Aeon, in their weekend newsletter, highlighted an old article from Carolyn Dicey Jennings on attention and the self. I recall reading this article when it was published, but apparently didn’t share or discuss it, I suspect because I had mixed feelings about it. I still do.
Consciousness scientists have a tendency to look at attention science with envy. Attention is taken more seriously. The reason, I suspect, is that attention is a more tractable problem, one more amenable to empirical research. Its definition isn’t particularly controversial, so studies of it don’t have the issues that studies of consciousness often seem plagued with.
But attention is a complex collection of phenomena, existing at numerous levels in the brain. Read about the neuroscience of attention, and you’ll find details on processing in the midbrain, thalamus, parietal lobe, temporal lobe, and prefrontal cortex.
As Jennings discusses, it’s commonly broken up into two broad categories, top down attention, such as your decision to focus on this blog post, and bottom up attention, such as the impulse to focus on something crawling up your arm. Although I think the reality is more complex, with there being at least reflexive, habitual, and cognitively controlled attention.
To what degree attention is separate from consciousness is an interesting question. Some researchers insist they’re different, others see them as equivalent to varying degrees. Much of the debate, I think, is related to the different levels of attention, and the distinction between its mechanisms and contents. With that in mind, it seems like the contents of top down attention are very tangled with, perhaps equivalent to, the contents of consciousness.
Anyway, my ambivalence about Jennings’ piece has more to do with her views about the self. I think the self exists, but only in a weakly emergent (epistemic) fashion. Jennings seems to see it as existing more substantively, in a strongly emergent (anti-reductionist) manner, and cites speculation about quantum physics and downward causation. (I’ve considered reading her book to see if this comes out more grounded, but it’s expensive, more than I’m willing to bet.)
But this raises an interesting question. Should we ever be satisfied with a conclusion of strong emergence in a scientific theory? I personally don’t think so. To me, if a theory is going to explain attention, the mind, consciousness, or the self, it has to successfully reduce those concepts to constituent concepts that aren’t the original. It has to reduce the mental to the non-mental, the conscious to the non-conscious, etc.
So far it seems like attention has proven the most amenable to that reduction. But I suspect it might be because we’re more accepting of reduction in that area, and more resistant to it in the others.
Daniel Dennett has made the point numerous times: if your theory of consciousness still has a component labeled “conscious” or something similar, you’re not done yet. I think that’s right. The theories I tend to favor do at least attempt that reduction. The ones that simply conclude that consciousness or the mind is strongly emergent or fundamental in some mysterious and unknowable sense, strike me as dead ends.
But maybe I’m missing something?