Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Illusion of Consciousness

TIME magazine for January 29, 2007, had a special feature on the science of the human brain. Among the many thought-provoking elements in this issue, an essay on the nature of consciousness especially struck me. Did you know that many prominent authorities on the human mind now maintain that consciousness—the existence of a self we can call "I"—is an exercise in self-deception? (Yes, I composed that last statement in a spirit of deliberately highlighting the theory's apparent oxymoronic quality.) TIME puts it this way:

"The intuitive feeling we have that there's an executive 'I' that sits in a control room of our brain, scanning the screens of the senses and pushing the buttons of the muscles, is an illusion. Consciousness turns out to consist of a maelstrom of events distributed across the brain. These events compete for attention, and as one process outshoots the others, the brain rationalizes the outcome after the fact and concocts the impression that a single self was in charge all along."

The author of BLINDSIGHT, a first-contact novel I think I mentioned here a few weeks ago, uses this theory in creating his aliens, which are intelligent without consciousness and regard the self-awareness exhibited by the human space travelers in the novel as an incomprehensible threat. As a model of the process of creating fictional characters, this notion of the idea of "consciousness" as a rationalization of a "maelstrom" of discrete neurological events works out nicely. As writers, we build imaginary people out of a collection of mannerisms, physical traits, personality quirks, moral values, etc. to lend them an illusion of three-dimensional individuality. Analyze this technique in the works of a great novelist such as Dickens, famed for his vivid characters, and notice how few "brush strokes" he often uses to establish an unforgettable imaginary person. In the hands of a skilled craftsman, these collections of traits and behaviors take on such an illusion of life that we feel we know what they would think and do in any given situation, not unlike our real-life acquaintances.

As an explanation of how the human mind actually works, however, I find this model of consciousness less than satisfactory. Like strict Skinnerian behaviorism, it's not a theory one can live as if one actually *believes.* My first reaction was to ask, if consciousness is an illusion and a rationalization, who's doing the rationalizing? Doesn't there have to be some kind of "self" to experience the false impression of being a self?

There go Descartes and all his followers down the tubes! According to this particular school of cutting-edge neuro-psychology, “I think, therefore I am” becomes the least reliable statement one can make, rather than the most reliable. It seems to me that anyone who actually believed in the “consciousness is an illusion” model on a personal, emotional level (as opposed to on an abstract level as an intellectual hypothesis)—a person who actually experienced him/herself as not having selfhood—would be mentally ill by all generally accepted standards. What do you think?


  1. I apparently crossed out of that modality in 1972.

    Currently, in post egoic clarity/ethicality became a dna imperative lingual infusion experiment to integrate and coordinate the sum of all human intention into a physical immortality-ing event.

    I have met some resistance.

    The old paradigm illusionists[most people] unconsciously keep reinforcing the illusion in their pre-conscious psychical politics.... creating an immense amont of psychical inertia to resist the impending harmonic clarvoyancy.

    This makes the borg (Star Trek) movie somewhat prophetic.

  2. Anonymous1:23 AM EDT

    I agree. This nonsense of "consciousness is just an illusion" is beginning to tick me off. Physics has reached a point to where they are making things up again. Here is what I think. Matter is just energy, energy is just light, light is just a wave (disturbance) in space. Space is nothing. So everything is nothing, excepth consciousness. We are in gods simulation.

    Hope you aren't offended by my quarkyness.

  3. Anon, your comment reminds me of how Joy Davidman, the wife of C. S. Lewis, summarized her philosophy before she became a Christian. I wish I could quote it exactly, but it goes something like this: "Politics was just economics. Love was just sex. Sex was just hormones. Matter was just energy. I forget what I said energy was just." Except the examples were a little different, and of course she was much more witty.

  4. I have found over the years that when an idea seems too stupid to believe, and is too easily shot down (e.g., if consciousness is an illusion then who is having the illusion?) it probably means I haven't understood it properly.

    In this case, I still don't understand it, but I think the idea is that we have a perception of a single personality / "executive I" that considers things, makes decisions, and (most importantly) perseveres over time, so that the "me" in 7th grade is the same as the "me" today.

    Scientists can't find where this "executive I" resides in the brain. What they can find is a lot of subroutines and such that handle discrete tasks. So they say the "executive I" is an illusion.

    It doesn't make any sense to me, but I'm going to do some reading to see if I can figure it out.