The problem of consciousness sits at the heart of neuroscience, and it is into this question that Yale computer-science professor David Gelernter steps with his fascinating “The Tides of Mind.”
At the heart of Mr. Gelernter’s book is a critical observation often overlooked by artificial-intelligence researchers and neuroscientists alike: Your conscious experience is not just one thing. Instead, it falls on a spectrum. At one end, you’re attuned to the outside world; as you move further down the spectrum, you’re increasingly inside your own head, recalling memories and daydreaming. Each day you journey back and forth along the spectrum; your conscious experience changes hour by hour.
Mr. Gelernter points out that many researchers—especially artificial-intelligence junkies—concentrate on one extreme of the spectrum, the end at which we find pure rational thought, at the expense of attending to the “world of pure being.” Each of the different “qualities of experience,” he suggests, is equally important; each allows us to understand the world in a different way.
He further points out that whatever part of the spectrum we’re in, we generally fall for it entirely, as if it’s the only reality. …
That isn’t strictly true Many people can conceive of a different state of consciousness from the one they are in, and the fact that they can is often what enables them to get help for mental problems.
From the point of view of biology, it’s still an open question whether the spectrum is really one-dimensional, as Mr. Gelernter suggests. After all, there’s no single chemical in the brain that correlates with these different states; instead, a complex interaction reflects the blend of stress, sleep, food, volition and activity that adds up to the full experience of a human moment. A multidimensional spectrum is likely, as indicated by the effect of different drugs on the strange admixture of patient deficits seen daily in neurology clinics. It may be possible to distill this multidimensional spectrum down to a single dimension, but that has yet to be demonstrated. In any case, Mr. Gelernter simply aims to get people to incorporate into their thinking the idea that the conscious state is not static. More.
It’s nice to hear serious reflections about consciousness for once. Doesn’t even pretend to be a gimcrack explain-it-all.
See also: New consciousness thesis: Integrated Information Theory Few hold that only humans are conscious. Claiming otherwise weakens the author’s argument.
Gelernter on Nagel: Thomas Nagel: “The intelligentsia was so furious [at him] that it formed a lynch mob”
Neuroscientist: Consciousness is not a neural phenomenon
Would we give up naturalism to solve the hard problem of consciousness?
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