RE: Ghost in the Machine

From: Josh Martin (
Date: Wed Nov 08 2000 - 18:33:40 MST

> -----Original Message-----
> From:
> []On Behalf Of Nicq MacDonald
> Sent: Wednesday, November 08, 2000 7:43 PM
> To:
> Subject: Ghost in the Machine
> > Sometimes, studying neuroscience and working in a lab, I get
> mired in the
> > minutia, and sort of lose faith. Then I read something that
> galvanizes my
> > resolve. Goedel, Escher, Bach was one. Anything by Damasio works.
> Dennet
> > is pretty good, too. This article was another.
> I've been rather disappointed by Damasio's works. No matter what the man
> attempts to explain through his adherence to physicalism, he is still left
> without any explanation for why we can function as independent beings, or
> what the true root of consciousness is.

His tri-partite model of consciousness is an interesting bridge between
"conscious" and "non-conscious," while backing it up with clinical cases
which are manifestations of the state. He ties conscious into biological
systems, such as those for memory and somato-sensory systems.

He explains nothing that hasn't
> already been determined,

Except for his own extremely prolific body of research,

and adds little to the philosophical dialogue
> surrounding the concept of consciousness.

Well, he's not a philosopher. He adds empirical research, and theories
based on clinical studies, something sorely needed amongst the philosophical
dialogue. Philosophers argued for centuries about whether the atom was the
smallest unit of matter, or able to be split, until a scientist went ahead
and split it.

Even the idea that all
> subjective
> experience can be empirically measured still breaks down due to the fact
> that reading into the precise meaning of every neural connection and
> chemical pair would require the interpretation through a new
> symbolic system
> based upon the structure of the brain itself, which would have to
> be created
> by another mind- thus, we can never escape the subjective nature of
> objective reality. Our brain just doesn't work that way.

I don't think that Damasio advocates this model in any sense. Feelings
aren't interpretations of the body's state in the brain, they are the
representation of the body's state in the brain, and require no
interpretation. Maybe I don't get what you are saying. Are you saying that
Damasio's model includes a need for an interpretory body, ala the Cartesian
Theatre, or what? I can assure you, it doesn't.

> Dennet's work, "Consciousness Explained", might better have been titled
> "Consciousness Explained Away" (To borrow a quote from Ken Wilber's essay
> series "The Eye of Spirit"). It is an objective, conscious attempt at
> denying the existence of consciousness, through denying the validity of
> subjective experience.

Or as I like to call it, "Conscious Explained...Sort of, If I haven't Left
Anything Out, or New Evidence Doesn't Come to Light." I don't completely
buy Dennet's explanation, either, but I do think that his denial of, or
perhaps just doubt about, the validity of subjective experience is valid,
and important. Our brains fool us all the time. The dots in the color phi
experiment aren't moving or changing color. The walls aren't bleeding when
you are on acid. Gestalt psychology went out because it relied on
subjective measures. We must admit the possibility that our brains are
creating the perception of a will for an automaton.

You missed one, though. GEB doesn't really get at the nature of
consciousness, either, because it almost completely ignores biology. Point
is, I don't expect any of these books to hold up completely to scrutiny or
new evidence. They are all flawed, and probably only parts of them will
stand the test of time and experiment, as is also true for Edelman's
theories. What they do for me is offer a synthesis of ideas, letting me
step back so that I can see the forest for the trees, or at least one
thinker's idea of what the forest may look like. When asked a question they
can't field in a presentation, the grad students from the lab at which I
work like to say "The brain is complex." It is a ridiculous understatement
that helps us understand the enormous task we have before us. It galvanizes
me to see syntheses like those of Hofstadter, Dennet, or Damasio. If I want
safe, most likely provable theories, I'll read journals (which I do). If I
want to be excited about my studies, I'll settle for a few flaws in an
over-reaching theory, because it shows the way toward the future of


This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Mon May 28 2001 - 09:50:20 MDT