Quick Review of Michael Graziano’s article “How the Light Gets Out”

Posted on Posted in Consciousness, Philosophy of Mind, Qualia, Reductionism


Here’s the original article from Aeon magazine.

When I started reading this I was just waiting for the point when the author would have to actually explain the so-called hard problem, why we have subjective experience, and fully expecting a denial rather than any sort of explanation, which is of course because I don’t think there is any way to explain it.

In short, his theory is that awareness evolved because it was useful for keeping track of information and organizing it. The article is certainly interesting and worth a read however if you agree that there is a legitimate hard problem when trying to explain consciousness the article isn’t going to be particularly convincing.

So, here is where Graziano attempts to explain explain away the lack of explanation.

Some people might feel disturbed by the attention schema theory. It says that awareness is not something magical that emerges from the functioning of the brain. When you look at the colour blue, for example, your brain doesn’t generate a subjective experience of blue. Instead, it acts as a computational device. It computes a description, then attributes an experience of blue to itself. The process is all descriptions and conclusions and computations. Subjective experience, in the theory, is something like a myth that the brain tells itself. The brain insists that it has subjective experience because, when it accesses its inner data, it finds that information. (emphasis added)

I admit that the theory does not feel satisfying; but a theory does not need to be satisfying to be true.

So, what he is saying is that the explanation for us feeling like we are conscious is that our brain tells us we are conscious. The brain insists that we are conscious (when we really are not). He leaves the last bit out but he must be implying it.

I don’t see anything here that sidesteps the traditional arguments that show that qualia (experience) is a really phenomenon (Searle’s Chinese room, Jackson’s Mary experiment, etc.).

To illustrate the point: Let’s say we could use the theory to program robots that insisted that they were conscious, in the way Graziano says we insist we are conscious. However there would still be a difference between the robot who was not conscious and only insisting it was conscious and we are insisting that we are conscious and are actually conscious. Unless Graziano really thinks there is no difference between an unconscious robot saying “I am experience blue.” and a conscious person saying “I experience blue.” he has a pretty significant problem.

At the beginning of the article Graziano says:

Lately, the problem of consciousness has begun to catch on in neuroscience. How does a brain generate consciousness? In the computer age, it is not hard to imagine how a computing machine might construct, store and spit out the information that ‘I am alive, I am a person, I have memories, the wind is cold, the grass is green,’ and so on. But how does a brain become aware of those propositions? The philosopher David Chalmers has claimed that the first question, how a brain computes information about itself and the surrounding world, is the ‘easy’ problem of consciousness. The second question, how a brain becomes aware of all that computed stuff, is the ‘hard’ problem.

His theory doesn’t do anything to address the hard problem of why the brain would become aware of the proposition. He pushes the question one step further back and presents a model that hypothesizes that the brain uses proposition likes “I am experiencing blue” but he doesn’t explain why we would be aware of the proposition that tells us that we are experiencing blue.


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