I'm back!... to writing about Michael Graziano's super-interesting book, "Consciousness and the Social Brain."
It was the subject of my Awareness is a fictionalized sketch of attention, which encapsulated the central theme of his neuroscientific theory.
Every time I pick up the book I'm challenged to look at myself and the world in a fresh way. A believable way. Yet sometimes, a rather disturbing way.
Like when I read this morning, after Graziano described how a ventriloquist makes a puppet look like it is alive, he said:
It seems crazy to insist that the puppet's consciousness is real. And yet, I argue that it is.
I almost grabbed my highlighter to put a skeptical large question mark in the margin of the book. That's how I tell an author an unheard "Are you freaking kidding me!!??"
But after reading what came next, I changed my mind. This passage got a big arrow pointed at it instead. Meaning, this is important.
The key to understanding how a puppet can be conscious is that our attribution of conscious awareness to the puppet is, in Graziano's theory, just the same as our attribution of conscious awareness to ourselves.
Ventriloquism is not a cognitive error. You do not mistakenly believe the puppet to be conscious. You know cognitively that there is no brain in the puppet's head. But perceptually, you fall for the illusion.
...The puppet's consciousness is a real informational model that is constructed inside the neural machinery of the audience members and the performer. It is assigned a spatial location inside the puppet.
The impulse to dismiss the puppet's consciousness derives, I think, from the implicit belief that real consciousness is an utterly different quantity, perhaps a ghostly substance, or an emergent state, or an oscillation, or an experience, present inside of a person's head.
Given the contrast between a real if ethereal phenomenon inside of a person's head and a mere computed model that somebody has attributed to a puppet, then obviously the puppet isn't really conscious. But in the present theory, all consciousness is a "mere" computed model attributed to an object.
That is what consciousness is made of. One's brain can attribute it to oneself or to something else. Consciousness is an attribution.
Indeed, we might say that the phraseology is at fault. Things don't strictly "have" consciousness, nor "are" they conscious. Instead, informational models of consciousness are constructed in the brain and attributed to objects.
OK. Likely this doesn't convince you that a puppet is as conscious as you are. Let's look at Graziano's further attempt to explain what is going on here.
It is difficult to pry oneself away from the idea that consciousness is an intrinsic property of a person. Somehow it is easier to get at the concept when thinking about a property like beauty.
We all know that beauty is, proverbially, in the eye of the beholder. Nothing is intrinsically beautiful. Instead, beautiful implies a relationship between the beholder and the beheld.
A narcissist might behold beauty in him- or herself (we might call it beauty type A), but just because it is self-beheld does not make it more real. You might behold beauty in someone else (we might call it beauty type B), but just because it is attributed to something outside yourself does not make it less real.
Whether you see beauty in yourself or in something else, it is all more or less the same property. Beauty is an attribution.
I admit that the suggestion is counterintuitive. I seem to be saying that a puppet can be conscious. A tree can be conscious. A hunk of rock can be conscious. They can all be conscious in more or less the same sense that a human is conscious.
The reason is that, according to the attention schema theory, human consciousness is not quite what we think it is. It is not something a person has, floating inside. It is an attribution. It is a relationship between an attributer and an attributee.
In some ways, to say, "This puppet is conscious," is like saying "This puppet is orange." We think of color as a property of an object, but technically this is not so... Orange is a construct of the brain. The same set of wavelengths might be perceived as reddish, greenish, or bluish, depending on circumstances.
...To say the puppet is orange is shorthand for saying, "A brain has attributed orange to it." Similarly, according to the present theory, to say that the puppet is conscious is to say, "A brain has attributed consciousness to it."
To say that a tree is conscious is to say, "A brain has constructed the informational model of awareness and attributed it to that tree."
To say that I myself am conscious is to say, "My own brain has constructed an informational model of awareness and attributed it to my body." These are all similar acts. They all involve a brain attributing awareness to an object.
Now, notwithstanding what I said above, I don't find my awareness being equated with that of a puppet to be very disturbing. As Graziano notes, my cognitive understanding of what is going on in my brain will necessarily be at odds with my perceptual understanding.
Meaning, even if I know that my consciousness is "merely" an attribution, not something intrinsically real, I was still perceive myself in the same way. That knowing isn't capable of affecting the informational model of awareness which is attributing consciousness to the neurological goings-on inside my head.
I still have a ways to go in the last chapter, "Some Spiritual Matters." It's evident already, though, that Graziano has a place for spirit in his theory. It just isn't the sort of immaterial, transcendent spirit that religions posit.
Here's a couple of links for further reading: