Beware the Neuro-Inquisition!

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Any day that references TJ Hooker is a good day.

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Charlie Rose is rebroadcasting its series on contemporary neuroscience, with Eric Kandel moderating discussions with a number of luminaries from the field. WGHB ran the episode on consciousness last night, which is available on the web here for those of you who missed it. Great fun, and one of the best introductions to the field that I can imagine. Stanislaw Dehaene is the man.

One of my pet peeves with the discussion, even back when it originally aired last year, is the continual use of the ‘tip of the iceberg’ metaphor for consciousness. I’m sympathetic to the idea that consciousness only accesses a fraction of the brains overall information load, certainly, but the metaphor perpetuates what might be called the ‘Pinnacle Conceit,’ the notion that all these non-conscious processes somehow culminate in consciousness. This is the problem I have with Freud’s ‘preconscious,’ or even Dennett’s ‘fame in the brain’ metaphor, the way these characterizations lend themselves to the idea that this… what you are experiencing now, is a kind of crowning achievement, rather than a loose collection of cogs in a far, far vaster machine.

The fact is, consciousness is more like a grave than a summit, something buried in the most complicated machinery known. It evolved to service the greater organism, not vice versa. The superiority of the ‘cog in the machine’ metaphor lies in the fact that the conscious brain is neurofunctionally embedded in the gut brain, something that accesses information from nonconscious neural processors and provides information to other nonconscious neural processors. This allows us to see what I call the ‘Positioning Problem’ in “The Last Magic Show“: the way the neurofunctional context of the information that enters conscious experience in no way exists for conscious experience (not even as an absence), stranding conscious cognition with fragmentary episodes it can only confuse for the whole story–what we call ‘life.’

Imagine an ‘orthogonal’ cable TV channel, one that continually leaps from channel to channel without you knowing, so that you see a continuous show made up of episodic fragments of other shows–say, William Shatner shooting a man who becomes a woman applying lipstick just as the Death Star explodes–without having any knowledge whatsoever of TJ Hooker or Cover Girl or Star Wars. Since this is the show you have always watched, it necessarily forms the very baseline for what counts as a ‘coherent narrative’–which is to say, something meaningful. Then the neuroscientific channel surfers come along and begin talking about narratives that run at right angles to your own, narratives that are far more coherent intellectually, but make utter hash of the ‘baseline narrative’ of your orthogonal viewing.

This illustrates the Positioning Problem in a nutshell. Given that the neurofunctional context of any conscious experience is utterly occluded from conscious experience, we have no way of knowing what role that conscious experience actually plays. For all we know, the channels could be crossed, and things like the ‘feeling of willing,’ for example, may actually follow our actions rather than triggering them. For all we know, the ‘feeling of certainty’ we enjoy may have nothing to do with our reasoning whatsoever, but rather be the result of some unhappy neural birth defect. For us, Bill Shatner shooting a man seems to necessarily cue a woman applying lipstick simply because the possibility of other channels, programs running at right angles to conscious experience, does not belong to our eclectic broadcast.

This is basically what I’m driving at in my brief ‘bestiary’ of possible consciousnesses, and why I’m so pessimistic about what neuroscience will make of the human soul. We presently find ourselves on the rack of knowledge, and we have no reason to think our Inquisitors will be kind. Sure, they seem warm and friendly enough, and even telegenic, as that episode of Charlie Rose reveals. But they are pursuing questions whose answers care nothing for our joints or their range of motion. Nature is their primary authority, and no Pope could be more indifferent to our needs and concerns. This particular Church of Rome, I fear, is about to tear us apart.