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Consciousness is not as hard as consensus

Any review of the current writings on consciousness turns up the idea, sooner or later, that it is no longer the hard problem that philosopher David Chalmers labelled it two decades ago. There has been a phenomenal amount of work done on it since, much of it by people who seem pretty clear, in fact, on what it means to them. What is clearly much harder is getting them to agree with one another.

One of the greater controversies of this year was occasioned by psychologist Robert Epstein, declaring in an article in aeon magazine entitled The Empty Brain that brains do not in fact “process” information, and the metaphor of brain as computer is bunk. He starts with an interesting premise, reviewing how throughout history human intelligence has been described in terms of the prevailing belief system or technology of the day.

He starts with God’s alleged infusion of spirit into human clay and progresses through the “humours” implicit in hydraulic engineering to the mechanisms of early clocks and gears to the revolutions in chemistry and electricity that finally gave way to the computer age. And now we talk of “downloading” brains? Epstein isn’t having it.

Within days of his article’s appearance came a ferocious blowback, exemplified by the self-confessed “rage” of software developer and neurobiologist Sergio Graziosi’s response, tellingly entitled “Robert Epstein’s Empty Essay”. The earlier failures of worldly metaphor should not entail that computer metaphors are similarly wrong-headed, and Graziosi provides a detailed and comprehensive review of the very real similarities, his anger only sometimes edging through. He also provides some useful links to other responses to Epstein’s piece, for people interested in sharing his rage.

For all this, the inherent weakness in metaphor remains: what is like, illuminates; but the dissimilarities obscure. The brain’s representations of the external world are not designed for accuracy, but are evolved for their hosts’ survival. Making this very point, in a more measured contribution to the debate, is neuroscientist Michael Graziano writing in The Atlantic. “A New Theory Explains How Consciousness Evolved”, tackles the not-so-hard problem from the perspective of evolutionary biology.

He describes how his Attention Schema Theory would be evolution’s answer to the surfeit of information flowing into the brain – too much to be, he says, “processed”. Perhaps, in the context of the Epstein/Graziosi dispute, he might better have said “assimilated”. Otherwise, full marks and thanks to Graziano.

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