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US News and Consciousness Research!

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  • SMiles Lewis
    http://www.usnews.com:80/usnews/issue/000612/mind.htm The work of David Chalmers has drawn attention to the University of Arizona s Center for Consciousness
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 3, 2000
      http://www.usnews.com:80/usnews/issue/000612/mind.htm


      The work of David Chalmers has drawn attention to the University of
      Arizona's Center for Consciousness Studies.

      The Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness is one of several
      groups to crop up in a now burgeoning field of study.

      Journals exploring consciousness, like Psyche, are also becoming more
      commonplace.



      Who am I?
      Introspective scientists are probing the mystery of human consciousness


      By Jay Tolson


      In the conference center of the National Institutes of HealthÐa sleekly
      modernist temple of scientific objectivityÐpassions verge on erupting.
      Several scientists and academics attending the May symposium on "Scientific
      Approaches to Consciousness" are beside themselves over the claim made by
      one of the four presenters, philosopher David Chalmers, that subjective
      experience cannot be fully accounted for by the underlying mechanics of the
      brain.


      Chalmers, whose long Pre-Raphaelite curls seem at odds with his brisk,
      no-nonsense Australian staccato, is something of an intellectual impresario
      in the world of consciousness research. Now at the University of Arizona,
      where he is associate director of the Center for Consciousness Studies, he
      has for many years been advancing the controversial position that
      consciousness is a fundamental, irreducible phenomenon, like space, time, or
      gravity. Though its qualities might be correlated with the anatomy and
      chemistry of the brain, Chalmers holds, it cannot and will not ever be
      explained by those graybeard sciences.


      To the hard scientists in the crowd, that's heresy, nothing more than a sly
      rephrasing of Cartesian dualism. Chalmers's view is particularly troubling
      to bedrock materialists because of its associations with the soul or even a
      nonmaterial human essence. Patricia Churchland, a fellow panelist and a
      philosopher from the University of California-San Diego, is among those
      taking issue with Chalmers. Consciousness, she argues, is no less
      susceptible to reductionist analysis than any other phenomenonÐas long as
      we're not hoping for crude, deterministic connections between particular
      neurons and specific qualities of mind.


      Middle ground? It's perhaps not surprising, then, that the views of the two
      practicing scientists on the panel fall somewhere between the positions of
      those two philosophers. J. Allan Hobson, the renowned Harvard University
      neuroscientist and dream researcher, is largely concerned with how
      neurochemical messengers control different mental states such as sleeping
      and waking; Christof Koch is a biophysicist at the California Institute of
      Technology who has worked with Nobel laureate Francis Crick on the neuronal
      basis of visual awareness. Although both Hobson and Koch explore the
      physical foundations of mental activity, both tend to be agnostic on whether
      scientific explanations will get to the bottom of consciousness itself. As
      Koch explains, "We have discovered some of the NCCs [shorthand for neuronal
      correlates of consciousness], but it's unclear whether there will be a
      satisfactory reductionist account of why this activity and this subset of
      neurons give rise to subjectivity. Right now this is the hard problem."

      Reaching a consensus on that hard problem, at this symposium or any other,
      would be astonishing. But almost as surprising is the fact that one of
      America's citadels of science is hosting this debate at all. Ten years ago,
      the subject of consciousness could be found only on the fringes of
      respectable scientific study. It was not always so. Into the early 20th
      century, William James attempted to merge experimental psychology with an
      investigation of subjective mental lifeÐ"the field of consciousness," as he
      called it. But the behaviorists who took over and ruled the field for most
      of this century rejected the Jamesian reliance on introspective dataÐit was
      insufficiently scientific, they held. Working with rats in mazes and
      salivating dogs, behaviorists treated the brain merely as a box and studied
      its responses to assorted stimuli.


      But a change has clearly been afoot over the past decade. The scientific
      rehabilitation of consciousness is evident not only in the founding of new
      associations (the Association for the Scientific Study of a Consciousness)
      and journals (Consciousness and Cognition, Psyche, and Journal of
      Consciousness Studies) but in an almost endless succession of conferences
      and new books. (In the last month alone, four such titles have appearedÐAn
      Anatomy of Thought, The Physics of Consciousness, The Private Life of the
      Brain, and A Universe of ConsciousnessÐall by working scientists.) To be
      sure, consciousness has not lost all the fuzzy associations that once
      relegated it to religion and other "softer" disciplines. "Some scientists
      still think it's the kiss of death to use the word in grant proposals," says
      Chalmers. But whether their work goes under that name, researchers around
      the world are exploring the mechanisms that make it possible to experience
      seeing a color or to focus on a taskÐriddles that connect, at least in
      humans, to the greater mystery of self.


      Several factors explain this scientific sea change. Since the 1940s, for
      instance, when the British mathematician Alan Turing began to speculate
      about the possibility of making computers that are "conscious," almost two
      generations of artificial intelligence researchers have come forth with bold
      predictions for achieving that goal. AI prophet Ray Kurzweil, the
      Massachusetts-based inventor of pattern-recognition technology, says that
      computers will exceed human intelligence no later than 2020. Not only that,
      he adds, but humans and computers will merge, with human memories being
      downloaded into machines and mechanical neural implants being installed in
      human brains.


      Attending to memory. All such predictions may finally amount to science
      fiction, but the real work of AI researchers has helped to spur the study of
      human cognition. What is it, after all, that the computer is being built to
      replicate? Modeling mental activities after computer processes and vice
      versa, cognitive scientists have come up with useful hypotheses about
      consciousness: It appears to correspond only to certain brain activities,
      and both attention and short-term memory seem to be crucial to it.

      What has allowed the neuroscientific community to move forward in
      correlating brain architecture and activity with consciousness is a host of
      new brain-monitoring and imaging technologies. For example, scientists like
      Crick, Koch, and Gerald Edelman have been showing how discrete groups of
      neurons, firing synchronously, communicate and collaborate to produce, say,
      visual awareness. Just as crucial to understanding consciousness has been
      Hobson's work on the role of neuromodulators, the groups of neurons based in
      the brain stem that produce and spread chemicals that induce or inhibit
      dreaming, waking, and sleeping. More broadly, a number of neuroscientists
      have made the powerful case that reasoning cannot be separated from
      emotions: Fear, joy, sadness, and other strong feelings are the great
      mobilizers and orchestrators of the most abstract reflections of the
      conscious mind.


      Yet another force behind the consciousness movement has been a growing
      confidence in the power of scienceÐparticularly the merger of modern
      genetics and evolutionary theoryÐto explain everything about life. But even
      some champions of science are wary. In his recent book The Mysterious Flame,
      for instance, philosopher Colin McGinn argues that evolution itself has so
      designed our minds that we cannot understand or explain intelligence.
      Whether McGinn is ultimately proved right, one thing is certain at the
      moment: This new breed of introspective scientists is unwilling to give up
      the chase.


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