The desperate art of obfuscation: A rebuttal of Michael Graziano

The ‘hard problem of consciousness’ is a well-acknowledged roadblock in efforts to explain subjective experience in terms of brain function: there is nothing about physical things in terms of which we could deduce the qualities of experience. More specifically, nothing we can observe about the arrangement of atoms constituting the brain reveals what it feels like to see red, to fall in love or to have a belly ache.

Whereas neuroscience has been able to pin down correlations between brain function and reported experience, the hypothesized causal link between the two remains elusive. This has turned the solution to the hard problem—if there is one—into the most coveted trophy in neuroscience. As argued in my book Brief Peeks Beyond, the intractability of the problem has even led some to resort to semantic games and claim that consciousness doesn’t really exist.

The absurdity of the notion that consciousness is an illusion—after all, illusions are experiences too, thus presupposing consciousness—has been recently chronicled by Galen Strawson and, more colorfully, David Bentley Hart. So one would have hoped that the time has finally come to move the debate forward along productive lines. Yet the appeal of the trophy seems too irresistible to some. And so it is that neuroscientist Michael Graziano, having not so long ago proclaimed that “consciousness doesn’t happen. It is a mistaken construct,” is at it again.

Graziano starts his latest narrative by correctly defining what is meant by ‘consciousness’ in the context of the hard problem: “it isn’t just the stuff in your head. It is the subjective experience of some of that stuff.” Exactly. Consciousness entails the subjective experiences that somehow accompany the physical stuff going on in your head. So if he is going to claim a solution to the hard problem, Graziano has to explain how these experiences arise from the stuff.

His argument rests on the idea that consciousness is adaptive, that it performs a function useful for survival. Indeed, it is undoubtedly beneficial to recognize and understand ourselves as agents in our environment—i.e. to have a model of ourselves—if we are to thrive. Graziano then argues that consciousness is one such a model the brain constructs of itself, so it can “monitor and control itself.” Consciousness seems immaterial simply because, in order to focus attention on survival-relevant tasks, this model fails to incorporate any detail of brain anatomy and physiology. In his words, “the brain describes a simplified version of itself, then reports this as a ghostly, non-physical essence.”

This sounds very cogent, an impression that is only reinforced by Graziano’s persuasive writing. The problem is that it is all a smokescreen.

The seemingly authoritative argumentation disguises a deceptive sleight of hand: Graziano implicitly changes the meaning he attributes to the word ‘consciousness’ as he develops his argument. He starts by talking about subjective experience—which philosophers call ‘phenomenal consciousness’—just to end up explaining something else entirely: our ability to cognize ourselves as subjects and re-represent our own mental contents. His initial definition of consciousness is relevant to the hard problem, but the one he actually uses isn’t. Creating a model of our own minds and enabling re-representation are ‘easy problems,’ which can be tackled with recursive information processing architectures. Graziano has provided us with exactly nothing as far as the “true nature of consciousness” is concerned.

Indeed, tackling the easy problems has already been done, for instance, by Pentti Haikonen at Nokia Research as early as in 2003. Haikonen’s and Graziano’s approaches merely presuppose phenomenal consciousness; they don’t explain it at all. Once raw experience is assumed to be in place, then—and only then—do their theories help make sense of how such experience can be configured so to enable reflective introspection and a felt conception of itself.

What Graziano describes as an “ethereal essence”—and then proceeds to explain in neuroscientific terms—is merely a colloquial definition of ‘consciousness,’ one that regards it as some kind of non-physical personal entity akin to a ‘soul.’ But this, of course, is not what is meant by ‘consciousness’ in the technical context of the hard problem. There, ‘consciousness’ refers to what it feels like to taste strawberries, lift a heavy bag or hit your head against a wall. These qualities aren’t “ethereal” (try the wall if you doubt me), but the very embodiment of concreteness.

What Graziano tentatively solves isn’t the hard problem, but something relatively trivial. Yet it is doubtful he would have gotten as much press as he does had he not positioned his work as tackling the hard problem. The grandiose claim in the title of his essay—“solving the biggest mystery of your mind”—is a charade.

You see, a model of one’s own mind—which relies on metacognition—is by no means equivalent to phenomenal consciousness. As I’ve discussed earlier, experience can happen without metacognition and metacognition can happen without experience. Philosophers call the latter ‘access consciousness’ and there is no hard problem about it.

It is entirely plausible, for instance, that lower animals experience the qualities of seeing, touching, etc., without metacognition. I don’t think my cats walk around pondering the inexplicable mystery of their ethereal self. Yet, if I step on their tail by accident, I am inclined to believe they actually experience something unpleasant. Therefore, by tackling metacognition and self-referential mental models, Graziano’s argument says nothing about how my cats’ experiences could possibly arise from brain function. His claims in this regard are “smoke and mirrors,” as he—ironically enough—characterizes other approaches to consciousness.

And as if this weren’t enough, Graziano goes on to argue, “a major advantage of this [i.e. his] idea is that it gives a simple reason … for why the trait of consciousness would evolve in the first place.” But insofar as what he means by ‘consciousness’ is phenomenal consciousness, the claim is nonsensical. Evolution is about structure and function: organisms evolve certain structures because the functions they perform increase the organisms’ chances of surviving and reproducing in their environment. None of these structures and functions needs to be accompanied by experience to be effective. From an evolutionary standpoint—and under physicalist premises—all functions could be performed ‘in the dark;' for since the environment and other living beings can't discern a conscious agent from a philosophical zombie, inner experience is always superfluous as far as adaptation is concerned.

If, on the other hand, what Graziano means by ‘consciousness’ is metacognition, attention, symbolic thinking or any high-level cognitive function, the appeal to evolutionary advantages is legitimate. But then his point is unrelated to the hard problem. He can’t have it both ways. Whatever appeal Graziano’s argument may have, it relies on conceptual confusion.

Perhaps because the hard problem renders the mainstream physicalist narrative untenable, when it comes to attempts to solve it scholars and the media alike seem to tolerateand even cheerfully rave abouta level of thinking that in other fields would be ridiculed instead of published; end careers instead of progressing them. What passes for sophisticated, erudite but difficult-to-understand theories are often simply what they seem to be: pitiful amalgamations of obfuscation, bad logic, linguistic sleights of hand and conceptual muddle. If so, we owe ourselves the decency of calling them what they are: baloney.


  1. Interesting how all biological production falls conveniently under the penumbra of "useful for survival". That scientific canard invented by Darwin has outlived it's usefulness, and is just as mediocre a theory as the scientific ether once was (widely insisted upon at the time).

    Science not backed up by careful rationality in scrutiny becomes just another dogma of mediocre minds.

  2. "And as if this weren’t enough, Graziano goes on to argue, “a major advantage of this [i.e. his] idea is that it gives a simple reason … for why the trait of consciousness would evolve in the first place.”

    What?! O-M-G

  3. Thanks Bernardo for referring to my ancient work from 2013. However, I would much prefer to see you to refer to my latest work "Consciousness and Robot Sentience" SECOND EDITION (World Scientific 2019. Here I argue that phenomenal consciousness is the presence of reportable qualia; qualia are the way in which perception-related neural activity manifests itself. Explain qualia and you have explained consciousness. I have done that in that book. No metaphysics, dualism, immaterialism, materialism, quantum physics. What is left is fundamental and obvious.

    1. Dear Pentti, it is no secret I am fond of your work, for I think it goes as far as anyone can possibly go in the project of 'creating' consciousness. I think its significance is precisely the way in which is illustrates its own failure. Don't get me wrong, failures can be profound if one fails well; much more profound than many successes that are just trivial.
      I am sure you can create a machine that reports qualia. But there is an abyssal gap between reporting qualia and actually experiencing qualia. We know from modern neuroscience that qualia can be present in the absence of report, and we also know that I can program a digital computer to report quaia, even though you yourself would deny that such a computer actually has qualia. It is impossible to talk about creating qualia without metaphysical premises of some sort, implicit as they may be; for otherwise all one is dealing with is function, which may include the function of reporting qualia.
      I referred to your old 2003 work for two reasons: to set a priority date for you (in 2003 few were even dreaming of what you thought through!), and because it sets out the basics of your ideas, which I think is what is most powerful and unique about your work, not the implementation details.
      Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  4. Thank you Bernardo for your quick and kind response. I agree readily with you that a report as such is not a proof of any actual experience of qualia. And this I also maintain in my new book. The whole point is the existence of the phenomenal experience of qualia, and this is very the issue that I have tackled in my book. No metaphysics involved. Kindly take a look. This should be something new, and I would like to hear your comments. BTW, the correct priority date would be 1999, the date of my doctoral thesis.

  5. I'm baffled by statements like "No metaphysics involved". I appreciate the seemingly careful avoidance of existential terminology (there is no reference to an "'I' not doing metaphysics" or "metaphysics not 'being' present in the account"), but saying "no metaphysics is involved" entertains both an impoverished idea of metaphysics and an artificial endorsement of the view from nowhere. I'm with Bernardo on this one--and a host of others.