Saturday, July 10, 2010


"Human consciousness is just about the last surviving mystery. A mystery is a phenomenon that people don't know how to think about - yet. There have been other great mysteries: the mystery of the origin of the universe, the mystery of life and reproduction, the mystery of the design to be found in nature, the mysteries of time, space, and gravity. These were not just areas of scientific ignorance, but of utter bafflement and wonder. We do not yet have all the answers to any of the questions of cosmology and particle physics, molecular genetics and evolutionary theory, but we do know how to think about them .... With consciousness, however, we are still in a terrible muddle. Consciousness stands alone today as a topic that often leaves even the most sophisticated thinkers tongue-tied and confused. And, as with all of the earlier mysteries, there are many who insist -- and hope -- that there will never be a demystification of consciousness." ~Daniel Dennett

So, I've been thinking more about consciousness lately... you know, like what it is that makes us who WE are in particular.  Why am I the voice in my head, and not the voice in my friend's head?  How did I come to have this identity that is solely mine and no one else's?  Especially at the cognitive level... what part of the brain does that, anyway?  And what happens to that consciousness when we die?  Does it look something like this?

    ---------------[    EXISTENCE      ]----------------
      pre-birth                                              death

 It might--or that existence might just change form, and none of us can communicate what that is once we've reached it. Out-of-body experiences can be simulated with electrodes, the light at the end of the tunnel just before death may be simple oxygen deprivation--but no one has communicated from BEYOND that point, after death... although some people have reported encounters with ghosts or signs.  The mystery continues. :)

And then there's the question of consciousness vs. conscience...

If we look at the etymology (thanks wikipedia), we have the following:

"The word "conscious" is derived from Latin conscius meaning "1. having joint or common knowledge with another, privy to, cognizant of; 2. conscious to oneself; esp., conscious of guilt".[12] A related word was conscientia, which primarily means moral conscience. In the literal sense, "conscientia" means knowledge-with, that is, shared knowledge."

The two terms are definitely related--in French "conscience" can be used for both meanings!--no wonder there's a lot of debate over where your consciousness goes in the hereafter based on your conscience or lack thereof.

All of these things remind me of the initial question in my Theory of Knowledge class-What if we're all just brains in vats, stimulated by a master mad scientist into believing  we have a full form? The thing is, we're MORE than the sums of our synapses and neurotransmitters.  Some things just can't be explained by science!  Take for example the question of phantom limbs--there is no pattern in how people experience this phenomenon following amputation, but almost everyone reports feeling as though their limb is still there.

On a separate note, there's this Time article which seems to say that when my brain dies, so, too, does my soul, and every bit of consciousness we have is a gift.  I agree with the latter but not with the former.  But then again, my brain hasn't been damaged to the point where I am no longer self-aware.  Well, except when I fell off my bike in front of my house, hit my head on the pavement, and was unconscious for a brief minute and then unable to see for several minutes afterward. The weeks following that incident, I would bump into things, had some minor linguistic challenges, and just seemed a little scrambled.  Fortunately, I bounced back... intact, with my own consciousness.  I lost consciousness for a mere minute (probably even less than that)... was THAT what death will be like?  I'm in no hurry to find out just yet.  As Albert Schweitzer put it, "I am life that wants to live, in the midst of life that wants to live."

Just how I want to live... well, that can be the subject of another blog entry.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I'm a big fan of philosophy of mind, as well as theory of knowledge, although as you mentioned, the field has its share of skeptics that like to play the brain-in-a-vat card as if it were an ace-in-the-hole. I’m dubious, which is to say I’m not a skeptic - at least not about whether knowledge is possible - so I think epistemology is a viable and worthwhile project. But I'm just an amateur...or rather a spectator.

    I’m also very much interested in contemporary theories of consciousness. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend David Chalmers' The Conscious Mind. Incidentally, I was reading it about the time you wrote this post last summer. It’s viewed by some as controversial (due to its radical departure from standard materialist conceptions…like Dennett’s and Searle’s) but even its critics acknowledge the seriousness of its impact on the field. It definitely raised the bar. Chalmers is in many respects a typical materialist about all things scientific, but he deviates from that stance re: consciousness, ultimately advocating what he calls “property dualism” – not to be confused with Cartesian dualism, which is unsupportable in the modern scientific era.

    Chalmers, like Ned Block and others, suggests that the phenomenal quality (“qualia”) of first-person subjective experience has been left untouched by purely materialistic theories of consciousness. One illustration he sites is Frank Jackson's famous and colorful (sorry) Mary's room thought experiment. Another, even more unusual argument involves…zombies. Not the Hollywood type, though. Chalmers’ (theoretical) zombies are “isomorphically equivalent” to normal humans, but they lack phenomenal experience – i.e. they lack consciousness. In other words, there’s nothing it’s like to be a zombie.

    Here's a pretty good interview with Chalmers.