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The science of consciousness must escape the religious dark ages

By Michael S. A. Graziano


Each one of us has an inner feeling, an experience that is private. Consciousness, awareness, qualia, mind — call it what you will — it is the subtle distinction between merely computing information and feeling. The science of consciousness, a relatively new and growing area of research, asks how this non-physical feeling relates to the brain. How can circuits made of neurons do more than compute information—color, sound, location, and so on? How can they also create an awareness of those things? The answer to that question, if an answer is possible, would be the ultimate in human scientific understanding. That, at least, is the typical assumption.

To me, however, this typical way to frame a question has derailed all scientific progress. It is effectively religion in disguise, and perhaps also a bit of the worship of mystery. The objective phenomenon that we have in front of us, that we know exists, is not a semi-magical inner feeling. The phenomenon is that brains attribute that semi-magical property to themselves. Brains attach a high degree of certainty to that attribution. Attribution is not semi-magical. It’s in the domain of computation and information processing. It can be understood, it can be studied scientifically, and it can even be engineered.

To better explain this ideological divide between the most common (closet religion) approach to consciousness, and the more rationalist and scientific approach, I’ll use the analogy to the belief in God. God is a construct of the human brain. The reason why so many people believe in it intuitively and implicitly is because of a host of social factors, psychological factors, even evolutionary factors. The details aren’t fully understood, but the basic outlines of the theory are in place.

This brain-based theory of God is pretty close to how most atheistic scientists view the matter. A theologian might argue that the theory doesn’t explain God. It merely explains how so many people come to believe in it. But from a scientific perspective, the objective phenomenon before us isn’t the presence of a deity. The phenomenon is that so many people believe in it with such fervor. The theory explains the observable facts of the case. To postulate that there actually is a magical deity would be redundant and would add no further explanatory power.

Human brain work metaphor made of rusty metal gears

In the same way, it’s nonsensical to try to understand how a brain might produce that ethereal, non-physical property of awareness. But it’s not that difficult to understand, at least in principle, how a brain might attribute that property of awareness to itself.

Brains are information processing devices and commonly attribute properties to things. That’s how brains understand the world, both the external and internal world. Those attributed properties are never entirely accurate or even physically coherent. Color, for example, is a construct of the brain, only roughly based on wavelength, and attributed to surfaces in the real world. In the same way, specific systems in the brain must compute the construct of awareness, of an inner feeling, of a subjective experience, and attribute that subtle set of properties to oneself.

One of the more interesting, commonly overlooked properties of awareness is that we not only attribute it to ourselves, but we also attribute it to other people. When I’m in the room with another person, I have an immediate, gut intuition that the person is aware, aware of me, aware of the topic of conversation, aware of the other items in the room. I don’t need to figure it out cleverly. I don’t need to think it through. I can do that too, but prior to any higher order cognition, I have an immediate intuition, one might call it a social perception. My brain has attributed awareness to the other person much like it attributes the color blue to that person’s shirt. My brain attributes awareness and attaches a high degree of certainty to that attribution. Could it be that awareness is an attribution, and that the specific systems in the brain that compute it and project it onto other people are the same as the ones that attribute it to ourselves?

As long as the science of consciousness clings to the belief in magic, in an actual ethereal property of awareness somehow generated by the brain, then no progress is possible. Scientists who study consciousness need to look closely and see where their hidden spiritual assumptions lie.

Michael Graziano is a professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at Princeton University. His recent book, Consciousness and the Social Brain, explores this possible account of consciousness. He lays out a theory, explores in detail how it might explain the known phenomena in their full complexity, and describes how the theory relates to many previously proposed theories. In his view, once the spiritualist or semi-magical view of consciousness is banished, the answers begin to fall into place. The outlines of the theory become clear and a host of experimental findings begin to fit. He is also a novelist and composer. His contributions on the functioning of the brain regularly appear in scientific journals such as Science, Nature and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. His novels include The Divine Farce and The Love Song of Monkey. More information can be obtained on his web site:

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Recent Comments

  1. Robert Landbeck

    The ‘science’ of Consciousness must indeed escape the religious dark ages, as must religion itself. And that is exactly what’s happening but not by Neuroscience and Psychology. In fact they may be facing a considerable humbling to say the least!

    The first open trials to confirm the ‘spiritual assumption’ for the origin of consciousness are now well under way and this could prove bad news for both religious pretensions and related secular speculation. I doubt that Graziano will interested. http://www.energon.org.uk

  2. Whit Blauvelt

    How is the claim that “The phenomenon is that brains attribute that semi-magical property to themselves” even coherent, let alone worthy of publication? First off, “attribute” is not a standard term in computation, so this claim is either unclear or untrue: “Attribution is not semi-magical. It’s in the domain of computation and information processing.” Second, who is concerned about brains somewhere attributing feeling to themselves? Is the human problem that our brains are presumably wrongly attributing feeling to themselves? We’d be better as unfeeling machines? Vulcans? Should we accept by twisted logic that consciousness is nothing but cold computation coupled with a mistaken attribution? Or should we accept as first evidence a consciousness which is at least sometimes extraordinarily rich in qualities, in a way in which no computation might conceivably be?

  3. R K Sudan

    If brain can attribute a property to itself, I think that would take us into the world of a Cartesian theatre. Then, the brain attributing itself with awareness appears too far fetched unless we start believing in dualism. When I am in a room among others I do have some gut feeling or intuition. Could that be mirror neurons at work. What else? I don’t think there is a god spot in human brain that would project an attribute on to others.

  4. Parag Jasani

    Casual explanation of the mechanism responsible for human consciousness you can verify with your subjective experiences:

    While interacting in our day-to-day life, we need to act or react to bodily processes and the happenings in the world, sometimes instantly, to provide us beneficial outcomes.

    Consciousness is designed by the evolutionary process to allow data from such interactions that requires judgmental power to become available for making decisions, thereby benefiting from the capability of making free will decisions (If there were no free will, there was no requirement of consciousness). To understand how interactions are continuously scrutinized for the requirement of judgmental power and how free will decisions are made, visit http://www.whatismind.com

  5. Mayank

    This is clearly untrue. Attaching religion to consciousness is an illusory idea. First of all, consciousness gives rise to matter and not vice versa. Second, its non local. Third, a collective consciousness exists. If you delved deep into quantum theory and eastern philosophy, you would be knowing. Its not easy to understand and debunk everything using materialism. If you’ve tried cannabis or LSD (yes drugs, banned because they promote evolution), you would know. Read about the pineal gland (third eye) which literally baths in the AutonomousNervousSystem. And yes, we ARE being used and being clinged to a highly backward paradigm. You probably need to meditate or experience psychic phenomenon. Experience is crucial.

  6. Philippa Rees

    If consciousness creates matter, or material creation is the illusion of separation from what consciousness itself IS, (for mystical experience shows the well documented correspondences of dissolving matter)then what Graziano terms ‘attribution’ (of awareness) is possibly the secondary ‘quality’ of consciousness experiencing itSelf…hence its religious or numinous, or transcendental qualities. What is immanent is also transcendent, what is individual is also universal, but whether it can be attributed to brain is debatable, because as Graziano defines it brain deals with ‘objective phenomena’ and mystics report nothing outside themselves that is not also all and ‘within’ themselves. Reductionism is still lodged in materialism, the material brain.

  7. Richard Loosemore

    I gave a structured, and as far as I can see complete, account along similar lines in a pair of papers published in 2009 and 2012. The key to completeness is that a theory has to explain the most salient features of the perceived phenomena, and I did that. I also made testable predictions.

  8. Tom Clark

    For Graziano, consciousness is a cognitive illusion, the false attribution made by the brain that we undergo feelings and sensations. It sure *seems* like I have an experience of pain, but in reality there’s only computation. The brain attributes the constructed (computed) property of color to external objects and likewise computes the property of subjective experience to oneself. But there really is no such property since there is no experience, not even an experience of self to whom the property is attributed, only a false attribution exists.

    If we rid ourselves of the notion that we actually have experiences (feelings, sensations, etc.), then of course the original mind-body problem disappears. But the (robust) illusion of experience will play exactly the same role as experience itself in our cognitive economy. It will be private, sensory in its basics, and seemingly other than the neural goings-on that accompany it, since we can see brains but not a false attribution. And the question remains of why and how this false attribution is generated by only certain sorts of neural processes.

    So if Graziano is right, the hard problem of consciousness is replaced by the problem of the illusion of consciousness, which may or may not be less hard.

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