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Your Deluded Brain Thinks It’s Conscious!

Michael Egnor

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Nonsense in neuroscience is a deep well. From the New York Times:

Consciousness: The Mind Messing With the Mind

The challenge now is to explain how the inner world of consciousness arises from the flesh of the brain.

Michael Graziano, a neuroscientist at Princeton University, suggested… that consciousness is a kind of con game the brain plays with itself. The brain is a computer that evolved to simulate the outside world. Among its internal models is a simulation of itself — a crude approximation of its own neurological processes.

The result is an illusion. Instead of neurons and synapses, we sense a ghostly presence — a self — inside the head. But it’s all just data processing.

“The machine mistakenly thinks it has magic inside it,” Dr. Graziano said. And it calls the magic consciousness.

It’s not the existence of this inner voice he finds mysterious. “The phenomenon to explain,” he said, “is why the brain, as a machine, insists it has this property that is nonphysical.”

The only “con game” going on here is the nonsense that consciousness is just an illusion generated by “data processing” in the brain.

Is the brain a computer? Perhaps, in a restricted sense, depending on how you define computation. If computation is an algorithmic process by which an input is matched to an output, then some brain processes are computation. If light striking a retinal cell (input) causes an action potential to be propagated (output), then that falls under the rubric “computation.”

But if we define computation thusly, then any number to ordinary things are computation. Cooking a potato is computation: applying heat (input) warms the potato (output) according to an algorithm (laws of thermodynamics). Dropping a rock is computation: letting go of the rock (input) lets it fall to the ground (output) according to an algorithm (law of gravity). So the brain is a computer, if one defines computation in a way that is so broad as to impute computation to any trivial deterministic action in the physical world.

Is the mind computation? No, it’s not. If fact, the mind is the opposite of computation. The hallmark of the mind is that thoughts are intentional, meaning (by the technical definition of intentional) that every thought is about something other than itself. The mind points to things other than itself. We think about things: about people, about places, about concepts.

Computation is inherently never about anything other than itself. Computation is internal mapping: input to output according to an algorithm — irrespective of the input. Your word-processing program is blind to the meaning conveyed by the letters you type on it. It merely matches your keystroke to the image on the screen. It doesn’t know or care about the meaning in the text you type. Your photo program uploads your pictures from your camera. It cares not whether the pictures are of your trip to France or of your grandma or of your kid’s school play.

Computation is computation because it’s never about anything. It’s is non-intentional. The mind is the mind because it’s always about something. It’s intentional. Computation is the opposite of the mind. If it is computation, it is not mental. If it is mental, it is not computation. The Venn diagrams never cross.

Note what this means for “artificial intelligence.” A computer can’t be conscious, because computation is the antithesis of consciousness. Computation is a mechanical process of mapping without reference to the content of the map. Mentation is a mental process of reference to an object — to content — other than itself.

The Times (paraphrasing neuroscientist Graziano):

… consciousness is a kind of con game the brain plays with itself.

Gibberish. Brains don’t play con games. Brains play no games at all. The brain is an organ. It generates action potentials, secretes neurotransmitters, floats around in spinal fluid inside the skull, etc. Only people play con games. Organs play no games at all.

The idiotic claim that “brains play con games” is the mereological fallacy — the error of attributing to parts that which can only be attributed to the whole. Brains no more play con games than feet run marathons or hands play piano. People play con games and run marathons and play piano, using their brains and feet and hands. The mereological fallacy is perhaps the most common fallacy in neuroscience (a discipline beset with fallacies). Only a human being thinks or has emotions or has perceptions. Brains don’t think or emote or perceive. Brains do organ things. People do people things.

But, a witless neuroscientist might say, we merely mean “the brain plays a con game” as a metaphor. My reply: then don’t make metaphysical claims based on your metaphor. If your claim that brains play con games is metaphorical, then you can make no claim about the nature of consciousness based on your claim. Metaphors are not metaphysics. You can’t have it both ways. If it’s a metaphor, it can’t be taken seriously. If it is to be taken seriously, it must not be a metaphor.

More:

“The machine mistakenly thinks it has magic inside it,” Dr. Graziano said. And it calls the magic consciousness. It’s not the existence of this inner voice he finds mysterious. “The phenomenon to explain,” he said, “is why the brain, as a machine, insists it has this property that is nonphysical.”

Machines can’t think, and the brain is not a machine anyway (it’s a natural thing, not an artifact). The brain doesn’t “insist” anything. People insist.

And some aspects of thought are indeed non-physical. Thinking about universals, such as concepts, is inherently non-physical, because universals by their nature cannot be instantiated in matter, and therefore must be non-material.

Neuroscience is infested with materialist fallacies. Graziano is a philosophical illiterate who is doing great damage to science and to the public understanding of science, and the New York Times should be debunking this junk neuroscience, not disseminating it.

Photo credit: © Steve Young — stock.adobe.com.

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.

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