Thursday, January 14, 2016

Graziano in the Atlantic

Here is a short piece in the Atlantic by Michael Graziano, who I have talked about before. Also see Michael Smith's take on the piece at Self Aware Patterns. At the Atlantic there are 600 comments on the piece, so Graziano's brand of eliminativism rankles a few feathers. A few thoughts on the article:

In general I follow Graziano's thinking. He claims that we misconstrued the qualities of white light because of the information we took in of it. It seemed white, so to speak. Likewise, he claims, we have developed poor concepts about consciousness because of the limited information ("consciousness) that presents itself to us, to our other self-reflecting, self-perceiving aspects. And thus we endlessly get really bad conceptions about that entity that we have labeled consciousness, including that it is something outside of information or representation.  

I do wonder at the idea that “this is the way consciousness seems to us.” By the time of, say, Locke, Kant, Descartes, or later in 20th century batty-qualia-philes, it becomes difficult to claim that we are forming our ideas about what our consciousness is by just searching our inner world. Obviously, the Greeks, given that they were the first formalizers, transversed some ground rather naively. Perhaps their analyzing of their own consciousness was rather unadulterated, so to speak. But certainly any later thinker has already been thoroughly fed societal and philosophical conceptions about their “consciousness” as they go in search of knowledge about such. Or in Graziano's terms, their reflecting on the information of their consciousness already has included in it information about what consciousness is supposed to be, along with other endless ideas about the general working of the world.

Now, maybe most of that historical lead-up to any particular theory will be inundated by any individual's conscious experience, and this leads to the continuous poor interpretation of that information, given the general structure of that relationship (transparency, for one).

However, I do wonder if a few different turns, perhaps a lucky strike of ten obvious Phineas Gage-like cases in the 17th century, would have lead to a vastly different analysis of what consciousness is. Even without 20th century instruments, perhaps all the explanations and posits of “what consciousness is” may have been very different. Maybe we never come close to postulating a hard problem in the manner that we have don, or think that this subjective versus objective divide is so much a problem.

And speaking of subjectivity, which a lot of people espouse as a guard against scientific pontification on consciousness and qualia, see some of those 600 comments, I still find it a confusing mess.

The exact arrangement of the atoms/molecules of any given tree may be necessary to explain that tree's interaction within an environment. Think of thoroughly exploding a tree. To explain where every part of that tree ends up requires (I assume) a very particular (subjective?) analysis of that exact arrangement. The fact that such a singular analysis, given that this is the only exact arrangement of these particles in the world, is necessary to explain the future of these particles, seems banal to me. But it also seems like we are not doing anyone any favors by talking about the subjectivity of the tree as opposed to the objective way those particles will play out. There is no reason to divide the world into subjective and objective. What science aims for is a general analysis of why a thing happens. Say, why, generally speaking, all those tree parts will end up where they will. If humans care about exploding a particular tree in a certain way to send those parts to exact spots, they will have to particularize that tree. Hence engineering.

Following a Graziano like account above, I find people arguing over this about consciousness or first person subjectivity to be baffling. There is often this claim that the first person world is private and therefore science cannot measure it. Or that consciousness and qualia resides in a first person realm and science resides in a third person, and therefore the two shall not ever mix. This only has significant weight if you have posited some realm of consciousness that holds information in a way outside the way other materials, say computers, hold information. Let's say a computer runs a program with influence from external components. Yes, in order to measure everything that that computer engages in, you will have to provide a full account of the internal structure of that computer. But that should give you the full “subjectivity” of that computer. The same has to hold for brains, unless you posit some mental realm, some consciousness or qualia-like entity that is beyond science.

As in my previous parlance, if an experience you have is just information, it will be a unique representational structure. Only you are representing the information of “John, in NYC, my dog Shaggy is on the floor, I am reading the Huffington Post.” That is a very particularized set of information, and it is subjective in that sense. But there is no reason to think that information is outside of science anymore than information in the computer that you are reading this on has a unique array of information, or whose RAM is processing an unique array of information. In order to predict the exact behavior of that computer, or explain all its qualities, we will have to know everything about that particular object. That is just particularization, which is a form of subjectivity, I suppose, but only in a rather banal sense. People who think subjectivity or the first person means something different have not convinced me that there is something useful there. Of course, agreeing with Graziano, I believe they are likely to still be holding some poorly conceptualized idea of what consciousness is.

So, the idea that there is a subjective realm and an objective realm that science is going to have a difficult time parsing still baffles me.  

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