Reason Won’t Save Us

Robert Burton in Nautilus:

In wondering what can be done to steer civilization away from the abyss, I confess to being increasingly puzzled by the central enigma of contemporary cognitive psychology: To what degree are we consciously capable of changing our minds? I don’t mean changing our minds as to who is the best NFL quarterback, but changing our convictions about major personal and social issues that should unite but invariably divide us. As a senior neurologist whose career began before CAT and MRI scans, I have come to feel that conscious reasoning, the commonly believed remedy for our social ills, is an illusion, an epiphenomenon supported by age-old mythology rather than convincing scientific evidence. If so, it’s time for us to consider alternate ways of thinking about thinking that are more consistent with what little we do understand about brain function. I’m no apologist for artificial intelligence, but if we are going to solve the world’s greatest problems, there are several major advantages in abandoning the notion of conscious reason in favor of seeing humans as having an AI-like “black-box” intelligence.

But first, a brief overview as to why I feel so strongly that purely conscious thought isn’t physiologically likely. To begin, manipulating our thoughts within consciousness requires that we have a modicum of personal agency. To this end, rather than admit that no one truly knows what a mind is or how a thought arises, neuroscientists have come up with a number of ingenious approaches designed to unravel the slippery relationship between consciousness and decision-making. In his classic 1980s experiments, University of California, San Francisco, neurophysiologist Benjamin Libet noted a consistent change in brain wave activity (a so-called “ready potential”) prior to a subject’s awareness of having decided to move his hand. Libet’s conclusion was that the preceding activity was evidence for the decision being made subconsciously, even though subjects felt that the decision was conscious and deliberate. Since that time his findings, supported by subsequent similar results on fMRI and direct brain recordings, have featured prominently in refuting the notion of humans possessing free will. However, others presented with the same evidence strongly reject this interpretation.

More here.