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Some Comments on Edelman and Tononi’s book A Universe of Consciousness

I started reading Edelman and Tononi’s book A Universe of Consciousness and I wanted to offer some skeptical comments. I’m generally skeptical about any theorizing of consciousness these days, not because I’m against theorizing in science but because I have been leaning more Mysterian in my epistemology towards “consciousness”, where “consciousness” refers to subjective experience. I think any fundamental theory of consciousness is doomed to fail because it will run into vicious circularity as I will explain below. Take this seemingly innocuous statement offered at the beginning of chapter 1:

Everyone knows what consciousness is: It is what abandons you every evening when you fall asleep and reappears the next morning when you wake up.

Already E&T are helping themselves to some heavy duty theoretically loaded assumptions. E&T are talking about consciousness as subjectivity, so why assume subjectivity goes away completely during dreamless sleep? How do we know there isn’t something-it-is-like to be asleep and we just don’t remember what-it’s-like? If subjectivity is at 100% during wakefulness why not think it goes down to 1% or .05% while sleeping instead of 0%? Perhaps what-it-is-like for humans to be asleep is analogous in subjective intensity to what-it-is-like to be bee or lizard when awake.

By helping themselves to the assumption that consciousness goes away completely during asleep E&T allow themselves a “starting point” or “fixed point” from which to begin their theorizing. It becomes their rock-solid assumption against which they can begin doing experimental work. But from a fundamental point of view, it is an unargued for assumption. Where’s the evidence for it? Introspective evidence is not enough because introspection is turned off during asleep. And empirical evidence? How are you going to measure it? With a consciousness-meter? Well, how are you going to validate that it’s calibrated properly? Say you build one and point it at a sleeping brain at it registers “0”. How do you know the measurement is correct? What’s the calibration method?

They also assume that consciousness is an “relatively recent development” evolutionarily speaking. If we are talking about self-consciousness this makes sense but they are not. They are talking about subjectivity, the having of a “point-of-view”. But why not think a bee has a point of view on the world? Or why assume you need a brain or nervous system at all? For all we know there is something-it-is-like to be an amoeba. E&T want this to be another “fixed point” because if you assume that subjectivity requires a brain or nervous system it gives you a starting place scientifically. It tells you where to look. But again, it’s never argued for, simply assumed. But it’s not logically incoherent to think a creature without a nervous system has a dim phenomenology.

Suppose you assumed that only brained creatures have consciousness and you devise a theory accordingly. Having made your theory you devise a series of experimental techniques and measurements and then apply them to brained creatures. You “confirm” that yes indeed brained creatures are conscious all right. What happens when you apply the same technique to a non-brained creature like an amoeba, testing for whether the amoeba has consciousness? Surprise surprise, your technique fails to register any consciousness in the amoeba. But there is a blatant epistemic circularity here because you designed your measurement technique according to certain theoretical assumptions starting with the “fixed point” that consciousness requires a nervous system. But why make that assumption? Why not assume instead that subjectivity starts with life itself and is progressively modified as nervous systems are introduced? Moreover they assume that

Conscious experience is integrated (conscious states cannot be subdivided into independent components) and, at the same time, is highly differentiated (one can experience billions of different conscious states).

Why can’t conscious states be subdivided? Why assume that? What does that even mean? Divided from what into what? Take the sleeping at .01% consciousness example. Why not think wakeful “unified” consciousness at 100% is the result of 1000 tiny microconsciousness “singing” side-by-side such that the total choir of microconsciousness gives rise to an illusion of a single large singer? When E&T say “one” can experience billions of states, who is this “one”? Why one, and not many? Their assumption of conscious unity is another “fixed point” but it’s just an assumption. Granted, it’s an assumption that stems from introspective experience but why trust introspection here? Introspection also says consciousness completely goes away during asleep but as we’ve seen it might be wrong about that.

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