Supplemental: The New York Times loses consciousness!


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?

Many theories have been proposed, but none has passed scientific muster.
According to Graziano, we humans experience the greenness of grass (his italics). From that, he derives an extremely murky question:

“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:

How does the brain go beyond processing information to become subjectively aware of information? The answer is: It doesn’t.
There’s more. But in that passage, Graziano seems to say that the brain doesn’t “become subjectively aware of information.”

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.


  1. Ahead of its time, the NYTimes may be publishing articles to appeal to the legion of stoners who will be seeking intellectual stimulation after the legalization of marijuana.

  2. The prof is walking well-trod ground.
    Descartes covered this long ago.
    If we accept that consciousness is proof to ourselves that we exist, are what we call our perceptions real or illusory?
    The creationist argument is that God, an ethical being, would not deliberately give us faulty sensory equipment.
    The evolutionary argument is that we would not be at the top of the food chain (but would be extinct) if our senses did not record a close approximation of the material world.
    Then there's the theory of Rustin Cohle of "True Detectives" that Homo sapiens are in fact an evolutionary mistake and will be the engineers of our own extinction.
    I pick door number two.

    1. What's "scented meat"?

    2. I think the intent is to bloom your imagery, that is, if you have any sense of imagination.

    3. #3 is less problematic than #2, and Occam's razor most supports #1. We could be far atop the food chain with a fraction of our consciousness.

  3. When I was young, the precursor to the Sunday Review was the News of the Week in Review. That valuable section began with 2 pages of straight news, condensing the important stories of the week. The opinion pieces that followed were serious efforts to explain serious matters. They didn't have 50 stories about a candidate's dog transport or a columnist whose typical intellectual contribution was to compare a current event to some movie.

    I don't know why the Times switched from the News of the Week in Review to the Sunday Review. I wish they'd switch back.

  4. The purpose of the article is to enhance Princeton's public image and increase its endowment. It is placed where potential donors will see it.

  5. The brain is a rather mysterious organ. Some say it's a prolific gland. We know hormones can affect thinking and emotions. It also records hundreds of billions of sensations every second. But the vagueness with which research can be conducted with such a complex organ makes it fuzzy. Study could be compared to observations of neutrons and electrons with a microscope. The only one capable would be a theoretical type which can only illuminate the subject with gamma rays. The effect would be to change the very thing you are attempting to observe, making accuracy impossible.

    Now when he starts talking about the brain aided by subjective will having the capacity to alter reality (Existential or otherwise) that's when it will get real murky. String theory suggests a form of determinism and he doesn't want to go there because so many are religiously attached to the idea of Free Will.

  6. The problem is that the brain is either a computer or it's magic. If you think it's a computer, then John Searle brings out his Chinese Room argument "proving" that crunching symbols doesn't make intelligence, let along consciousness, and if you think the brain is magic, then what you end up doing is religion, not science. Since the latter is silly, the brain has to be a computer, but we just don't know how to make a computer that's intelligent. That is, we don't know how to get from dumb algorithmic symbol crunching to being able to think about things.

    To be very clear, we don't have the slightest hint of an idea what sort of computations need to be done to produce intelligence, and the gut intuition of a lot of our best thinkers (Searle, Fodor) is that we can't. But the brain is a real, physical system that actually does produce intelligence, so again, it's either magic or computation. There isn't anything else.

    The people who work on the brain have to deal with this conundrum. And the result is usually pretty ugly.

    1. I assume, with you, that it's not magic. But how do you know it has to be a computer? Maybe it's something else that we haven't thought of.

      It's interesting to think about consciousness, but I'm starting to get Bob's point that it's not good to publish articles pretending to explain it.

    2. Computer is the preferred metaphor for discussing cognitive functioning. No one takes it literally, but information processing and control of behavior is what the brain does.

    3. Yeah, but it also does consciousness, whatever that is. Maybe someday we'll understand it, or maybe we never will.

    4. Consciousness feels extra important because it gives us our sense of ourselves, but much of what happens outside our awareness is just as extraordinary. It's like Emo says, "The brain is the most important organ of the body, but look who's telling me that." I can't see making a fuss about consciousness -- and we do know what it does and what it is good for.

    5. "But how do you know it has to be a computer?"

      My take on the theory of computation is that Turing and Goedel's work (e.g. the halting problem) shows that computation is as complex as it's possible to get. So there can't be anything else that's physically real and "more than" computation. Nondeterministic machines (essentially infinitely parallel machines) may be able to do things real machines can't, but that's irrelevant since the brain is finite. (Quantum computers are essentially nondeterministic Turing machines, but my bet is that between decoherence and the problem of actually specifying the problem to be solved, they won't ever work for anything other than toy problems.)

      "Bob's point that it's not good to publish articles pretending to explain it."

      Exactly. There won't be any simple explanation. The whole brain conspires together to create consciousness and intelligence. Figuring that conspiracy out is going to take a lot more work, including taking what people do more seriously. And no one's even starting to do that work; everyone's looking for shortcuts and easy answers.

  7. The NYT has hundreds of articles and columns in it each day. According to Bob, from what I can tell, they are all crap. They are either like this one from Graziano, or something like Dowd. And Bob's (dwindled number of ) fans lap this up, much like he complains people lap up Maddow (but not, say "Mr. O" who, when mentioned at all, is presented as the light to Maddow's sneering, smiling, smirking darkness). This is your Howler: an endless series of cranky complaints.

  8. Good to know what Graziano seemed to say fuzzily, weasel words and all. Glad to know you had a pal in grade school. Thanks for sharing it again. What was that word Rachel M. has in her coat of arms?

  9. "This leads us to a basic question: Why was this peculiar piece in the Sunday Review?"

    I dunno, Bob, I responded murkily, not experiencing an immediate inner answer.

    They felt it would be excessive to print six articles by Kristof on the monumental Harris/Maher/Affleck fight?