4. Consciousness?

1 Apr

Sam Harris is a well known author, who wrote several books critical of religion.  I think Harris is a courageous and excellent writer in that area.   When talking about religion and some other topics, he is logical, scientific and reasonable.

My comments here were inspired by a talk (distributed by email 3-29-12) by Harris on “Free Will”,  based on his latest book. After the talk, a member of the audience asserts that “consciousness is an illusion.”

Here is an almost verbatim representation of what Harris said in response:

    “It depends on what you mean by consciousness.
   What I mean is: consciousness is the one thing that can’t be an illusion.
   Consciousness is the fact of experience. The fact that something is
   happening, the fact that the lights are on” … “Even if I am the brain in a bat
   what I am calling consciousness is a manifest fact of reality, and is the basis
   for every other fact that I would experience.”

This verbage inspired me to discuss in detail, at last, a long standing issue.
When Harris talks about psychology,  he throws science and reasoning aside and sounds more like a preacher than a scientist. In other writings, he promotes religion-based meditation as a method of relaxation training rather than therapy methods developed from scientific investigation.

Here is the problem with his use of the word “consciousness.” As Harris uses
it, it is strictly a layman’s term and of no use in science. One of the most fundamental features of science is the use of carefully and effectively defined terms.

P. W. Bridgman, in his famous book: The Logic of Modern Physics (1959),
advocates careful attention to definitions and the use of definitions that can
be expressed in terms of “operations.” For example, in behavioral science,
you can define “hunger” as 24 hours of food deprivation (with some additional
details). Such a definition is clear and promotes effective communication.  Another such definition is: a “meter” is the length of the path travelled by light in a vacuum during a very small, specified time interval: 1 over 299,792,458 sec. The definition is expressed in terms of conditons and operations. It is universally understood and used in laboratories by physicists all over the world.

Harris says that by “consciousness” he means “The fact of experience. The fact
that something is happening, the fact that the lights are on, etc …. ”   But, where is consciousness, how is it measured? Is it an action, a state, or a condition ??
Nothing is clear about this term as Harris uses it; why do we need it at all?

The definition is in fact circular: “consciousness is experience”,  or you could say “experience is consciousness”, its “things happening.”  Or “consciousness is the perception of reality”, and “reality is what the consciousness perceives.” Many words in common use, do not advance understanding. I have listened to many neuroscientists and biologists lecturing on subjects involving psychology, making this same mistake.

Behavioral science was developed through discussions over the course of centuries, where introspection and other loose methodology was rejected. One of the most important principles of science is that what is observed, must be observable by more than one person, and it must be replicable.  Harris’ instrospection is only observable by Harris, and every person who introspects is subject to this same dilema. Each person who studies his own brain is making the same mistake.

Psychology and neuroscience do better when working with measurable behaviors, recordable speech, and clearly defined physiological actions and structures. Harris looks out at the world using his brain and eyes, etc. and assumes that he can understand a system that he is a part of. Proper science uses clearly defined stimuli, conditions, and behaviors and events, and in doing so, progresses. A group of scientists and scientists in different laboratories can study individuals of a species and make replicable findings.

Although perhaps not the best approach,  Harris  could  have  said  that consciousness is a state in which an individual responds in specified ways to specified stimuli. The stimuli and responses can be expressed in exact ways, so that the word has meaning. A person is “unconscious” if responses are attenuated in certain ways.  Harris basically says that consciousness is reality (as he perceives it).  Although he would deny this,  his concept of consciousness lends support to the idea of an entity –a “soul” or “mind”– that sees and understands that “the lights are on.”  Of course, there is no scientific evidence that this entity exists. We only know that people do and say things, and that their bodies have physiological events.

Finally, when Harris (who does so well in other areas) uses “mentalistic” terms like “consciousness”, he actually opens up the door to ideas like the existence “free will.”  Hard science is clearly deterministic — who knows about the “mind”.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: