The New York Times Sunday review features a short article by Michael Graziano, a neuroscientist at Princeton, arguing for eliminativism. The gist of the piece is that subjective experiences are flawed approximations of data given by external stimuli structured by the mechanistic physical system that is the brain, such that it can be said that subjective awareness is less real than what is real (in other words, awareness/consciousness isn’t real) and because our experience of self and first-person qualia in general are among those entities existing only as subjective experience, consciousness and awareness is a faulty approximation, and thus is unreal. An interesting consequence of this view is that strong Artificial Intelligence is possible, because all that is truly essential to cognition is the structuring of data given by external stimuli in a mechanistic physical system, which can be just as easily accomplished with computer chips as with brain cells.
I think we should be skeptical of Graziano’s argument. If we look at the argument closely we can see that Graziano is making the large assumption that subjective awareness of internal states is just as real or unreal, as the case may be, as subjective awareness of external stimuli. Graziano certainly has evidence to support the claim that our subjective experience of external stimuli is false, in the sense of being less real than the externally existing entity, but from this it hardly follows that all of our subjective experiences are false. To see this, note that, when stated clearly, Graziano’s argument runs:
p1. Our subjective awareness of external objects is an approximation of our attention to their real details.
P2. If our subjective awareness of external objects is an approximation of our attention to their real details, then our awareness of external objects is less real than our attention to the real details of those external objects.
C1. Therefore, our awareness of external objects is less real than our attention to the real details of those external objects.
Assumption/Hidden premise: Subjective awareness of internal states is just as real or false as subjective awareness of external objects.
C2. Thus, all subjective awareness, of internal states and external objects, is unreal.
I don’t think there is any reason to grant the truth of the hidden assumption. It seems that while my mental images of external objects may be less real than those external objects, there is nothing that pure mental states could be less real than. So we must reject the assumption and with it, Graziano’s conclusion.
There is another way that we could get to the conclusion from the premises, and that would be by positing that our subjective awareness of internal states is given to us by external objects, such that internal states are actually external objects or events to be approximated, and thus, something of which we do not know the real details. Perhaps this premise is the one that Graziano intended all along. I’m not sure how to defeat such a premise, but it seems to me that this thesis entails that there is no “problem of other minds”, because if internal states are external objects, then I should be able to know your internal states by knowing the external objects about you. I submit that the “problem of other minds” is a genuine problem, and as this thesis would conflict with that problem the thesis must actually be incorrect. As such, we should stick to our guns and conclude that Graziano’s argument fails.