Wednesday, December 01, 2010


I've been telling my MCCC students that if you are looking for a career, engage in neural studies. Neuro-philosophy, neuro-psychology, neuro-sociology, neuro-everything- whatever. Neuro-studies and analyses are usurping, or threatning to usurp, the "human sciences."

At the heart of the discussion is the issue of consciousness. It remains a mystery. University of California psychologist Alison Gopnik has a nice little review of current consciousness-studies. (How Weird Is Consciousness? Scientists may not even be asking the right questions.)

The bullets are:
  • Consciousness is: "weird."
  • In spite of the hyper-leaps in neural studies "discouragingly, we are still no closer to solving the Problem of Big-C Consciousness. How is consciousness possible at all? How could the few pounds of gray goo in my skull give rise to my experience of the particular blue tint of the sky?"
  • Many try to explain it. Some deny that consciousness exists at all. Others think consciousness cannot be simply a result of the brain.
  • A major probem is: how could one even test consciousness? Gopnik writes: "There is only one organism that I'm sure is conscious (namely, me), and there are only a few more organisms that tell me they are also conscious (namely, my fellow humans), though I'm pretty sure that my other fellow animals are conscious, too. Just to make things worse, the more you think about it, the less sure you are about the nature of your own consciousness, let alone that of other organisms."
  •  "Recent scientific approaches to consciousness emphasize different aspects of conscious experience and different brain and mind states that are correlated with those experiences. We might divide them into "inside" approaches and "outside" approaches." The quintessential "inside" example is Descartes, siting in a chair in his study, "meditating," going within himself. A Cartesian approach reasons that to be conscious is to have a sense of self: I go within, therefore I am. There seems to be a fundamental "I am-ness" about "me." And yes, we are now looping around in circular motion. Such is the conundrum of consciousness.
  • "Other "inside" approaches emphasize focused attention and intentional planning. Psychologists like Stanislas Dehaene and Bernard Baars describe consciousness as a "workspace," a kind of phenomenological desktop on which that mysterious "I" places, arranges, and manipulates information. We've learned a lot about this inside type of consciousness. We know, for example, that the workspace has a limited capacity; we can crowd only so many things on that desktop. And we even know some of the brain networks, involving parts of the frontal cortex, that support attention, planning, reflection, and our sense of the self."

  • ""Outside" accounts of consciousness, on the other hand, tend to come from scientists, like Christof Koch, who study visual perception and who (no surprise again) think that perception is the key to consciousness. For a vision scientist, the quintessential conscious experience is to look out the window and simply see the blue of the sky, irrespective of the body, the self, attention, planning, reflection, and all the rest. The philosopher Ned Block calls this type of consciousness "phenomenal consciousness," in contrast to the "inside" "access consciousness" of introspection."
  • Gopmik says there is evidence that suggests the two types of consciousness ("inside" and "outside") may be "in tension with one another."  Ultimately, she thinks the inside-outside approach will be too simply. Consciousness is turnin out to be so complex that any single approach will be inadequate.
For further study, as related to Christian theism, see: J.P. Moreland, Consciousness and the Existence of God: A Theistic Argument; and Joel Green, Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible. Green appears to be the only New Testament scholar who is studying the contribution neural studies are making to biblical understanding.

Enter... neuro-theology (it's actually been around for a while), neuro-hermeneutics...