Those of you who’ve known me for a while may remember the long fascination I’ve had with Michael Graziano’s attention schema theory of consciousness. I covered it early in this blog’s history and have returned to it multiple times over the years. I still think the theory has a lot going for it, particularly as part of an overall framework of higher order theories. But as I’ve learned more over the years, it’s more Graziano’s approach I’ve come to value than his specific theory.
Back in 2013, in his book, Consciousness and the Social Brain, he pointed out that it’s pretty common for theories of consciousness to explain things up to a certain point, then have a magic step. For example, integrated information theory posits that structural integration is consciousness, the various recurrent theories posit that the recurrence itself is consciousness, and quantum theories often assert that consciousness is in the wave function collapse. Why are these things in particular conscious? It’s usually left unsaid, something that’s supposed to simply be accepted.
Christof Koch, in his book, Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist, relates that once when presenting a theory about layer 5 neurons in the visual cortex firing rhythmically possibly being related to consciousness, he was asked by the neurologist Volker Henn how his theory was really any different from Descartes’ locating the soul in the pineal gland. Koch’s language and concepts were more modern, Henn argued, but exactly how consciousness arose from that activity was still just as mysterious as how it was supposed to have arisen from the pineal gland.
Koch said he responded to Henn with a promissory note, an IOU, that eventually science would get to the full causal explanation. However, Koch goes on to describe that he eventually concluded it was hopeless, that subjectivity was too radically different to actually emerge from physical systems. It led him to panpsychism and integrated information theory (IIT). (Although in his more recent book, he seems to have backed off of panpsychism, now seeing IIT as an alternative to, rather than elaboration of, panpsychism.)
Koch’s conclusion was in many ways similar to David Chalmers’ conclusion, that consciousness is irreducible and fundamental, making property dualism inevitable, and leading Chalmers to coin the famous “hard problem” of consciousness. These conclusions also caused Chalmers to flirt with panpsychism.
Graziano, in acknowledging the magic step that exists in most consciousness theories, argued that such theories were incomplete. A successful theory, he argued, needed to avoid such a step. But is this possible? Arguably every theory of consciousness has these promissory notes, these IOUs. The question might be how small can we make them.
Graziano’s approach was to ask, what exactly are we trying to explain? How do we know that’s what needs to be explained? We can say “consciousness”, but what does that mean? How do we know we’re conscious? Someone could reply that the only way we could even ask that question is as a conscious entity, but that’s begging the question. What exactly are we talking about here?
It’s commonly understood that our senses can be fooled. We’ve all seen the visual illusions that, as hard as we try, we can’t see through. Our lower level visual circuitry simply won’t allow it. And the possibility that we might be a brain in a vat somewhere, or be living in a simulation, is often taken seriously by a lot of people.
What people have a much harder time accepting is the idea that our inner senses might have the same limitations. Our sense of what happens in our own mind feels direct and privileged in a manner that outer senses don’t. In many ways, what these inner senses are telling us seem like the most primal thing we can ever know. But if these senses aren’t accurate, much like the visual illusions, these are not things we can see through, no matter how hard we try.
In his new book, Rethinking Consciousness: A Scientific Theory of Subjective Experience, Graziano discusses an interesting example. Lord Horatio Nelson, the great British admiral, lost an arm in combat. Like many amputees, he suffered from phantom limb syndrome, painful sensations from the nonexistent limb. He famously claimed that he had proved the existence of an afterlife, since if his arm could have a ghost, then so could the rest of him.
Phantom limb syndrome appears to arise from a contradiction between the brain’s body schema, its model of the body, and its actual body. Strangely enough, as V. S. Ramachandran discussed in his book, The Tell-Tale Brain, the reverse can also happen after a stroke or other brain injury. A patient’s body schema can become damaged so that it no longer includes a limb that’s physically still there. They no longer feel the limb is really theirs anymore. For some, the feeling is so strong that they seek to have the limb amputated.
Importantly, in both cases, the person is unable to see past the issue. The body schema is simply too powerful, too primal, and operates are a pre-conscious level. It can be doubted intellectually, but not intuitively, not at a primal level.
If the body schema exerts that kind of power, imagine what power a schema that tells us about our own mental life must exert.
So for Graziano, the question isn’t how to explain what our intuitive understanding of consciousness tells us about. Instead, what needs to be explained is why we have that intuitive understanding. In many ways, Graziano described what Chalmers would later call the “meta-problem of consciousness“, not the hard problem, but the problem of why we think there is a hard problem. (If Graziano had Chalmers’ talent for naming philosophical concepts, we might have started talking about the meta-problem in 2013.)
Of course, Graziano’s answer is that we have a model of the messy and emergent process of attention, a schema, a higher order representation of it at the highest global workspace level, which we use to control it in top down fashion. But while the model is effective in providing that feedback and control, it doesn’t provide accurate information for actually understanding the mind. Indeed, it’s simplified model of attention, portraying it as an ethereal fluid or energy that can be concentrated in or around the head, but not necessarily of it, is actively misleading. There’s a reason why we are all intuitive dualists.
At this point we reach a crucial juncture, a fork in the road. You will either conclude that Graziano’s contention (and similar ones from other cognitive scientists) is an attempt to pull a fast one, a cheat, a dodge from confronting the real problem, or that it’s plausible. If you can’t accept it, then consciousness likely remains an intractable mystery for you, and concepts like IIT, panpsychism, quantum consciousness, and a host of other exotic solutions may appear necessary.
But if you can accept that introspection is unreliable, then a host of grounded neuroscience theories, such as global workspace and higher order thought, including the attention schema, become plausible. Consciousness looks scientifically tractable, in a manner that could someday result in conscious machines, and maybe even mind uploading.
I long ago took the fork that accepts the limits of introspection, and the views I’ve expressed on this blog reflect it. But I’ve been reminded in recent conversations that this is a fork many of you haven’t taken. It leads to very different underlying assumptions, something we should be cognizant of in our discussions.
So which fork have you taken? And why do you think it’s the correct choice? Or do you think there even is a real choice here?