Friday, June 1, 2012

Why you are not your brain

That's part of the subtitle of a book by Alva Noë, who argues against the conventional belief that our consciousness can be located inside of us. Here's the short version:
For further information, here is his web site.

Here's my takeaway from what Noë is saying:

First, if consciousness is not located in our brain, then it is not intrinsic, but learned. From watching this video, I gathered that the basic gist of Noë's argument is that consciousness is a matter of learning to engage our surroundings, of "knowing what to look for," and of knowing how to respond appropriately. That is a strikingly counter-intuitive idea, but there are a number of possible explanations for this. Developing a consciousness presumably begins with being told that you have one, as when parents repeatedly refer to their children by their given names, using pronouns like "I" and "you" to signal boundaries of identity and shaping their children into individuals capable of distinguishing their own experiences from those of others. It's striking to me the way in which children often get the pronouns "I" and "you" wrong. When they're first learning to talk, they will sometimes say things like "you want to go to the park" when they mean they want to go to the park. Of course they would--they've always been called "you." To me this suggests that individual identity is not so clear at first. We didn't always understand what "I" means.

Second, what the brain actually does "at the ground level" is extraordinarily complex and vastly different from the sort of order that emerges from it. As Noë says, probably the only way to understand this is in an evolutionary way. Molecular biology, for instance, can tell us the micro-processes by which organisms develop, but in order to perceive that any sort of order has been developed in the process of evolution one simply must look at the whole. In the same way, the brain consists of a lot of different neurons accomplishing different things, but in order to perceive that anything like "consciousness" has actually been produced requires looking at the way in which that brain interacts with the world. If a person were completely shut off in some dark room for his entire life, his brain left to hum right along doing what it naturally does, there would (presumably) be no consciousness, in spite of the fact that the neural circuitry would be just as it is in any normal brain.

Following up on this second point, one might even be willing to eliminate the concept of "consciousness" if one were to stick to a strictly "scientistic" point of view. Because consciousness is not the direct result of any mechanical processes in the brain, consciousness may turn out to be not such a fundamental part of the human organism as an organism. It is only when the human is made to be aware of himself that he becomes "conscious," in the sense of having introspective thoughts, the ability to assess his own beliefs, and a sense of his own desires and purposes.

Rather than suggesting that we actually ignore consciousness as a reality, however, I would suggest that we learn to ignore scientism. If we viewed the world solely in terms of concrete mechanical processes that we could fully understand and predict, we would hardly be able to move.

Thinking rightly about ourselves seems to me a self-evidently important task, but I think there are also important "application" questions we could ask. For instance, what does one do about a loved one who has fallen into an "unconscious" coma? What about Terri Schiavo? What about the mentally disabled? How do we tell whether any of these have genuine consciousness, and what do we do about it? One could also ask about animal rights, based on the observation that many animals appear to be quite conscious of the world around them.

For my part, I want to suggest that if consciousness is indeed not intrinsic to human beings as organisms, then it is also not a line by which to divide those who have rights from those who don't. Of course, that just makes the problem more difficult in cases where a person is in a coma and unable to take care of herself. We will have to think carefully about spheres of responsibility in those cases, but one thing we can't do is assume that anyone who lacks a certain kind of brain activity is therefore dead. Similar considerations apply to the mentally disabled who, though they may be unable to say so much as a few words, are still human beings. In general, I am unwilling to relieve the human race from its responsibility to protect the lives of those who lack the abilities of the rest of us. Being human is more like being born into a family rather than being admitted into a program: we are not to be judged on our abilities, but rather on our shared ancestry.

I will mostly skip over animal rights, except to say that while I do not feel the same kind of responsibility to other animals as to humans, surely that doesn't relieve us of all responsibility. We may kill to eat, but that doesn't mean that there are not humane ways of doing so. This has been well-understood throughout human history.

There are some slightly more obscure application questions to be asked, such as the question about artificial intelligence: could a computer be conscious? Perhaps this question is becoming less obscure all the time, as we progress further toward genuine computer intelligence. One insight that Noë can give us is that artificial intelligence would require an artificial life, i.e. an environment in which to freely engage the world. Perhaps such an idea will one day lead to breakthroughs we have not foreseen except in science fiction. Or perhaps the way forward is far more difficult than we now realize.

Lots of interesting questions, so little time. Suffice it to say, I think this is an incredibly important topic for all of us.

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