Any review of the current writings on consciousness turns up the idea, sooner or later, that it is no longer the hard problem that philosopher David Chalmers labelled it two decades ago. There has been a phenomenal amount of work done on it since, much of it by people who seem pretty clear, in fact, on what it means to them. What is clearly much harder is getting them to agree with one another.
One of the greater controversies of this year was occasioned by psychologist Robert Epstein, declaring in an article in aeon magazine entitled The Empty Brain that brains do not in fact “process” information, and the metaphor of brain as computer is bunk. He starts with an interesting premise, reviewing how throughout history human intelligence has been described in terms of the prevailing belief system or technology of the day.
He starts with God’s alleged infusion of spirit into human clay and progresses through the “humours” implicit in hydraulic engineering to the mechanisms of early clocks and gears to the revolutions in chemistry and electricity that finally gave way to the computer age. And now we talk of “downloading” brains? Epstein isn’t having it.
Within days of his article’s appearance came a ferocious blowback, exemplified by the self-confessed “rage” of software developer and neurobiologist Sergio Graziosi’s response, tellingly entitled “Robert Epstein’s Empty Essay”. The earlier failures of worldly metaphor should not entail that computer metaphors are similarly wrong-headed, and Graziosi provides a detailed and comprehensive review of the very real similarities, his anger only sometimes edging through. He also provides some useful links to other responses to Epstein’s piece, for people interested in sharing his rage.
For all this, the inherent weakness in metaphor remains: what is like, illuminates; but the dissimilarities obscure. The brain’s representations of the external world are not designed for accuracy, but are evolved for their hosts’ survival. Making this very point, in a more measured contribution to the debate, is neuroscientist Michael Graziano writing in The Atlantic. “A New Theory Explains How Consciousness Evolved”, tackles the not-so-hard problem from the perspective of evolutionary biology.
He describes how his Attention Schema Theory would be evolution’s answer to the surfeit of information flowing into the brain – too much to be, he says, “processed”. Perhaps, in the context of the Epstein/Graziosi dispute, he might better have said “assimilated”. Otherwise, full marks and thanks to Graziano.
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- Book Forum provides more reading for consciousness junkies
The “trouble with consciousness”, to borrow from the title of this bookworm’s blog, is that there just so much of it about. Possibly most intriguing here is the notion that modern neuroscience is at last catching up with Plato on the subject, over two millennia later.
- How far can we go in pushing performance enhancement?
As the Olympics wind up in Rio, another extended musing on the ethics of doping reveals a host of grey areas over the situation in the world as things are, never mind where things might go in the future. You only have to read the reflections of the French cycling team on the triumphs of their English colleagues to see how high passions run. Here, two Australian philosophers slug it out in Nautilus on what we could, or should, see in future Olympics.
- How should science be reflected in our political discussions?
An article in The Washington Post challenges the American presidential candidates to take science far more seriously, reflecting the very real problems the world is facing, for which scientific research may have substantial contributions to make. Sadly, issues of climate change, mental health, anti-biotic resistance, the health of the oceans and the future of Artificial Intelligence very largely sit in the background while politicians — possibly reflecting the less informed fears of their electorates — worry away over immigration, trade tariffs, and the catch-all bugaboo bogeyman of our time: terrorism. Perhaps science might come up with a pill enabling the body politic to get a grip.
- Conference alert: Artificial Intelligence is coming to New York
A two-day event in Manhattan in September will take a deep dive into the technologies and entrepreneurial possibilities of AI development.