Conversations on

What the Best Minds Think about
The Brain, Free Will, and
What It Means to Be Human

Susan Blackmore
Evidently, they did something important in Tucson, Arizona in 1996, as if anything important could ever happen in Tucson, Arizona. They put on a seminal meeting of people who do brains, and called it "Towards a Science of Consciousness," and it was good. Evidently there are people out there who think they can use their brains to figure out the brain.

There was Francis Crick. This book has the last interview he gave before he died. He's a bit short with Dr. Blackmore (and the reader), doesn't have much to offer.

More interesting is Stuart Hameroff, an anęsthesiologist, who suggests that when we die we don't die. Suspend your disbelief and fear of big words, and try to make some sense out of this (in place of "quantum," read "spirit" or "spiritual" or "a mystery" or "mysterious" or any other appropriately vague words):

    When the quantum coherence in the microtubules is lost, as in cardiac arrest, or death, the Planck scale quantum information in our heads dissipates, leaks out, to the Planck scale in the universe as a whole. The quantum information which had comprised our conscious and subconscious minds during life doesn't completely dissipate, but hangs together because of quantum entanglement. Because it stays in quantum superposition and doesn't undergo quantum state reduction or collapse, it's more like our subconscious mind, like our dreams. And because the universe at the Planck scale is non-local, it exists holographically, indefinitely.

Blackmore then asks,

    Is this the soul?

And Hammeroff responds,

    Why not.

Finally there's Thomas Metzinger, author of Being No One. His thoughts on the intermix of what he does and what he feels turned out to be astonishingly moving to this reader.

§     §     §

These brain-folks invent and use certain codes for other brain-heads. There is much discussion of something called "quale" (pl., "qualia") --- one of those fancy-pants words invented to confuse the rest of us who don't do consciousness for a living. It means, according to my rusty old red bible, Webster's Third --- "a property considered apart from things having that property." Better said, the roseness of a rose, the fishiness of fish, the delirium of humans, thinking they are eternal.

Other phrases out of the discipline are NCCs (Neural corrolates of consciousness), GWT (Global Workspace Theory) and "The Philosopher's Zombie" --- someone exactly like you and me, except being someone (or something) with no "inner life," no "conscious experience" ... something you and I may feel the morning after a particularly noisy, stupid party, where we yelled and drank too much. Or the day we woke up and realized that we've forgotten to take our Paxil for a week. Or the day we woke up and the love of our life announced that he or she was taking the next boat out.

What are by far the most interesting thoughts in Conversations on Consciousness outside of the backstabbing (brain people prove here to be jealous of each other's brainstorms) ... are the ideas from that come straight to us from left field.

For instance, Richard Gregory, editor of the Oxford Companion to the Mind (what?) admits to being a bit of a space junkie. When we wake up but are still sleeping it is known in the head-business as "the hypnagogic state." I get it from time to time, and it scares the pee out of me: I wake and can't move, not even a finger, not even an eyelid. Hell, I can't even pee.

Gregory says that when he's half asleep, his "hypnagogic imagery"

    is absolutely vivid as anything --- super-saturated colours; and it's partly steerable; it's half conscious, and I can steer and go through these amazing tropical forests and things.

Dan Dennett, one of the more controversial Consciousness peeps, answers Susan's "Do you think anything of the person survives physical death?" by artfully expostulating on fame-after-death:

    I wonder what the maximum value of p is, where p is the population of 'recognized immortals'. 1000? 10,000? When Elvis Presley finds his seat, does this force Dietrich Buxtehude out? That's the only sort of life after death, and it is in short supply.

--- Wesley Ford, PhD
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