Sam Harris has recently written on his blog about consciousness.
The first stab he gave was troubling for me. For one, he seems to be embracing some of the sillier notions about qualia (for a good satire of qualia and zombies, read this movie script:http://lesswrong.com/lw/pn/zombies_the_movie/) as Sam says in his first essay:
“To say that a creature is conscious, therefore, is not to say anything about its behavior; no screams need be heard, or wincing seen, for a person to be in pain. Behavior and verbal report are fully separable from the fact of consciousness: We can find examples of both without consciousness (a primitive robot) and consciousness without either (a person suffering “locked-in syndrome”).?”
Now this as on its own isn’t necessarily silly, though I think behaviour plays a huge role on our conscious experience (Smiling can make you happy). But then in his third footnote, he says this:
“And, again, I should say that philosophers like Daniel Dennett and Paul Churchland just don’t buy this. But I do not understand why. My not seeing how consciousness can possibly be an illusion entails my not understanding how they (or anyone else) can think that it might be one.”
I might be confused myself as well, but Dennett in Consciousness Explained did not say that consciousness would be an illusion, but a bag of tricks—that is, not so superduper-mind-blowing as we feel and think it to be. And then the whole business of “what it is like to be something” seems like a red herring, an intuitive feeling that has nothing to do with the scientific inquiry we would like to start.
Defeatism is on many of Sam’s lines, saying all the time that this or that is impossible, pointing out his own failure to imagine something as evidence of there being something to it. Where have I heard this argument before? Creationists come to mind:
“—an analysis of purely physical processes will never yield a picture of consciousness. However, this is not to say that some other thesis about consciousness must be true. Consciousness may very well be the lawful product of unconscious information processing. But I don’t know what that sentence means—and I don’t think anyone else does either.”
“This situation has been characterized as an “explanatory gap”? and the “hard problem of consciousness,”? and it is surely both. I am sympathetic with those who, like the philosopher Colin McGinn and the psychologist Steven Pinker, have judged the impasse to be total: Perhaps the emergence of consciousness is simply incomprehensible in human terms.? Every chain of explanation must end somewhere—generally with a brute fact that neglects to explain itself. Consciousness might represent a terminus of this sort. Defying analysis, the mystery of inner life may one day cease to trouble us.”
“—it is difficult to imagine what experimental findings could render the emergence of consciousness comprehensible.”
“How is it that unconscious events can give rise to consciousness? Not only do we have no idea, but it seems impossible to imagine what sort of idea could fit in the space provided.”
And then the point about no gradual smooth change? Sam sounds again like a creationist:
“The problem, however, is that the distance between unconsciousness and consciousness must be traversed in a single stride, if traversed at all. Just as the appearance of something out of nothing cannot be explained by our saying that the first something was “very small,” the birth of consciousness is rendered no less mysterious by saying that the simplest minds have only a glimmer of it. “
When Sam got to vitalism I thought he was onto something: The analogy is great! Now, in terms of software, programs, the organization of the brain, are we on our way to get rid of the life juice of mental life. But then Sam went on oblivious to this possibility:
“The analogy is a bad one: Life is defined according to external criteria; Consciousness is not (and, I think, cannot be).”
Then came the mystic out and showed his holistic robes to daylight:
“We have reasons to believe that reductions of this sort are neither possible nor conceptually coherent.”
“And yet, whatever insights arise from correlating mental and physical events, it seems unlikely that one side of the world will be fully reduced to the other. “
So after all the success of reductionism, now, it’s bound to fail? Want to bet?
Then the cheap tactic of making this into an either-or issue: either by introspection or not at all… And introspection has provided to be a great tool for discoveries, just ask your own intuition about your awareness (an invisible gorilla should come into mind about now).
“Many truths about ourselves will be discovered in consciousness directly, or not discovered at all. “
So in short, Sam is saying (unless if I’m being deluded into reading into his words something else than he meant) that consciousness is mysterious, science is flawed, and it just seems impossible to ever make progress on this issue. So don’t even try.
When Sam wrote about the mysteriousness of consciousness in his previous books, I was okay with that, because they were not about consciousness, so he could play that card and context. But being one of the leading proponents of proper scientific thinking in all areas of our life, he’s not really leading a great example with this newest piece. By only proclaiming the mystic and awe, and not really chopping into it, he’s sounding like the people who out of laziness just say “Whau! Mindboggling! I can’t imagine how this magic could be a bag of tricks, therefore it can’t! Because my imagination is the gold standard for all reality.” Ergo Defeatism.