Michael Graziano: What hard problem?

Michael Graziano has an article at The Atlantic explaining why consciousness is not mysterious.  It’s a fairly short read (about 3 minutes).  I recommend anyone interested in this stuff read it in full.  (I tweeted a link to it last night, but then decided it warranted discussion here.)

The TL;DR is that the hard problem of consciousness is like the 17th century hard problem of white light.  No color, particularly white, exists except in our brains.  White light is a mishmash of light with different wavelengths, of every color, that our brains simply translate into what we perceive of as white. Our perception of consciousness is much the same:

This is why we can’t explain how the brain produces consciousness. It’s like explaining how white light gets purified of all colors. The answer is, it doesn’t. Let me be as clear as possible: Consciousness doesn’t happen. It’s a mistaken construct. The computer concludes that it has qualia because that serves as a useful, if simplified, self-model. What we can do as scientists is to explain how the brain constructs information, how it models the world in quirky ways, how it models itself, and how it uses those models to good advantage.

I pretty much agree with everything Graziano says in this article, although I’ve learned that dismissing the hard problem often leads to pointless debates about eliminative reductionism.  Instead, I admit that the hard problem is real for those who are troubled by it.  But like the hard problem of white color, it will never have a solution.

Graziano mentions that there is a strong sentiment that consciousness must be a thing, an energy field, or exotic state of matter, something other than information.  This sentiment arises from the same place as subjective experience.  It’s a model our brains construct.  It’s that model that gives us that strong feeling.  (Of course, the strong feeling is itself a model.)  When some philosophers and scientists say that “consciousness is an illusion”, what they usually mean is that this idea of consciousness as separate thing is illusory, not internal experience itself.

Why is this a valid conclusion?  Well, look at the neuroscience and you won’t find any observations that require energy fields or new states of matter.  What you’ll see are neurons signalling to each other across electrical and chemical synapses, supported by a superstructure of glial cells.  You’ll see nerve impulses coming in from the peripheral nervous system, a lot of processing in the neural networks of the brain, and output from this system in the form of nerve impulses going to the motor neurons connected to the muscles.  You’ll see a profoundly complex information processing network, a computational system.

You won’t find any evidence of something else, of an additional energy or separate state of matter, of anything like a ghost in the machine.  Could something like that exist and just not yet be detected?  Sure.  But that can be said of any concept we’d like to be true.  To rationally consider it plausible, we need some objective data that requires, or at least makes probable, its existence.  And there is none.  (At least none that passes scientific scrutiny.)

There’s only the feeling from our internal model.  We already know that model can be wrong about a lot of other things (like white light).  The idea that it can be wrong about its own substance and makeup isn’t a particularly large logical step.

Graziano finishes with a mention of machine consciousness.  I think machine consciousness is definitely possible, and I’m sure someone will eventually build one in a laboratory, but I wonder how useful it would be, at least other than as a proof of concept.  I see no particular requirement that my self driving car, or just about any autonomous system, have anything like the idiosyncrasies of human consciousness.  It might be a benefit for human interface systems, although even there I tend to think it would add pointless complexity.

Unless I’m missing something?  Am I, or Graziano, missing objective evidence of consciousness being more than information processing?  Are there reasons I’m overlooking to consider out intuitions about consciousness to be more reliable than intuitions about colors or other things?  Would there be benefits to conscious machines I’m not seeing?

49 thoughts on “Michael Graziano: What hard problem?

  1. I don’t think you are missing a thing (although Graziano was in implying that we have eyes with receptors for the three primary colors). The classic test of consciousness is recognizing oneself in a mirror which we are more certainly not the only species capable of doing just that.

    Once one accepts the ability to think consciously (as opposed to the subconscious and autonomic processing that occurs .. and consists of the bulk of our neural processing) the consciousness is, as you say, just thinking about thinking. Very nicely done.


      1. The three receptors don’t map particularly neatly to the primary colours and there is a lot of overlap in what they respond to. They each have different response profiles across the spectrum. It’s not that each receptor responds to a particular wavelength range only (there is significant overlap), but the difference in response allows the retina or the brain or whatever to interpret the results as a particular “colour”.

        It so happens that a mix of red, green and blue (or long, medium and short wavelengths) is enough to reproduce the response of this system to pretty much any input, even monochromatic light, so we choose these as the primary colours, but it’s their being well-spaced out on the spectrum (either end and middle) that makes them primary rather than each mapping to one of our receptors.

        The reason the receptors don’t map particularly well to the primary colours is because, for example, the longest-wavelength receptor is not that different in response to the middle one across the spectrum, and actually responds more strongly to green than to red. Even so, we can tell when something is red because this long wavelength receptor responds to a red stimulus a little more strongly than the middle wavelength one, even if it would itself respond even more strongly to green than to red.

        You can see what I mean here:


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        1. Thanks DM. That’s pretty fascinating. It’s interesting that the peaks are at yellow, green, and navy rather than the red,green, blue that’s normally described. You’re reminding me that I keep skipping the vision section of my neuroscience books and that I really need to inbibe that section in at least one of them.


  2. I have never really understood why it is called the hard problem, other than some people find it so. The history of ideas is full of hard problems that were caused by people asking the wrong questions. As you say, it will never have a solution.


    1. I agree. I do think the separation between subjective experience, the feeling of being a system, from objective information about how that system is constructed and operates, is a profound one. I can see how some people might insist that the inability to have the objective facts add up to the subjective experience is a problem. I’ve gradually become convinced that there’s little that can be said to convince them it isn’t an actual problem.


        1. Hi Hariod. So, my shot at that answer is, a multi-level voting exercise: https://selfawarepatterns.com/2014/03/20/how-do-you-separate-the-objective-from-the-subjective/
          The TL;DR of that post is that if a subjective experience is repeatable or verifiable by others, then it becomes increasingly objective. However, objective interpretation of that data may require experts. Experts are validated by their recognition from other experts, all of whom are ultimately validated by their collective historical benefit to us. (i.e. Engineers provide technology, whose value we all experience. Engineers recognize scientists, who recognize certain academic fields, who recognize a particular expert, etc).

          It is by no means a simple distinction. Most scientific best practices are about making the data as objective as possible.

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          1. Thanks Mike; I read it with interest. To paraphrase, perhaps unfairly: the so-called ‘objective’, or rather an ‘objective fact’, is that which equates to a consensus upon an agreed specification (enough experts and ‘evidence’ etc.).

            I still think my question stands in that in actuality there is no ‘separation’ as cited by you. Granted, semantics may be paving a slippery slope with all this, though I fail to see how “a subjective experience. . . becomes increasingly objective”. That sounds like a sliding scale of interpretation rather than indicative of any line of demarcation.

            Subjective and objective are mind constructs in my book – necessary and usable ones, but still that. We disagree, and I acknowledge your greater wisdom on the matter more widely, but I’m staying rooted in saying there is no separation, only one made in the mind – another name for awareness, which I don’t believe to be a localised (spatial) phenomenon.

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          2. Hariod, I would say that the absence of a sharp demarcation does not mean there is no difference. There’s no sharp demarcation between a child and an adult (other than arbitrary and territory specific legal definitions), but that doesn’t mean there’s no difference between a 5 year old and a 40 year old. If we ignore the difference between subjective and objective information, then I think science falls apart.

            No worries on us disagreeing. We can still have fun conversations. My approach on these things is to state what I believe and why I believe it, and learn why others believe what they believe. A lot of the reasons I blog is to put my conclusions out there and see if anyone can spot holes, contradictions, biases, etc.

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          3. So you’re saying it’s a purely conceptual [i.e. mind made] distinction it seems to me Mike, as you’re agreeing there’s no clear demarcation. The referents may be objects ‘out there’ as actualities in some largely unknown way, but for us to ‘be objective’ or to ‘apprehend objectively’ are impossibilities other than as conceptualising subjectively via inference etc.

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          4. Hariod, I agree that perfect objectivity is impossible, but that doesn’t mean the word “objective” is meaningless or culturally relative, that striving to be more objective is a lost cause, or that there is no difference between a subjective feeling and a scientific observation. Careful, repeated, empirical observation from multiple observers may not be perfectly reliable, but history shows it to be far more reliable than my lone casual observation of something that happened last week. We may take my casual observation as true if it’s mundane, particularly if I have a reputation for reliability, but if the observed thing or event is extraordinary, history shows that we’d be wise to get confirmation, that we strive to be more objective.

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          5. I agree with all that Mike, thanks, and I think you’re agreeing with me and my initial assertion (Tina’s too) in that the phrase ‘objective fact’ is something of a misnomer, however accurate the supposed fact.

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          6. Thanks Hariod. Although I fear I can’t agree. If no fact can be called “objective” then I think we’re using an overly strict definition of that word. The moon orbits the Earth. The internet uses TCP/IP. The economy of China is bigger than the economy of El Salvador. If these weren’t objective facts, then we’d need to create a new label for the category of facts that they belong to.


          7. So, I assume you aren’t asking for links, but are asking me to describe their basis as a step toward further discussion.

            The moon’s orbit of the Earth has been established by millennia of repeated and validated observations, not to mention the many space missions to it. In the case of the internet, you can look at the network configuration of whatever device you’re using. You can go to multiple devices if you want to be rigorous. If you do the right kind of programming (C sockets), you’ll have first hand exposure to it. For the relative sizes of the economies of China and El Salvador, we could look at each country’s GDP, repeatedly measured longitudinally using time-tested information gathering techniques.


          8. What I was meaning by that simple question, Mike, was that however or wherever these ‘objective facts’ are recorded or exist, they only ever ‘appear’ in awareness – in other words as (what we think of as) subjectivity. There is no, and can never be any, stepping over any line of demarcation into (what we think of as) objectivity. The line we imagine to exist only does so itself in (what we think of as) subjectivity.


          9. I agree that everything we know comes in through awareness. But you don’t think that what multiple people observe and agree on doesn’t have a higher reliability than what only one person observes? Or that multiple people using techniques that have been shown to produce reliable knowledge aren’t going to be even more reliable?

            Of course, you could argue that knowledge of our agreements and rigorous observation techniques also only goes through awareness, that it’s all subjective, but then I perceive you’d be veering into solipsism or idealism. I don’t know if that’s where you are, but I learned long ago that you can’t convince a determined skeptic of the external world that it is there. I can only point out that if it is an illusion, that illusion appears to exact painful consequences for not taking it seriously.

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          10. Of course Mike, inference/reason/deduction (etc.) and science are largely accurate interpreters of what is outside of the mind, albeit that those same tools are occurring within the mind(s), and no, I’m not a Transcendental Idealist or Solipsist; there is an external world of things and there also are well-established facts about it – it clearly would be absurd to suggest otherwise.

            My point (Tina’s too) throughout is in contesting that ‘objective information’ as apprehended (as known and therefore as ‘information’) can be distinct (a ‘separation’) from ‘subjective experience’ and in opposing the notion that “a subjective experience. . . becomes increasingly objective”. When we think we are ‘being objective’, or apprehending ‘objectively’, we are never other than 100% within the sphere of subjectivity – as you now confirm.

            Put in everyday terms: when you read my words here, which are themselves an ‘objective fact’ insofar as they exist in some form away from your mind, you do not know them as an ‘objective fact’ nor as ‘objective (dis)information’ – only as a subjective representation of what is likely them.


          11. Hariod, if you’re saying that a single individual experience of one person should never be considered objective, then I totally agree. Objectivity requires multiple viewpoints, rigorous methods, and passing skeptical scrutiny, ideally under repeatable conditions. When I say “objective data”, “objective evidence”, or “objective information”, that’s what I’m talking about.

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  3. In general this is how I see things. 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 Phineus 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.

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    1. Excellent points. I know before I started reading philosophy, my conception of consciousness was little more than awakeness. There’s certainly more to it than that, but I’ve often wondered if at least some of it isn’t us convincing each other that there’s more there than we actually even introspect.

      I suspect Phineas Gage’s effect on science probably couldn’t have happened too much earlier. It required that someone scientifically record information about him, comparing his change in behavior with his specific brain injury. If it had happened in, say, 1715, the situation might well have been chalked up to demon possession or something along those lines. (At least unless it just happened to occur near any of the rare scientifically minded people of that period.)

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  4. “Unless I’m missing something? Am I, or Graziano, missing objective evidence of consciousness being more than information processing?”

    Depends on what you mean by “objective evidence.” If objectivity is simply the stuff of science (natural sciences), then I’d say you could be taking a narrow view. Not to say that the narrow view is wrong, but there’s a danger in assuming that science has the final say. Objectivity is always within the context of subjectivity…which is not to say there is no such thing as objectivity, but only to say that there may be objectivity outside the realm of the natural sciences.

    “You won’t find any evidence of something else, of an additional energy or separate state of matter, of anything like a ghost in the machine. Could something like that exist and just not yet be detected? Sure.”

    I’d argue it—the ghost, that is—can never be detected. If we’re truly talking about a “ghost in the machine” as such, then how will science ever detect it? You’re not going to see a ghost in the machine, because ghosts can’t be seen. If you mean the ghost could be detected in the same way that gravity is detected (and unseen) then I can, um, see your point, but more than likely, the “ghost” will be done away with and reduced to something observable. Unless we come up with a clever scientific name for “ghost.” 🙂

    So your point here could be a bit stronger. You could insist on falsifiability…the ‘ghost’ theory is not falsifiable. But then people like me could come along and ask whether all knowledge must be falsifiable. Still, I’d see more clearly that from a scientific POV, the ghost in the machine is not a plausible or good theory.

    “But that can be said of any concept we’d like to be true. To rationally consider it plausible, we need some objective data that requires, or at least makes probable, its existence. And there is none. (At least none that passes scientific scrutiny.)”

    There’s the experience itself, which we in our daily lives take as a raw fact. There’s the question of why scientific experience trumps the most pervasive human experience. This isn’t just a matter of a coup d’oeil. It’s clear that the ghost in the machine is not going to pass scientific scrutiny, but it’s not clear that rationality is equal to or defined by scientific objectivity. More on this.

    “Consciousness doesn’t happen. It’s a mistaken construct. The computer concludes that it has qualia because that serves as a useful, if simplified, self-model.”—Graziano

    I have a problem with this. We DO have qualia. That I take as an objective fact. It’s not the same as believing in God or ghosts since we can’t imagine experience at all without it. If qualia can be interpreted as a construct of the brain, that doesn’t do away with qualia at all.

    “There’s only the feeling from our internal model. We already know that model can be wrong about a lot of other things (like white light). The idea that it can be wrong about its own substance and makeup isn’t a particularly large logical step.”

    The fact that our “internal model” can be wrong about things doesn’t make it wrong in this instance. And I’m not sure the eye analogy works.

    “When some philosophers and scientists say that “consciousness is an illusion”, what they usually mean is that this idea of consciousness as separate thing is illusory…”

    This is clearer. It goes after those who view the brain as something that doesn’t affect us—our qualia, by the way—when it clearly does. After all, we wouldn’t be studying the brain if we had no experience of it affecting qualia. Not sure what you mean in the last clause when you say, “not internal experience itself.”

    “Are there reasons I’m overlooking to consider out intuitions about consciousness to be more reliable than intuitions about colors or other things?”

    The intuition about consciousness is that consciousness exists, which is to say, we have qualia and the like. (I know Hariod is going to say we don’t have an experience of the self. No need to even get into that. So I’ll go with this: twist my arm and I’ll say “qualia!”) The intuition about colors is a particular kind of judgement about a perception. The former is broad and fundamental, the other is specific. The experience of white light may be altered by our scientific understanding of it, but it doesn’t do away with the prior conception of it either. Both experiences of white light exist alongside one another, one labeled scientific, the other subjective, or poetic, or whatever. (White still evokes “pure” in a poetic sense.) These experiences and theories can exist harmoniously. Theories about consciousness may turn on consciousness and say it’s an illusion, but the illusion will pervade. So then still we’ll have two experiences—one which is scientific and turns against everything we live by, and another, which we live by. This isn’t like the white light example because it uproots experience itself, at its core.

    That said, we needn’t go so far. As I think you know.

    “Would there be benefits to conscious machines I’m not seeing?”

    I’m with you on this one. I suppose if consciousness is required for certain pragmatic tasks, then maybe, but I can’t imagine what that would be.

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    1. You raise a lot of excellent points.

      “Depends on what you mean by “objective evidence.””
      I definitely think there is objective evidence outside of the natural sciences. Historical evidence can be objective, as can statistical data on social phenomena, among other things. I avoided using the word “science” to step around the definition of science question. (I happen to hold a fairly broad conception of it, but I know not everyone does.)

      Does science have the last word? I don’t think I’d say that. (Interpreting scientific results is often a philosophical exercise.) I do think that scientific results have to be accounted for. But when it comes to notions that can’t be scientifically tested, not even indirectly? I’m a skeptic. My observation is that most assertions without some degree of scientific evidence (outside of common everyday phenomena) have historically turned out to be wrong. This makes my default attitude toward most unfalsifiable propositions…well, skeptical 🙂

      “I’d argue it—the ghost, that is—can never be detected.”
      I’d say the evidence wouldn’t have to be direct observation. It could, as you say, be like gravity. If it is there, then it would have some effect on how the brain works. Maybe when we’ve fully mapped the neural circuitry in the brain, there will be a hole, functionality that we can’t explain any other way other than to resort to a ghost explanation. I wouldn’t bet money on this scenario because, if it’s true, I think we should have seen some indication of it already. But I’ll admit we can’t rule the possibility out completely.

      “There’s the experience itself, which we in our daily lives take as a raw fact. ”
      I totally agree that the experience is a raw fact. But what does that experience mean? If I have an experience that tells me I’m an ostrich, how seriously should I take that it? If I take LSD, I will reportedly have vivid hallucinations. That experience will also be a raw fact, but not one I should expect to provide meaningful insights into reality. (Although it pays to remember that this is a historically recent realization. For millennia, shaman and medicine men took experiences from drug induced mind altered states very seriously.)

      “But then people like me could come along and ask whether all knowledge must be falsifiable.”
      Still a skeptic 🙂

      “I have a problem with this. We DO have qualia.”
      Yeah, Graziano’s language here could be better. I think his meaning is actually similar to the point I made that it’s the idea of qualia as something other than information that is an illusion. Dennett and Rosenberg do the same thing. If you read all of them at length, it becomes clearer. But it’s a distinction, about what exactly is being called an illusion, that took me a while to work out myself.

      I definitely agree that one of our intuitions about consciousness is that it exists. Graziano would agree too. In his book, when dismissing the epiphenomenon theory of consciousness, he points out that it ignores the one thing we can say for sure about consciousness, that we have it.

      But there’s also the intuition that consciousness is something more than information, that it’s a force, an energy, or perhaps some fundamental substance. That’s the intuition Graziano is challenging.

      I do agree that we’ll always have it, just as we continue to have the experience of white (both of which are constructed in the brain). Having a scientific deconstruction of it doesn’t remove that experience. It only removes the idea that the experience represents a fundamental reality.

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      1. “Maybe when we’ve fully mapped the neural circuitry in the brain, there will be a hole, functionality that we can’t explain any other way other than to resort to a ghost explanation.”

        As I understand it, science would just say, “Well we haven’t figured it out yet.” It may well be that some people, including some scientists, will then decide that the ghost in the machine account makes sense on other grounds. But others would, as they are now, simply discount such theories. Unless you can see the possibility of the ghost in the machine becoming an actual scientific theory? How could it be falsifiable? (I don’t mean to say it can’t; this is an honest question.)

        “I totally agree that the experience is a raw fact. But what does that experience mean? If I have an experience that tells me I’m an ostrich, how seriously should I take that it?”

        Well it’s clear we can become deluded, make errors in judgement, etc. These are all kinds of experience. But to dismiss qualia on the whole is nonsensical. BTW, the ostrich experience is preceded by the dropping acid experience, so when you come off it, you establish the causality for your error. You may establish causality even while hallucinating. Same goes for dreaming, bent sticks in water, etc. All illusion is predicated on a background of experience that isn’t illusion. Descartes and other thinkers were/are so disconcerted by the possibility of illusion that they’d like to throw the whole of experience into question, but I don’t see why that’s necessary or even reasonable. Even when we’re talking about someone with dementia, they have delusions about facts, delusions of judgement, but they also have a background of non-delusions and general knowledge about the world. I could go on and on about this, but I’ll stop here and just say it deserves attention. (I’ll probably/possibly get into this in my post on phenomenology.) 🙂

        On the “intuition” that consciousness is more than information, I’m not sure what’s meant by that. (I assume you mean “intuition” in a loose sense, like “women’s intuition,” not in a philosophical sense which could establish intuitions as axioms.) As I see it, there’s a fundamental truth that we have experiences and qualia, including errors in judgement. To deem consciousness a fundamental substance, force, or energy is a judgement about experience, as I see it, and a rather high-order judgement that I wouldn’t consider all-pervasive or “intuitive” in the philosophical-axiom-like sense. I’m not sure I’d say it’s “intuitive” in the looser sense either, but that could be a long debate. So I wouldn’t say we’ll always have an experience of consciousness as a force or substance. I think we rarely have that experience.

        Does he mean that we experience a self, and this is the illusion? Is that what “substance” here means? Because as I see it, we may experience a self in some all-pervasive-but-yet-to-be-defined way, but deeming the self a “substance”—I’m thinking of this word in a classical sense as something like a soul—is not necessarily included in the experience. On philosophical reflection, I can say all sorts of things about the self, like, it doesn’t exist, it’s immortal, it’s information, etc. These are judgements and very specific kinds of experiences that I don’t think are necessarily always there.

        On another point, since Graziano doesn’t adhere to epiphenomenalism, I’m assuming that ‘information’ is then regarded as distinct from the brain?

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        1. “But others would, as they are now, simply discount such theories. ”
          I suspect the situation would be similar to the multiple interpretations of the quantum wave function collapse. In other words, we’d have an area that we couldn’t observe, but that wouldn’t stop everyone from putting forth theories in the hopes that one of them might be falsifiable be looking at the outside interactions with that area.

          “Even when we’re talking about someone with dementia, they have delusions about facts, delusions of judgement, but they also have a background of non-delusions and general knowledge about the world.”
          True. Now imagine a species wide delusion that we had no general knowledge to measure against, but that we can’t find any objective evidence to back up. I think that’s where we are. Of course, someone might find evidence tomorrow and change the situation.

          (Looking forward to that post!)

          “So I wouldn’t say we’ll always have an experience of consciousness as a force or substance.”
          Language is always an issue in these discussions. There’s a naturalistic interpretation of every way I describe intuitive substance dualism. But there are good reasons to think we’ll always have it (assuming we don’t modify ourselves not to). There several studies that show that children are natural dualists, essentialists, etc.

          On “substance”, again limitations of language. I meant it in the way I understand Descartes to have meant it, as composed of something separate and apart from the physical, “spirit stuff” for lack of a better term.

          I personally think there is a self, and find talk of it being illusory to be more obfuscating than clarifying. What is true is that the self has components, none of which are the self itself, only as a system is there a self. Many people, not seeing the singular indivisible self, then conclude it is an illusion. But to me that’s the same as calling consciousness, free will, and a table an illusion. From a certain viewpoint it’s true, but a great many people will think you’re saying something you’re not.

          “On another point, since Graziano doesn’t adhere to epiphenomenalism, I’m assuming that ‘information’ is then regarded as distinct from the brain?”
          Not inherently, although someday it might be possible to make it distinct.

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          1. “In other words, we’d have an area that we couldn’t observe, but that wouldn’t stop everyone from putting forth theories in the hopes that one of them might be falsifiable..”

            I can see that too.

            “Now imagine a species wide delusion that we had no general knowledge to measure against, but that we can’t find any objective evidence to back up. I think that’s where we are. Of course, someone might find evidence tomorrow and change the situation.I can see that too.”

            Hm. Not quite getting that scenario. Species-wide delusion? I’m getting a little scared. 😉

            “Spirit stuff”…that works even better for me than “substance,” oddly.

            I agree about the self…there’s certainly something we’re referring to here. I was just wondering if Graziano thought the self was an illusion (if by “substance” he meant what I would call “self”).

            Thanks for the clarification of Graziano’s POV. I might’ve mistaken him for an epiphenomenalist.

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          2. “Species-wide delusion?”
            Yeah, limitations of language again. Some years ago, I got into a debate with someone who insisted that a “delusion” was a belief commonly regarded as wrong, therefore there couldn’t be a widespread delusion. (Bet you can guess which belief and book title we were debating 🙂 ) Perhaps a better term would be “species wide bias”.

            I can’t recall reading Graziano discussing the self directly. Given his throwing around of the “illusion” word, I suspect he’d be tempted to apply it to the self, but as with consciousness, I think he wouldn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, but that it isn’t what we intuit it to be. (I did a whole post awhile back expressing unhappiness with this use of “illusion”, but its use this way has become common enough that I’m slowly becoming reconciled to it.)

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          3. “Delusion” according to my default dictionary is this: “an idiosyncratic belief or impression that is firmly maintained despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality or rational argument, typically a symptom of mental disorder: the delusion of being watched.”

            Strange definition. I tried to come up with my own prior to looking it up, but I had a hard time. I’m surprised by the addition of “generally accepted”…which gives the person you were debating a bit of credence. But there’s a tinge of relativism in that. The second part, “typically a symptom of a mental disorder,” seems to take “delusion” out of that relativistic realm. (Unless we regard mental disorders as dependent on societal norms, and I don’t, for the most part.)

            “Delusion” sounds to me like one of those words that can have many meanings.

            You’re gonna think I’m an idiot…I can’t guess which book you were talking about. My first guess would be the Bible, but I can’t imagine you calling him delusional because of his religious beliefs. That doesn’t sound like you. 🙂

            I’m surprised Graziano doesn’t discuss the self. I would think that would be a big point of attack. Hm.

            Well I’m beginning to think the use of the word “illusion” is meant to stir up controversy. These short articles aren’t really scholarly or even careful. They are probably meant to provoke discussion/argument, and they are successful at that. I fear that making the issue so black and white only makes potentially interested folks (like me) turn away and regard such people as crude reductionists who need to get their butts in philosophy class. Unfortunate, since it sounds like Graziano is better than that. Then again, he’s probably selling more books this way. Maybe I’m the one who needs to take a few lessons in that regard.

            To be fair, I wonder if he’s writing these articles quickly, just pumping them out. I’m a fan of David Brooks, especially on TV. Sometimes I’ll read his articles in the NYT and I find them a bit shallow in comparison to what I think he really is capable of, but then I remember that he’s probably extremely busy. His publishing in the NYT would be like my publishing a blog post. Weird to think about since I’d shit a brick if I got published in the NYT.

            Liked by 2 people

          4. “I can’t guess which book you were talking about.”
            We were debating the validity of the title of Richard Dawkin’s book, ‘The God Delusion’. It’s probably a healthy thing that you didn’t immediately think of that book 🙂

            “I’m surprised Graziano doesn’t discuss the self.”
            He probably does, I just can’t recall it. Just pulled up his book on consciousness and “self” occurs 101 times. His theory is vitally concerned with our perception of our self, but I can’t find where he addresses the self…itself.

            “Well I’m beginning to think the use of the word “illusion” is meant to stir up controversy. ”
            Oh, I have no doubt that’s why it’s used the way it is, and I totally agree with everything you said about it.

            I like David Brooks as a person, but I haven’t been impressed with his writing. (Although in truth I haven’t read any of it in quite a while.) Some of it is likely because he’s a (moderate) conservative and I’m not, and he’s definitely not the worst of the conservative writers, but I find little common ground with his take on history and society.

            Liked by 2 people

          5. Ha! I got that one so very wrong. Well, I don’t read Dawkins, so that explains it. I’d totally forgotten about that title.

            On Brooks, totally agreed on his writing. I wasn’t impressed by his book either (I forget which one…Social something or other…I didn’t read the whole thing). I like the topics he chooses to write about and the general ideas, but I don’t find them well-executed. It’s a stylistic thing, I’m sure. His ideas feel a bit scattered to me (but so do most articles I read in the NYT, outside of the hard news…and forget the arts section, ugh). I do agree with a lot of what he says on TV. Maybe I’m a bit more conservative than you. 🙂

            Liked by 2 people

    2. If Science searches for causal relations and you cannot detect the “ghost” scientifically because it has no causal influence then we just do not need the ghost anyways. If we have a ghost that is not causally effective then we are in a much worse situation than even eliminatives imagine.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I follow your meaning but have to interject that if we have a ghost it has a purpose and it is performing it’s function. If you removed this “meaningless” ghost the system which was built with the ghost, would collapse or worst.
        Consciousness could be described as the voice we have that we talk to ourselves with as well as make decisions based on sensory input. I had my sensory input interrupted by a transformer’s bright light as it blew out right above me on a utility pole. The light was so incredibly bright it somehow temporarily interrupted my consciousness and my physical body. I was still conscious and felt no interruption of my thoughts but I had no access to my library of knowledge or any physical senses. I was at peace as I existed as a floating point of awareness but I also was questioning; “Where am I?” It was an odd thought and I asked another question; “What am I?” And even more odd was my final question. “What is an I?”. I had no knowledge to connect these words, making me ponder their meaning. I returned to a body in full panic causing severe distress to me as now I was dealing with a racing heart coupled with adrenaline and god knows what else pumping through my body. The story is interesting to me because of the consciously aware me was present but had no connection to a physical body that was going through severe distress. I could not feel a single tiny sliver of any panic, yet my body was in fact in full on panic to the 1000th power..

        Liked by 1 person

    3. “Objectivity is always within the context of subjectivity”

      Nail. On. Head. There is no dividing line, and inference, deduction, inductive reasoning, logic, syllogism, science, or whatever we want to call these things, can never prove the existence of one. Subjectivity and objectivity are both mind constructs.

      Tina, such a great response to Mike’s fine article. I’m very grateful to you, not just because I agree (yes, let’s leave the bloody ‘self’ aside – another ‘mind construct’), but because you’ve been so clear thinking; you know, ‘objective’. Hahahahaha. H ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I believe Professor Graziano says that consciousness is an “impression” resulting from a need of the organism to model “attention”, in themselves and in others, primarily in order to predict future behaviour. (“Attention” is defined in a neurophysiological manner; please consult his excellent introduction to read this definition, see below).
    So in the same way that the brain “creates” impressions/models based on sensory perception, it can create impressions/models from non-sensory perceptions, such as a self-model, and finally a model/impression of “attention” itself.
    The whole reason for the brain doing this lies in results from control theory which states that any complex controller needs a model of itself and its behaviour.
    This has consequently been adopted by evolution, so consciousness is moreless a necessary component of a complex organism…equipped with a correspondingly complex control system (nervous system).
    Michael Grazianos introduction to his theory; Attention Schema Theory

    Click to access evolution_of_consciousness_2017.pdf

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the link! I hadn’t seen that document before. Very interesting.

      Have you read Graziano’s book, ‘Consciousness and the Social Brain’? He describes his theory in detail. I reviewed it several years ago: https://selfawarepatterns.com/2013/12/30/consciousness-and-the-social-brain-a-review/

      I like the attention schema theory, and definitely think it’s on the right track focusing on metacognition, but I’m not as convinced as I once was that it’s the whole story. I still think conscious experience is an internal metacognitive model, but that’s its scope is broader than just attention.


      1. Thank you for your prompt reply!
        I haven’t read his book, I only very recently encountered his theory, more or less by accident. I do agree with you that the assumption that the internal modeling resulting in the conscious “impression” should be restricted to attention modeling/control is over simplified. (there is perhaps some kind of recursive modeling?) And maybe that is not what Professor Graziano says even..I’m not sure. We should ask him, and invite him to this discussion.
        I’ll ask him if he has the time to spare a comment by himself, .

        Liked by 1 person

        1. When I reflected on this I believe a possible answer might be:

          In Professor Grazianos theory, consciousness is addressed in the way of awareness, and in this sense it is sufficient to assume that it is restricted to attention control…in this sense awareness is an impression of a “selected” impression as input to prediction/decisions on future behaviour of one’s own and other’s.


  6. If I may add a few more thoughts on the subject of consciousness

    In the same way that we are mislead around the nature of light/color by our “impressions”/models of external radiance spectra, we are similarly mislead to think that we “are conscious”, and that we take “conscious decisions”. Consciousness is simply an “impression”/model of our attention needed by our “unconscious” parts of the brain to take correct decisions on behaviour etc.

    Its easy to identify yourself with your “consciousness”, and forget that your identity comprises your whole organism.

    I feel relief that I don’t have to spend any more mental energy on futile philosophical speculation about consciousness.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. For many people, the word “consciousness” is a code word for “soul”, as in the immaterial ghost in the machine. I agree that that version of consciousness doesn’t exist. The intuition of it only exists because introspection is not a reliable source of information about how the mind works. It’s adaptive for many purposes, but not for understanding the architecture of the mind. Most of the “mysteries” of consciousness are artifacts of that unreliability.

      When the word “consciousness” is used to refer to the suite of capabilities such as perception, attention, imagination, emotion, and introspection, I think we can have productive investigations of it. Of course, it’s possible to talk about those things productively without ever mentioning the term “consciousness”.


      1. Yes I agree, we are much more than just aware…and we could regard all these capabilities as part of a wider concept of consciousness…intuitively I guess we will still only be “aware” of our “impressions” of them.

        For me I think Professor Graziano’s theory provides an excellent starting point to reason around a lot of philosophical questions in relation to mind and consciousness, perhaps a new way to reason around “free will” for example.

        It seems to be a giant leap in knowledge if it’s not proven wrong.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I would like to share the answer from Professor Graziano on the following question:

    question from me:
    Could “consciousness” consist of “impressions”/models of also other inner neurophysiological mechanisms than merely attention?

    answer by Professor Graziano:
    Attention is applicable to almost everything. Take the plan to make a specific movement. We make tens of thousands of movement plans a day, most of which we don’t pay attention to. We do it automatically. But sometimes we do stop to pay attention to a movement plan, and then we say, “I am conscious of making that plan.”

    Or decision-making. Again, the brain makes tens of thousands of decisions a day, most of which are under the surface. They pass us by. But sometimes we pay attention to a specific decision as we are making it, and we think, “I am conscious of making that decision. It’s a conscious decision.”

    Or emotion. Although it may not be intuitive, the brain constructs emotional and motivated states all the time, and we are often not paying attention. Some people even have a hard time realizing what emotions their brains are generating. But sometimes, we pay attention to it, and we say, “I’m conscious of being happy right now,” or “My anger right now is a conscious state.”

    I could go on. We can pay attention to internal states, and to internal processes, just as much as to external sensory events. Memory, mathematical thought, ideas, impulses, it can all be subject to attention. This is why attention is so central. The relationship between attention and consciousness is what allows consciousness to be so universal — it can connect with almost any kind of process inside us.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks (Anders?). Grateful to you for passing that on!

      This seems to me to be a pretty broad definition of attention, verging on being whatever the attention schema focuses on. But it does cover imagination, both of future and past events, which was what I was chiefly thinking AST might be missing. So my revised idea of the introspective metacognitive model still lines up with Graziano’s conception of AST (roughly). Good to know!


      1. Yes it’s me Anders..I have tried to set up an account…actually in order to be able to perform a like operation on one of your comments.
        Thanks for providing this interesting and stimulating blog!

        Liked by 1 person

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