Thursday, January 1, 2015

No, Really—Consciousness Is Worth Thinking About

About a year ago as I was engaging in my morning ritual of new-site checking, I happened upon a post entitled Consciousness Is Worth Thinking About that had made it to the front page on the popular tech news site, Hacker News [HN]. Interesting! I thought, and after reading the article, which I thought contained some good food for thought, I clicked through to the comments, which I took a snapshot of.

They are highly dismaying, to say the least. It’s clear what the average HN commenter thinks of the subject:
"Sophomoric philosophy"
"Not a useful concept"
"[An] evolutionary advantage"
and last but not least:
"I wish we could send out a memo to the world that says ‘Please do not draw metaphysical conclusions from math or science unless you are an expert on the field you are drawing conclusions on.’" 
My response: who said anything about metaphysical?

What discourages me is that the overall tone of the HN commenters is: Get with the program. Instead of acknowledging that it is an open question and saying something like, “Interesting hypothesis, my own thoughts are that X, Y, Z, but have you read A, B, or C, which indicate Q…”, the response is: (chuckle) Consciousness? We solved that, didn’t you get the memo? You might as well talk about The Ether. An antiquated concept; a dead end. In general, the implication is that if you think there is anything left to be discovered here, it serves only to showcase your own inability to think rationally.

I let myself get riled up about this because I expect more from HN commenters. These are not the people you find on YouTube. Typically they are rationally-minded, intellectually curious individuals, but what we see here in black and white is that, when presented with a decent article about a legitimate, yet unexplained problem, they recite the party line.

I respectfully submit that this attitude should be considered harmful, for several reasons, not the least of which is that it stifles investigation into a subject that is still open, regardless of what Dawkins, Dennett, Kurzweil, and xkcd (all of whom I respect for other reasons) think.

Part of the reason behind the mud-flinging lays within a misinterpretation which is visible in the last quoted comment — the idea that by using the word “consciousness,” we are implying something trans-rational, spiritual, magical, etc. But consciousness is not magic, it’s a phenomenon like light or gravity. So, henceforth, let’s substitute the word “observer” for consciousness, since that’s what is being discussed — the observer and the observed.

As Gopi Krishna wrote:
“Now a material scientist may argue that, well, we have gained this consciousness by experience. Why has not the ox or the cow or the fish gained it?
“Then he will argue that, well, man’s consciousness took a leap, but when we ask him how did it take a leap, he is dumb. He knows nothing. Even Darwin had to admit that we could give no definite explanation for it except that it is part of natural selection. So you see the whole structure of materialistic philosophy has been built on suppositions and premises, not on realities. The first reality we come across is consciousness. The world comes later. We know first ourselves and then the world.
“So the wiser course is first to understand the knower. What modern thinkers have done is to ignore or bypass the knower, forgetting that it is the knower that is doing it.”
The other issue is one I consider to be more dire, and I don’t know what to call it except a fear of the unknown which manifests itself as hostility, ridicule, or scorn. I call this dire because this is exactly the kind of attitude that a scientist should reject — in a situation where a root cause is murky and escapes testability, we must keep an open mind. To do otherwise is to be dishonest to oneself. If the answer is “we don’t really know,” then saying the problem is solved or can be explained away is false.

I don’t mean to say that all the comments are negative or hostile — there is some good food for thought, however, it’s interesting to me that so far, none of them addresses the points made by the author; they simply recite the prevailing idea that the problem has been explained away. If it weren’t obvious, my own opinion is that this is not so, and I’m more than happy to engage in a discussion about why I think that.

However, that’s the subject of another article entirely.


  1. Hi - thanks for writing this post! I'm the author of the original article on Since I wrote that post I read a great book called "Biocentrism" by Robert Lanza, which describes a lot of the things I wrote about, but in a more comprehensive and better argument than I did in my post.

  2. So what do think about Duncan's thesis? We'd like to get your thoughts.

  3. I totally agree - honestly IMO the HN crowd (by this I mean the kinds of comments that get upvoted the most, and can be taken to be reflective of the overall attitude of the upvoters, and by proxy the readers) is not open minded, and not all that rational either. Its mostly just a pseudo intellectual crowd, constantly throwing around arguments by appeal to authority - case in point: the top comment for this thread basically says "Kurzweil, Dawkins, Munroe dont believe it, so why should I?". They simply outsource all arguments to some wikipedia article, some scientific field, some important figure, some "law" etc. without any understanding. Another common symptom is extreme myopia, fixation on some insignificant part of an argument (because it happens to be something they know about), while being completely blind to the overall picture.

    I also think you are spot on about this being precisely the kind of attitude rational thinking must reject. Above all, intellectual honesty is needed - to accept when we don't know something. Really, a lot of the comments are just about people patting each others backs for being so rational, so logical, so above the other silly humans who dare think for themselves. Its simply another "hivemind" internet community at this point, as they all tend to become. The hivemind is right sometimes, wrong sometimes.

    More power to you - reject dogma and dare to think for yourself. I love it.

  4. Setting aside the social criticism, I came from HN and / but do feel consciousness is well worth scientific investigation.

    When Gopi Krishna says of the scientist "when we ask him how did it take a leap, he is dumb" and then references Darwin, he's revealing a lack of understanding of the scientific process. Darwin knew he lacked a lot of crucial knowledge -- including how heredity works. Some of the blanks have been filled in, some have not -- or only partially. Darwin's ignorance doesn't undercut his greatness or imply the limits of science.

    There has been a lot of good scientific work done on consciousness in the last few decades. Bernard Baars helped to make the topic respectable with _A Cognitive Theory of Consciousness_ which is still a very good analysis of many of the issues.

    Currently I think the best theoretical grip on consciousness is summarized in Graziano's _Consciousness and the Social Brain_, interestingly discussed at (

    These scientific approaches to understanding consciousness have the advantages of helping us understand our subjective experience, helping us understand how that experience maps into brain anatomy and activity, and helping us explain why and how evolution would have produced consciousness in animals like us. Also, these approaches don't require any new work in physics or metaphysics -- they work just fine at the level of neuroscience and cognitive science.

    1. Gopi Krishna is not challenging the scientific method or criticizing Darwin. He is actually proposing that we examine Consciousness from both the scientific and the metaphysical perspectives. Why limit the study of consciousness to "the level of neuroscience and cognitive science?" Saying "these approaches don't require any new work in physics or metaphysics" not only subverts everything Ankit proposed in his cogent summary of the situation, it is also condescending.

      Yogis and meditators actually have more experiential information on consciousness, albeit anecdotal, than scientists at this time. Why discount it? Why settle for the "best theoretical grip on consciousness" when we have actual empirical accounts, dating back to prehistory, that are similar in nature and are unrelated to the culture, geography, religion, or physical characteristics of the individuals who experienced them?

      All we are saying is: look at the issue from both sides, and you keep going back to the surety that there is only one side. See the Energy Continuum.

    2. Sorry, I did not mean to be condescending.

      I also don't dismiss the experiential information on consciousness from meditators and others with religious / spiritual experiences. These are investigative practices we can and should use. They are complementary to theory -- they can't replace it but can guide, inform and test it.

      More specifically, Duncan Carroll quotes Gopi Krishna as saying "Now a material scientist may argue that, well, we have gained this consciousness by experience. Why has not the ox or the cow or the fish gained it?

      “Then he will argue that, well, man’s consciousness took a leap, but when we ask him how did it take a leap, he is dumb. He knows nothing."

      This is mistaken. Current cognitive scientists have very specific theories of how people's consciousness is different from that of ox or cow or fish (or even chimpanzee), and how "man’s consciousness took a leap". Many of them are paying attention to meditators -- some of them have extensive experience as meditators themselves -- and they believe their theories help to explain their experiences. Those theories may be wrong but those scientists are not "dumb".

      Ankit seems to be discussing commentary by people at HN. I can't tell whether or how this applies to what I said. I am certainly not dismissing consciousness as nonexistent, dismissing meditation as unscientific, or things like that. On the other hand I do believe in Occam's razor as a guide to thought -- "Do not multiply entities without necessity." So *if* a theory can account for phenomena without postulating new entities -- new forces or energies, changes to physics or metaphysics -- that is a good thing. My point was simply that the theories I referenced claim to do that.

      On the other hand if a theory *cannot* account for the phenomena then that theory needs work, or maybe needs to be discarded. The scientists creating these theories of consciousness are very interested in accounting for near death experiences, out of body experiences, and so forth. They agree these experiences are real; the scientists are trying to understand how they relate to the brain, body and practices of those who experience them.

      Given all this, I am unclear on whether or where we actually disagree.

    3. 1) I don't think Gopi Krishna was saying that animal consciousness is the same as the human variety. Neither was he calling scientists "dumb," as in stupid. Here's an excerpt from my Apple Dictionary for the word:

      1 she stood dumb while he shouted: mute, speechless, tongue-tied, silent, at a loss for words; taciturn, uncommunicative, untalkative, tight-lipped, close-mouthed; informal mum.
      2 informal he is not as dumb as you'd think: stupid, unintelligent, ignorant, dense, brainless, mindless, foolish, slow, dull, simple, empty-headed, stunned, vacuous, vapid, idiotic, half-baked, imbecilic, bovine; informal thick, dim, moronic, dopey, dozy, thickheaded, fat-headed, birdbrained, pea-brained; daft. ANTONYMS clever.

      He was using Meaning #1, as in "Mute." That's the way I interpreted it when I read it many years ago, and the way I understand it still, lo these many years.

      2) As for whether we agree or disagree, now that you've clarified your ideas, I don't think we do. However, I'm not sure how close one can get to an understanding of consciousness from the "outside-in" (as observers) as opposed to from the "inside-out" (as experiencers)? Nevertheless, my mind is open.

    4. Thanks JJ Semple!

      I understood that Gopi Krishna was using the older sense of "dumb" though I think it is infelicitous phrasing given the likely misunderstanding and connotations.

      However he is simply wrong about scientists being dumb in exactly that sense -- they are far from mute, speechless, tongue-tied, etc. A significant number -- in many cases with prestigious appointments and strong publication records -- are very vocal and in fact there's a pretty strong research tradition developing. There's a fairly solid consensus in cognitive science and neuroscience that consciousness -- including unusual states of mind induced by meditation etc. -- is amenable to scientific study. For example look at the results from Google Scholar regarding recent work related to "meditation cognitive science" (,5&as_vis=1).

      Personally I think that just "outside-in" approaches to anything (almost) never work. Starting with just an "inside-out" approach often does work. On the other hand "inside-out" approaches have inherent limitations so usually as our domain understanding develops we need to start creating explicit theory to help us explain / organize / extend our understanding.

      I see much of the work in the cognitive science / neuroscience of consciousness as trying to help with that. Of course we have thousands of years of various work along these lines, but I think we can gain a lot from modern scientific ways of modeling and experiment design -- plus instrumentation that lets us watch what is happening in more detail, related knowledge of neuroanatomy and brain function, clinical reports of relationships between brain damage and alterations of consciousness, etc. etc.