The paper’s essential culture: In last weekend’s Sunday Review, the New York Times published a very peculiar piece.
In our view, this peculiar piece captured the famous newspaper’s peculiar essential culture.
We refer to this peculiar essay by Michael S. A. Graziano, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton.
Despite his pair of middle initials, Graziano is an American. According to the leading authority, he was born in Bridgeport and raised in Buffalo.
According to the Times identity tag, he’s also the author of “Consciousness and the Social Brain.”
Graziano’s piece last Sunday bore this headline: “Are We Really Conscious?” Such headlines signal Times readers—they're in for some very deep thoughts.
Snark to the side, are we really conscious? Speaking for ourselves, we’d pretty much have to say yes.
That said, it’s always possible to imagine that everybody else is not. And as we’ve noted down through the years, we sometimes wonder about the life-forms found in the upper-end press corps.
Let’s return to the piece in question.
In our view, this was a very peculiar essay to run in a general newspaper, even in as lofty a paper as the Sunday Times. As Graziano started, he said this:
“Of the three most fundamental scientific questions about the human condition, two have been answered.”
Two of those questions have been answered. But, according to Graziano, the third question hasn’t:
GRAZIANO (10/12/14): Third, what is the relationship between our minds and the physical world? Here, we don’t have a settled answer. We know something about the body and brain, but what about the subjective life inside? Consider that a computer, if hooked up to a camera, can process information about the wavelength of light and determine that grass is green. But we humans also experience the greenness. We have an awareness of information we process. What is this mysterious aspect of ourselves?According to Graziano, we humans experience the greenness of grass (his italics). From that, he derives an extremely murky question:
Many theories have been proposed, but none has passed scientific muster.
“What is this mysterious aspect of ourselves?”
Does Graziano’s question make sense? We’d say his question is murky, hard to paraphrase, just extremely unclear. But when it comes from our top professors, the Times loves work of that type. In that sense, we’d say this piece captures one part of the paper’s essential culture.
Moving right along, what is the relationship between our minds and the physical world? As Graziano proceeds, he pens a murky thought:
GRAZIANO (continuing directly): Many theories have been proposed, but none has passed scientific muster. I believe a major change in our perspective on consciousness may be necessary, a shift from a credulous and egocentric viewpoint to a skeptical and slightly disconcerting one: namely, that we don’t actually have inner feelings in the way most of us think we do.“We don’t actually have inner feelings in the way most of us think we do?” That statement is loaded with qualifiers, possibly even with a “weasel word” or two.
Graziano isn’t saying we don’t (actually) have (inner) feelings. He’s just saying we don’t have (inner) feelings in the way we think we do!
That said, as Graziano proceeds, he seems to make a stronger claim. Citing the work of Professor Dennett, he is soon saying this:
GRAZIANO: The brain builds models (or complex bundles of information) about items in the world, and those models are often not accurate. From that realization, a new perspective on consciousness has emerged in the work of philosophers like Patricia S. Churchland and Daniel C. Dennett. Here’s my way of putting it:There’s more. But in that passage, Graziano seems to say that the brain doesn’t “become subjectively aware of information.”
How does the brain go beyond processing information to become subjectively aware of information? The answer is: It doesn’t.
Do you have any idea what that means? Neither do we! Neither does anyone who obtained and attempted to read last Sunday’s New York Times!
(We do know this. In normal parlance, we don’t say that “the brain” becomes aware of some piece of information. We say that some person becomes aware. Just that quickly, Graziano has wandered off the normal pathways of our language. Can such initial steps actually matter? You can bet your sweet bippy they can!)
Trust us! Of the millions of people who saw last Sunday’s New York Times, no one has the slightest idea what Graziano is talking about. No one could paraphrase his remarks in a way which could survive simple scrutiny.
In fairness, many people may have said each word in his piece to themselves as their eye moved down the page. As they did, they may have had the subjective sense that they were tracking the expression of some sort of deep thought.
That doesn’t mean they had any idea what, if anything, was being said. It doesn’t mean that Graziano himself could explain his various statements if exposed to competent questioning.
People inclined to defer to authority may recoil at that last proffer. Of course Graziano understands what he’s saying, such folk may reflexively think.
Don’t be so sure, Times subscribers. Wittgenstein’s later work was all about dismantling the kinds of murky statements found in Sunday’s peculiar piece. However much academic authority may stand behind such statements, Wittgenstein kept saying that they’re incoherent—that they just don’t stand up.
This doesn’t mean that Graziano isn’t doing highly useful research of some kind. It may mean that he gets tangled up, in the ways Wittgenstein described, when he starts “philosophizing” about his own work.
However one wants to judge those questions, we’ll confidently return to our basic premise. As you can easily see for yourselves, no one who purchased the Times last Sunday had the slightest idea what Graziano was talking about.
This leads us to a basic question: Why was this peculiar piece in the Sunday Review?
Here’s our answer:
On the upper end, the New York Times simply loves this kind of fuzzy, high academic work. On the lower end, its editors also love the low-brow inanities of Maureen Dowd, the pabulum of a Nicholas Kristof, the fifty references to Mitt Romney’s dog penned by the high lady Collins.
Dowd’s inanities make no sense, except as crude political insults. At the other end of the cultural spectrum, no one has the slightest idea what certain professors are saying.
At the Times, top-ranking editors can’t seem to discern either fact.
“Are we humans really conscious?” Thanks to the work of the New York Times, we’re not quite sure what to say!
The professor’s prior appearance: Professor Dennett was also cited in the Sunday Times of September 28.
(Full disclosure: His sister, little Charlotte Dennett, was our grade school pal!)
In our view, Dennett’s work is very murky. At a paper like the Times, that qualifies him as a star.