Full disclosure: I am an atheist; I don’t believe in the supernatural; science is my guide to reality; and I believe morals are a biological/cultural phenomenon with no ultimate justification. Given all that, you’d think Rosenberg and I would have a lot in common, and we do, but he is stuck in an extreme version of the idea that “physics fixes all the facts,” (Kindle Locations 3859-3860) which leads him to some shaky and valueless conclusions.
Most of the book hinges on the idea that our thoughts are not “about” anything. On that basis Rosenberg concludes that we don’t have purposes; that we don’t think about the past or make plans for the future. (Location 2704) He admits that these claims are outrageous, recognizes the need for compelling arguments if we’re to be convinced of them, and spends three chapters trying to make his case, starting with this example:
“Suppose someone asks you, “What is the capital of France?” Into consciousness comes the thought that Paris is the capital of France. Consciousness tells you in no uncertain terms what the content of your thought is, what your thought is about. It’s about the statement that Paris is the capital of France.” (Locations 2809-2811)
“It’s this last notion that introspection conveys that science has to deny. Thinking about things can’t happen at all. The brain can’t have thoughts about Paris, or about France, or about capitals, or about anything else for that matter. When consciousness convinces you that you, or your mind, or your brain has thoughts about things, it is wrong.”(Locations 2816-2818)
He goes on to propose that if we know that Paris is the capital of France, then there must be neurons in our brains that encode that information. They must be “about” Paris in the same way that a stop sign is “about” stopping. Then he suggests that there is a difference between these two instances of “aboutness.”
“If the Paris neurons are about Paris the same way a red octagon is about stopping, then there has to be something in the brain that interprets the Paris neurons as being about Paris. After all, that’s how the stop sign is about stopping. It gets interpreted by us in a certain way. The difference is that in the case of the Paris neurons, the interpreter can only be another part of the brain.” (Location 2880)
Since “interpretation” has the power to grant “aboutness,” you’d think it would be a topic that merits discussion. Rosenberg mentions it later in talking about our ability to interpret pixels on a computer monitor, but with no explanation of how it might work:
“They get interpreted by us as letters spelling English words. That’s how they come to be about the things that the pixels are about. So, no aboutness anywhere in the computer without interpretation by us—by our mind, our brain.” (Location 3051)
But how do “we,” or our brains, “interpret” the stop sign, or the pixels? The light from either of them is focused onto the retina, where it stimulates neurons to send signals to the brain. From the retina onward, both stop sign and pixels are encoded in neural connections, and in that sense are no different from information about Paris. If there are Paris neurons, there must be stop sign and pixel neurons, and all have to be interpreted by the same brain. How could Rosenberg have an insurmountable problem with the Paris neurons being about Paris, but not have a problem with stop sign neurons being about stopping, or pixel neurons being about words. It seems likely that he has not thought seriously about what it means when he says, “we interpret,” or if he has, he’s hoping that the reader won’t think about it.
Rosenberg theorizes that in order for the Paris neurons to be “about” Paris, there has to be a set of interpreter neurons that are both “about” Paris, and “..that ‘say’ that the Paris neurons are about Paris…” (Location 2905) setting up an infinite regress:
“We set out to explain how one set of neurons is about something out there in the world. We find ourselves adopting the theory that it’s because another set of neurons is about the first bunch of neurons and about the thing in the world, too. This won’t do.” (Locations 2911-2913)
From this, Rosenberg concludes that the only way to avoid the regress is to conclude that the Paris neurons can’t be “about” Paris. What we have to realize is that he has stacked the deck. He says that the only way the Paris neurons can be about Paris is if they are “interpreted” as being about Paris, and then proposes a set of impossible conditions that the interpreter would have to meet:
“What we need is a clump of matter, in this case the Paris neurons, that by the very arrangement of its synapses points at, indicates, singles out, picks out, identifies (and here we just start piling up more and more synonyms for “being about”) another clump of matter outside the brain. But there is no such physical stuff. Physics has ruled out the existence of clumps of matter of the required sort. There are just fermions and bosons and combinations of them. None of that stuff is just, all by itself, about any other stuff.” (Location 2915, emphasis added)
He glosses over the fact that the clump of matter in question is not “all by itself.” The Paris neurons are connected to other neurons which, in conjunction with them, are capable of generating behavior that can be interpreted as being “about” Paris. That is what interpretation is—our brains take information that is encoded in neurons that don’t look anything like the information they’re encoding, and translate it into another format that looks like, or sounds like, English, or whatever language we speak.
Having made the point, at least to his own satisfaction, that thoughts cannot be about things, he goes on to state that, nonetheless, “…no one denies that the brain receives, stores, and transmits information.” (Location 2819) “The brain nonconsciously stores information in thoughts.” (Location 2922) “…we think accurately and act intelligently in the world.” (Location 2708)
Rosenberg has no problem granting that our brains have these abilities and yet these very abilities contradict his denial that thoughts can be “about” things. Information is inherently “about” things, and although the neurons that encode it may not recognizably be about anything, they have to be capable of generating behavior—writing or drawing, for example—that is about something, that is recognizable by others as being about something, or else no information can be transmitted. The fact that we think “accurately” means that our thinking has to be “about” something verifiable by others, otherwise how can its accuracy be judged? Likewise, how can we know that we’re acting “intelligently” unless we’re moving toward an apparent goal in an efficient, “intelligent” way?
Part of Rosenberg’s problem is his misconception of consciousness:
“The brain nonconsciously stores information in thoughts. But the thoughts are not about stuff. Therefore, consciousness cannot retrieve thoughts about stuff. There are none to retrieve. So it can’t have thoughts about stuff either.” (Location 2922)
The misconception here is that consciousness is some kind of brain mechanism that can “retrieve” thoughts, and “have” thoughts. He seems to be referring to some similar function for consciousness in this passage: “Introspection must be wrong when it credits consciousness with thoughts about birthdays, keys, and bosses’ names.” (Location 2783) That introspection “credits” consciousness would indicate, again, that consciousness is some kind of mechanism that “retrieves” stuff.
It seems more likely that those things that appear in consciousness are things that have been retrieved and translated by unconscious neural processes into things that are communicable, either in terms of language or images. For most of us, most of the time, we are conscious of that which we overtly communicate. People who talk in their sleep, or are under the influence of certain drugs or hypnosis, may communicate without being conscious of doing so, and all of us may frequently communicate things through facial expressions or body language of which we are not conscious, but usually, if we are talking, writing, or drawing pictures, we are conscious of what we’re intending to communicate.
Rosenberg seems to be trying to counter the naive intuition that we are somehow in conscious control of our thinking—that we have free will—but there is a much more convincing and less convoluted way to make that point. If you search YouTube for “Sam Harris free will,” you will be treated to an entertaining demonstration of how this can be done without positing the nonsensical idea that our thoughts are not about anything.
It’s true that we are not in control of our thoughts—the processes by which our brains produce them are not available to consciousness—but we do have them, and they are “about” things. None of the accomplishments of civilization would be possible if people were incapable of having and communicating thoughts about “clumps of matter.”
“Our conscious thoughts are very crude indicators of what is going on in our brain. We fool ourselves into treating these conscious markers as thoughts about what we want and about how to achieve it, about plans and purposes. We are even tricked into thinking they somehow bring about behavior. We are mistaken about all of these things… Whatever neural arrangements these conscious markers consist of, they are almost certainly not sufficient in number or organization by themselves to drive the behavior that is supposed to result from conscious thoughts about stuff.” (Locations 3407-3412, emphasis added.)
It’s true that conscious thoughts are only the tip of the iceberg of brain activity, and that “by themselves” they don’t drive behavior, but they are, in fact, never “by themselves”—they don’t occur in a vacuum. Anyone can have the conscious thought, “I could be President of the United States,” but that thought has to be accompanied by abilities, and those abilities have to be exercised, and one has to have good luck, if that desire is to be realized. At the same time, if you had never had the conscious thought that you might become President, it’s unlikely you would ever achieve that position. Bridges and buildings would never have been built if someone had not at least had the thought that they could build them, and if they had not been able to communicate plans about how construction was to proceed.
Certainly, language is inadequate to describe most of what goes on in our brains, but that doesn’t mean that our thoughts are not about stuff, or that they’re useless in communicating and learning about stuff. A lot depends on the subject matter. If you ask someone why they became a professor of philosophy, you may expect that their answer won’t come close to an accurate description of that decision’s roots. On the other hand, if you ask someone from France what its capital is, you can be fairly sure of getting the right answer, and you can always check Wikipedia to confirm.
Rosenberg’s pronouncements throughout the book, but especially toward the end—on history, art and literary criticism, psychotherapy, etc.—would be pointless if thoughts were not about things. Instead, he takes “aboutness” for granted and argues whether such human pursuits are accurately or intelligently about things.
The subtitle of this book is “Enjoying Life Without Illusions,” but I think few will find much that’s helpful in that regard. Rosenberg hasn’t convincingly argued that our thoughts are illusions, and since they’re not illusions, anything he might offer for enjoying life without them would be beside the point. If they were illusions, and not really about anything, it would seem to preclude his offering thoughts that might reveal the brighter side of our situation.
There is a brighter side. Statements about the human condition can alter our perception of the human condition in ways that lead toward greater happiness and enjoyment of life. You won’t find many such statements in this book, but they are available. Thomas W. Clark’s book, Encountering Naturalism, is a good place to start.
One illusion that Rosenberg is right about is that we don’t have free will, and it is certainly possible to be happier without that illusion than with it. I’ve been working on it for a couple of decades with considerable success, at least for me, and sharing what I’ve learned through my blog, “The Short Version.” Here’s a good post to start with if you’re interested: http://www.rentine.com/theshortversion/2008/03/25/why-is-this-man-smiling/