Cogito Ergo Su(m/n)day Review in the NY Times: Graziano’s Eliminativism

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.


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  1. #1 by SelfAwarePatterns on October 12, 2014 - 8:59 pm

    I suspect you might be misreading Graziano’s argument. (Possibly because this article isn’t at all his best description of it.) What he’s saying is that awareness is an executive summary, a schema, of attention. It’s a mechanism that allows the brain to monitor attention, a messy emergent process where certain combinations of sensory inputs momentarily receive resources, until the next combination ascends.

    But like all executive summaries, awareness, the attention schema, is incomplete and misses a lot of details. For instance, it doesn’t include the stuff we normally label as subconscious including the brain’s automatic processes.

    In his theory, we have an attention schema for our own attention mechanisms, but we also have less detailed ones for each other mind that we perceive, including minds we only think exist, like gods, ghosts, fictional characters, etc. So he definitely doesn’t ignore the problem of other minds.

    His final paragraph is mostly just a statement that we shouldn’t trust our intuitions about how this stuff works.

    I like the attention schema because it’s a coherent scientific theory of consciousness that avoids magical steps or counter intuitive notions like concluding the internet must be conscious.

    • #2 by ausomeawestin on October 12, 2014 - 9:50 pm

      Thanks for setting me straight, Sap, I was hoping that someone would shed some light on the matter for me.

      To be honest, it seems your understanding of Graziano seems consistent with my reading of him, though your points are more broadly informed of his big picture, it seems to me. I might have overstated the eliminativism in the article, but my point was to draw attention to how radical eliminativism is, and why we should be skeptical of his view if it has these implications, even if he does not state them quite so bluntly as I would.

      To be clear, I wasn’t trying to say that his theory conflicts with ‘the problem of other minds’, just that one premise that would support the eliminativist argument would conflict with it. The eliminativist is not committed to that premise/thesis at all. I was exploring options to make the argument go through and wouldn’t attribute that thesis to them.

      I’ll have to look more into the details of Graziano’s theory. Perhaps there wasn’t time to assuage some of my concerns in his brief article. Thanks for helping me to understand his view better in the meanwhile.

  1. The attention schema theory of consciousness deserves your…attention | SelfAwarePatterns

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