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The Conscious Brain—2½ Physical Theories


By Frank Simons

The Meditation Center presents the 24-part Great Courses series, Philosophy of Mind: Part 22, “The Conscious Brain—2½ Physical Theories”, at 5:30pm, Thursday, November 2.

The core of the hard problem of consciousness is this: How are we to understand conscious experience? How could the three pounds of gray and wet cellular matter in a human skull produce this: the subjective realm of our experience of colors, of tastes, of smells, of feelings?

Francis Crick, who received the Nobel Prize with James Watson for their discovery of double-helix structure of DNA, turned his attention to the mystery of consciousness. He and Christof Koch offer a theory of consciousness in terms of synchronous neural firing. Impressions from different senses come together in a single consciousness. How does that happen? Crick and Koch propose that binding in the brain occurs in time rather than space. Neurons in different areas of the brain bind by synchronizing their firing in the range of 40 Hertz. The theory is worth pursuing but does not offer an answer to the hard problem.

Roger Penrose asks: Can human minds do something no algorithm or formal system can? We can see the limits of formal systems, Penrose says, and can see what lies beyond. Somehow our brains must function non-algorithmically. How does this formal undecidability lead to consciousness? The answer is: by way of quantum mechanics. Penrose thinks that our non-algorithmic abilities demand intelligence and insight and that these are essentially conscious. He also thinks that free will demands consciousness. According to quantum mechanics, fundamental physical processes are non-algorithmic and non-Deterministic. Consciousness can be explained by quantum effects in neurons. Both consciousness and quantum mechanics are mysterious, but it does not follow that one mystery explains the other.

David Chalmers proposes a fairly wild direction in which to look for a physical theory that would answer the hard question. He argues we will have to change our scientific worldview to accommodate consciousness. It should be added as a further fundamental principle operating throughout the universe, a form of panpsychism, according to which everything—electrons included—has an aspect of consciousness. Everything has some form of subjective experience. This proposal demands much and offers so little. The theory sees consciousness everywhere but gives us no more understanding of it than we have now.

Professor Patrick Grim, as Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, has provided his students with invaluable insights into issues of philosophy, artificial intelligence, theoretical biology, and other fields. Professor Grim was awarded the university’s Presidential and Chancellor’s awards for teaching excellence and was elected to the Academy of Teachers and Scholars.

There will be an opportunity for discussion following the video.

Presentations of the Center are offered without charge. Donations are gratefully accepted.


Video Presentation

Philosophy of Mind: Part 22, “The Conscious Brain—2½ Physical Theories”

By Frank Simons

Thu, Nov 2, 5:30pm

Meditation Center

Callejon Blanco 4

Free, donations accepted



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