Category: consciousness

What William James Got Right About Consciousness

By Michael S. Gazzaniga 

Is consciousness an instinct?

When feeling at sea about definitions and meanings in the mind/brain business, it is always rewarding to dial up William James once again.

More than 125 years ago, James wrote a landmark article simply titled “What Is an Instinct?” He wastes no time in defining the concept:

Instinct is usually defined as the faculty of acting in such a way as to produce certain ends, without foresight of the ends, and without previous education in the performance…[Instincts] are the functional correlatives of structure. With the presence of a certain organ goes, one may say, almost always a native aptitude for its use. “Has the bird a gland for the secretion of oil? She knows instinctively how to press the oil from the gland, and apply it to the feather.”

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Why Panpsychism Fails to Solve the Mystery of Consciousness

By Keith Frankish

Is consciousness everywhere? Is it a basic feature of the Universe, at the very heart of the tiniest subatomic particles? Such an idea – panpsychism as it is known – might sound like New Age mysticism, but some hard-nosed analytic philosophers have suggested it might be how things are, and it’s now a hot topic in philosophy of mind.

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Consciousness Goes Deeper Than You Think

Awareness can be part of it, but it’s much more than that

By Bernardo Kastrup

An article on the neuroscience of infant consciousness, which attracted some interest a few years ago, asked: “When does your baby become conscious?” The premise, of course, was that babies aren’t born conscious but, instead, develop consciousness at some point. (According to the article, it is about five months of age). Yet, it is hard to think that there is nothing it feels like to be a newborn.

Newborns clearly seem to experience their own bodies, environment, the presence of their parents, etcetera—albeit in an unreflective, present-oriented manner. And if it always feels like something to be a baby, then babies don’t become conscious. Instead, they are conscious from the get-go.

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Freud the philosopher

Before fathering psychoanalysis, Freud first slayed the dominant Cartesian intellectual tradition of mind-body dualism

By David Livingstone Smith

Most people think of Sigmund Freud as a psychologist or a psychiatrist. But he was neither. He was trained as a neuroscientist and went on to create a new discipline that he called ‘psychoanalysis’. But Freud should also be thought of as a philosopher – and a deeply insightful and prescient one at that. As the philosopher of science Clark Glymour observed in 1991:

Freud’s writings contain a philosophy of mind, and indeed a philosophy of mind that addresses many of the issues about the mental that nowadays concern philosophers and ought to concern psychologists. Freud’s thinking about the issues in the philosophy of mind is better than much of what goes on in contemporary philosophy, and it is sometimes as good as the best …

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The Riddle of the Self

History and literature abound with efforts to define the self. But does true understanding lie in the search itself?

By Joanna Kavenna 

What is the self? How might we know it and how might we describe it? Is it wine in a bottle, to be drunk by the years (D H Lawrence, parodying philosophers)? Is it mind on one side and body on the other, discrete substances communicating somehow via the pineal gland (Descartes)? Is the mind like a computer, potentially fathomable by neuroscience? Is the self a delusion, fostered by Mother Nature in order that we survive and procreate? (Though this begs the question of who, therefore, is Mother Nature?) Furthermore, how might we understand the self from within the self?

The quest for self-knowledge recurs throughout literature, philosophy, science, theology and myth. In the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, the eponymous hero leaves the city of Uruk and travels into the great wildness of life, in an attempt to understand the meaning of his life and to contend with the knowledge of death. In the Upanishads all creation originates with the emergence of the self – ‘I am!’  – and reality is the creation of mind. In the materialist tradition, this distinction is maintained and yet reversed – the tangible, unyielding world precedes and succeeds the finite self.  

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Who We Have Been and Who We Are:

Without memory we would be lost in an unknown and frightening world. Yet curiously from childhood memories to eyewitness reports memory can be wildly inaccurate. Is memory not a passive recollection but an active construction of our past, ourselves and our collective history? Or is this a dangerous notion that leaves us adrift from truth and reality?

The Panel

Journalist Yasmin Alibhai Brown, author of Doctoring the Mind Richard Bentall, and post-modern sociologist Steve Fuller hold memory to account.

I attend, therefore I am

You are only as strong as your powers of attention, and other uncomfortable truths about the self

By Carolyn Dicey Jennings

You have thoughts, feelings and desires. You remember your past and imagine your future. Sometimes you make a special effort, other times you are content to simply relax. All of these things are true about you. But do you exist? Is your sense of self an illusion, or is there something in the world that we can point to and say: ‘Ah, yes – that is you’? If you are familiar with the contemporary science of mind, you will know that the concept of a substantive self, separate from the mere experience of self, is unpopular. But this stance is unwarranted. Research on attention points to a self beyond experience, with its own powers and properties.

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When Neurology Becomes Theology

A neurologist’s perspective on research into consciousness.

By Robert A. Burton

Early in my neurology residency, a 50-year-old woman insisted on being hospitalized for protection from the FBI spying on her via the TV set in her bedroom. The woman’s physical examination, lab tests, EEGs, scans, and formal neuropsychological testing revealed nothing unusual. Other than being visibly terrified of the TV monitor in the ward solarium, she had no other psychiatric symptoms or past psychiatric history. Neither did anyone else in her family, though she had no recollection of her mother, who had died when the patient was only 2.

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Though still entirely theoretical, biocentrism offers those of us who want to hold onto a comforting afterlife scenario, without giving up a devotion to science, an avenue to explore.

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On biocentrism, consciousness is essential to the universe. It is a force, quasi or actual, within the universe. Given this, biocentrists argue that biological life must exist in all universes. All well and good, but this is all gauche and there’s a reason why I abjure the supposed comfort provided by any afterlife concept. A biocentrist’s idea of the afterlife is no different.

Though I don’t put much stock in mainstream wisdom–the kind of “facts of life” you get from Facebook posts and Tweets, YOLO, which is short for “you only live once,” is a good bit of wisdom. For many, the important word in the phrase is once. For me, the important word is you. This is why I don’t see why anyone can find the biocentric afterlife comforting. It’s based on the conservation of matter and energy. The conservation of matter and energy does not entail the conservation of your consciousness in toto. All of your current memories and personality traits are conserved; that’s neglecting the fact that those change at different points throughout your life. In other words, the memories you have today aren’t the ones you’ll recall ten years from now. To my mind, no afterlife concept is comforting because none guarantee the conservation of the you. You only live once and the biocentric afterlife doesn’t change that.

Even on a multiversal view in where you die in one universe of a heart attack at 54 years of age and then awaken in a universe in where you didn’t die of a heart attack, while you are conserved, your death in one universe would be a mere dream in the one you’re currently in; perhaps you’ll even remember it as a dream and perhaps every dream we’ve ever had about dying is a recollection of having died in another universe, albeit not in the same way we did in the dream. Your consciousness will continue to transport from one universe to another until there are no universes in where you’re alive in. 

This, however, isn’t necessarily an afterlife; to you, it would be as linear as the life you lead now. Yet I don’t see how one’s consciousness would continue through universes. Even if consciousness can be in several different states simultaneously, i.e., superposition, it’s quite the leap from superposition of consciousness to superposition between universes. This would imply that the same physical constants and laws apply to all universes. On most accounts, the multiverse isn’t full of universes that are physically equal. 

With that in mind, the biocentrist’s afterlife should be no more comforting than any other concept of the afterlife. You truly do live once. That’s no doubt less comforting for some, but it is no less true.

Biocentrism Posits That Death Is Merely Transport into Another Universe

By Philip Perry

Swiss Engineer Michele Angelo Besso was a close friend of Einstein’s. Upon his death, the father of relativity said, “Now Besso has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us … know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

We often think of the afterlife as a spiritual or religious belief, when in a way, its pursuit is also somewhat familiar to science. Robert Lanza, M.D. takes things one step further. He thinks we start out with a wrong assumption, that we have it all backward. It isn’t the universe which is supreme, but life. In fact, life and in particular consciousness are essential to the makeup of the universe, he says. Through the theory of biocentrism, he believes he can prove that space and time do not exist, unless our consciousness says they do.

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