Fransisco Varela on consciousnss

Fransisco Varela

In:- Conservations on Consciousness

Oxford University Press

In terms of consciousness studies, Varela is best known for his enactive or embodied view of the nervous system and cognition. Essentially his argument is that consciousness arises through our embodiment. This needs to be a neural part in the brain but also a ‘pheno’ part in the body. His theory is beguiling but ultimately unconvincing. He says, and I agree with this part, that we need to account for the intimacy of consciousness. He thinks this requires something different from a normal computer. His answer his that we experience ourselves intimately because we are embodied, rather than as a brain in a vat type of computer. The fact of being embodies brings with it the experience of being embodied. If we touch an object we feel its solidity and inertia, we experience something of the laws of physics governing the external world. This is supposed to combine with neural activity to produce consciousness.

As I say, it is initially beguiling, but it actually has a difficult to digest message. It’s saying that the information processing in the body (ex-brain) can do something that the brain can’t. It’s not clear why this should be so. Nothing we know about the body or its nervous system suggest that it has some processing of property that is not available to the brain, the reverse if anything. Admittedly, the computer/brain in a vat attitude of the last century failed to take account of the degree of interactivity between the brain and the body, and particularly between the limbic system and the visceral responses. However, none of this warrants attributing something the brain doesn’t have to the body. Varela’s example of experiencing the solidity and inertia of an object, and then explaining this in terms of the body reverses the correct logical order. The subjective experience of solidity is the thing that needs to be explained, where as here it is treated as the explanation. The problem is why the brain/body system should have that experience from an object, and why it isn’t handled by unconscious processing, in the way that a computer can unconsciously register and respond to an object it is monitoring, for instance by setting off an alarm. The additional artificial intelligence related argument that a computer could become conscious if it was embodied fails if this difficulty cannot be overcome.


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