Consciousness Explained


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But while philosophical approaches can be useful, they do not constitute testable theories of consciousness, scientists say. In the last few decades, neuroscientists have begun to attack the problem of understanding consciousness from an evidence-based perspective.

Many researchers have sought to discover specific neurons or behaviors that are linked to conscious experiences. Recently, researchers discovered a brain area that acts as a kind of on-off switch for the brain. When they electrically stimulated this region, called the claustrum, the patient became unconscious instantly. In fact, Koch and Francis Crick, the molecular biologist who famously helped discover the double-helix structure of DNA , had previously hypothesized that this region might integrate information across different parts of the brain, like the conductor of a symphony.

Consciousness Explained

But looking for neural or behavioral connections to consciousness isn't enough, Koch said. For example, such connections don't explain why the cerebellum, the part of the brain at the back of the skull that coordinates muscle activity, doesn't give rise to consciousness, while the cerebral cortex the brain's outermost layer does. This is the case even though the cerebellum contains more neurons than the cerebral cortex. Nor do these studies explain how to tell whether consciousness is present, such as in brain-damaged patients, other animals or even computers.

Neuroscience needs a theory of consciousness that explains what the phenomenon is and what kinds of entities possess it, Koch said. And currently, only two theories exist that the neuroscience community takes seriously, he said. Neuroscientist Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin-Madison developed one of the most promising theories for consciousness, known as integrated information theory.

Understanding how the material brain produces subjective experiences, such as the color green or the sound of ocean waves, is what Australian philosopher David Chalmers calls the "hard problem" of consciousness. Traditionally, scientists have tried to solve this problem with a bottom-up approach. As Koch put it, "You take a piece of the brain and try to press the juice of consciousness out of [it]. In contrast, integrated information theory starts with consciousness itself, and tries to work backward to understand the physical processes that give rise to the phenomenon, said Koch, who has worked with Tononi on the theory.

Daniel C. DENNETT, Consciousness Explained - PhilPapers

The basic idea is that conscious experience represents the integration of a wide variety of information, and that this experience is irreducible. This means that when you open your eyes assuming you have normal vision , you can't simply choose to see everything in black and white, or to see only the left side of your field of view. Instead, your brain seamlessly weaves together a complex web of information from sensory systems and cognitive processes.

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Could you have imagined it without them? Here is a plausible example: Since human memory is not innately well designed to be superreliable, fast-access, random access memory which every von Neumann machine needs , when the culturally and temporally distributed designers of the von Neumannesque virtual machine faced the task of cobbling up a suitable substitute that would run on a brain, they hit upon various memory-enhancing Tricks.

The basic Tricks are rehearsal, rehearsal, and more rehearsal, abetted by rhymes and rhythmic, easy-to-recall maxims.

A philosopher’s lifelong quest to understand the making of the mind.

The rhymes and rhythms exploit the vast power of the pre-existing auditory-analysis system to recognize patterns in sounds. What I now want to suggest is that, alongside the domestication of animals and plants, there was a gradual process in which the wild self-sustaining memes of folk religion became thoroughly domesticated. They acquired stewards. Memes that are fortunate enough to have stewards, people who will work hard and use their intelligence to foster their propagation and protect them from their enemies, are relieved of much of the burden of keeping their own lineages going.

In extreme cases, they no longer need to be particularly catchy, or appeal to our sensual instincts at all. The multiplication-table memes, for instance, to say nothing of the calculus memes, are hardly crowd-pleasers, and yet they are duly propagated by hardworking teachers — meme shepherds — whose responsibility it is to keep these lineages strong. The wild memes of language and folk religion, in other words, are like rats and squirrels, pigeons and cold viruses — magnificently adapted to living with us and exploiting us whether we like them or not.

The domesticated memes, in contrast, depend on help from human guardians to keep going. People have been poring over their religious practices and institutions for almost as long as they have been refining their agricultural practices and institutions, and these reflective examiners have all had agendas—individual or shared conceptions of what was valuable and why. Some have been wise and some foolish, some widely informed and some naive, some pure and saintly, and some venal and vicious. The taboos of religion and atheism.

This sets the order of business: First, we must look at the issue of whether the first spell — the taboo — should be broken. Of course, by writing and publishing this book I am jumping the gun, leaping in and trying to break the first spell, but one has to start somewhere. Before continuing further, then, and possibly making matters worse, I am going to pause to defend my decision to try to break that spell. Then, having mounted my defense for starting the project, I am going to start the project! Not by answering the big questions that motivate the whole enterprise but by asking them, as carefully as I can, and pointing out what we already know about how to answer them, and showing why we need to answer them.

I am a philosopher, not a biologist or an anthropologist or a sociologist or historian or theologian. What a puny job! And they pay him for this? Like the revivalist preacher, I say unto you, O religious folks who fear to break the taboo: Let go! Let go! The sooner we set about studying religion scientifically, the sooner your deepest fears will be allayed. But that is just a plea, not an argument, so I must persist with my case. I ask just that you try to keep an open mind and refrain from prejudging what I say because I am a godless philosopher, while I similarly do my best to understand you.

I am a bright. There was also a negative response, largely objecting to the term that had been chosen [not by me]: bright, which seemed to imply that others were dim or stupid. Those who are not brights are not necessarily dim.

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They might like to choose a name for themselves. Since, unlike us brights, they believe in the supernatural, perhaps they would like to call themselves supers. Some people would not willingly associate with somebody who was openly gay, and others would not willingly read a book by somebody who was openly bright.

But there is a first time for everything.

From Bacteria to Bach and Back by Daniel C Dennett review – consciousness explained?

Try it. You can always back out later if it becomes too offensive. People working in quite different fields with different methodologies and research agendas nevertheless often shared a veiled antipathy, trying to keep their distance from the implications of two ideas: Our minds are just what our brains non-miraculously do, and the talents of our brains had to evolve like every other marvel of nature. Their efforts to keep this vision at bay was bogging down their thinking, lending spurious allure to dubious brands of absolutism and encouraging them to see small, bridgeable gaps as yawning chasms.

The aim of this book [ Freedom Evolves ] is to expose the misbegotten defensive edifices people have constructed in response to this fear, dismantle them, and replace them with better foundations for the things we hold dear. The ardent anti-Darwinians in the humanities and social sciences have traditionally feared that an evolutionary approach would drown their cherished way of thinking — with its heroic authors and artists and inventors and other defenders and lovers of ideas. And so they have tended to declare, with desperate conviction but no evidence or argument, that human culture and human society can only be interpreted and never causally explained, using methods and presuppositions that are completely incommensurable with , or untranslatable into , the methods and presuppositions of the natural sciences.

The chasm was a figment of fearful imagination. We can do a better job of understanding ourselves as champions of ideas, and defenders of values, if we first see how we came to occupy such a special role. This is perhaps the most shocking implication of my inquiry, and I do not shrink from it, even though it may offend many who think of themselves as deeply moral. I am urging, on the contrary, that anybody who professes that a particular point of moral conviction is not discussable, not debatable, not negotiable, simply because it is the word of God [ Breaking the Spell , p.

In my opinion, the two main topics in the philosophy of mind are content and consciousness. As the title of my first book, Content and Consciousness suggested, that is the order in which they must be addressed: first, a theory of content or intentionality — a phenomenon more fundamental than consciousness — and then, building on that foundation, a theory of consciousness.

Over the years I have found myself recapitulating this basic structure twice, partly in order to respond to various philosophical objections, but more importantly, because my research on foundational issues in cognitive science led me into different aspects of the problems. The articles in the first half of Brainstorms composed in effect a more detailed theory of content, and the articles in the second half were concerned with specific problems of consciousness.

The second recapitulation has just been completed, with a separate volume devoted to each half: The Intentional Stance is all and only about content; Consciousness Explained presupposes the theory of content in that volume and builds an expanded theory of consciousness. But there is a novel texture to my work, and an attitude, which grows primarily, I think, from my paying attention to the actual details of the sciences of the mind — and asking philosophical questions about those details.

This base camp in the sciences has permitted me to launch a host of differently posed arguments, drawing on overlooked considerations. These arguments do not simply add another round ot the cycle of debate, but have some hope of dislodging the traditional intuitions with which philosophers previously had to start. For instance, from this vantage point one can see the importance of evolutionary models ; ; a ; a ; d ; a ; b and, concomitantly, the perspective of cognitive science as reverse engineering ; a ; and chapter 16 of this volume , which goes a long way to overcoming the conservative mindset of pure philosophy.

The idea that a mind could be a contraption composed of hundreds or thousands of gadgets takes us a big step away from the overly familiar mind presupposed by essentially all philosophers from Descartes to the present. Philosophers have spent decades dreaming up thought experiments designed to prove or disprove W. Which is the real solution?


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Neither, for I deliberately set out to make it that way. Can you readily read off the horizontal words? That, after all, is the point of making diagrams: to present the data in a format that makes a new breakdown or parsing of the data easy or inevitable. There is always another alternative, which naturalistic philosophers should look on with favor: a finite regress that peters out without marked foundations or thresholds or essences.

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