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
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?

1 comment:

Sandor Ragaly said...

Hi Carsten, don't forget that if you test a hypothesis or generate one, you also have to have a theory if you don't want to measure something and then drawing speculative conclusions just driven by pure empiry. Theoretical background, the context of others' findings or at least a simple, but plaubible model why something happens empirically are needed to make results non-arbitrary in interpretation, leave alone to make some progress in knowledge.

Well, your critique is plausible, while on the other hand, it might be science to start from such a vague, non-localised phenomenon as conscience in the criticised text IF this is appropriate to the research question or hypothesis, saying if something like that WOULD exist. Because it could be of sci interest for media research, reception theory etc. to get to know how that phenomenon works, functions, only - while a physician indeed would prefer to get to know WHERE in the human body this center of such phenomena is situated, e.g. to make invasive action, like with substances, possible...
Rests the interesting question: What is science (and not only looking at Popper)? What's different, better and weaker compared to other "methods" of gaining knowledge, usable knowledge, gratification etc. (see also essays, lyrics, literature, arts, journalism...)