Monday, April 19, 2010

Toward a Science of Consciousness

Toward a Science of Consciousness
April 12-17 Tucson, AZ

The Center for Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona held its ninth biennial conference in the Tucson Convention Center, as it does every even numbered year. In the odd years, the conference is held overseas. The 2011 conference will be in Tel-Aviv. According to the catalog, “The Tucson conferences are the major world gatherings on a broad spectrum of approaches to the fundamental question of how the brain produces conscious experience, a question which addresses who we are, the nature of reality and our place in the universe. An estimated 700 scientists, philosophers, psychologists, experientialists, artists and others from 43 countries on 6 continents … participate[d] in 400 presentations…”

This is the fourth or fifth one I have attended since the series began in 1994. It was not as well attended as some previous ones, possibly because of the worldwide recession, but it was still deeply fascinating. These are among the most profound questions human beings face. I presented a paper at this one, “Avoiding the Perceptual Model of Introspection,” available online at (scroll down 10% or so to find it). It seemed well-received and the Q&A session after was lively. My point was (is) that introspection is not a passive inspection of mental contents but necessarily involves active conceptualization, which is itself subject to the biases of language and culture. It is a tiny contribution, I hope, on the road to development of a full “scientific” method of introspection that would allow us to examine the mind directly in a way that could produce broad consensus.

The conference opened with three interesting talks about William James, founder of experimental psychology in America with his laboratory at Harvard in 1875. His writings are much admired even today by virtually all scholars working in the field of consciousness studies. Eugene Taylor talked about James’ “Radical Empiricism,” the idea that no aspect of human experience should be excluded from scientific study, and that includes consciousness. That was a radical idea then, and it still is today, because consciousness, whatever it is, is not physical, and therefore not amenable to the scientific method. A hundred and twenty five years ago, the scientific method was not as well-defined as it is today and James could get away with such a proposal. Today, the best we can hope for is to study of the brain, and from that, make unverifiable inferences about the mind. Taylor recognized this dilemma, but seemed resigned to it, as there is little appetite in the scientific community for reform of the method.

Bernard Baars, a well-known member of the inner circle at TSC (he teaches the WebCourse on Consciousness for the Center (see ), gave a talk blaming James for behaviorism. The reasoning is that James “glorified” the mind-body problem, according to Baars, and argued for the reality of mind in that dichotomy. By focusing on on that dichotomy, James gave the behaviorists an opportunity to declare material monism and end the confusion. Compounding his sins, James also put a great deal of emphasis on the problem of reconciling religion and science. Again, the behaviorists ended that dilemma in a stroke by declaring religious questions unscientific. That is an oversimplified history of psychology, although not entirely wrong. Baars himself favors a materialist, neurologically based explanation of consciousness, so it is understandable that he would present history this way.

After the opening plenary speeches, there are multiple, smaller break-out groups run in parallel on such topics as neurobiology and consciousness, the nature of representation, unconscious processes, artificial intelligence, perception and art, altered states of consciousness, and so on. There are about five speakers at each of these mini-conferences, and if one is fleet of foot and lucky with the timing, it is possible to dash among the conference rooms to catch the most interesting talks within several groups, but it is always frustrating that choices must be made. In the evening of the opening day there was a reception in the Hotel Arizona (a very dreary place that used to be a Holiday Inn until it became too run down even for that company). Tucson is sorely lacking in decent hotels to support the convention center.

There was an interesting plenary talk by Marcus Raichle, one of the “discoverers” of so-called Brain Dark Energy. I use ironic quotes because I am not convinced that anything significant actually has been discovered there. Raichle and others have documented the well known fact that the brain is always active, even when the mind is at rest, even during sleep. This fact was noted in 1929 by the inventor of the electroencephalogram (EEG) machine, that measures “brain waves”. What Raichle and others have done is map the intensity and extent of this background brain activity and correlate some aspects of it to other, better known brain functions. He has also indulged in wild speculation about what the background noise might be “for.” (And of course, he had the good fortune to be the first one to call it “Dark Energy.” Woo-woo!). You can get a quick summary of his work in the March, 2010 issue of Scientific American. I think it is interesting stuff, but grossly overinterpreted.

The afternoon and evening were again absorbed by the dozens of concurrent sessions on topics such as Introspection (in which I read my paper), panpsychism (the idea that everything in the world is conscious), phenomenology, dreaming, quantum physics (which some people think is related to consciousness), and spiritual and religious approaches. Alas, when one is giving a paper at one of these concurrent sessions, it is impolite to leave for a different session, so I was obliged to attend exclusively to matters of introspection.

The evening poster sessions were not as numerous as in past conferences, but there were several dozen. I didn’t see a whole lot that was new and exciting there. A lot of the familiar old arguments were re-hashed with some new twist: Can computers think? Are philosophical zombies really conceivable? Is a science of consciousness even possible? The Neural basis of decision-making, What are feelings? What is Shamanism? Each author is supposed to be standing by his or her poster to engage in discussion of it, although many were not. A lot of the posters were little more than the pages of a typed paper tacked to the board – too much to read on a fly-by. Apparently, many people have difficulty summarizing their work. Despite its extreme unevenness, the poster session is usually where one can get a glimpse of the hot new ideas of tomorrow, and a sense of what the young researchers are thinking.

On Thursday, David Chalmers, an Australian philosopher, former director of the Tucson Center for Consciousness studies, and well-loved consciousness rock-star, gave a rare paper of his own on “the Singularity.” This hare-brained idea taken from science fiction, supposes that as soon as we have computers (robots) with intelligence equal to that of humans (right around the corner according to some people), then those robots will be able to build other robots with even greater intelligence. Extrapolate that line of thinking and you see a curve of exponentially increasing robotic intelligence, until at some point a super-intelligence is reached and human beings become irrelevant. Chalmers suggests therefore, that we should program into our artificial intelligence systems basic human values, including a high value on human life. Or even better, as soon as we have a complete map of the brain, we should “upload” a copy of a person’s mind to one of these supercomputers, so we could be part of the superintelligence revolution and not be left behind. But, Chalmers cautions, there are problems. Would the uploaded consciousness be the same person as the biological person it was taken from? Or would it be two persons (Bio-Dave and Digi-Dave)? How could it be the same person, if there are two distinct copies of the consciousness? Additional philosophical perplexities of that nature were brought forth and considered.

The talk was delivered mostly with a straight face, but it is hard for me to believe that Chalmers took it very seriously. I think he was just trying to liven up the discussion. If he was serious, I am surprised, shocked, really, at his naivety. I choose to believe he was pulling our collective leg.

On Friday was one of the most interesting talks of the entire conference. A Buddhist monk, Za Choeje Rinpoche, spoke. In 1984 the Dalai Lama named him the sixth reincarnation of ZaChoeje Rinpoche, one of the highest Buddhist Lamas of Eastern Tibet. At the age of 16, Rinpoche entered a Tibetan monastery for 10 years of studies. He came to the U.S. 1998 to lead the Mystical Arts of Tibet tour. Afterwards, he lectured on Tibetan culture and philosophy at Emory University in Atlanta. He told his tale with self-deprecating humor. He said that as an ordinary 16-year old boy in southern India, he was completely surprised to be identified as the reincarnation of a Tibetan saint. “If I was the reincarnation,” he asked, “how come I didn’t know about it?” It took him several years to “become the person everybody said I was.” He talked about Buddhism and becoming enlightened, which he described as “ceasing to struggle against the struggles of life.” (Which is not the same as ceasing to struggle). When someone asked him what was the nature of enlightenment, he referred to the big screen, on which every other speaker had shown a PowerPoint. But the screen was completely blank. The crowd was delighted. He did say that when you finally burrow down to the bottom human experience, what you find is laughter. And then he giggled. After his talk, which was enthusiastically received by the audience, he was swamped with additional questioners. It was impossible to get to him. I would have liked to ask him two questions: 1. What is mental illness? And 2. When you were in that monastery all those years, learning all the Buddhist prayers, to what or whom were you praying?

A Buddhist Lama is a hard act to follow but Neurophysiologists Antonio Damasio gave a nice presentation on “the Neural Self” accompanied by interesting slides. As he has already done in his numerous bestselling books, he defined several levels of self, including a “protoself” that constitutes one's feeling of existing and living, and arises from the processes in the brainstem that regulate the automatic life functions, such as breathing. Beyond that there is a “core self,” a secondary self that rises to consciousness whenever the primary protoself is modified. A tertiary self is the autobiographical self based on large scale integration of memories and experience.

There was nothing new, as all this has been covered in his books, but it was nice to have it all spelled out in one summary talk. I don’t buy the theory myself, because it presupposes identity of mind and brain, which I find unintelligible, and at the same time presupposes mind-body dualism. Damasio says such things as “The brainstem delivers conscious experience.” What? I defy him to cut open a brainstem and point out the “consciousness” there. The brain is very complicated, but it is just a piece of meat. It does not have “consciousness” lurking within it. And again, the brainstem delivers consciousness? To what or whom does it deliver, we must wonder. The little man in the head, or homunculus, no doubt. I grant that it is nearly impossible to talk about the mind-body problem without getting tangled up in such linguistic absurdities, but I expected better from a world-famous scientist giving a talk with this title.

There were many more plenary talks, and dozens more concurrent sessions and dozens of new posters in the second poster session. There were also after-hours presentations of “Art and Media” where one could marvel, for example at beautiful, colorful magnifications of biological processes captured on film.

After hours on Friday night there was everybody’s favorite, the Consciousness Poetry Slam and the Zombie Blues. At the poetry slam, volunteer conference-attendees read or otherwise perform an original poem on a consciousness related theme. There is quite a diversity, as you can imagine. The hit piece this year was surely one by a young man (didn’t get the name) who played a decent electronic keyboard and sang original lyrics to the Beatles’ tune, “Hey Jude.” Only in this case, it was “Hey Stu,” referring to Stuart Hameroff, the conference director. It didn’t take long before the whole auditorium was screaming, Na, Na, Na, Na-na-na Na, Hey Stu.

Following the poems, attendees can offer one or more verses of the Zombie Blues (which I think was originally written by Dave Chalmers), to a very forgiving band that is expert at helping non-experts sing their lines. Chalmers
always starts it off singing the original lyrics: “I act like you act, I do what you do, But I don’t know what it’s like to be you. What consciousness is, I ain’t got a clue, I got the Zombie blues.” While not as rich and varied this time as in past conferences, the zombie blues session is still a highlight.

There were too many other fascinating speeches and papers read to be summarized here, but I filled up half a notebook with ideas to follow up on, so that in itself makes the whole thing worth the exhausting effort. I’ll be back next time.

1 comment:

  1. HI Bill - great blog you have here, nice images and writing. We have interests in common. I saw David Chalmers speak today in Sydney, on 'the extended mind'. Like you, I thought 'is he for real?' I actually don't think he takes any of it that seriously, which is probably appropriate, given the state of the art, which is pretty shambholic, really.

    On you question 'who or what do Buddhists pray to?' I am a self-guided Buddhist meditation practitioner. The idea is not praying 'to' anyone, although I do say the 'namo' before each sitting, and generally pray in a vague sense to 'the Lord'. But the details are all left out - no image, no picture or anything like that.

    I don't know it that is an answer but I am happy to leave it open.