Opening a Window into Philosophy of Mind

No doubt there are still cocktail-party conversations about Descartes, Nietzsche, and Sartre, but I wonder how many Bordeaux-sipping intellectuals discuss Dretske, Nagel, and Kripke. The relationship between academic philosophy and the general public is nearly non-existent. Professors mostly speak to each other, in a technical language full of confusing terms with multiple definitions – “qualia,” “intentionality,” “representationalism,” “epiphenomenalism,” and so on. A few, such as Daniel Dennett and Nicholas Humphrey, have written for a wider audience, but most seem comfortable remaining within their own ivory towers.

I have been a member of the American Philosophical Association for nearly 25 years, reading books and professional journals and regularly attending conferences and colloquia. So I have spent years as the proverbial fly on the wall, listening to professorial interchanges within these lofty retreats. I am impressed with the need for competent philosophical analysis, and one of my life goals is to open a window into contemporary philosophy of mind for interested non-philosophers.

But I have sincerely wondered whether this is possible. When I tell people about my book, Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You, I cannot sum it up in a sound bite. In the book itself, it takes the Introduction and the first five chapters just to explain the key problems.

Last Sunday, however, I had a very encouraging experience. I presented Part One of a workshop called Your Mysterious Mind: New Insights into Baffling Enigmas at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto. The program concludes with Part Two on February 15. About 35 showed up, an excellent turnout for an early Sunday afternoon program, and participants seemed interested and engaged.

It was especially heartening to see that some attendees had an intuitive feel for the problem of consciousness and its possible solutions. One person (“K”) dealt with Frank Jackson’s Mary-scenario by proposing what academicians call the ability hypothesis – after seeing colors for the first time, Mary acquires new abilities but does not acquire new facts. “M” suggested that sensory experiences are memories, perhaps implying that they involve cognitive responses to recent (not current) perceptual inputs. And “E,” who has a strong science background, wondered whether some consciousness-conundrums are merely pseudo-problems. I could imagine Daniel Dennett cheering her on: “Right! There isn’t any special Problem of Consciousness. There just seems to be.”

I’m under no illusions that conveying contemporary philosophy of mind will be easy, but I am now more hopeful that my project will make a positive difference.

Roger Christan Schriner

John Bickle on Molecular Aspects of Consciousness

On January 22 I attended a lecture sponsored by the Center for the Explanation of Consciousness at Stanford University. John Bickle, who holds positions at both Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi Medical Center, presented a talk titled “Molecules, Mechanisms, and (Aspects of) Consciousness.” Many scholars believe that the most important discoveries about consciousness will be made at the systems level, understanding the way complex systems within the brain constitute conscious experiences. But Dr. Bickle explained how amazing progress is being made way down at the molecular level.

Here’s an example: By altering brain molecules in laboratory animals, scientists have shown that two key aspects of consciousness depend upon different sets of neurons. One of these aspects is on/off awareness, the difference between waking consciousness and dreamless sleep. Another aspect is level of arousal.

In these experiments with mice, scientists targeted a very specific subunit of an important neurotransmitter system called the GABA-sub-A receptor. They altered this system in two different ways which I’ll call intervention-1 and intervention-2. Intervention-1 changed their patterns of arousal, so that after being dosed with an anesthetic (etomidate) the mice almost immediately regained normal arousal levels after waking up. Their untreated kinfolk were groggy for some time, as you and I would be after receiving a general anesthetic. So with intervention-1, the anesthetic knocked them out as quickly as it did before their brains were altered, but when they woke up they were alert right away instead of spacey. By contrast, mice that received intervention-2 didn’t go to sleep at all when dosed with etomidate. The anesthetic was no longer effective.

Careful analysis of these findings suggests that these changes in two different parts of a neurotransmitter system change two different aspects of consciousness, being aroused and being awake. This backs up the notion that consciousness is not a single phenomenon, but a combination of several features of the mind and/or the brain.

In my posts on December 1 and 14, 2014 I discussed the search for the elusive NCC, the neural correlates of consciousness. This is an incredibly difficult quest, but the data reported by Bickle are certainly encouraging.

For more information, see Engineering the Next Revolution in Neuroscience: The New Science of Experiment Planning, by Alcino J. Silva, Anthony Landreth, and John Bickle:

Roger Christan Schriner