Pinker’s Mystery of Consciousness

Interesting piece from back in January in Time magazine by Stephen Pinker entitled The Mystery of Consciousness. Thanks to David Chalmers for the link; he’s referred to in the article in connection with the easy / hard problem distinction. Lots of other good articles linked in and alongside the article.

Daniel Wegner’s psychology-based work gets a mention. I side with Dennett in not really seeing the hard problem as a problem, and disagree with this kind of summary by Pinker, thought it is a fair summary of a common view …

Identifying awareness with brain physiology, they say, is a kind of “meat chauvinism” that would dogmatically deny consciousness to Lieut. Commander Data just because he doesn’t have the soft tissue of a human brain. Identifying it with information processing would go too far in the other direction and grant a simple consciousness to thermostats and calculators–a leap that most people find hard to stomach.

For me this is just the simplistic positivist logic – either / or – problem. There is a middle ground interpretation here that says any sufficiently complex computation system (any physical substrate, not just meat) can support the emergence of consciousness, and that simple devices like the thermostat, are simply not sufficiently complex examples of such systems. Bisson’s “Thinking with Meat” essay, illustrates that the chauvinism is just a matter of perspective.

And, the fact that most scientists would support the idea that the explanations for animalian consciousness are already shown to reside in the brain, does not say that science has killed the soul, or anything like it. What it does tell us is something about what the “soul” is, and hopefully reminds many a scientist that simple reductionism is unlikely to yield the best brain / mind explanations.

Anyway, good news, Pinker concludes …

… the biology of consciousness offers a sounder basis for morality than the unprovable dogma of an immortal soul. It’s not just that an understanding of the physiology of consciousness will reduce human suffering through new treatments for pain and depression. That understanding can also force us to recognize the interests of other beings – the core of morality.

That’s my view too. The catch is not to let that get misrepresented as some crass explanatory argument for how morality is “caused” by the physical and biological.

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