The Inflated Self

By Ned Block
The New York Times, November 26, 2010

Edited by Andy Ross

Self Comes to Mind
Constructing the Conscious Brain
By Antonio Damasio
Pantheon, 367 pages

Antonio Damasio gives an account of consciousness that emphasizes wakefulness, self-awareness, reflection, and rationality. Self-consciousness is a sophisticated and perhaps uniquely human cognitive achievement. Phenomenal consciousness is something we share with many animals. Damasio claims that phenomenal consciousness depends on self-consciousness.

According to Damasio, phenomenal consciousness arises from associations processed in different brain areas at the same time. What makes a conscious state feel like something rather than nothing is explained as a fusion of mind and body. Self-consciousness is the result of a procession of neural maps of inner and outer worlds.

The self is inflated with self-awareness, reflection, rationality, deliberation and knowledge of one's existence and the existence of one's surroundings. He argues that a being needs such a self in order to have phenomenal consciousness.

In The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976), Julian Jaynes held that consciousness was invented some three thousand years ago. Asked what it was like to perceive before consciousness was invented, Jaynes said it was like nothing at all. Jaynes denied that people had experiential phenomenal consciousness based on a claim about inflated self-consciousness.

Damasio also denies phenomenal consciousness because of the demand of a sophisticated self-consciousness. Patients in a persistent vegetative state can show signs of phenomenal consciousness. Damasio says these patients show no clear sign of self-consciousness.

Damasio describes dreaming as paradoxical mind processes unassisted by consciousness. But dreaming is paradoxical only if one has a model of phenomenal consciousness based on self-consciousness.

Vivid conscious experience may be antithetical to self-reflection. In one study, Rafi Malach presented subjects with pictures and asked them to judge their own emotional reactions. He then presented different subjects with the same pictures and asked them to very quickly categorize the pictures. Malach found that the brain circuits involved in scrutinizing self-reactions were inhibited in the fast categorization task. Subjects also rated their self-awareness as high in the emotional reaction task and low in the fast categorization task.

Damasio does not show that phenomenal consciousness requires self-awareness and so on. He conflates the minimal self with the inflated self.

AR  (December 2010) I'm reading the book now. It seems more boring than Damasio's earlier books.

The Mystery of Consciousness

By John R. Searle
The New York Review of Books, June 9, 2011

Edited by Andy Ross

Self Comes to Mind
Constructing the Conscious Brain
By Antonio Damasio

Consciousness is a matter of the qualitative experiences that we have. Conscious states exist only as experienced by a subject. How does the brain produce qualitative subjectivity?

Science is objective. Consciousness is subjective. In the epistemic sense, the objective/subjective distinction is about claims to knowledge. In the ontological sense, the objective/subjective distinction is about modes of existence. You can have an epistemically objective science of an ontologically subjective consciousness.

We know consciousness happens and we know the brain does it. To find out how, we try to find the neurobiological correlate of consciousness (NCC), we try to test if the correlations are in fact causal, and we try to formulate a theory. Most efforts to identify the NCC have concentrated on the thalamocortical system. Damasio emphasizes other areas of the brain, especially the brain stem.

Damasio's argument

The brain creates an unconscious mind. The brain also creates the self. When the self encounters the mind, consciousness results. Whenever I have a conscious experience I always experience it as mine. Consciousness is always related to the self.

The brain creates a mind by creating images, which are unconscious momentary patterns on sheets of neurons called maps. Perception is the result of mapping. Damasio: "Minds emerge when the activity of small circuits is organized across large networks so as to compose momentary patterns. The patterns represent things and events located outside the brain."

Body mapping is the key to the problem of consciousness. Having made a mind by making maps, the brain makes the mind conscious by creating a self, and when the self encounters the mind, consciousness results, as "a state of mind in which there is knowledge of one's own existence and of the existence of surroundings."

The self has three components, the protoself, the core self, and the autobiographical self. The protoself arises from mental images of the body produced below the level of the cerebral cortex. The protoself produces primordial feelings. The core self is about action. It "unfolds in a sequence of images that describe an object engaging the protoself and modifying that protoself, including its primordial feelings." These images are now conscious. The autobiographical self arises from memories of facts and events about the self and about its social setting. It creates our sense of person and identity.

Conscious minds begin when the self comes to mind, when brains add a process involving a sense of self to the mind mix. The neurology of consciousness is organized around the brain structures generating wakefulness, mind, and self. Three major anatomical features are the brain stem, the thalamus, and the cerebral cortex. All three anatomical divisions contribute some aspect of wakefulness, mind, and self. To be fully conscious you have to be awake, to have an operational mind, and to have a sense of self as a protagonist of the experience.

Searle's criticisms

The Self. It is hard to understand Damasio's three divisions of the self without supposing that they are already conscious. If the self is unconscious then it is unclear how its encounter with a mind results in consciousness. But if it is already conscious then the account is circular. A conscious self is assumed to explain the conscious mind.

The Mind. Damasio says the brain creates the mind by making maps, but he gives no reason to suppose that a map has any psychological reality at all.

Consciousness. Any type of qualitative subjectivity is a form of consciousness. The possession of such states is necessary and sufficient for being conscious. There is no such thing as a hybrid form of consciousness.

We need to explain how our conscious states are experienced as my experiences. Damasio takes this characteristic of the self as primitive.

AR  I read part of Damasio's book but found it stodgy. His earlier books were fresher somehow. Searle has now made the task easier. Interesting that he too finds "I—me—my" is primitive. That was the conclusion I came to in my Globorg meditations.