May 2, 2012

Consciousness has left the building

The neat thing with consciousness is: it is so undefined that everybody can speculate wildly about it. You could locate your conscious self in the paw of your dog, your aquarium, your pinky... anywhere - and write books about it, sell books about it - thousands! It is just so heartwarming to chat about consciousness, to bash science on the way and to patronize.
And who does it best? Right, the aggregators at bigthink.com.
Megan Erickson asserts us (by quoting Alva Noë ) "just as love does not live inside the heart, consciousness is not contained in a finite space". We should not look for it inside our brain, or even our body - but in some intricate interwovenness of our cells and the outer world. What is the proof? None. Just pure sci-fi, touchy-feely chatter. Nice and maybe right or maybe wrong...
Do you remember the first step for explaining, for proving or disproving something? Yep: have a hypothesis. Write something down. And then write how you (or anybody else) would *principally* go ahead investigating experimentally. It is not about designing a real, feasible experiment. It is about devising a principal approach.
Look, do you have any idea how to *prove* whether your coworker is conscious? We assume that she most probably is - by analogy. But is this proof? Or your dog? Looks cute to some - is he conscious?
The debates about consciousness and free will are the big debates over centuries. To claim that anybody even has a clue where to look for it is too fast a conclusion if not even the definition is clear. We could, however, check the big-think-idea reversely: if consciousness is not located in our brain but is rather the consequence of interaction between our cells and the surrounding, then a strict modification of our surrounding should modify our consciousness significantly. Is our conscious self different when we are sitting in a cafe at a plaza in a nice city compared to a situation where we are lying on our bed in a completely dark, small, sensory-deprived room? Well, not really. On the other hand - if we significantly modify our grey matter (by pouring alcohol, deep brain stimulation, or even, well (don't do this at home) removing it....), I believe our consciousness is markedly altered putting some weight to the importance of 'brain' for the existence of consciouness.
Megan Erickson concludes "It's okay to speculate, Noë seems to be saying, even if you're not a genius." Well, this, clearly, is an approach some over there value highly. But why claim then, this would be science?