Seeing the Light – Consciousness as the Nothingness that Means Something


Consciousness Is Not Mysterious

We agree with Graziano…

But  we say that it’s those like Tononi who claim to “measure it” who are the true Mystery.


The Author here, Michael Graziano,a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton University, is very much on the right track. He has a good hunch. We believe that he doesn’t appreciate himself just how much “on the right track” he is.

What he says is, ” What’s mysterious is how we get to be conscious of all that content. How do we get the inner feeling? And what is that inner feeling anyway?

It’s been called awareness, phenomenology, qualia, experience. It seems non-physical, ethereal, more like an energy than a substance, by definition private and therefore not objectively testable. And the fact that it seems like anything at all is the thing itself—the seeming”

He has actually not only pointed to why the hardest problem of all is understanding how various current day “philosophical mystics and misfits like Giulio Tononi and his various mathematizations of “vapor” seek to paint of a picture of what is not even there to be picturered. (we will have more to say about the Tononi tinker toy consciousness model soon)

The theory’s core claim is that a system is conscious if it possesses a property called Φ, or phi, which is a measure of the system’s “integrated information.” Phi can be a property of any entity, biological or non-biological. Even a proton can possess phi, because a proton is an emergent phenomenon stemming from the interaction of its quarks. Hence panpsychism is just around the corner, and the media and medical paparazzi cannot wait to trumpet that news to the huddled masses living in moribund fear of being swallowed by dire materialism.

The author of the Scientific American article who brought Searle’s commentary to our attention, echoes our view of the flim flam we are sure we see being cooked up before us:

“The more Tononi, Koch and others talked about informationintegration and conceptual structure, the less I understood these notions. I also wondered how scientists can measure a brain’s phi, or integrated information, given their ignorance of how brains encode information.”

“When I confessed my bafflement to Tononi, he acknowledged that IIT takes a while to “seep in.” Others at the workshop also seemed osmosis-resistant. Participants often called on Tononi to settle disputes about the theory, but his oracular responses did not always clarify matters”.

Tononi tells us this( doi: 10.1186/1471-2202-5-42

“Consciousness poses two main problems. The first is understanding the conditions that determine to what extent a system has conscious experience. For instance, why is our consciousness generated by certain parts of our brain, such as the thalamocortical system, and not by other parts, such as the cerebellum? And why are we conscious during wakefulness and much less so during dreamless sleep? The second problem is understanding the conditions that determine what kind of consciousness a system has”   ( of course, it seems that …whooops…his point about the cerebellum isagain not a function of any “theoretical underpinning” but the vicissitudes of the measuring instruments of choice at the time and now seems untrue, as well)

“Why are we conscious during wakefulness or dreaming sleep, but much less so during dreamless sleep, even if the brain remains highly active? The second problem is to understand the conditions that determine what kind of consciousness a system has. For example, what determines the specific and seemingly irreducible quality of the different modalities (e.g. vision, audition, pain), submodalities (e.g. visual color and motion), and dimensions (e.g. blue and red) that characterize our conscious experience? Why do colors look the way they do, and different from the way music sounds, or pain feels?




Graziano remarks:

“The human brain insists it has consciousness, with all the phenomenological mystery, because it constructs information to that effect. The brain is captive to the information it contains. It knows nothing else. This is why a delusional person can say with such confidence, “I’m a kangaroo rat. I know it’s true because, well, it’s true.” The consciousness we describe is non-physical, confusing, irreducible, and unexplainable, because that packet of information in the brain is incoherent. It’s a quick sketch.”

So we agree with him that ‘consciousness” is a kind of an illusion. But a useful one. So it has a certain kind of status among the gallery of “illusions” that have vexed our self knowledge journey.

“This is why we can’t explain how the brain produces consciousness. It’s like explaining how white light gets purified of all colors. The answer is, it doesn’t. Let me be as clear as possible: Consciousness doesn’t happen. It’s a mistaken construct.

The computer concludes that it has qualia because that serves as a useful, if simplified, self-model. What we can do as scientists is to explain how the brain constructs information, how it models the world in quirky ways, how it models itself, and how it uses those models to good advantage.”

Recall that Einstein said the same of the concept of “time”: “Time,’ he said, “is an illusion, but a very persistent one” And persistence is the kind of survival that must have something do with the ways and means of evolution

Graziano, has actually given us more than his hunch, but also a promising metaphor/analogy (with the traditional misconstrual of the nature of light) that may actually be of service in tracing out the steps of how this illusion of consciousness arises over time..over evolutionary time and during the shorter durations of our individual lives, and the still shorter durations of each days moments.

“The mythos of consciousness is every bit as confusing and nonsensical as the purity of white light, and the source of the confusion is the same. The brain constructs inaccurate models of the world. To understand consciousness scientifically, once again it’s necessary for the cognitive parts of our brains to discover the inaccuracies in our deeper, built-in models of ourselves.”

We will have a chance to post the results of the trajectory on which Graziano has sent our thoughts in the next day or two. . For that we will have to dig into the neuroscience of this. ..And we thank Graziano for showing us the light..

It makes much more sense to determine how it is that the illusion arises and how that talk of “nothingness” has become so much of that “something” that we call our lives..  So that looms up as the task of a neuroscience that founds itself in evolution as well as the pragmatics of survival in the world.

For now we are relieved to have a coherent approach to the “problem” that is said to be so “hard” recalling that Wittgenstein told us something to the effect that “The solution to a problem is usually not an “answer, but just the going away of the problem”

Now on the other hand in marked contrast to Graziano’s approach to “consciousness” as just what kind of “problem it might be”, not at all a “hard problem”as it seems when we try to explain it as emerging from the other side of the coin of dualism, materialism, to manifest as mind rather than matter on that other side, we have Tononi’s approach to it as the “hardest problem of all” and a windmill with which he and his various Sancho Panzas will insist on tilting.

For Tononi, consciousness must be indeed problematic, since it is one of those typically “emergent’ properties…at least in his eyes…and as such he is haunting by  by the question of how it emerges from the matrix of the material, in this case, the billions of neurons winding their way to each other and elsewhere in the so called “wiring” of the brain that activates at times and doesn’t at others.”

We always enjoy Hofstadter’s description of this task which the myopic scientist/philosopher can give himself when he rivets his attention down to two classes of concepts, those of mind and those of matter, forgetting that they are merely concepts and that, as free agent, he and his colleagues may over time come up with concepts that don’t causee them to rattle around in the same age old dilemma of how the two sides of a coin can both be part of one coin….and seen profitably in that way.

With the the stoogery of the Tononi “information” circus (we keep encountered the oddest publication relying upon the ‘information” cult as the way to research neuroscience and most recently sleep) , we should just note for now that it’s odd how he never has any inclination to inform us just what it is that he seeks when he seeks to understand “consciousness”. Instead he operates in this curious way that has characterized those who are less than insightful over the years.

He does no better in clarifiying what the heck he wants us to listen him talking about by subtraction. By poking around at the conditions and situations that seem to make it hard for some proveribal man or woman in the street to speak of having encountered “encountered consciousness”.

Hmmmmm…now here’s a fine and dandy definition from Tononi:

“Consciousness is everything we experience. Think of it as what abandons us every night when we fall into dreamless sleep and returns the next morning when we wake up [1]. Without consciousness, as far as we are concerned, there would be neither an external world nor our own selves: there would be nothing at all.”


Amusingly , Tononi believes that if he can suggest that whatever is left over after any ordinary language notion of “consciousness” is found…by eliminating all known instances of the word use, AND if we have some fancified definition of information and exclude whatever does not fit that…then two “left overs” must be equivalent…or the same “concept”….and therefore that consciousness and information integration must be the same as well.  Wow!  Could anyone actually arrive at that sorry intellectual destinaton (“things that are not equal to the entirety of two concepts must be the same thing each other and therefore if the same thing is obtained in both subtractions that proves the  the two concepts from which the subtractions occurred must be equal to” each other”.

For, for example, we seem NOT to have consciousness when we are dead and no longer alive. Then it can be seen we can’t speak of a person being knocked on the head and now aware of anything around him when he is somehow “unconscious” to be “conscious” And then we can say that someone in a coma in a hospital is not conscious and then we can say that a huge dose of anesthetic will render the person in a state which we can not attribute “consciousness”

We see how Tononi is now hot on the trail of making us believe that consciousness must be there and…hooray…measured and assessed as well by information calculations…as he tells us what it is not.

This seems like no more the age  old primrose path which is guided by the logic of “the exception is what proves the rule”. What might lead the ordinary man or woman in the street (or shopping mall) to say that “this person is not conscious” becomes the basis concluding that the everyday street reasoning for saying this is based on “the seeing that there is no consciousness at that moment and that it must have been there but departed.

“Not being able to say that something is the case” is a far different matter from “Saying that something is not the case”  This is a muddle that keeps coming up over the course of science and its missteps. In fact the classic notion of the “excluded middle” is precisely based on this bit of sleight of mind or juggling of the word order of things.  And it is often leads to the exclusion of any worth in the comment that portends to be ‘an observation” when it is observed is merely the speakers inability to say that something is the case and NOT the “fact” that something else is the case.

Is someone asleep conscious or not? We tend to say not or we find the word getting more wobbly as we try to stand while using it. This then leads to wondering when and wear that “something is indeed the case” when its not in those curious circumstances, coma, death, sleep, anesthesia. no sensation, etc)

Or what about someone who is awake but somehow cannot manage to relate to or be influenced by sensory level inputs of some kind or any kind from the environment…the kind of stuff we say “people are conscious” of…..what ifuse the taking away of that as well.

Or is that where Tononi stops? Surely there is not any “information” coming in during that scenario. But perhaps he will even take that away and leave us unaware of having been impacted by the sensory level phenomena..

The philosopher Searle (of some reknown) has commented on this befuddlement on the part of Tononi (and his colleague nowadays, Koch) that is seeking to become a bewitchment for the masses who yearn for more than dire materialism:

Can Integrated Information Theory Explain Consciousness?

“[Koch] is not saying that information causes consciousness; he is saying that certain information just is consciousness, and because information is everywhere, consciousness is everywhere. I think that if you analyze this carefully, you will see that the view is incoherent. Consciousness is independent of an observer. I am conscious no matter what anybody thinks. But information is typically relative to observers. These sentences, for example, make sense only relative to our capacity to interpret them. So you can’t explain consciousness by saying it consists of information, because information exists only relative to consciousness.”


According to Tononi, who sounds more and more like Oprah the more he goes on about “consciousness”,  “We all know that our own consciousness waxes when we awaken and wanes when we fall asleep. We may also know first-hand that we can “lose consciousness” after receiving a blow on the head, or after taking certain drugs, such as general anesthetics.

Thus, everyday experience indicates that consciousness has a physical substrate, and that that physical substrate must be working in the proper way for us to be fully conscious. It also prompts us to ask, more generally, what may be the conditions that determine to what extent consciousness is present.”

For example, are newborn babies conscious, and to what extent? Are animals conscious? If so, are some animals more conscious than others? And can they feel pain? Can a conscious artifact be constructed with non-neural ingredients? Is a person with akinetic mutism – awake with eyes open, but mute, immobile, and nearly unresponsive – conscious or not?

And how much consciousness is there during sleepwalking or psychomotor seizures? It would seem that, to address these questions and obtain a genuine understanding of consciousness, empirical studies must be complemented by a theoretical analysis.”

So consciousness is what is taken away in all these settings..or at least when we take away the “take aways”…we have, according to Tononi, the shape or silhouette of what it must be to be taken away like that. We must, mustn’t we, if he is going to run a lab which measures it….much like the ghostbusters…even if he only has told us that there is some shadowy shape from which the “take aways” occur that makes us therefore certain that the shadow is really substance

Of course, we never seem to hear much about the basic sinew at the center of what most of consider to be at the core of that shadowy consciousness, and that is the odd “self consciousness” that makes us aware of the shadow in the first place.

Bill Murray and the ghostbuster boys would love this.

Or, perhaps, Grouch Marx, a burlesque comic of olden days.  What Tononi does is very much the same with the question of consciousness as is done  the old vaudeville comedy routine that was picked up by Bugs Bunny,  “When did you stop  beating your wife?  The answer cannot be made.  If the guy says”no”, he is revealed as an ongoing wifebeater.  If the says “yes”, he incriminates himself as having done so in other situations”.  If he doesn’t answer, the question just hangs in the air.


This consciousness looming out there in the never land of things to be measured better and better is somehow the summation or totality of all that is staken away during the take aways…death, concussion, coma, sleep, sensory deprivation, etc…some shapeshifting hodge podge that must be there because otherwise how could we lose it on all these occasions. And worse somehow defined by those very ‘losses” and no more..

Perhaps we should say that Tononi is not conscious of the fact that he has not given any coherent definition of “consciousness” that he and his techies are chasing.

What he and we should consider for a bit, just to pause, is that if Consciousness is not anything is ‘no-thing’ as Graziano suggests..then it will show up in countless sitations as “not being there’ and in fact we’ll have no way to tell whether those situational “take aways” are imagined or not….and so we will never know its exact definition to ever take its exact measure.

In the end, for Tononi…the way it’s defined…it is actually just about everywhere. This is eerily reminiscent of the ancient pursuit of the notion of ‘anima’ or the ‘life force”. Back then they were all entranced with “elan vital”.  Birds had it, bees had it. They must have had “it’ because we could see that rocks didn’t have it, and dirt didn’t have it….and steel did not have it.

We knew it was there.  But the concept of “elan vital” became disconnected from the animal life which presumable was gifted, or endowed with it and became a force by itself..  It only suspected .by its absence when there was no life, perhaps as in consciousness by a whiff or whisper in the air as it passed us by.  ..Therefore all that absence convinced the seekers that there was ‘presence not availlable “to their eyes and ears..that left the stage in those moments of detected “absence”.

Tononi and those who are stuck in the kind of intellectual barbarism we see in his program does the same to “consciousness”, he essentially lobotomizes it.  Whereas those who have pondered the question for more than the few moments of the life of the “information theory cult”, came to understand it’s definition as “consciousness OF”, all consciousness being known as “consciousness of something”.

But when it is ripped out of its relation to the world and made into something like “elan vital’, it can be anywhere, and it can be everywhere, and it can be nowhere.  Why because we no longer know what in the world we are talking about. Just read some more of Tononi…and eventually he talks himself into circles…the dizzy the reader, if not him and his followers.

Of course, then with this disconnected “notion” of consciousness it becomes possible to attach it to another disconnected notion ‘information”.  There is no need for recourse to any concept of analysis, of neuroscience or of evolution or even of logic.  Two phantoms can as easily be conjured together as separately.  And the empty ungrounded vapor of “consciousness” now has the “information” dogma to keep it alive …as an idea that is, since there is no relevance of any kind to life as we know it when the juggling of information and consciousness as integration is charted on the blackboard.

Bateson, a while ago , at the very beginning of the fashionability of “information”   posited an interesting notion of ‘information” as the “difference that makes a difference”. Of course when both consciousness is disconnected from what it is presumably in relation to and information is disconnected from any informed “entity” ..then the ‘difference” doesn’t matter anymore.


There is no mind to whom any such ‘difference can make a difference”.  And there is ‘no difference out there anywhere that yields a difference for the information integrating equations of Tononi. The two, “consciousness” and “information” are attached together but by absolutely nothing.  Not even a word further than Tononi’s faith that the two just must be related somehow.  They both float free of any constraints in logic or fact and we are then told they are the definition of each other.

As Graziano writes,

” If the brain generates consciousness, how does it do it? What exactly is being generated? Energy? Matter? A third, more fundamental substance?

Some scientists have suggested it’s generated by vibrations in the brain, perhaps oscillating activity in neurons, or perhaps quantum states of microscopic tubules inside the neurons. Or it could be independent of the brain altogether, as many mystics claim.

One guess is that everything in the universe is imbued with a primordial consciousness. Maybe it’s a special life force, like in Star Wars, which has so far escaped scientific detection.

Or maybe a deity breathed it into us and when we die it leaves the body and enters a new phase of existence.”

And we suppose that the Tononis of that day went around with other instruments to located this life force that made all life possible….inhabiting those otherwise mechanical devices known as organisms or animals…or even humans.

Tononi and his colleagues have a technique, and word they all tend to chant, Phi,  that allows them to work with the bizarre notion of consciousness that they have, apparently a spectrum running from awake to asleep to anesthetized, although we cannot tell what in the world that has to do with any relevant conception of consciousness.


The Scientific American pieces goes on:
“Computer scientist Scott Aaronson, who fully grasps IIT’s technical details, doubts the theory. Speaking after Tononi and Koch, Aaronson described himself as the “official IIT skeptic.” He added, “My lunch seems not to have been poisoned, so thanks,”

Aaronson reprised criticisms he leveled on his blog last year. (See also his followup post.) His main complaint is with IIT’s claim that high phiproduces consciousness. “Phi may be a necessary condition for consciousness, but it is certainly not a sufficient condition,” he said.

Aaronson said he could design a wide variety of simple information-processing systems—a two-dimensional grid, for example, running error-correcting codes like those employed in compact discs—possessing extremely high phi.”

Aaronson also faulted proponents of IIT for defending the theory inconsistently. He actually, despite being a computer guy can see the floppiness and sloppiness of the Tononi juggling act . He raises the possibility, we know now is likely a fact that the cerebellum…if we actually devote some timem to thinking of the brain as something in process rather than an abstraction of information integration, is indeed involved in what is known as “consciousness”

He says, ” For example, IITers cite the cerebellum’s low phi and lack of consciousness as evidence for the theory, but they can’t be sure that the cerebellum is unconscious; they are simply making a plausible inference, based on common sense.”….or as we would say, more likely, “common nonsense”.

Aaronson winds up his point more flatteringly than we would, As he put it on his blog, “the fact that Integrated Information Theory is wrong—demonstrably wrong, for reasons that go to its core—puts it in something like the top 2% of all mathematical theories of consciousness ever proposed.  Almost all competing theories of consciousness, it seems to me, have been so vague, fluffy, and malleable that they can only aspire to wrongness.”

For us that means that the Tononi theory can do even more damage than those which are not brewed with the same extremely elusive snake oil than Tononi and Koch use nowadays, a heap of abstruce mathematical juggling to give the illusion that all the intellectual “balls that they are trying to keep in the air” are not falling to pieces all around them.’

Aarronson concludes about the juggling act, via the inscrutable mathematical formulations to prop up the lack of common sense, when that is detected by the reader. ” In other words, by appealing to common sense when it suits their purposes and rejecting it when it doesn’t, IITers make their theory immune to falsification and hence unscientific.”

In fact, the very flickering of the  idea of the mathematical constroversy to which Aaronson was called and which other mathematically inclined devotees of the pan psychic passion, have been called to counter him, is also quite a joke on its own.  We imagine the developer of a unique kind of German pastry, a chocolate cake imbued with all sorts of aromatic spices and flavors and that we are told, by its chef, that it will surely serve to cure baldness if we only take a few bites every day or so.  Well what good does it do to confirm the rather unlikely and bizarre claim if we call in a great chef and he tells us that indeed the cake has been baked accordingly to a very accurate following of the recipe for baking such delicious chocolate pastries.

What relevance to the claim of the efficacy of the cake as a baldness cure isthe manner of the way it is baked, any more than does the way the Phi concept is cooked up by its chef to its assisting us in any way in dealing with consciousness. We ourselves cannot recalll one single hypothesis and one singe experiment confirming or disconfirming that hypothesis that has been generated by the identificaion of the two hovering clouds, consciousness and information as both being the same cloud because they are both hovering out there.

So it’s clear that the shadow by itself cannot really give us the proper outlines by means of which to go around with our calculators and various mathematics..that may or may not apply….but which no one cares sufficiently about to even debate with the ghostbusters as they publish and slime us with their barrage of mathematical esoterica.

But as we shall see, the Graziano suggestion will hopefully get us past this ghost chasing…

“The study of consciousness needs to be lifted out of the mysticism that has dominated it. Consciousness is not just a matter of philosophy, opinion, or religion. It’s a matter of hard science. It’s a matter of understanding the brain and the mind—a trillion-stranded sculpture made out of information. ”

We however, believe that if we follow some of the implicit suggestions that Graziano provides for us, we will actually have a very nice fix on how that “consciousness” arises in the brain, how that element of “nothingnesss” that juxtaposes to “being” has arisen in philosphers who normally haven’t tackled neuroscience.

Graziano begins with what is an intuitively accessible phenomenologicl impression of where the “consciousness’ phenomon and the “observing/perceiving” self fit into the way we talk about them.  The question for him…as for us …is not to provide a reductionistic account of causal interactions on the molecular levels for these ‘entities” that are picture in his graphic, but rather to try to understand that they do seem to be case and to take as the task how it is that they might have evolved to come into play, and thereafter, to look at the organism and its brain as it functions to see how this might relate to any such functioning.

fpsyg-06-00500-g001Attended stimuli, such as the apple in Figure 1A, exert a much greater influence than unattended stimuli on other brain systems and therefore on memory and on behavior. The apple, however, is only one part of a larger whole. Figure 1B illustrates a brain that has constructed a model of this larger whole.

The model contains not only the visual representation of the apple (V), but also a model of the self as a physical and mental agent (S), and a model of the relationship between them: attention (A).

Based on the information contained in this simplified model, brain B would conclude that it possesses a phenomenon with all of the most salient aspects of attention – the ability to take mental possession of an object, focus one’s resources on it, and, ultimately, act on it – but without any of the mechanisms that make this process physically possible. It would conclude that it possesses a magical, non-physical essence, but one which can nevertheless act and exert causal control over behavior, a mysterious conclusion indeed.

Now Graziano is here telling us a few things at once. First that the concept of ‘consciousness” is not at all one to which we have to attribute “existence” in the sense of something to which we can “point” or make “reference”.  Long ago Wittgenstein said providentially that for many words, their meaning resides not at all in their reference but in their “use”.

And thus what Graziano does here is say to himself and us, let’s look at the use and not seek some entity or object (a term suitable for the material  side of the coin of life of the mind to be portrayed) and instead let’s look at its’ “use”. We doubt whether he is a Wittgensteinian, although we are, but the focus on the “use” of the term brings us to the obvious “reality ‘which confronts us.  People do use the term,a nd frees us from the far from obvious journey into a “imagined reality where is is an object and part of that “real”. What is “real”, very real, is the way it is used by us over our lives and over evolutionary time.  And for that we might indeed come up with a narrative.

Narratives of that kind were first developed most effectively by Darwin, in a manner not at all appreciated by most, and indeed especially not appreciated by most biologists and philosophers of biology who have sought to confuse the way of speaking Darwin had to offer us with the way of the typical scientist of our day and age, who tends to try to speak as much in the format that was provided by Newton..

Searle’s account does not differ much in the overall gist of it, although he, as a philosopher, to us, is too wound up in traditional philosophical terminology and so winds up in the midst of questions that hinge on languag e  about ‘first person” versus “third person”.  However, he does give Graziano’s approach a boost here, with a concept of “biological naturalism”

“We know enough about how the world works to know that consciousness is a biological phenomenon caused by brain processes and realized in the structure of the brain. It is irreducible not because it is ineffable or mysterious, but because it has a first person ontology, and therefore cannot be reduced to phenomena with a third person ontology. The traditional mistake that people have made in both science and philosophy has been to suppose that if we reject dualism, as I believe we must, then we have to embrace materialism. But on the view that I am putting forward, materialism is just as confused as dualism because it denies the existence of ontologically subjective consciousness in the first place. Just to give it a name, the resulting view that denies both dualism and materialism, I call biological naturalism.”


If we know anything about Darwin and about Newton, we find out that these are two very distinct and very different ways of “looking at” and speaking about the world.  The latter, Newton’s way , comes replete with a whole set of tacit assumptions…we may call them “axioms”as Tononi refers to his five axioms which have proven very handy and useful for narratives in physics and dealing with the “in itself”, as Sartre would say.

And they are predicated on the need to be able to provide narratives in which the framework is manifest as continuity and causation within space and time measurements.  Darwin, on the contrary, created a legendary way of starting on the path to explaining life without insisting on any of the above, neither space, nor time, nor continuity or specifying any particular causation, which of course, by its essential nature hooks up consecutive instants of time with changes in the visible space.

For dealing with  “the organ within the organism known as the brain” and “consciousness”, just as for dealing with “organisms” and “life” we have to learn from Darwin rather than Newton, how to speak about events, how to speak about the passage of time and about what we ourselves can say about that past in ways so as not to get bogged down on one side of the coin or the other, the mechanistic or that which at first glance appears not to be part of the mechanism of the Newtonian world.  Surely Darwin rescued the organism from the banishment to the mechanical realm of mere extension to which Carteian dualism had even dispatch all living creatures other than a way of being  understood being as mere mechanistic scenarios in a space time framework of causation and continu ous causation at that..

Darwin would not have set the world talking in his terms about life  and the elements of life that are not the realm of physics, if he had not caught on to something special about how to do that speaking. It might have been a happy circumstance if Tononi had modeled all his own scientific enthusiasms in a way more compatible with Darwin (indeed Tononi began his career with Gerard Edelman, a truly brilliant immunologist who made several key mistakes in trying to transpose Darwin’s way of doing science and speaking about it to the brain in his “Neural Darwinism” trilog

we are not labelling Graziano as a Sartrean , nor by any means are we, but Sartre had some perceptive ways of talking about life and how our minds proceeded down the road during life. After all he was a “phenomenologist and so his descriptions were often good starting points for honing a psychologists or investigators’ intuitions.

In fact he called his major book “Being and Nothingness”, a “Phenomenological Ontology”.  And indeed the way Graziano comes to terns with tackling the problem of consciousness has some of that wisdom in it.  Neither Sartre nor Grazians seem to be either materialists or dualists either.  Rather they simply report what is there for them to “see” and comment upon.  As more than measurement instruments they are aware of being in the presence of a schema somewhat like the drawing that Graziano presents us.

Clearly he is not revealing something about the person whom he studies that the person themselves is unaware of…some “unconscious fantasy”.  On the contrary he is saying what we all know, that the human does have some sort of schema of that kind which guides him.  To imply that the person believes therefore that he or she has some immatrial spirit because of their mode of experience or to imply that such a mode is embodied in some mechanism of material sort would both be rather inadequate. In fact, probably if a scientist portrayed a person (just like him or her) in that way they would be subject to be called “in bad faith” in the Sartrean arena.


The classic “for itself” and “in itself” which relate pretty roughly to something akin to human consciousness and to its relation to experience life as being in juxtaposition with material objects is not that far from the cartoon above.’

Of interest for the rest of this blog that focusses on the neuroscience is the fact that Sartre eventually posited an important role for the “for others”, a third element in the balancing act of life and one to which Graziano points, the social factor and the saying and doing of things that imply that one is in a matrix with ‘others just like them” and then somehow either extrapolates or better yet, comes to  arrive both experiences both of “those others” and of that “observer/self” that is his or her own “observer” of the world concurrently and as part of a similar conceptual structuring that may indeed be found to have correlates in brain events, while the fictitious “self” and its “magical consciousness as awareness” are likely to remain fantasies that perhaps folks like Tononi want to chase…”ghosts” as we called them.

When we hint at some kind of association arising between an improved phenomenology such as Graziano wants us to undertake and various measurable events in the brain, we are NOT at all by any means being reductionist here. And attempting to seek any kind of one to one correspondence between the terminology of brain events and the terminology of ordinary life.

If we tune into Searle again, for a philosopher du jour of this century, he says, ”

“Until very recently, most neurobiologists did not regard consciousness as a suitable topic for scientific investigation. This reluctance was based on certain philosophical mistakes, primarily the mistake of supposing that the subjectivity of consciousness made it beyond the reach of an objective science. Once we see that consciousness is a biological phenomenon like any other, then it can be investigated neurobiologically.”

However, though we like the direction in which he is headed, we cannot agree with his narrow focus of the notion of “causation” via neurobiological processes as being the manner in which to seek to treat consciousness as a “biological phenomenon”.

“Consciousness is entirely caused by neurobiological processes and is realized in brain structures. The essential trait of consciousness that we need to explain is unified qualitative subjectivity.”

We do agree however with his reference to conciousness as not being like the other ‘biological phenomena” when he writes, in an essay entitled, Consciousness and gives us a pathway to a schema very much like that employed by Graziano here in his essay, where there is in a sense a new kind of “ontology” being approached by the scientist/philosopher who wants to appreciate consciousness in its fullest sense.  And as such consciousness, as we see above is a relation between an observer and an observed of some kind and that relation itself is present in the world is what a narrative must portray for us in some cogent  non paradoxical manner without lapsing into Tononi-like juggling of conceits rather than concepts…to take our eye off the ball.

“Consciousness thus differs from other biological phenomena in that it has a subjective or first-person ontology, but this subjective ontology does not prevent us from having an epistemically objective science of consciousness. We need to overcome the philosophical tradition that treats the mental and the physical as two distinct metaphysical realms””

Our own belief as we shall detail below is that the pertinent question to be asked after a couple of thousand years of asking of a question that doesn’t quite work,is no longer  the question which Kant posed most clearly and conspicuously and still riddles the foundations of most scientists today, ” What must be the nature of our world and our nature  in order for knowledge of the world to be possible.”

Instead the question must be the one which which Graziano asks, ” Whatmust the nature of ourselves and nature  in order for the idea/question about our having knowledge of the world arise in the first place?

If it helps to call this a novel ontology, as Searle does or as Sartre did, then so be it, and if Graziano now gives us that picture (above) of the world than needs to be explained by means of the tools of biology then so be it, as well.


As we finished writing up this introduction of our post on “Consciousness and why it’s Not  a Problem”, we noticed a review of a major book authored by Edelman and Tononi back in 2000   And ironically, in this review where the book was slammed by the reviewer in the Guardian, just about each and every critique of Tononi that we made today was spelled out, one by one, back then almost twenty years ago.

Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination
Gerald Edelman and Giulio Tononi 

The review tells us: “They sketch a hypothesis which, if experimentally verified, would go a long way towards answering a smaller but still important question – not how consciousness arises, but what kinds of brain activity are necessary to produce consciousness.”  Of course in 2000, they were writing in near brutal ignorance of  the past tweny years of research, so to even attempt to build an edifice on bricks that have all since faded and withered into oblivion is itself more a foolish than a heroic quest.

Their “hypothesis is bolstered by an idea of brain “selectionism”. Darwinian selection occurs not only in the evolution of the human brain, argue the authors, but also within each brain over its lifetime.

The more successful (more “fit”) neuronal routines become habitually grooved circuits so as to enable certain desired practices more easily in future.” Of course that was one of the main weaknesses that they brought to the task, the failure to realize how Darwin’s theory was structured in the first place and then to failure to appreciate that

•the neurons that even their primitive technology could show them and allow them to measure were a miniscule portion of what was going on the brain, *in terms of accounting for less than half of the cells of the brain by type, since glia and microglia do so much more than was ever suspected,

•that millions of those neurons die constantly and millions of new ones are both and that there were incredible Darwinian drama going on within time scales that were fragments of the one that they were able to measure, and crudely at that.

•that today we know that within neurons there are universes and worlds within those universes that determine what happens to the neurons, and that these phenomena are on the magnitude of quantum science  and a time scale where dramas of all sorts and probably quantum level darwinism occurring within…and so complex that it is laughable to see a view of neurons and their clunky activations as somehow being the solution to the riddle of “consciousness.

•that “experience” is not so ovewhelmingly determined by cortical phenomena, as Edelman’s emphasis suggests it is primarily “intracrotical” but subcortical, hippocampal and parahippocampal interactions go on incessantly and determine events in the cortex.

And as the reviewer comments caustically, when “we reach the crux of Consciousness. it’s silence throughout on the problem of will is deafening. For how does the brain decide to do anything? How does the value system itself decide what selectional constraints it is going to impose on the rest of the brain? Sometimes Edelman and Tononi imply that we are all mere automata, as when they write carelessly that conscious states “lead to” behavioural outputs, or that aspects of a visual scene “control behaviour and planning”.

Of course, how could they not be.In short, they were clueless…and their narrow focused choice on neurons was tragically off.  Any valid effort at transposing Darwinist ideas to the brain was impossible becdause of their myopic faiure to realze that neurons were only a part of the whole ball game, that the ones they saw were  not the ones their yesterday, and that their were worlds within this neurons.

It is quite sad that Tononi is stll beating the same drum from twenty years ago. In commenting on his work, we found ourselves not wishing to speak about “consciousness” as “nothing” since that implies a much different view of our view than merely wishing to indicate that the concept of ‘consciousness” is not something to be explained and thus is more or less “nothing” but that the employment and use of the concept of consciousness is very much something to draw our and neurosciences’ interest.

We have seen how zero is not at all “nothing’ but something without which mathematics would never gave grown.  Indeed, without it we wouldn’t even be able to count properly. But surely it is not ‘nothing”.  In set theory they relate to the “empty set” and then the have sought to build everything from that as Peano did in his number theory.

Without pointing to Zero, where we find ourselves pointing at “nothing”, we would not be able to move to the natural numbers were all that pointing to something helps us and is something we count on to help understand our world.  So consciousneess not of the same kind as the rest of what it is in relation to, but that makes it far from “nothing” and, similar to the concept of “zero”, an essential of the foundation on which those other more ordinary integers are seen and used.

Appreciating the concept of “Nothing” can sometimes be as valuable as, or even more valuable than focussing on one of the “something”. And the fact that it can’t be measured as all the other ‘somethings” are may in fact be its greatest value as  a starting point.

That does not mean that this particular “nothingness” is not something we should keep in mind. But we should not confuse it with all the ‘something” that depend on it in some way (not a causal one) we still haven’t pinned down.

We hope you stay tuned for what Grazianno has shown us about the real work of neuroscience that lies ahead.


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