What is Consciousness?
If I had unlimited time and money, I would waste it on the University of Arizona’s annual conference on consciousness, called, optimistically, “The Science of Consciousness.” Of course there is no such science. One can (I can) argue that consciousness, being immaterial, is not even susceptible to scientific methods of inquiry.
Undaunted, in even-numbered years this conference is held in Tucson; odd-numbered abroad. I used to be an active participant from 1994 through the early oughts, reading, attending, showing posters, presenting at paper sessions, and contributing articles to the journal (Journal of Consciousness Studies (www.imprint.co.uk/product/jcs/). I presented papers in Tucson, Sweden, and Scotland. This year (2017) the conference is in Shanghai.
I have a fondness in my heart for this enterprise.
Several factors nudged me out of the fold. One was the price. Back in the day I could attend a conference for $200. Now it’s $500 to get in the door, too rich for me.
Another factor was that I started to feel like it was Groundhog Day. The same old ideas and arguments were trotted out year after year. Nothing was ever resolved and nothing that looked like progress was ever evident and I lost confidence that it ever would be.
And then I took up writing fiction, which is perhaps just another way to study consciousness, and it is all-absorbing and very, very time-consuming.
Having visited Shanghai some zodiac Rooster cycles ago, I was curious about the latest conference, in June, 2017 Here are some of the promised highlights and my random associations to them.
- THE SCIENCE OF CONSCIOUSNESS
- June 5-10, 2017
- Shanghai New International Expo Centre
- Shanghai CHINA
General Conference Registration: $500. (Travel, food and lodging not included).
Consciousness defines our existence, but its scientific nature remains unknown. How does the brain produce consciousness, and how does consciousness causally affect brain processes? Is consciousness equivalent to computation? What are the best empirical theories, and do we have free will? How and when did consciousness evolve, or has it been present in the universe all along? What are the origins of moral and aesthetic values, and how can mental and cognitive function be optimized? Can consciousness persist after bodily death, e.g. through ‘uploading’ to machines, or via mental processes tied to the structure of reality? These and other relevant questions are approached through many disciplines including brain science, philosophy, physics, cosmology, the arts and contemplative practices.
[The bias of this conference and of most people working in the field, is that the brain does somehow “produce” consciousness. The only remaining question is how? For a material brain to produce immaterial consciousness would violate several laws of physics and is scientifically implausible. Never mind. Refer to the title of the conference.
Notice that in the interests of “fair and balanced” propositions, the introduction also asks how consciousness affects brain processes, allowing only marginal “effects.” It does not ask how consciousness might “produce” the brain, for that is an inconceivable idea. More inconceivable than the converse?
The prevailing conceptualization seems to be. 1. There are two conceptual entities: a) the brain, and b) consciousness. 2. Those two entities are clearly correlated in observation. 3. We have no causal story to explain that correlation.
Despite the impasse, there is a strong and palpable bias at these conferences, without reason, evidence, or plausible theory, that the arrow of causality runs from brain to consciousness.
In my (not so) humble opinion, after 35 years of study, the consensus view is a dead-end and even a non-starter. Once I saw that clearly, I tried for a while to turn the ship around, realized shortly that one cannot swim against a zeitgeist, and dropped out. ]
- Plenary Session 1
- 2:20-5:00 pm
- AI / Can Machines Be Conscious?
- John Searle, University of California, Berkeley
- Ben Goetzel, OpenCog, Hong Kong
- James Tagg, Truphone
[John Searle spoke at the first conference in 1994. I don’t think he’s said anything new since then. His answer: “No.” ]
- Plenary Session 5
- 8:30 to 10:40 am
- Language and Consciousness (1)
- Noam Chomsky, MIT (remote by video)
- Ted Gibson, MIT
Thomas Bever, University of Arizona
[I was surprised to see that Thomas Bever is now at U of A. It was his book, The Psychology of Language: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics and Generative Grammar by J. A. Fodor, T. G. Bever, M. F. Garrett (1974) New York: McGraw Hill, that got me started in psycholinguistics and philosophy of mind. Too bad there’s no practical way for me to meet him and say “Thanks.” Oddly, He’s probably sitting not far from me twice a week in the class Chomsky is currently teaching at U of A.]
- Plenary Session 7
- 2:00 to 4:40 pm
- Idealism and Panpsychism
- David Chalmers, New York University
- Deepak Chopra, Chopra Center, UC San Diego
- Galen Strawson, University of Texas at Austin
- Daniel Stoljar, Australian National University
[Dave Chalmers has been a producer of the TSC from the beginning. I’ve had many interesting conversations with him, online and in person, though he would not know me, since he is many-to-one, while I am among the many. His 1996 book, The Conscious Mind, was a very welcome antidote to rampant and unexamined physical reductionism in the study of consciousness. However, I don’t think he has ever settled on a definition of his own. It used to be, I thought, that he believed consciousness was information, in some way that I could not understand – “information” being a classic weasel word with multiple definitions. I don’t know if he’s gone over to the side of the panpsychists. In any case, I am grateful to him for having invented, or at least promulgated 1. The philosophical zombie and 2. The Zombie Blues.
Galen Strawson, with whom I have also conversed and emailed, is the archetypal panpsychist, although in my (not so) humble opinion he is a closet materialist.]
- Plenary Session 8
- 8:30 – 10:40 am
- Consciousness and Neuroscience
- Bai Lu, Tsinghua University
- George Northoff, University of Ottawa
- Hengwei Li, Zhejiang University
[It would be interesting to attend this session and hear what the “latest” is on the correlation between consciousness and neurology. At best, it would be, “still don’t know.” At worst, it will be the same old “just around the corner” misplaced optimism.]
- Plenary Session 10
- 2:00 to 4:40 pm
- Theories of Consciousness
- Tang Xiaowei, Zhejiang University
Jerome Busemeyer, Indiana University
Robert Lawrence Kuhn, Creator/Host, ‘Closer to Truth’
Stuart Hameroff, University of Arizona
[Likewise, it would be interesting to hear what the “latest” theories of consciousness are, but I would expect same-old, same-old. I’ve talked with Stuart Hameroff several times at conventions and I once took an online class from him. He’s an anesthesiologist and to his credit, admits that “nobody knows” how anesthesiology works (although I am sure there are strongly-held hypotheses.). ]
- Plenary 11
- 9:00 to 11:10 am
- Consciousness and Evolution
- Nicholas Humphrey, London School of Economics
- Hedda Hassel Morch, Post Doc, New York University
Bruce Damer, DigitalSpace
[The multiple layers of questions and assumptions embedded in this problematic are indeed plenary. “Evolution” is a biological term, so posing the question about the “evolution of consciousness” already presupposes that consciousness is a biological phenomenon, something that has not been scientifically established. It’s one of those infuriating topics that skims over so many definitions and assumptions that I am usually left speechless.]
[Still, if I had the thousands of dollars to attend and the time to do it, I would.]