1/7/10

Spookifying consciousness


Ray Tallis has an article in New Scientist published online today titled "You won't find consciousness in the brain". Unlike Alva Noë, Tallis isn't just arguing that we should expand our hunt for consciousness to culture, language, and our physical environment. He's advocating a spooky, mysterious view of consciousness in which neuroscience is forever powerless to investigate it. For example, Tallis argues that synapses are unable to facilitate memory because, as physical objects, they lack any access to the past; they don't "have anything other than [their] present state". If this made sense, however, home video tapes would be just as incomprehensible.

Tallis statement that "neural activity is nothing like experience" is confusing. Does he expect that when someone thinks of a polar bear, the neural activity in their brain should be white and furry? Another technological analogy seems to apply here: superficially it seems like the audiovisual world of our monitors and speakers has nothing to with the mechanical activity inside our computer towers (you can't lift the case off your PC tower and watch a YouTube video), but we know they are in some sense the same thing. If we knew only as much about computers as we know about the mind, the relationship between computers' mechanical activity and their seemingly distinct audiovisual world would also be baffling and mysterious to us.

I agree that "neuroscience provides ... an incomplete explanation of consciousness" but would argue that's just because it's only one of many fields under the cognitive science umbrella that are each necessary but not sufficient to (eventually, hopefully) explain consciousness.