Thursday, January 7, 2016

About consciousness

Mirror Self-Recognition
Steve Jurvetson, Menlo Park)
One of the most serious difficulties faced by materialists is the problem of consciousness, sometimes called self-awareness, the awareness I have of being myself rather than another person or object, the feeling of being the same individual from my first memory to my death, even though every few years all my atoms are changed, and hence the specific matter which makes up my body.
Since the materialist ideology assumes that only matter (in the broad sense) exists, it adopts a reductionist approach, according to which our self-consciousness must be, by definition, an epiphenomenon, the result of the joint action of our neurons. This is a dogmatic stance, without scientific support, as in the present state of our knowledge neuroscience has not the faintest idea about how self-consciousness is generated.
The word consciousness has in English two different acceptations:
·         The consciousness of being oneself, usually called self-awareness, the object of this post.
·         The consciousness of having experimented something, as when we say I’m conscious of having seen you yesterday.
It is clear that the two senses of the word are very different. We must not confuse them.
In a previous post I commented Jeff Hawkins’s book On intelligence, referring to his reductionist profession of faith and how he incurred the fallacy begging the question. In this post I will discuss Hawkins’s ideas about consciousness, expressed in the same book. In this case he incurs another fallacy, straw man, also discussed in another post.
In his book, Hawkins contemplates the problem of consciousness, and although he confesses he is not an expert (and immediately gives proof of it), he says he has solved the problem: he can prove that consciousness is the result of the normal interplay of neurons, basically reducing it to the same thing as declarative memory. To argument this, he uses the following thought experiment:
Imagine I could flip a switch and return your brain to the exact physical state it was at some point in the past... I just flip the switch... and your synapses and neurons return to a previous state in time. By doing so, I erase all your memory of what occurred since that time. Let’s assume you go through today and wake up tomorrow... I flip the switch and erase the last twenty-four hours. From your brain’s perspective yesterday never happened... It’s as if you were a zombie for a day, not conscious. However, you were conscious at the time. Your belief that you were conscious disappeared when your declarative memory was erased.
What is the problem with this argument? The fact that it confuses the two meanings of the word consciousness. The problem of consciousness, such as discussed in philosophy and neuroscience, refers to the first meaning indicated above. Hawkins’s thought experiment, however, refers to the second meaning, the consciousness of having lived a particular experience.
Of course, if you lose your memory for a time, which could happen if the passage of your short-term memory to long-term memory is broken, you cease to be aware of some things that you have actually lived. This syndrome has been very well studied. Oliver Sacks, in his book The man who mistook his wife for a hat, gives several examples. But this has nothing to do with the problem of consciousness, just with the fact that we can lose the consciousness of having experienced something. Therefore Hawkins’s argument, based on his thought experiment, is a classic example of the straw man fallacy, because it has mistaken its target by confusing the meaning of the word he is trying to explain away.

Manuel Alfonseca

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