Toward the First Revolution in Mind Sciences P4

Daniel Vinograd



But for any empiricist, it’s a crucial point that we have no objective means of detecting consciousness. There’s a word for a type of technology that doesn’t exist. It’s called a psychometer. It would be like a Geiger counter that you would point to a rock and to a plant and to an amoeba and to a baby during the first trimester, and during the last trimester, and to an old person who’s got Alzheimer’s and becomes vegetated, and so forth. You bring out your little psychometer and it would go (clicking sound). Nope, the computer’s not conscious. Then to the insect-eating plant and the rat and the cockroach, etc., and you would get it on like a Geiger counter, “oh, it’s 10 psychometers” or something, psychological units. That’s how conscious it is.


It would be marvelous to have such technology. The only problem is we don’t have it. That’s why there’s such an enormous debate still about abortion. No person wants to kill babies. These are not evil people on either side of the fence, but nobody’s got a clue when that thing in the womb is conscious. Is it 12 days? Is it as the Muslims say, 120 days? Is at the Roman Catholics say, at conception? Who’s got a clue empirically? We don’t have any objective means of detecting the presence or absence of consciousness in anything: mineral, plant, animal, humans, etc. That makes it tough to have a science of consciousness.


What are the neural correlates of consciousness? That is, whenever we have a conscious being – you’re conscious. I’ll bet my life on it, you are conscious. And yet, what are the neural correlates? What’s invariably happening when you are consciousness? We don’t know. They’re called the NCC, the neural correlates of consciousness. Haven’t been identified yet. Let alone consciousness. We don’t even know what the neural correlates of consciousness are.


Here’s a crucial one: what are the necessary and sufficient causes of consciousness? We don’t have to speak about it in the abstract. Let’s say visual perception. We know a lot about the visual cortex. It’s the area of the brain that is really pretty well mapped out. We know in a human being, the visual cortex is necessary for us to see color, for visual perception to take place. So we know the visual cortex, the optic nerve, the retina are necessary for the generation of visual perception in human beings.


But do you need a visual cortex if you’re developing some artificial intelligence and you want it to be conscious, but you’re not going to give it a brain, a gushy brain, you wanted to work it out with silicon chips? Is a visual cortex necessary in an instrument of artificial intelligence? We don’t know. We don’t know what the sufficient causes are. Whether it’s sufficient just to have a visual cortex and photons coming in. We don’t know what the necessary or sufficient causes are for visual perception, let alone any other kind of consciousness.


So any assumptions about what happens to consciousness at death are just assumptions. Because to know, to speak with confidence and knowledge, “consciousness terminates at death,” you would have had to identify the necessary and sufficient causes. At least the sufficient causes, and they aren’t there. But we don’t know what they are, so frankly, we don’t know what happens to consciousness at death.


We finally come to what David Chalmers, the philosopher of mind, called the “hard problem,” and that is the chemicals and electricity inside the skull, they’re really ordinary. They’re just what chemists have been studying for decades and decades. There are no mystical neurons; there’s no mystical chemicals or electrons in there. It’s really ordinary stuff. So how is it that neurons generate subjective experience? What is it about those chemicals and electricity that enables them to generate subjective experience, mental states, or even influence mental states?


We know from the placebo effect that when you go to a doctor and you receive a tablet and you believe it will help, the placebo effect is going to kick in big time. Just your belief, your expectation, your desire and trust will have enormous impact on your body, your brain, your immune system. The pharmaceutical industry knows this very well. How is that possible, that you can go from an idea, a faith, a belief, and it actually influences physical health? We don’t know.


So when we add up all of that ignorance, it becomes hard to say that we actually have a science of consciousness. It falls in the retinal blind spot. But nevertheless, we cover over that retinal blind spot with assumptions, or what I would call “an illusion of knowledge.” John Searle, very distinguished philosopher of mind, expresses this illusion of knowledge, although he’s expressing it as knowledge, when he writes: “There is a simple solution to the mind-body problem.” Isn’t that a relief? It’s a simple problem.


The news gets better: “This solution has been available to any educated person since serious work began on the brain nearly a century ago, and in a sense, we all know it to be true.” That should be a relief. “And here it is: mental phenomena are caused by neurophysiological processes in the brain.” Of course. We know that. Knock out your visual cortex, you don’t see any longer. Knock out hippocampus, other things don’t happen. Frontal cortex, other things. We know that. But wait a minute. There’s a catch: “mental phenomena are themselves features of the brain.” Mental phenomena themselves are physical.


Wait a minute, when did we learn that? Where was the empirical evidence that showed equivalence between mental phenomena and neural events, rather than neural events taking on the role of causal agents generating resultant mental phenomena? Who demonstrated equivalence? The answer is nobody. But he’s saying everybody knows it. How does everybody know something that nobody knows, and to which there’s no empirical evidence at all of equivalence?


Happily, one of the foremost people on the frontlines of scientific research into consciousness, Cristof Koch, outstanding cognitive neuroscientist – he’s the one leading the charge of trying to find the neural correlates of consciousness – he unmasks this illusion when he states: “The character of brain states and of phenomenal states” – by that he means mental phenomena, desires, emotions, and so forth, mental phenomena – “the character of brain states and mental states appear too different to be completely reducible to each other.”


Look at brain states; they don’t have any mental qualities at all. Observe mental states, phenomena, processes; they don’t have any physical properties at all. Bring out all your instruments of technology; they do not detect a single mental event. So why on earth are we equating these when they don’t even have any overlapping qualities? In fact, neural events, being causal, take generally about 100 milliseconds to generate the resultant mental state. They don’t even exist at the same point in time.


So he’s calling a spade a spade here: they’re so different, it now seems unlikely that they can be reducible to each other, namely that mental phenomena are nothing other than brain states. He said: “I suspect that the relationship is more complex than traditionally envisioned.” Traditionally envisioned is mental phenomena are just physical. “For now, it is best to keep an open mind on this matter.” I love it when scientists say that. Let’s just acknowledge that we’re ignorant. We don’t know the nature of mental events. We don’t know that they’re physical. Let’s keep an open mind.


But practically speaking, what should we do now? “Let’s concentrate on identifying the correlates of consciousness in the brain.” So it’s back to business as usual. It’s not picking up the gauntlet that William James threw down; it’s going back to the safe: observing the quantifiable, the physical, the objective. As if you were going to really fathom the nature of consciousness by simply studying the neural correlates that contribute to the generation of consciousness. He’s a really good neuroscientist, so we can’t blame him for saying let’s focus on the brain, but that doesn’t mean all of us should. William James said, please, when are you going to start listening to me?


Daniel Boorstin, a very distinguished American historian, wrote an excellent book called The Discoverers, the history of mankind’s discovery for the last 5,000 years. In the preface of this book, he makes a very important point. He said: “Throughout human history, illusions of knowledge” – thinking we know something that we don’t really know at all, but absolutely being convinced of it – “illusions of knowledge, and not ignorance, have proven to be the principal obstacles to discovery.” Ignorance is clean and it’s honest. “I don’t know; can we find out?” An illusion of knowledge is, “I already know, and we don’t need to ask.” “Mental phenomena are physical. Any more questions?” That’s an illusion of knowledge, as Cristof Koch makes quite clear.


So what I’m proposing here is I try to envision the first revolution in the mind sciences. We haven’t had one. It started in 1879. Where was the revolution? At what point was nothing the same because our understanding of the mind has radically shifted, like it did with Darwin with respect to life, Galileo with respect to the planet Earth and its place in the universe? What I’m suggesting here is we need a renaissance of empiricism.


If we look back to the time of Galileo, the empirical examination of physical phenomena dispelled the illusions of knowledge of medieval scholasticism with respect to or regarding physical phenomena. They thought in the 16th century, the 15th century, that knowledge of the universe was pretty well complete. They had the Bible, which is God’s own word, they had Aristotle, the philosopher; Thomas Aquinas fused these into one complete, perfect system. Except for it was riddled with illusions of knowledge, and Galileo started tipping over that cart. It’s never been uprighted since. It was Galileo and then it was Newton, and then it was one after another, and they kept on showing that which you thought was complete is not only not complete, but it’s radically flawed, because you are mistaking illusions of knowledge for actual knowledge.

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