Sunday, October 12, 2014

NYTimes Headline Writer Strikes Again

The Sunday Review section of this morning’s Times  contains a column by a Princeton neuroscientist.   The headline reads,

Are We Really Conscious ?

and a subhead answers

It sure seems like it.
But brain science suggests we’re not.

That seemed to herald yet another instance in the sort of quasi-neuroscientific drivel that has been fashionable in recent years, and against which I have polemicized in a series of essays (for which click here).   But happily it turns out that the article in question is not yet one more assault against all that is meaningful or decent in human life, but is rather -- fairly trivial.    The scientists probably did not supply the headline, almost certainly did not supply the subhead, which wears on its sleeve the imprint of that lowest form of media-life, the Headline Writer.

The point of the article is yawningly familiar:  that intuitive human descriptions of phenomena  use different terms from those used by chemists, physicists, or what have you.   The author gives the example of “white”, which (he claims) we perceive as a “pure” color, but -- O the sadly deceived intuitive man! -- is ‘really’ (as Newton discovered) a mixture.   By analogy (which he does not buttress with any detail), our ideas about consciousness do not readily translate into the sort of blips and bubbles which he himself spends his time on in his godforsaken lab.
That much is readily granted.  Yet, we do perceive colors, for all that.  No amount of jabbering about angstroms will make that … fact … go away.   We perceive EM radiation in a manner different from that of dogs, or sea anemones, but we do perceive it, we’re not just imagining things.  (“Do colors exist?  It sure seems like it;  but radiation science suggests…” blah de blah.)   And actually, I would dispute, as a matter of psychological fact, that we perceive white as “pure”, any more than we perceive green as pure or whatever.  It just looks white.   The alleged “purity” is not a perceptive category;  most of us first learn about the specious purity of white light -- in science class.
The same goes for anything you care to name.   It seems to us that macroscopic objects move about more or less smoothly, for such reasons as self-propulsion, or falling, or getting pushed.   Later we learn that they are actually obeying the Hamilton equations, or Maxwell’s equations, and so forth; and that the motion (whether for quantum reasons, or from a foam-level discontinuity of space-time) is not quite smooth in the intuitive sense.  But, knowing all that does not lead us to revise  our judgments concerning things-moving-about, with a couple of marginal exceptions.   (The tilted-but-non-toppling top, or liquid helium climbing up the walls of its containers, are in a sense exceptions -- but a weak sense.  Prior to reading the scientists’ answers, I had no theory at all as to how such things could be;  they just seemed weird.)

The one useful contribution of that very slight article (which goes no distance at all towards “Exploding the Patriarchal Myth of ‘Consciousness’” -- see?  It’s not hard to write headlines like that) is a matter of simple vocabulary:  attention, at the ‘etic’ level of “enhancing some signals at the expense of others”, which we can observe even among the cockroaches;  and awareness, which the author calls “a cartoonish reconstruction of attention that is as physically inaccurate as the brain’s internal model of color.”
Again, no quarrel with that, really apart perhaps from the possible snide connotation of cartoonish, which however we may ignore, as we salute the brilliant minimalism and aesthetic economy of cartoons.    When we assess a symphony, we are not putting forward an erroneous theory of acoustics,  any more than when we say that some dish is “delicious” or that it “tastes like chicken”, we are doing bad chemistry.

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