A blogger by the name of Janet Kwasniak took issue with my piece on consciousness, “When Science Gets Stupid,” which was a reaction to an essay in the New York Times, “Are We Really Conscious?” by Michael Graziano.
Kwasniak claims that I apparently didn’t understand Graziano’s piece, since I defined consciousness as awareness. Though she didn’t call the fallacy by name, presumably she’s saying I’m begging the question, because awareness is exactly what Graziano (and Dennett and Churchland) say consciousness can’t be.
If you’re interested, below is the comment I posted at Ms. Kwasniak’s blog, where I explain that I didn’t misunderstand Graziano’s piece nor beg the question.
As I suggest to Ms. Kwasniak, anyone who’s interested in an alternate and sensible account of the nature of consciousness and of the relationship between consciousness and the brain would do well to read John Searle. Searle doesn’t have the answer—there isn’t one yet—but he points us in a reasonable direction.
I didn’t misunderstand Graziano’s essay. I simply disagree with the way that he and Dennett and Churchland frame the issue. You seem to agree with them that neuro-physiology *must* be the solution to the problem of consciousness; that consciousness must be explained purely in physicalist terms.
My claim (and it’s not original to me; I’m simply reiterating the points that others have made) is that natural scientific methodology is by its very nature simply unsuitable to answer certain questions. Because that methodology is incapable of dealing properly with the issue of consciousness, researchers like Graziano and Dennett and Churchland tell us that consciousness can’t be what we think it is; it has to be something else that *is* explainable in physicalist terms. My conclusion is that any theories that contradict so thoroughly our own experience (of course we’re conscious!) reveal the inadequacy of natural scientific methodology in this case. Until the physical sciences are better equipped to handle the problem, it’s best approached philosophically.
To address a couple of your points:
In defining consciousness as “awareness,” I wasn’t misunderstanding the problem. I was providing a working definition, a sense of what I was talking about, to my non-specialist readers. My piece wasn’t an academic essay, and it wasn’t meant for specialists; it was directed at lay-people who might be interested in the subject. You may charge me with question-begging; but to my mind, any theory that tells us that we’re not aware (of things in the world, our own thoughts, feelings, memories, etc.) is crazy.
Second, I didn’t mean to insult Professor Graziano by saying “a guy named…” I was using a colloquial expression again for my non-specialist readers, who wouldn’t have heard of him.
Third, saying the problem should be handled philosophically isn’t a matter of pulling rank; it’s again to recognize the limits of natural scientific methodology in handling this particular problem.
I see that your sympathies lie with neuroscience and theorists like Graziano, Churchland, and Dennett. I was simply offering an alternate account of the issue (leaning on the work of John Searle—whom I would recommend to you), one that I think better accords with our experience.
4 thoughts on “Discussion of “When Science Gets Stupid””
I’ve enjoyed reading both your original blog and this reply (as well as the blog by Janet Kwasniak). I’ve a great interest in understanding consciousness and it was a major theme of my novel (and no, I didn’t propose either an answer or a preference to either the scientific or philosophic approach – or, to that matter, the theological approach).
As a lay-person, what interests me most is the debate. There will always be tension between the different approaches but through this tension we may get closer to the (potentially) unanswerable question.
Thanks for your thoughts, Dylan! I’m glad you enjoyed the discussion.