Thursday, January 19, 2023

Consciousness. It is OK not to know.

Song: Cranberries "Zombie."

I recently listened to Robert Wright's 20-year-old discussion with Dan Dennett about natural selection, consciousness, free will, and other topics. A few notes:

Bob was doing this interview under a fund from the Templeton Foundation, a silly (at best) organization that supports research on the "connection" between science and religion. (Ha-HA! Like the connection between me and a donut.) So I understand that Bob was trying to do something along these lines. He argued that since natural selection brought about human intelligence, maybe evolution might be serving a higher purpose.

This is laughable and totally explained by availability bias: we are "intelligent," so we assume we are the natural outcome of natural selection. 

Obviously, increased complexity makes sense simply in terms of being more effective at getting genes to the next generation. But even increased complexity is not guaranteed; any life elsewhere in the solar system is simple.   

And of course, human intelligence was not guaranteed. If the meteor had missed the earth 65 million years ago, the dinosaurs may well have continued their 165 million-year reign (humans have been around for less than 100,000 years - a blip in the Earth's history).

One place where I am in complete agreement with Dennett regards the absurd idea of epiphenomenalism. I touch on this in Losing My Religions. In short, it is a view that "subjective mental events are completely dependent for their existence on corresponding physical and biochemical events within the human body [true], yet themselves have no influence over physical events."

So why, then, do we discuss subjective mental events? 

Epiphenomenalism is simply and entirely self-refuting.

(More in Losing's chapter: Day 4 Concluded: “Just one more.”)

So I'm confused that anyone could even consider this view for more than a few minutes. But Dennett holds a view that also confuses me: that we can completely understand the consciousness - the subjective experience - of another conscious individual. 


I think one simple example shows the absurdity of that view:

Again as I wrote about in Losing, one of the worst three experiences of my life was watching Anne give birth. But despite my connection with and empathy for her, I absolutely don't know what it was like for her to go through that. I could know everything about her brain state, but that would simply not be the same as truly knowing what it was like to experience that. This is also true for anyone else who has given birth, as every experience is unique and internal. You can have a good idea of what it is like (e.g., understanding another's Crohn's attack or low back pain), but you can never completely know.

But Dan thinks anyone could know what Anne went through. He thinks Nagel's question "What's It Like to Be a Bat?" is silly, that of course we can know what it's like to be a bat.


Now don't get me wrong. I'm a materialist and a reductionist. Assuming we don't live in a simulation, I believe matter / energy is all that exists. Consciousness is not magical. It is an emergent property that evolved to make individuals better able to get their genes to the next generation. 

But this doesn't mean that we can know another's consciousness. We may never even be able to understand - truly understand - how matter and energy give rise to subjective experience.

As I quote Sam Harris (who has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Stanford) in Losing: 

Whatever the explanation for consciousness is, it might always seem like a miracle. And for what it’s worth, I think it always will seem like a miracle.

And that is OK.

This picture makes sense in Losing.

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