Consciousness 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.