The Economist Investigates Consciousness

Today I’ll take a break from discussing Six Persistent Enigmas about Consciousness, to comment on The Economist’s recent series on six great mysteries of science. I highly recommend these thoughtful and fact-filled two-page essays, and the final installment (September 12) is titled:

“What is consciousness? The hard problem”

http://www.economist.com/news/science-brief/21664060-final-brief-our-series-looks-most-profound-scientific-mystery-all-one

There’s a lot of good material in this piece, but journalism often contains mistakes, even in a respected periodical such as The Economist. A few examples:

“Subjective though it is, consciousness … looks like a specific phenomenon, not a mere side-effect.” But of course side effects can be “specific.”

I think it’s fairly obvious that being conscious, in the sense of having vivid, sensuous, introspectible experiences, is quite different from being self-conscious, in the sense of being aware of oneself. In all probability, many animals that lack self-consciousness are perceptually aware of their surroundings and their own body-sensations. But the article muddles these two uses of the term “consciousness” repeatedly.

Some people with damaged visual cortices have “blindsight.” They report that they cannot see anything in large areas of the visual field, but if they are asked a yes-no question about the “blind” part of their visual field they can often answer correctly – e.g., “Did a light flash just now?” I have never heard of blindsighters spontaneously reaching out and picking up things they cannot see. But The Economist claims they can “point to, and even grasp, objects in their visual fields.” (If researchers have found blindsighters who do that spontaneously, without being cued, I am happy to be corrected, but I’m skeptical.)

These criticisms aside, the whole series is worth seeking out, and it is complimented by a series of brief videos. The video on consciousness showcases major scientists and philosophers such as Christof Koch, David Chalmers, and Daniel Dennett. See http://www.economist.com/sciencebriefs..

Roger Christan Schriner

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