Decapitating Consciousness: Responses to My Imaginary Critics

Robert Epstein
Mar 5, 2017 · 9 min read

Here are six of the cunning ways philosophers and other experts on consciousness are likely to criticize the essay I published recently in The Awl — Decapitating Consciousnesscomplete with some of the colorful and abusive language academics sometimes use when criticizing each other. My polite reply follows each criticism:

1) The complexity criticism. Epstein is consciously analyzing consciousness in his essay. See the irony? He could not possibly do so unless he were conscious to begin with. His own words demonstrate that consciousness is far more than passive observation; Epstein is generating ideas, assessing the value of concepts, anticipating criticisms — even making lame attempts at levity. The conscious world is extraordinarily rich and complex, and even though Epstein’s thinking is fundamentally simplistic, still, it demonstrates the richness of the phenomenon he would have us dismiss as “simple.”

My response: At first glance, employing the adverbial form of “consciousness” seems to restore its magical properties, but how does putting the word “consciously” before the word “analyzing” tell us anything more than “analyzing” did by itself? Analyzing is a kind of thinking I learned to engage in over the course of many years, and, yes, to some extent, I can observe myself doing it and hence, analyze consciously. This still leaves us with a very simple, but, in my opinion, non-simplistic way of viewing consciousness. As for those new ideas I may have generated, as long as we resist the temptation to reify the word “idea” — in other words, as long as we acknowledge that what we are really talking about is novel thinking, not mysterious new things popping into the world of consciousness — we are still on solid ground. As I have shown in laboratory and field research and have written about in essays and books over a period of more than 30 years, novelty in behavior is both orderly and predictable. Even if my own theory of novelty — “generativity theory” — proves to be faulty in its details, some variation on it will almost certainly prevail. Novelty is inherent in the behavior of all organisms, it is generated in an orderly way, and no mystical, mysterious world of consciousness is needed to account for it.

2) The qualia criticism. Epstein is arrogantly ignoring the undeniable fact that we have non-physical, purely phenomenological reactions to the qualities of things. No one will ever find the color red or the experience of pain inside a brain, and no computer will ever experience such things. These are non-physical experiences called “qualia,” and Epstein is so tragically wrong that he can’t even begin to explain them.

My response: No one will ever find words inside a brain either (see my essay, “The Empty Brain”), but we certainly say words, both aloud and to ourselves. The saying of words, like the seeing of red or the experiencing of pain, is behavior — behavior with real, measurable physical correlates. It is true that the experiencing of “qualities” is entirely private, but how do we add anything to that fact when we assert, based on not even a shred of evidence, that non-physical “qualia” must be involved? We see, we feel, we hear, we talk, and, yes, we observe ourselves doing all of these things; how is any of this activity non-physical or even slightly mysterious? It is simply what happens when one is an integral part of a perceiving system.

This is one of the classic situations in which the structure of language lets us down. Once we learn syntactic structures such as “A occurs because of B” or “A is an instance of B,” we are often defenseless when an authority figure confronts us with vacuous statements such as “You experience colors because of qualia” or “Colors are a type of qualia. “Qualia” is just a six-letter word; it refers to nothing in the real world and certainly to nothing we need to help us understand or explain human behavior or feelings. Its main function, in my view, is to help a handful of self-proclaimed experts pretend they are superior, and that they do quite well. (And, no, this is not an ad hominem argument; it is too generic.)

As for computers, yes, I saw the old Star Trek movies, and, yes, I know how badly Data the android wanted to be a real boy and experience real human feelings, but as a programmer I also know that this story line is complete nonsense. It takes humans years of training in childhood and early adulthood to learn how to label our emotional and perceptual experiences with terms such as anger, sadness, and red, and we never do it very well. Similarly, it will, someday, be possible to teach an intelligent, self-aware computer — that’s right, a computer that can remember things and observe not only the world around it but also aspects of its own physical components and behavior — to know when it is experiencing a wide array of “qualia,” and yes, it will report experiencing them, just as humans do. Will we know what that experience feels like? No. Only the computer will know.

3) The emergence criticism. Consciousness is an emergent phenomenon. It is not neural activity; rather, it somehow emerges from neural activity as a fundamentally new kind of phenomenon. Epstein is espousing a thoroughly passé and simplistic kind of identity theory, naively assuming that consciousness is identical to neural activity, which it certainly is not.

My response: I agree that consciousness is not identical to neural activity. If I could watch someone’s neural activity on a sophisticated scanning device, I would not see consciousness. There is also no reason to assert, however, that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon. Consciousness is not what the brain does; it is part of the experience the brain’s owner has while he or she is awake. When I pinch my arm, both you and I can see the pinching movement, but only I can perceive the sensation of being pinched, for the simple reason that the nerves in my skin are connected to my brain and not to yours. Similarly, as long as I am awake, I am observing not just the world around me but aspects of my own functioning, both overt and covert. There is nothing emergent here, just private. Why should we assert the existence of emergent phenomena when (a) we have no evidence that they exist, and (b) we don’t need to?

4) The transformation criticism. Epstein grudgingly admits that his conscious world is richer and more stable than the one his senses are detecting. Eyes wobble, but our consciousness does not. Our conscious world is therefore a construction of some sort; it is both different from and separate from the physical world that surrounds us.

My response: Our brains definitely smooth things out for us, but that is not evidence that consciousness itself is mysterious. In an experiment first performed in 1950, Ivo Kohler, research assistant to psychologist Theodor Erismann of the University of Innsbruck in Austria, was equipped during his waking hours with glasses that flipped the world upside down. This was disorientating at first, but after a day or two, he stopped bumping into things, and by the tenth day, his visual world righted itself. Because the human eye contains only a single convex lens, it always flips incoming visual signals upside-down before they reach the retina, so our brains are always making appropriate adjustments.

That the brain fills in gaps is powerfully illustrated by the missing fundamental phenomenon in auditory perception. Notes we hear on musical instruments have a pitch that is determined by a fundamental sound frequency, and that frequency is typically combined with complex overtones at higher frequencies. When, in laboratory experiments, the fundamental frequency is omitted from this combination of frequencies, we still hear the same pitch. The timbre of the sound changes, but the pitch does not, which means the brain is somehow generating the pitch of the missing fundamental from the overtones. We benefit from this transformation every day, because most telephones can’t produce the low frequency sounds typical of male voices; when we hear a male voice on the phone, we are hearing low pitches our brain is generating to supplement the overtones the phone speaker is providing.

In the late 1990s, I was one of those unfortunate outliers after having laser eye surgery. Among other things, I saw streamers emerging from bright lights; looking up at the night sky was a nightmare. The odd effects lasted for years, and I often found myself yearning for the day when I could once again see an undistorted view of the moon. Then, one day, the effects were gone. It’s possible that my corneas had healed, but perhaps my brain had finally adjusted to my new visual reality. Brains do that, sometimes gradually and sometimes in an instant. In the famous Rubin vase/face figure/ground illustration, you might first see a vase and then, a moment later, see the profiles of two faces; you can shift back and forth between the two perspectives, but it is difficult to see both at once.

Do we need to jump to another world or universe to explain a brain that fills in, stabilizes, adjusts, and shifts perceptions? Not at all. As I noted earlier, we have invented cameras and software that do such things; it should hardly surprise us that our brains can do some of the things our inventions can. What advantage is there to inventing a mythical, mystical, magical non-physical world to explain relatively simple smoothing functions?

5) The reductionism criticism. Epstein is reducing a highly complex phenomenon to simplistic drivel. Sure, we all observe the world and ourselves, past and present, but consciousness is much more. It is __________________ (fill in the blank with as many things as you like).

My response: It is difficult to argue against a broad claim of reductionism, which is almost always one of the main criticisms humanists level against scientists. This is often because of the magical power humanists give to words, especially to nouns that have no obvious physical referents. Having not yet seen the specific claims of reductionism that will be made, all I can say at this point is that I will take them as they come. I, for one, cannot think of any way in which my characterization of consciousness leaves out any important aspect of it.

6) The self criticism. Epstein keeps saying, over and over again — ad nauseam — that you are experiencing some aspects of your brain activity. Such language implies that you are separate and distinct from your brain. Epstein also acknowledges that attention can be directed one way or another. But who is directing that attention? We can make sense of the picture he is trying to paint only by positing the existence of a conscious self that is different and separate from the brain.

My response: People love the idea that a self — sometimes called a soul — exists separate from the body. Even I find this idea appealing at times, because it gives me hope that some form of me might outlive my body. People generally fear death, and the self or soul is an easy hedge against it. But shoddy thinking is shoddy thinking, no matter how well motivated.

Yes, I sometimes say that you are observing properties of your world or your body or behavior. But I have also explained that you do not actually exist. The sense we have of “me” or “I” comes from the fact that we can remember our past to some extent; when brain functioning is degraded, our sense of self can weaken or disappear entirely. Again, this is an instance in which we are highly vulnerable to the way authority figures use language. One of the simplest ways for people to gain power over a population is by declaring themselves the shepherds of our mysterious, eternal, and non-physical souls. But “soul” is one of those magical nouns that has no referent in the real world — or, sad to say, in any other world, as far as we know for sure. Voltaire framed the issue slyly: “Oh, God, if there is one, take pity on my soul — if I have one.”

Again, I raise the obvious questions: Why do philosophers, religious leaders, and others persist in giving credence to the existence of a non-physical self? How does positing the existence of such a thing add to our legitimate understanding of the human experience? Is the assertion that the soul is real just a tool authorities use to maintain power over people who are not adept at thinking critically?

Now, though, I see I have painted myself into a corner. If consciousness is really as simple a phenomenon as I say — present in most animals and even possible for a computer to achieve — doesn’t that put us poor humans back into the natural world, the one with fungi and paramecia and sloths? Doesn’t this characterization of consciousness rob us of the afterlife? Doesn’t it suggest that the computers we are so busy building these days might soon outperform us in every way, even in the level of consciousness they achieve?

You bet.

Robert Epstein (@DrREpstein) is Senior Research Psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology in Vista, California and the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today magazine. He is the author of 15 books and more than 250 scholarly and popular articles on creativity, artificial intelligence, internet manipulation and other topics.

Robert Epstein

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Senior Research Psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology

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