Solving “one of the last great problems in science”

V. S. Ramachandran is not shy. Far from it.

Not only does he believe the “riddle of consciousness” to be “one of the last great problems in science,” but he also believes that except for that pesky qualia problem neuroscientists like him will solve the mystery of the self in no time. The next generation or two, tops.

Ramachandran’s enthusiasm extends further. He is fond of throwing suppositions and speculations at the problem of self. Maybe it’s this. Then there’s that. And what about ….

Ramachandran’s optimism is tied to his enthusiasm for brain scans — especially scans of the brains of those sufferers of neurological disorders who are Ramachandran’s typical study subjects.

His views are condensed into “Self Awareness: The Last Frontier,” an EDGE essay.

The first thing to note about the essay is that Ramachandran uses the word “self” in a way that separates out all of the qualia that can’t be studied directly. He puts them aside, and then ignores them. For Ramachandran, then, “self” is the cognitive systems that produce self-awareness, but not the experiences we have of that consciousness.

While Ramachandran accepts that the qualia “problem” — how can we describe those entirely personal conscious experiences that we can never share with others? — is presently beyond our understanding, he is quick to dismiss our current limitations. He is sure that, just as Einstein reconceived gravity and moved beyond Newton, some neuroscientist will soon reconceive the qualia problem, or show that it’s only a pseudo-problem. For all we know, he writes, we are like an ant on a mobius strip, unable to see that two surfaces are really one.

Once we do away with the part of self-awareness that can’t be measured by present empirical methods, it becomes much easier to see where Ramachandran gets his optimism. While methodologically justified — how can we address the unaddressable, measure the unmeasurable? — his approach is not really much more satisfying than Dehaene’s. Both of them are content to graph the mechanisms of mind without undue concern for what those mechanisms actually do to us, for what we experience while they’re happening.

Ramachandran first attacks the notion that the “self” is a unitary entity, a single and elemental identity. He notes that “Neurological conditions have shown that the self is not the monolithic entity it believes itself to be. It seems to consist of many components each of which can be studied individually, and the notion of one unitary self may well be an illusion.”

I’m not entirely sure about this argument. In essence, Ramachandran says that if a flaw in the brain disunifies the self, then the self wasn’t a unit in the first place. That seems to depend quite directly on what you mean by “a unit.” If by that you mean something that is not composed of parts, then not much is a unit, or could be. If, instead, you mean something that acts to a single purpose, the claim breaks down. Is he really saying that a watch isn’t a watch if breaking it stops it from keeping good time? Surely his position is more nuanced than that.

If one allows Ramachandran’s claim about the illusory nature of unity, then his arguments that the self, damaged in a certain way, is neither private nor self-aware, go some way toward making his point. He notes that certain neurological disorders seem to break down the isolation of one person’s sensory experiences from another’s.

Despite all the pride that your self takes in its individuality and privacy, the only thing that separates you from me is a small subset of neural circuits in your frontal lobes interacting with mirror neurons. Damage these and you “lose your identity”—your sensory system starts blending with those of others.

Other conditions leave the sufferer conscious, but either unaware or uninterested in that consciousness.

Ramachandran goes on to speculate about the insights the study of neurological disorders  origins can provide to our understanding of, among other things,  intensely “religious” experiences. He’s bullish on the whole brain scan thing.

While I’m generally sympathetic to Ramachandran’s empirical enthusiasm, I must say that I agree with some of the critical comments that follow his essay. First, it’s rather spectacularly self-centred to consider the problem of consciousness one of the last great problems of science. Does he really think that we understand everything else that well? And his inveterate reductionism seems equally narrow.

My original plan was to write a generally positive review of Ramachandran’s essay, but the more I’ve thought about it the less I’ve liked it — as you can probably tell.


One thought on “Solving “one of the last great problems in science”

  1. Working all the time with watches that are defective in their parts must lead to a particular view of how a watch functions not to say questions about the designer who would produce mechanisms which function with such dubious results..

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