Philosophers’ claims that by reflecting on itself thought reliably reveals our nature, grounds knowledge, gives us free will, endows our behavior with moral value, are all challenged. And the threat doesn’t stem from some tendentious scientistic worldview. It emerges from the detailed understanding of the mind that cognitive science and neuroscience are providing.
Introspection, “the mind’s eye,” assures us with the greatest confidence that it is the best, in some cases the only authority on how the mind works, because we all think it has direct, first person access to itself. We’re all very confident that we just know what’s going on in our own minds, from the inside, so to speak.
Michael Graziano, a neuroscientist at Princeton University, suggested to the audience that consciousness is a kind of con game the brain plays with itself. The brain is a computer that evolved to simulate the outside world. Among its internal models is a simulation of itself — a crude approximation of its own neurological processes. “The machine mistakenly thinks it has magic inside it,” Dr. Graziano said. And it calls the magic consciousness. It’s not the existence of this inner voice he finds mysterious. “The phenomenon to explain,” he said, “is why the brain, as a machine, insists it has this property that is nonphysical.”
Max Tegmark, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (he also spoke at the New York event), has proposed that there is a state of matter — like solid, liquid and gas — that he calls perceptronium: atoms arranged so they can process information and give rise to subjectivity. Perceptronium does not have to be biological. Dr. Tegmark’s hypothesis was inspired in part by the neuroscientist Giulio Tononi, whose integrated information theory has become a major force in the science of consciousness.
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