This was the topic of debate among Vassar cognitive scientists, in the Kenyon parlor April of this year. Here’s my notes:
- You have to know AI theory in order to succeed in neuroscience.
- Famous thought experiment by Frank Jackson called Mary the color-blind neuroscientist. She studies vision, and has a complete understanding of colors, but has been in a dungeon her whole life. When she walks out and sees orange “in real life,” does she learn something new?
- Consciousness does not exist without space and time, and at least time may be an illusion.
- The idea of zombies was put forth. Channeling Eliezer, I ask: if consciousness does not affect our actions, then why do philosophers sit around writing essays on consciousness, for which I received no clear answer.
- Why do people love talking about consciousness so much? Why did so many people attend that debate? Why are you reading this post instead of a post about vision?
- From brain scrambling experiments, can we tell whether consciousness is a behavioral state? That is to say, is it sometimes on and sometimes off? I would say yes, based on the literature describing areas that are activated when subjects are doing nothing, and are “tuned down” when they perform a task.
- The reticular activation system, the part of the thalamus that produces spindles, proprioception, and some parts of the brain that provide content can all be explained without dealing with the “hard” questions of consciousness. Are they necessary?
- Although you could do color inversion along the red-green axis, neurally you could not do it any other way. This is from a paper by Steven Palmer, available here. This applies tangentially to consciousness in describing the possible variance of our subjective experience.
- One audience membered was name dropping like crazy (Lorenz, etc.) and he was clearly trying to signal his intelligence. He should have just started a blog!
I like this model of debate a lot because I expect it would be difficult for scientists to argue with non-scientists. The standard model of this kind of discussion would be to include a philosopher and a religion professor, but somehow I think that the argument would have been less productive.
My thoughts: consciousness is very simple, through introspection we make it needlessly complicated. It is useful for regulating our mood states, such as when golfers focused on specific words and it regulated their performance, which you can read about here. It is switched off (or toned down, probably more accurately) when our brains have more pressing issues, such as accomplishing a task.