"Are We Really Conscious?": A Reply to Dr. Graziano’s Brain

Michael Egnor


Last week my colleague Wesley Smith had a great post on an essay in the New York Times by Michael Graziano, a neuroscientist at Princeton. Dr. Graziano (pictured above) believes that we aren’t really conscious. I thought I’d elaborate a bit on the problems with Dr. Graziano’s thesis.

Dr. Graziano:

Are We Really Conscious?

[W]hat is the relationship between our minds and the physical world? Here, we don’t have a settled answer. We know something about the body and brain, but what about the subjective life inside? Consider that a computer, if hooked up to a camera, can process information about the wavelength of light and determine that grass is green. But we humans also experience the greenness. We have an awareness of information we process. What is this mysterious aspect of ourselves?

Good question. How is it that we have subjective experience?

Many theories have been proposed, but none has passed scientific muster.

Scientific muster? Why would an answer to a metaphysical question be subjected to scientific muster? Scientific muster is appropriate to scientific propositions. Scientific propositions are propositions about truths that can be confirmed empirically by the scientific method. What is the mass of an electron, etc.? The nature of subjective experience is a metaphysical question, not a scientific question.

Nothing in pure mathematics, for example, has passed scientific muster. No scientist has ever examined complex numbers under a microscope. Pythagoras’ Theorem, G�del’s Incompleteness Theorem, and modus ponens haven’t passed scientific muster either.

Most things, including things of which we are quite certain, haven’t passed scientific muster.

I love bacon, and of that I’m quite certain, but I haven’t obtained a Scientific Muster Grant from the NSF to confirm it.

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.

Credulity and egocentricity are… inner feelings. Dr. Graziano’s very assertion that we have these foibles is an affirmation that we have inner feelings.

Dr. Graziano invokes inner feelings to deny inner feelings.

Dr. Graziano, probably due to his enviable scientific training, is slightly but disconcertingly skeptical (but without "inner feelings"):

Imagine a group of scholars in the early 17th century, debating the process that purifies white light and rids it of all colors. They’ll never arrive at a scientific answer. Why? Because despite appearances, white is not pure. It’s a mixture of colors of the visible spectrum, as Newton later discovered. The scholars are working with a faulty assumption that comes courtesy of the brain’s visual system. The scientific truth about white (i.e., that it is not pure) differs from how the brain reconstructs it.

The brain’s visual system consists of neurons, axons, dendrites, neurotransmitters, and the like. Protoplasm. Protoplasm doesn’t make faulty assumptions, and brains don’t reconstruct anything. People make faulty assumptions, and people reconstruct things. It may well be that there are aspects of the brain’s visual system that contribute to our faulty assumptions and to our reconstructions, just as there are aspects of my computer monitor (a smudge) that may contribute to my misunderstanding a word printed on the screen. But my smudged computer monitor didn’t misunderstand the word. My computer monitor has no psychological attributes at all. I misunderstand words. Only people misunderstand.

An apt analogy is the relation of the stomach to eating. Our stomach plays an important role when we eat, but we eat. Our stomachs don’t eat.

We urinate. Our kidneys don’t urinate.

We dance. Our feet don’t dance.

Dr. Graziano commits the mereological fallacy — he mistakes attributes of the whole for attributes of the parts. Our organs do things appropriate to them — our brain has action potentials and secretions of neurotransmitters and blood flow and the like. But our brain assumes nothing and reconstructs nothing. We — not our brain — assume and reconstruct.

The brain builds models (or complex bundles of information) about items in the world, and those models are often not accurate.

Brains build no models. Brains are quite inept with hammers and glue. Brains build nothing. People build models.

From that realization, a new perspective on consciousness has emerged in the work of philosophers like Patricia S. Churchland and Daniel C. Dennett.

It’s fitting that immediately after endorsing a colossal philosophical mistake, Dr. Graziano would invoke Churchland and Dennett. Churchland believes that the mind does not exist at all, and Dennett is a font of late-20th-century colossal philosophical mistakes.

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

Of course the brain doesn’t process information and it isn’t subjectively aware of information. The brain isn’t aware of anything.

The brain has arrived at a conclusion that is not correct.

The brain arrives at no conclusions. Arriving at conclusions is a psychological attribute, which applies only to persons, not brains.

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.

Note the dualism. Ironically, much of materialist philosophy of the mind is dualist, of a degenerate sort. "The mind is what the brain does" or "the mind is the software and the brain is the hardware" are strong dualist assertions.

Materialists don’t generally realize they’re dualists, because they don’t understand their own arguments any better than they understand other people’s arguments.

We don’t have "cognitive machinery," because neither our brains nor we are machines. And our "models" don’t provide information that is wrong. Models don’t provide information at all. Information, in the psychological sense, is the set of true propositions. We — people — provide information, in the form of true propositions that only people, not models, can make.

Machinery and brains don’t provide information or make propositions any more than pencils provide information or kidneys propose that we urinate.

The machinery is computing an elaborate story about a magical-seeming property. And there is no way for the brain to determine through introspection that the story is wrong, because introspection always accesses the same incorrect information.

The "magic" here is Dr. Graziano’s assertion that brains are machines and that psychological attributes can be ascribed to brains.

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?

Well, yes. "Awareness is an erroneous impression" is indeed nonsense, because it presupposes awareness.

If I am aware that I’m not aware then I’m aware… that I’m not aware, in which case I’m aware…

It’s giving me a headache. But maybe it’s an erroneous headache.

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

Dr. Graziano believes that there are no beliefs. I hope his data-processing device has a warranty.

When we look at a red apple, the brain computes information about color.

When we look at a red apple, the light reflecting off the apple activates neurons in our retina, which activate neurons in various regions of our brain. This physiological process is coincident with our psychological process of seeing and contemplating the apple, but it is not the same thing as seeing and contemplating the apple. Physiological processes accompany psychological processes, but physiological processes are not the same thing as psychological processes.

And the brain is an organ, not a "device." It has no information at all. The brain makes no propositions. People make propositions and have information, which is the set of their true propositions.

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.

Brains don’t conclude, and it’s only by analogy that we say they compute. Brains generate action potentials, secrete neurotransmitters, and do things appropriate to brains, all very important stuff.

But brains don’t have psychological powers. People have psychological powers. Psychological powers are powers of the whole person, not of a part (the brain) of the person.

I concede that this approach is counterintuitive.

It’s nonsense.

One reason is that it seems to leave a gap in the logic…

The logical gap is a chasm.

…This is where my own work comes in. In my lab at Princeton, my colleagues and I have been developing the "attention schema" theory of consciousness, which may explain why that computation is useful and would evolve in any complex brain. Here’s the gist of it:

Take again the case of color and wavelength. Wavelength is a real, physical phenomenon; color is the brain’s approximate, slightly incorrect model of it. In the attention schema theory, attention is the physical phenomenon and awareness is the brain’s approximate, slightly incorrect model of it. In neuroscience, attention is a process of enhancing some signals at the expense of others. It’s a way of focusing resources. Attention: a real, mechanistic phenomenon that can be programmed into a computer chip. Awareness: a cartoonish reconstruction of attention that is as physically inaccurate as the brain’s internal model of color.

Attention and awareness are psychological powers, and as such are exercised only by people, not by organs or computer chips.

In this theory, awareness is not an illusion. It’s a caricature. Something — attention — really does exist, and awareness is a distorted accounting of it. One reason that the brain needs an approximate model of attention is that to be able to control something efficiently, a system needs at least a rough model of the thing to be controlled. Another reason is that to predict the behavior of other creatures, the brain needs to model their brain states, including their attention. This theory pulls together evidence from social neuroscience, attention research, control theory and elsewhere.

Just gibberish. Dr. Graziano is invoking the loose jargon of engineering and systems analysis to describe an organ and a person. He mistakes tenuous metaphors for coherent metaphysics. It makes no more sense to ascribe reality about the brain or persons in terms of metaphors borrowed from engineering or systems analysis than it does to ascribe reality about the brain or the person in terms of metaphors borrowed from economic theory or aeronautical engineering ("without a positive stimulus this emotional recession portends a clinical depression" or "the brain goes on autopilot when we sleep").

Neither the brain nor a person is an economy or an airplane. Neither the brain nor a person is a computer.

The brain is an organ, and its activity is describable in terms of neurophysiology — action potentials, electrochemical gradients, neuronal biology, etc. People are describable in terms of psychology — beliefs, awareness, attention, judgment, will, etc. Computers are describable in terms of computer science.

It is sloppy to use dubious metaphors to describe brains or people. It is egregious to actually believe those metaphors.

Almost all other theories of consciousness are rooted in our intuitions about awareness. Like the intuition that white light is pure, our intuitions about awareness come from information computed deep in the brain. But the brain computes models that are caricatures of real things. And as with color, so with consciousness: It’s best to be skeptical of intuition.

My intuition is to be skeptical of materialist gibberish that conflates metaphors with metaphysics.

Our current morass in philosophy of the mind is a direct consequence of the Cartesian abandonment of the Aristotelian-Thomist understanding of the human person. In the Aristotelian-Thomist view, we are composites of soul and body — form and matter — which are inseparable in natural life. Psychological attributes like intelligence, will, perception, memory etc. are powers of human beings, not powers of organs. Such powers are properly applied only to persons qua persons, and not to parts of persons, even such important and fascinating parts as the brain.

Neurophysiology is the proper study of the activities of the brain, which include metabolism, electrochemistry, etc. Psychology is the proper study of the powers of the human soul (psyche). Cognitive neuroscience is the proper study of the correlates between neurophysiology and psychology.

But correlates are not causes, and it’s essential that we do not conflate parts with wholes.

As Wittgenstein observed:

Only of a human being can one say: it has sensations; it sees, is blind; hears, is deaf; is conscious or unconscious.

The mereological fallacy is running wild (metaphor!) in contemporary neuroscience. I’m sure that Dr. Graziano’s brain, in moments of quiet reflection, would agree.

Photo source: Princeton University.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.