6 votes

Has Science Shown That Consciousness Is Only an Illusion?

16 comments

  1. Sill
    (edited )
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    Not a fan of the article. This is bad faith argument. It's obvious the person being quoted wasn't saying eukaryota and bacteria are the same domain, but instead pointing out there is a continuum...

    Not a fan of the article.

    No evolutionary biologist thinks that humans “evolved from” bacteria either; we belong to a quite different kingdom of life from bacteria. And whether or not our genius is God-given is certainly a matter of opinion.

    This is bad faith argument. It's obvious the person being quoted wasn't saying eukaryota and bacteria are the same domain, but instead pointing out there is a continuum from the Earth being a swirl of space dust to mankind, and at some point along the way we say consciousness comes in.

    And then, with no expansion on it, suggesting a metaphysical explanation is a worthwhile explanation, and conflating that "genius" is what is being talked about when we discuss consciousness?

    It's weird that evidence suggests if you get a lot of dense hydrogen and wait a few billion years, parts of it starts thinking about where it came from and why it exists. Somewhere along our evolution from repeating chemical chain reaction-->single-celled organism-->mudskipper-->man, most of us agree consciousness comes in.

    Is it a switch that is toggled? Granular or continuous? Just like the different domains of human life are there divergent types of consciousness and qualia, things that are--at present-- uniquely "bat" or "ant-colony" qualia?

    If you take religious explanations seriously (while believing in evolution) then it seems to follow that there was a generation of mindless, soul-less human ancestors who had a child who had consciousness. That must've been really awkward, having dominion over your parents and not getting to hang out in the afterlife. And if that proto-human had offspring with someone else who hadn't crossed that threshold of "sufficiently evolved" would some of his children have souls/consciousness and some not?

    I know I've heard wasps talked about as a candidate for being zombies (p-zombie). They carry on their tasks, oblivious even if the back half of them is in the process of being eaten. A quick search didn't get anything, but I remember it being brought up that there was reason to believe wasps evolved this sort of body awareness (not that that means there was qualia) and then it was too metabolically expensive so they lost it.

    I'd guess most people would feel that consciousness isn't an on-off switch. A chimpanzee can feel pain and not just reflex / nociception. Maybe a fish can. Maybe bacteria or Google can, but it's too hard to live life while thinking that way.

    Thinking of consciousness as existing on a continuum naturally leads to thinking about what the building blocks of consciousness are, and then Ship of Theseus replacements with identical/functionally identical parts. Neurons seem like a good candidate. At least since Julien Offray de La Mettrie people have realized there is a connection between brain and conscious experience.

    An illusion is a false perception. Our thoughts are imperfect representations of our brain/minds and of the world, but that doesn’t make them necessarily false.

    Sometimes these discussions feel like nothing more than wordplay, that would go away if everyone agreed to precise definitions. I think I've gotten a lot more out of neurology/psychology than I have philosophy.

    In V.S. Ramachandran's "Phantoms in the Brain" (alternate proposed title: "The Man Who Mistook His Foot for His Penis") he mentions an experiment that can be done in which ~50% of people feel that their nose has grown to over a foot in length.

    If I remember correctly, a blindfolded person sits behind another and extends their arm to tap on the nose of the person in front of them. At the same frequency, a 3rd person taps the nose of the blindfolded person. The blindfolded person's brain resolves the texture on their finger, the position of their arm, and the sensation on their nose as "well, I guess my nose must actually be the one being tapped, and that means it's a foot away".

    Is that sensation an illusion? Or the brain-generated percepts in all sorts of optical illusions, where you see something that is missing in the picture, but which ought to be there? In a study I've seen, those "brain-generated" percepts are reported to be more "real" than reality.

    Are chimeric images where you have parts of your brain arguing "that picture is a crone!" - "no, it's a young woman!" evidence that you have more than one consciousness in your head? Are split brain studies where a person with a severed corpus callosum will say they want to do entirely different things for a career depending on whether they're asked or read the question? What consciousness does a drunk Mel Gibson and a sober Mel Gibson share?

    Sometimes I wonder if the "hard problem of consciousness" isn't the same as saying "the hard problem of gravity". Is it possible there is a physical limitation (e.g., Planck constant) on the instruments we can make to try to dig deeper into what is going on with gravity or other bits of physics, in the same way that maybe we can't really disprove strong solipsism? Definitely.

    That doesn't mean that we can't make drugs and predict what sort of altered mind state they'll result in. Or induce near-death-experience states with hypoxia. Or use transcranial magnetic stimulation or some sort of neural prosthetic to cause targeted changes, and see if you can understand how brain maps to mind. Or the (at least last time I looked) exponentially improving spatial/temporal resolution of brain imaging.

    15 votes
  2. [9]
    bbvnvlt
    Link
    OK, I only skimmed the article, but I read some of Dennet's work attentively (Darwin's Dangerous Idea and From Bacteria to Bach and Back) and watched a number of his lectures on YouTube. My...

    OK, I only skimmed the article, but I read some of Dennet's work attentively (Darwin's Dangerous Idea and From Bacteria to Bach and Back) and watched a number of his lectures on YouTube.

    My summary of Dennet's position would be that there is nothing magical about our minds, that they run on good old material processes, but that this does not mean consciousness doesn't exist. He calls consciousness a "user illusion" analogous to your PC 'desktop'. There are no files and folders, just 0s and 1s. He posits that our conscious minds evolved because we needed some way to explain ourselves to our fellow hominids and a similar 'user interface' layer on top of our cognitive processes was the best way of doing that.

    That consciousness is an 'illusion', for Dennet, does not equate to saying it is not real. He would call a claim that it's 'just electricity and chemicals' "greedy reductionism".

    8 votes
    1. [8]
      NaraVara
      Link Parent
      This is a pretty old notion. David Hume flirts with it in the Western canon as well. But I don't see how we decide consciousness is "illusory" from this. When you get this reductive, everything...

      He calls consciousness a "user illusion" analogous to your PC 'desktop'. There are no files and folders, just 0s and 1s.

      This is a pretty old notion. David Hume flirts with it in the Western canon as well.

      But I don't see how we decide consciousness is "illusory" from this. When you get this reductive, everything can be termed as a "user illusion." The 0s and 1s are social constructs too. So is the particular arrangement of silicon that's tracking those 0s and 1s. Sure there is some kind of gross matter that is acting, but any significance of those actions is entirely based on our perception of it. Otherwise it's substantively no different than the random Brownian motion of dust in a shaft of light.

      Our conscious minds impose the context and structure that creates this sort of significance to anything.

      7 votes
      1. [4]
        skybrian
        Link Parent
        I think there's a more concrete take on it. We understand that body awareness can vary. (Fingertips are more sensitive, some parts of the body lack pain receptors, anesthesia works, there are...

        I think there's a more concrete take on it. We understand that body awareness can vary. (Fingertips are more sensitive, some parts of the body lack pain receptors, anesthesia works, there are phantom limb illusions, and so on.) Similarly, we should expect that our introspective understanding of our own mental processes varies. There are mental processes we're entirely unconscious of, others that we're vaguely aware of, and so on. Some of this introspection might be a simplified or distorted view of what's really going on underneath. There are some striking illusions that you can learn about reading Oliver Sacks.

        It seems like the relationship between mental introspection and underlying brain processes (and the feedback effect this causes) is something that should gradually be cleared up with more scientific study.

        Maybe this won't answer the "what is consciousness" question, but it seems like we will understand the question better once we know what's going on in more detail.

        4 votes
        1. [3]
          bbvnvlt
          Link Parent
          When I type something in this reply box, is the electromagnetic activity in my laptop "what's really going on"? I'd say no. At least, the "underlying processes" and "what's going on in more...

          Some of this introspection might be a simplified or distorted view of what's really going on underneath.

          When I type something in this reply box, is the electromagnetic activity in my laptop "what's really going on"? I'd say no. At least, the "underlying processes" and "what's going on in more detail" says very little of importance about what's happening. My comment exists regardless of its substrate. Software runs on hardware, but it exists as its own thing, it's not just a view on/interpretation of physical processes too complex to comprehend.

          1 vote
          1. [2]
            skybrian
            Link Parent
            That's not quite what I mean. There are cases, sometimes associated with mental illness, where people are plainly wrong about what's going on in their heads. There may be more subtle illusions,...

            That's not quite what I mean. There are cases, sometimes associated with mental illness, where people are plainly wrong about what's going on in their heads. There may be more subtle illusions, analogous to optical illusions, but it's less clear, since we often don't have an independent idea of what the truth is.

            With respect to free will, the question isn't so abstract as "do we have free will or not?" Sometimes, when you ask someone why they did something, they will say they decided to do it for plausible reason X when the experimenter knows there is a different reason, and they didn't decide at all and the action is in fact involuntary.

            This doesn't mean we don't ever have free will, but it does mean that our feelings about it can be mistaken sometimes. It seems to have something to do with rationalizing. Even when you're sincerely attempting to understand why you do things, you are making inferences and can be wrong.

            This seems to contradict some philosophical arguments where it's assumed that, if you know anything for sure, it's what's going on in your own head. This turns out to be no more reliable than trusting what you see.

            2 votes
            1. bbvnvlt
              Link Parent
              You're right, I misunderstood you.

              You're right, I misunderstood you.

              2 votes
      2. [2]
        Hypersapien
        Link Parent
        Using that same argument you could say that there are no macroscopic objects, just atoms.

        Using that same argument you could say that there are no macroscopic objects, just atoms.

        2 votes
        1. bbvnvlt
          Link Parent
          This is what Dennet would call 'greedy reductionism'.

          This is what Dennet would call 'greedy reductionism'.

          2 votes
      3. bbvnvlt
        Link Parent
        We (and Dennet) don't. I agree with the criticism that Dennet's use of the word 'illusion' here is confusing. It doesn't match well with his actual claims. This is where Dennet (and I) would...

        But I don't see how we decide consciousness is "illusory" from this.

        We (and Dennet) don't. I agree with the criticism that Dennet's use of the word 'illusion' here is confusing. It doesn't match well with his actual claims.

        Sure there is some kind of gross matter that is acting, but any significance of those actions is entirely based on our perception of it.

        This is where Dennet (and I) would disagree. Thoughts, dollars, and bits exist just as much as the "gross matter" does. They are not mere interpretations (or 'illusions', for that matter).

        1 vote
  3. [3]
    DonQuixote
    Link
    I think it will be shown in the future that bacteria, in a collective sense, are not nearly as uncomprehending as we think. I also think that a bigger illusion than our consciousness is that of...

    We evolved from uncomprehending bacteria.

    I think it will be shown in the future that bacteria, in a collective sense, are not nearly as uncomprehending as we think. I also think that a bigger illusion than our consciousness is that of the assumption that consciousness is created in and confined to the brain.

    4 votes
    1. [2]
      Staross
      Link Parent
      We already know a lot about some bacteria decision making, from the general behaviour down to each individual protein and their collective dynamics. For example the flagella system is very well...

      We already know a lot about some bacteria decision making, from the general behaviour down to each individual protein and their collective dynamics. For example the flagella system is very well characterized. Thing is, there's nothing comprehending about it, for example to locate and move toward a food source the bacteria will randomly spin to choose a direction, and then move straight for a little while. The only "smart" thing it does is moving straight a bit longer on average when the food concentration is increasing.

      2 votes
      1. DonQuixote
        Link Parent
        And I'm certainly not a biologist. But the thinker in me can't help but wonder that our current attempts at artificial intelligence are taking a similar path by having relatively simple...

        And I'm certainly not a biologist. But the thinker in me can't help but wonder that our current attempts at artificial intelligence are taking a similar path by having relatively simple components, by the sheer law of numbers, arriving at efficient algorithms on their own. If consciousness is only an illusion, might intelligence also be a human-defined abstraction?

        From what I've seen, we've barely begun to understand the way our own biome works and it's importance to our being.

        1 vote
  4. Neverland
    (edited )
    Link
    I'm not a fan of this type of headline, Betteridge's law and all, but the topic is very interesting. I have to say that my gut feeling is that "human consciousness" is not that special. I think...

    I'm not a fan of this type of headline, Betteridge's law and all, but the topic is very interesting. I have to say that my gut feeling is that "human consciousness" is not that special. I think that it is just what we call the critical mass of senses and self-awareness which evolution has handed us.

    What are your thoughts on this topic?

    3 votes
  5. Litmus2336
    Link
    This strikes me as a misunderstanding of Dennet. And I think they'd be even more hostile to hard-line computationalists. But I think it's hard to argue with the core line of thinking, that there...

    This strikes me as a misunderstanding of Dennet. And I think they'd be even more hostile to hard-line computationalists. But I think it's hard to argue with the core line of thinking, that there is no spiritual aspect to consciousness, but instead it is the manifestation of a very complicated biological process. It's in no way "false", but the dualistic idea of a consciousness beyond a body is.

    Edit: I should also nitpick the title - science hasn't "shown" consciousness is an illusion, but we lack any way of proving it other than biology.

    2 votes
  6. Staross
    Link
    To me a real illusion would be epiphenomenalism, that is that our conscious experience is caused by bio-physical processes but doesn't cause anything in turn, like the sound of our heartbeats is...

    To me a real illusion would be epiphenomenalism, that is that our conscious experience is caused by bio-physical processes but doesn't cause anything in turn, like the sound of our heartbeats is caused by the contractions of our heart but is itself a causal dead-end.

    1 vote