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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Folly of the Consciousness Deniers

One of the central problems of explanation is the problem of explaining the human mind and human consciousness. One facet of this problem is explaining the human mind from an evolutionary standpoint. There are aspects of the human mind that seem to serve no purpose from a standpoint of increasing human survival value or reproduction (as discussed here). So how can can we explain such aspects merely through natural selection? Another facet of the problem is what is called the hard problem of consciousness, the riddle of how mere matter can give rise to Mind, something that seems to be totally different. To many, the idea of mere matter giving rise to Mind has seemed as unlikely as the idea that you might get blood to pour out of a stone if you squeezed or jiggled around the stone in the right way.

Our materialist thinkers stumble about when posed with this dilemma. Sometimes what happens is that they retreat to a denialist standpoint that is completely absurd. A materialist thinker may claim that consciousness itself is just an illusion. This is a nonsensical nadir that is a symptom of a failing worldview.

What is the one thing we can be absolutely certain of – not 99.9999% certain, but 100% certain? Not any of the findings of science, but the mere fact of our own consciousness. You see, there's just the tiniest sliver of a chance that your assumptions about what exists might be totally overthrown by future experiences. Let's use our imagination to think of how that could happen.

One day you could be walking to work, surrounded by many pedestrians, and suddenly – poof, you might instantly find yourself lying on some bed, with your brain connected to wires. Some strange alien being in front of you might then announce something like this:

I'm sorry, but the illusion you have been used to is now over. We've run out of funding for the “human experience simulation.” I know you've become convinced that there are things such as the earth, the moon, the sun, and the United States of America. But no such things have ever actually existed. They are merely elements that we added to the “human experience simulation” that we were sending into your mind.

Something like this is very unlikely to happen, but not quite impossible. But there is one fact that you should be 100% certain about (not merely 99.9999% certain), and that is that you have some kind of consciousness, some kind of conscious experience. Everything around us might be an illusion, but our consciousness itself is an utterly certain reality.

But there are some people who have no limits on what absurdities they can fly to in defense of their misguided worldviews. Some of these people have actually claimed that consciousness does not exist, that it is just an illusion. We can call this consciousness denialism. It is a form of denialism that is more intellectually bankrupt than any type of denial that is commonly criticized. Consciousness denial is a position far more ludicrous than the position of heliocentrism denial (the denial of the position that the sun is the center of the solar system). We just might have some weird sci-fi experience one day that leads us to think that the sun isn't really the center of the solar system (something like the weird possibility discussed above), but we could not possibly have any experience that could justify the belief that consciousness does not exist.

The latest apostle of the risible absurdity of consciousness denial seems to be one Michael Graziano, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton University. In a piece entitled “Consciousness Is Not Mysterious,” Graziano makes these absurd claims:

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

Graziano cites no scientific findings to support this claim, nor does he cite any facts or scientific papers to support his claim. This is hardly surprising. We cannot imagine any possible observations or experiments that would ever justify the claim that consciousness does not exist, any more than we can imagine some observation that would prove that 2 plus 2 equals 5. 

Denial of the obvious

Graziano claims most erroneously that consciousness is "no longer a fundamental mystery.” When he says that the mind is a “trillion-stranded sculpture made out of information,” he implies that consciousness is just information. He's wrong. A library of books has lots of information, but not the slightest consciousness. Consciousness includes experience, or a mental reality of life-flow; and experience or life-flow is something vastly more than just information. If consciousness was just information, then you would be as conscious when you are sleeping as you are when you are awake (with the same information stored in your memory); but that's obviously not the case.

Although Graziano is a scientist, when writing this piece he was not wearing his scientist hat. He was wearing his philosopher hat. I've always felt that philosophy is the birthright of every human, so I will not begrudge his attempt to play philosopher. I will merely point out that by claiming “consciousness doesn't happen,” he has reached the second most absurd philosophical conclusion anyone could make. There is only one way you could do worse, and that is to write in defense of the position that absolutely nothing has ever existed: no matter, no energy, no minds, and no thoughts.

But perhaps a position like that will be the next step for our reductionists. Just as they have tried to remove the problem of consciousness by claiming that consciousness doesn't exist, perhaps they will next try to remove the problem of the sudden origin of the universe by claiming that the universe doesn't really exist. That would be only a little more ridiculous than the absurdity of consciousness denial. 

Postscript: Mr. Graziano has a more reasonable-seeming discussion of the topic of consciousness at this link.