why you think that “Graziano is saying is that [consciousness is] beyond explanation”, can you elaborate a bit more?

  28. 28. John Davey says:

    “I don’t see what’s public about my pain”
    it’s objective existence ? The fact that it is an objective fact of the world ? All facts are public – the only thing that is private about pain is the nature of it’s experience.

    The ontology relating to the actual experience of pain is evidently 1st person and “private”. The ontology of pain as a fact of the world is no different to any other fact. In that sense all pain is public – and rightfully so, or doctors wouldn’t do anything about it.

    Your pain is also publicly observable of course. Computationalists make the point such measurement is “indirect” – seeing a person howl, or detecting certain brainwaves when under anaesthetic. Consciousness measurement is based upon theories of consciousness (admittedly basic), in the same way as length measurement is based upon theories of length – namely that space is uniform, so it does make sense to use a ruler when measuring the length of an object. All measurement and observation is indirect no matter how you look at it.

    So I think everything about pain is public – except the modus operandi of its experience.

  29. 29. John Davey says:


    “I’m not sure why you think that “Graziano is saying is that [consciousness is] beyond explanation”, can you elaborate a bit more?”

    he says it’s an “illusion”, or as Peter put it “our brain plays us false” on the subject. But if the brain “fools us” into thinking we are conscious when we aren’t – it’s an extremely sophisticated illusion (I think we can all agree) and we are entitled to know how that illusion works.

    But the use of the words like deception and illusion in regard to consciousness are (ironically) fantastically anti-scientific – it means “don’t even think about thinking there’s an explanation”. “Don’t worry about it’s an illusion. Natural sleight of hand”. What they would term as a “belief in magic” in anybody else.

    These sorts of explanations don’t answer the question “what is consciousness” – they just move it.

  30. 30. Sergio Graziosi says:

    Thanks, I understand your point.

    the use of the words like deception and illusion in regard to consciousness are (ironically) fantastically anti-scientific – it means “don’t even think about thinking there’s an explanation”. “Don’t worry about it’s an illusion”. […] These sorts of explanations don’t answer the question “what is consciousness” – they just move it.

    If I’m right, and my first comment was supposed to provide some evidence, then Graziano is well aware of this, agrees with you (I certainly do) and is trying to actively work his way through the treacherous waters you describe. In other words, in my reading (but remember: I want him to be right!), he isn’t culpable of the mistake you mention. He does look guilty as charged, but only if one doesn’t process the details.

  31. 31. Sci says:

    @VicP: Can you elaborate on the following:

    “He’s on the right track because philosophers and pseudo scientists have spurned this cottage industry of mysterianism and poor thinking.”

    It’s not clear to me what poor thinking you are referring to?

  32. 32. Sci says:

    @Vector Shift: You might enjoy Bitbol’s argument that an insistence on claiming reality comes down to the common conception of matter outruns the empirical evidence:

  33. 33. VicP says:

    Sci, Thanks for the reply above. Well in Graziano’s last paragraph he mentions that “It’s also a matter of engineering” and as an engineer who has made his living out of analyzing and designing complex electronic systems, I see all of the classical errors being made not just by folks on this blog but also the experts like Dennett and the Churchlands who create the advanced cottage industry of book publications. Engineering is not their area of expertise so they make classical skills category errors.

    In order to analyze any complex system you have to study the simpler and earlier systems and find some basic principles of function at the component level.

    Graziano also makes some bad errors or contradictions which are discussed here but as far as his discussion of light, he does fall inline with how science breaks down the manifest image etc. My own take is that neuroscience has advanced us quite a bit in the visual system but we still dwell in the manifest image of time which brains create and AI can mimic to the point that we think ‘puppet’ computers are conscious etc.

  34. 34. John Davey says:


    From the article :-

    “Let me be as clear as possible: Consciousness doesn’t happen. It’s a mistaken construct.”

    Not so sure you can get as clear that particular horse’s mouth Sergio !

    (The idea that consciousness is a ‘construct’ is bizarre. Being irreducible, it’s “constructed” of what exactly ? )

    His thesis is :-

    “The consciousness we describe is non-physical, confusing, irreducible, and unexplainable, because that packet of information in the brain is incoherent. ”

    First of all, I think the idea that consciousness is not physical is very questionable. I think it isphysical, or at least ‘natural/phenomenological/whatever’.. It’s not material, agreed – but this is something different altogether.

    Secondly, nothing in that paragraph – at all – explains how the shape of consciousness emerges. All we want to know now is “how does an incoherent packet of information generate conscious experience”. Graziano’s answer : nil, zero, fluff. No explanation at all, usual rant about mysticism after ‘de-mystifying’ precisely nothing.

    A lot of what he says is fairly familiar to that which has been written by Dennett 20 years ago. It was refuted then and it looks pretty lame now.

    “The human brain insists it has consciousness, with all the phenomenological mystery, because it constructs information to that effect.”

    No it doesn’t. Consciousness is not information. It’s anything but information.

    Information is (quick dictionary definition)

    “knowledge communicated or received concerning a particular fact or circumstance; news:”

    There is no start or end point or “flow” of information in conscious experiences whatsoever. No more than there is “information” contained in a nuclear explosion or the fall of a drop of rain. It is an experience in and of itself. Information may be extrapolated from the experience – such as the location of a pain indicating where the problem might be – but the experience itself has as much “information” as a brick – if “information” is a word to which any real meaning is to be attached.

    Conscious experience is the sort of stuff, in other words, that information is about – but it’s clearly not information itself. I think this is further ontological confusion.

  35. 35. VicP says:

    John, Looking over some of the titles of other The Atlantic articles, Graziano’s article is aimed for the general audiences.
    No doubt he makes the same classic errors of technology and biology and as most here have pointed out the “ya know what I mean” for information also covers consciousness.

    Graziano’s main previous contributions is to point out the brain functionality as a social organ. Science itself may be a heuristics exaptation of the brain social functions which explains why many early scientists like Newton were often “flakes” or social outcasts. The brain’s social functions may include lying or ability to hide information as in you would not tell the lady she looks fat in that dress.

  36. 36. John Davey says:


    “early scientists like Newton were often “flakes” or social outcasts”

    Not so sure the great man was a “social outcast” !? He was perhaps less sociable than some, but I don’t think it’s true that he was regarded as an outcast.

    Amongst scientists his theory of Gravitation attracted a large amount of ire, mainly because it started a trend that continues to this day. It provided a mathematical solution without a scrap of explanation or understanding, something that most of his contemporaries could not stand. Newton himself considered gravitation to be vaguely fantastical.It’s this that put him on the defensive for most of his life and made him perhaps a bit more bitter than necessary.

    Newton explained that his methods – what we now call physics – weren’t meant to explain. But they did provide a fantastically accurate predictive tool. But “understanding” ? if you want that, go elsewhere – in Newton’ case, the Bible.

    Amazing how subsequent generations of educationalists sweep this away from history, the whole discussion. Physics teachers will always tell you – up to a point – that we get “understanding” from physics, a “proper explanation”. After a certain point caution becomes the watchword as doubt creeps in and flakiness of theoretical schemas becomes more transparent.

    Computationalists – most of whom wouldn’t have studied more physics than could fit on a cheap USB stick – have no doubt about physics at all and it leads them to crazy conclusions, like there is no such thing as consciousness or the universe is playing “tricks” on us. I daresay that Newton would be spinning in his grave at such claptrap.


  37. 37. VicP says:


    True, the popular fare in entertainment for the scientist or thinker is the social geek or nerd. The characters on The Big Bang Theory lack social skills etc.

    As far as Newton and physics perhaps he plumbed his own being. Asked to name the “Five” Senses and gravity sense is ignored although your body deals with it from the moment you get out of bed. Brains evolved for motor activity and the ‘time’ or biological event horizon matches muscle activity for many sensorimotor functions.

Leave a Reply