Morning Rumination on Consciousness

snoopy doghouse2While lying in bed this Sunday morning a few thoughts on consciousness came to me. Morning insights can be useful or vapid — not sure which these are. But they’ve stuck in my head, like a tune that keeps replaying. I’d like to share them and discuss them. Three semi-awake assertions:

  1. A conscious agent must be able to make a statement of fact
  2. Consciousness is an act of communication
  3. The statement of fact cannot be the state itself; it must be a symbolic representation of state

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The Metaphor of the Deep Diver

whale deep v1For me, there are two great guiding metaphors. The first is Plato’s “allegory of the cave“, the notion that phenomena that humans perceive through their senses are weak, distorted shadows of reality. The allegory of the cave describes, accurately, the problem of human science in deciphering underlying truths of the natural world. The second myth is my reading of the central metaphor in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. I’ll call it the metaphor of the deep diver. Continue reading

Dehaene’s book: Consciousness and the Brain

DehaeneBookCoverEvery ten years the scientific study of consciousness passes a milestone. A decade ago the milestone was the publication of Chrisof Koch’s book “Quest for Consciousness” (2004). “Quest” established the groundwork for a scientific approach to the study of consciousness and described progress using techniques of neuroscience and experimental psychology1.  Stenislas Dehaene’s book “Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering how the Brain Codes our Thoughts” presents a mass of new data and along with new theory. I believe it is a major consolidation; a milestone marking the path towards the next decade.

This is the intro to my blog post/review. The entire post can be read at the BrainFacts Blog  site.

Is IIT Consciousness a One-Way Street?

one-wayIntegrated Information Theory (IIT) is Giulio Tononi’s bold concept of the the neural underpinnings of consciousness. Roughly, IIT proposes that the subjective component of consciousness emerges when an information-processing entity has lots of informational states, is interconnected (integrated), and has certain feedback properties. “Phi” is a computed property that can measure the instantaneous amount of integrated information an information in a system. According to IIT, consciousness emerges from any system that has a proper architecture, principally, having large numbers of independent, “integrated” states. Thus, the larger the Phi, the greater the conscious experience. The human brain has large information capacity and an integrated architecture; thus, during the waking state a human brain has lots of consciousness. Continue reading

Components of Personal Identity

fingerprintPersonal identity — the conscious awareness of self — originates in the cleavage of a nebulous universe into “self” and “world”. As the brain develops and diverse capabilities emerge, many of which are entwined with “self”, personal identity becomes more complex. Its functions and features transform. John Locke made an initial contribution, the notion that personal identity depends on a continuous autobiographical memory. The list below starts with autobiographical memory, and adds five additional components. Continue reading

The Humanities: Leon Wieseltier wants to protect his turf

A science versus humanities war is brewing. Triggered by Steven Pinker’s excellent article in the New Republic (Science is not the Enemy), Leon Weiseltier, a “Humanist” and literary editor of the New Republic, retorted “Science is the Enemy” (rough translation; Crimes Against Humanities: Science wants to invade the liberal arts. Don’t let that happen). I am not the first to complain about Weiseltier’s screed. Daniel Dennett does an excellent job in the Edge (Dennett on Wieseltier v. Pinker in the New Republic. Lets Start With A Respect For Truth).

But I want to make one simple point. Weiseltier is not making an argument, he is making an assertion.

For example, Wieseltier states,

… the differences between the various realms of human existence, and between the disciplines that investigate them, are final.

Huh? who said so?

For all his complex words, Wieseltier is a dualist.

Pinker rejects the momentous distinction between the study of the natural world and the study of the human world

It is fine for Wieseltier to be a dualist. Dualism is a respectable framework. But one cannot assert that it is true, just as one cannot assert that materialism is true. Assertions are not arguments, they are articles of faith.

The advantage of the scientific/materialist framework is that it can expand. Gradually, it can explain more of the natural world. With the rise of Neuroscience, materialism is beginning to explain and understand aspects of the mental (human) world. As truth-seekers we should rejoice in this. But Neuroscience is not alone. I interpret much of the work in the liberal arts as a search for truth that is not a conflict with materialism.

Will there be convergence? Will we understand the mind — the “hard problem”? I don’t know. But simply to assert the impossibility of the task — and to attack those who attempt to bridge the divide — is turf protection and the opposite of scholarship.