Thoughts. Desires. Intentions. Plans. Interpretations. Meanings. These seem to be so important, so vital, so much a part of being human.
We think about stuff. We have feelings about stuff. We argue, debate, laugh, cry, discuss, cogitate, agonize over, dream about stuff. Yet there are good neuroscientific reasons to say, "We're totally mistaken. It's impossible for our minds to be about anything."
Ultimately, science and scientism are going to give up as illusory the very thing conscious experience screams out at us loudest and longest: the notion that when we think, our thoughts are about anything at all, inside or outside of our minds.
Rosenberg doesn't deny that thinking happens. Or that emotions happen.
What he denies is our intuitive assumption that what's going on inside our minds is about something. Most challenging of all, this leads him to the conclusion that it's wrong to say things like "I'm seeking the truth about myself."
This "about" issue is the most difficult part of Rosenberg's book. He says so himself, and I agree.
I've re-read the chapters where he lays out his arguments for thoughts not being about anything at all. I agree with him, but it's difficult to describe why in a simple fashion -- perhaps because I, like everybody else, am so used to believing that I'm capable of thinking about something.
Yet this notion isn't unfamiliar to me. It's akin to Buddhism's thoughts without a thinker. Thinking happens, for sure. The questions are, who's doing the thinking, and how?
Rosenberg travels down several argument-avenues in his attempt to convince the reader that our thoughts aren't about anything at all. He works hard at this, because he sees it as vitally important for understanding reality as it is.
What you absolutely cannot be wrong about is that your conscious thought was about something. Even having a wildly wrong thought about something requires that the thought be about something.
It's this last notion that introspection conveys that science has to deny. Thinking about things can't happen at all. The brain can't have thoughts about Paris, or about France, or about capitals, or about anything else for that matter.
When consciousness convinces you that you, or your mind, or your brain has thoughts about things, it is wrong.
Don't misunderstand, no one denies that the brain receives, stores, and transmits information. But it can't do these things in anything like the way introspection tells us it does -- by having thoughts about things. The way the brain deals with information is totally different from the way introspection tells us it does.
Seeing why and understanding how the brain does the work that consciousness gets so wrong is the key to answering all the rest of the questions that keep us awake at night worrying over the mind, the self, the soul, the person.
This is what I love about science, especially neursoscience: it's like a Zen master.
Except, you don't get hit with a physical stick while the master yells "Wake up! Wake up!" The hitting, the yelling, the urging to wake up -- these shocks to the psyche come through understanding the deep meaning of scientific research into the human mind/brain.
After all, that's who we are.
Neurons, brain cells, synapses, all doing amazing stuff, creating consciousness, experiences, our feeling of me-ness. We know (albeit imperfectly) what bubbles to the surface of conscious awareness, but don't have any access to the brain processes which work away outside of our ability to know.
People are attracted to mysticism and the occult because they promise to reveal hidden truths. Well, that's exactly what science does. Except science offers up good reasons to accept its truths, because they are founded on more than blind faith and personal claims.
Here's my favorite passage from Rosenberg's book that aims to explain why we can't think "about" anything:
Our conscious thoughts are very crude indicators of what is going on in our brain. We fool ourselves into treating those conscious markers as thoughts about what we want and about how to achieve it, about plans and purposes. We are even tricked into thinking they somehow bring about behavior.
We are mistaken about all of these things. Meanwhile, our brain's input/output circuits are working, behind the curtain so to speak, creating these illusions by playing markers out in a (quasi-) grammatical or syntactical order through consciousness.
Whatever neural arrangements these conscious markers consist of, they are almost certainly not sufficient in number or organization by themselves to drive the behavior that is supposed to result from conscious thoughts about stuff.
When it comes to causing and guiding our actions, the stream of consciousness is pretty much just along for the ride, like the conscious feeling of choosing in Libet's experiments. This is just another reason to treat conscious thoughts as crude indicators, not rough approximations of anything the brain is actually doing.
We humans are animals. We need to remember that.
Yes, we're the most highly evolved animals on Earth -- the most intelligent, with the best communication skills. We can tell stories to ourselves, and others, about how special we are. But really, we're not. The human brain is still a bunch of meat, just like the brains of other animals are.
Consider the frog. Rosenberg writes about how a fly passes in front of a frog's visual field.
The frog's tongue flicks at the fly and brings it into its mouth. We watch this display and marvel at the frog's ability, something we can't do.
...We are, of course, amazed at the environmental appropriateness of the frog's tongue flicking. We say, "The frog knows where the fly is. There must be neurons in its brain that contain information about the fly's speed and direction."
It's perfectly natural for us to say this, but it's an illusion that results solely from the environmental appropriateness of the dot-detection to tongue-flicking chain of neural inputs and outputs. The frog's neural circuitry can't be about the fly; they can't be about anything.
...Now let's turn to the human case. Here the behavior is even more exquisitely appropriate to the environment. Our behavior is not limited to anything as simple as flicking our tongue at edible insects. We engage in conversation. What could be more exquisitely appropriate to our environments?
The appropriateness is, however, only different in degree from the appropriateness of the frog's tongue flicking.
I've just performed a human equivalent of frog-tongue flicking by writing this blog post. As you have by reading it.
My brain did it. Yours also. No thoughts about required. It's just what people do. The Internet is one of the lily pads where we hang out and do stuff.