Debate Magazine

Consciousness & Agency Attribution

By Cris

Over at aeon, Princeton neuroscientist Michael Graziano presents what he calls a “new” theory of consciousness. Because it is a computational model that likens the brain to a modular machine, I’m not sure what makes it “new” but it is a good introduction to consciousness studies. Graziano’s theory bears more than a passing resemblance to Francis Crick’s attentional-searchlight hypothesis.

As these theories go, I share Crick’s skepticism about cognitive-computational models that are not based on actual brain structure and neural function. When our brain-mind metaphors change over historical time — usually in accord with underlying cultural concerns (i.e., sex and irrationality) or dominant technological paradigms (i.e., pneumatic, hydraulic, mechanical) — it’s good to be skeptical about the “brain as computing device.” Regardless of how it actually works, the consequences are profound:

In fact, the theory suggests that even more crucial and complex functions of consciousness emerged through evolution, and that they are especially well-developed in humans. To attribute awareness to oneself, to have that computational ability, is the first step towards attributing it to others. That, in turn, leads to a remarkable evolutionary transition to social intelligence. We live embedded in a matrix of perceived consciousness. Most people experience a world crowded with other minds, constantly thinking and feeling and choosing. We intuit what might be going on inside those other minds.

Humans habitually and subconsciously attribute mind not only to biological agents but also to non-biological things and events. When these develop or coalesce into cultural patterns, we get animist worldviews. While some may wish to characterize these perceptions as passive or reflexive (and mostly false), I contend that attributing mind to everything — especially in ancestral environments — was adaptive on a number of levels. It’s hard to argue with the success of humans who left Africa perhaps 75,000 years ago and colonized the world in fairly short order.


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