In “How the light gets out: Consciousness is the ‘hard problem’, the mystery that confounds science and philosophy,” Michael Graziano asks, “ Has a new theory [his own] cracked it?”
One’s instinctive response is always to say no, for the same reasons as one doubts that a fad is “here to stay” or that a person who claims he is “just being objective” actually is.
So far, most brain-based theories of consciousness have focused on the first type of question. How do neurons produce a magic internal experience? How does the magic emerge from the neurons? The theory that I am proposing dispenses with all of that. It concerns itself instead with the second type of question: how, and for what survival advantage, does a brain attribute subjective experience to itself? This question is scientifically approachable, and the attention schema theory supplies the outlines of an answer.
As it happens, the “how” question is the important one here. Any conscious being can see, in principle, why consciousness might be an advantage, but not how it is produced.
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.
I admit that the theory does not feel satisfying; but a theory does not need to be satisfying to be true.
No. A theory does not need to be satisfying to be true, but it does need to make some sense.
Subjective experience is just that—what an experience feels like. It is not “a myth that brain tells itself,” it is just the experience, experienced.
Graziano’s “attention schema” theory is interesting, as many theories of consciousness are, but it doesn’t get us anywhere with what may prove an unanswerable question: What would an objective presentation of subjectivity look like?
Well, what would a circle squared look like? What would you feel like if you were somebody else?
In other words, a good theory of consciousness would move us past precisely what current theories are trying to “explain.”