The Grey Lady Grows Senile

I flipped through the week in review section of the New York Times while attending to some other, serious business in the bathroom. Thomas Friedman was comparing ISIS to kudzu. The metaphor may be mildly enlightening, but Friedmans attempts to draw policy conclusions from it just seemed silly. Nicholas Kristof, who appears to be pretty darned white, is complaining about how "White people don't get it." Maureen Dowd is writing something about some female comic book character. In short, the usual middlebrow tedium.

And then I found this, a piece questioning whether humans are actually conscious! This was a dive from middlebrow tedium into the utter depths of stupidity! And you know how utter stupidity is the La Brea Tar Pit of Callahan, so let's wade in! The piece begins:

"OF the three most fundamental scientific questions about the human condition, two have been answered."

What Graziano is actually going to ask are three philosophical questions, but he does not even know enough about philosophy to realize this. And what are they?

"First, what is our relationship to the rest of the universe? Copernicus answered that one. We’re not at the center. We’re a speck in a large place."

So we have here the usual ahistorical nonsense about the meaning of Copernicus. As if the question "What is our relationship to the rest of the universe?" can be answered by locating us physically in space! I wonder, if asked about his relationship with his significant other, Dr. Graziano answers, "I am often to the left of her, but sometimes move around to her right." On to number two:

"Second, what is our relationship to the diversity of life? Darwin answered that one. Biologically speaking, we’re not a special act of creation. We’re a twig on the tree of evolution."

Once again, by mistaking a philosophical question for a scientific one, Graziano offers a ridiculous non-answer: a fact about the historical origins of the human species is simply not up to answering the question, "Is human life special in some way?" Alexander, Buddha, Aristotle, Newton, and Napoleon all emerged from wombs, but this just doesn't get anywhere on the question of "Are these people special?" You can't refute someone who claims "America has a unique role in history" by noting that all Americans are descended from hunter-gatherers.

But let's move on to the real gem of the piece; regarding the relationship between mind and the physical world, Graziano contends: "I believe a major change in our perspective on consciousness may be necessary, a shift from a credulous and egocentric viewpoint to a skeptical and slightly disconcerting one: namely, that we don’t actually have inner feelings in the way most of us think we do."

Um, Dr. Graziano, if we are not really conscious, and we have no "inner feelings," then we have no "viewpoint" to shift from either, "credulous and egocentric" or not.

From there, Graziano continues with some of the worst hand-waving nonsense I have encountered in quite some time: "The brain has arrived at a conclusion that is not correct. When we introspect and seem to find that ghostly thing — awareness, consciousness, the way green looks or pain feels — our cognitive machinery is accessing internal models and those models are providing information that is wrong. ["Providing it" to whom?] The machinery is computing an elaborate story about a magical-seeming property. [Who is being told this "story"?] And there is no way for the brain to determine through introspection that the story is wrong, because introspection always accesses the same incorrect information."

How in the world can this explain the fact that, say, I actually see green leaves outside my window right now?! And if somehow some meaning can be attached to the idea that I don't actually see them and this is just a mistake my brain is making... Well, then, we'd better throw Graziano's earlier "answers" to the first two of the three important questions right out the window, because the theories of Copernicus and Darwin relied entirely on things that their brains were mistakenly concluding that they were observing. And all of the neuroscience that Graziano claims to be drawing on to reach his conclusions? All of that was developed by neuroscientists based upon things their brains were tricking them into thinking they were looking at. In fact, the very idea that we have a brain is based upon the mistaken idea that when we cut open a human head, we actually see a brain in there, since, according to Graziano, we are mistaken about having been conscious of seeing anything at all.

The basic problem Graziano hasn't faced up to is this: if I can be mistaken about the fact that I feel an itch right at this moment, then there is nothing whatsoever that I can't be mistaken about, including every single observation upon which all of science is based. So Graziano's "theory" entirely undermines every bit of the science which supposedly requires it in the first place.

When Daniel Dennett declared consciousness to be an "illusion," someone said this was the worst philosophical position that had ever been put forward, as it is instantly self-refuting. But Graziano is going to double-down on this bad bet with a load of gibberish. And the NY Times published it!

8 comments:

  1. I'd just assumed that column was written by a computer program. The alternative was too horrifying to contemplate.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "This was a dive from middlebrow tedium into the utter depths of stupidity!"

    I got a good laugh from this. I'd normally say "heights of stupidity", though. I wonder which one is more common.

    "The basic problem Graziano hasn't faced up to is this: if I can be mistaken about the fact that I feel an itch right at this moment, then there is nothing whatsoever that I can't be mistaken about, including every single observation upon which all of science is based."

    I think I get you here. Since thought is experience, then there is no way you could not be experiencing what you think…I think. Did I get that right?

    ReplyDelete
  3. "The brain has arrived at a conclusion that is not correct. When we introspect and seem to find that ghostly thing — awareness, consciousness, the way green looks or pain feels — our cognitive machinery is accessing internal models and those models are providing information that is wrong. ["Providing it" to whom?] The machinery is computing an elaborate story about a magical-seeming property. [Who is being told this "story"?] And there is no way for the brain to determine through introspection that the story is wrong, because introspection always accesses the same incorrect information."

    If you can't dazzle them brilliance, then baffle them with bullshit, maybe.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Gene and Josiah, I like you guys so much better when you're bashing materialism rather than anarchism.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The two seem to go hand in hand.

      Delete
  5. It's hard to tell from an excerpt, especially a convoluted one, but I think I see the point he aiming at. There is some evidence that the conscious awareness of events sometimes happens measurably later than the event which stimulates it. This really isn't surprising. Of course it takes time for nerve signals to get to the brain and then be processed. (And so sometimes we can sense events in the wrong order even.) So it seems that sometimes when we introspect we do indeed get time sequences wrong. A classic example is pulling your hand off a hot plate. So maybe indeed we do confabulate ex post explanations. So indeed introspection can make errors about surprising things like that. Good to know. But he leaps from that to something wild, or seems to. Or perhaps the emphasis should be "on the way we think we do". Hard to tell since, as you say, his elaboration is hand waving.

    ReplyDelete
  6. This isn't about the thread but I wanted to drop it somewhere you and the readers here can see it, and savor it. Where better than a post on gibberish?

    http://cafehayek.com/2014/10/quotation-of-the-day-1144.html

    Doesn't this imply Wat Tyler should have loved his liege lord?

    ReplyDelete
  7. There is a splinter of fact in the petrified forest of nonsense, in that we don't necessarily see an object's true color, but a reflection of light on a surface that is interpreted by our eyes as a certain type of color. That's amusing fodder for dorm room BS sessions, but hardly the basis for a rational philosophy.

    Because if we are being tricked by our brains into perceiving something as true when it is, in fact, not, then that mechanism is one of the most perfect in existence. Imagine a world in which gravity is an illusion, yet works perfectly. Where physics is an illusion, yet we can build rockets that can carry astronauts to what we think of as "the moon." Create drugs that consistently react to our bodies to relieve headaches and diseases. And color the sky to a range of hues that do not shock us with unfortunate color combinations. We who number in the trillions throughout the whole of recorded history, have not seen one instance of inconsistency. And yet, it's all an illusion, processed through billions of, for lack of anything else to call it, minds.

    Wow.

    ReplyDelete