Thursday, April 17, 2008

Panpsychism might become a drug that causes us to forget trying to nail down what an experience is and how it relates to the physical

Toward a Science of Consciousness (TUCSON 2008): Conf. Review
from Zaadz: Anands blog
I just returned from Tucson, AZ from attending the 2008 edition of the Toward a Science of Consciousness conference.

First, panpsychism is no longer crazy - it's the norm. (I'll wait for you to pick yourself up off the floor.) Following in the footsteps of James, Fechner, Whitehead, Griffin, Sprigge, Chalmers, Seager, Rosenberg and Strawson, a triumphalist note of sorts was struck especially by Skrbina. Stubenberg contrasted panpsychism and neutral monism in a nice talk. What is starting to worry me - especially since I'm going post-panpsychist - is that panpsychism might become a drug that causes us to forget trying to nail down what an experience is and how it relates to the physical. If we blithely accept that experiences run all the way down, this could happen. Thankfully, the problem of awareness will, in all likelihood rear up in protest and we'll have a whole new argument on awareness thresholds, the emergence of awareness, the impossibility of the emergence of awareness, blah, blah, blah.

A plenary session on "Libet and the timing of conscious experience" was very illuminating. There's now a lot of evidence suggesting that conscious awareness of intention is behind the times. To put it crudely, our brains make up their minds about what to do before we become aware of its intention. (Sorry for being so Cartesian.) Please see this Wired article for more on this fascinating finding.

The "Sex and Consciousness" plenary focused on altered states and peak experiences during sex. Jenny Wade summarized the findings from her recent book "Transcendent Sex." The upshot is that you and your partner could be having a satori-like peak experience triggered by sex and you may not be sharing that with each other. What was especially amusing was Wade narrating the story of a woman who had a peak experience while having the same, boring (sorry, sorry) sex with her husband for the umpteenth time. She was waiting for it to get over and then BAM! - altered state.

When Wolf Singer started to give his talk on synchronization of oscillatory neural responses (gamma synchrony), I thought I'd be bored out of my mind (ouch). And I was. Neural synchrony doesn't really solve any problem. The computational neuroscientists are quick to tell you that the brain is really a high-dimensional spike producing chaotic dynamical system and that any reference to relaxation oscillations to solve a "binding problem" is pretty neanderthal. But Singer redeemed himself. When asked what was going on in deep meditative states he opined "I think they [the meditators] have found a way of being in an Aah Ha! state all the time" [inexact quote] essentially without needing an Einstein-like scientific discovery to generate the flash of insight that presumably produces that state.

The best session of the conference was on "Brain Imaging and Mind Reading." Adrian Owen demonstrated that a few vegetative subjects were capable of performing mental imagery tasks which could be detected by fMRI! [Umm, this means that they aren't really vegetative subjects.] This to me was the Wow paper of the conference even though I hate fMRI with a passion since it's a glorified heatsink detector.

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