SciBarCamp is a gathering of scientists and others, in an effort to create connections across diverse interests, and, wherever possible, annoy the heck out of Larry Moran.
Larry was at SciBarCamp and had a run in with a couple of other dozen people, finding himself as the ONLY person in the room with a particular viewpoint, and getting very little sympathy for it.
According to Moran:
At one point there was a group of us talking about a number of different things when the topic of consciousness arose. One member of the group happened to mention that humans were special because they are “conscious.”
Now, I happen believe that there’s no such thing as “consciousness” in the sense of something tangible that we can point to and say. “That’s consciousness.” I think it’s merely a descriptive term for brain activity. It’s an epiphenomenon. Consciousness may be an important and useful word for describing the phenomenon but that’s all it is. I don’t know whether an octopus is conscious, or a dolphin, or a dog, or a chimpanzee. The reason I don’t know this is because nobody can tell me what consciousness is.
Nobody in the group seemed to share my view. They all seemed to think that consciousness was something tangible and real–something that set humans off from the rest of life….
Now, let me chime in here and tell you that Larry is largely correct. Consciousness IS a thing (sorry Larry, if you were stuck in a room full of people who could not explain what they were talking about). It can be identified, measured, you can point to it and you can say “That’s consciousness” … But no, it is not necessarily the case that you can say it is unique to humans. That requires a bit more work. I have a feeling the group was on to a different topic and consiousness was not really the word they were looking for.
Anyway, across the blogosphere, we find another person who had attended this weekend gathering and their take on it:
I also led a session on the World Wide Web gaining consciousness. One fellow, thinking he was above the rest of us, demanded of the fifteen or so people at my session, “How many of you have ever considered that consciousness might not really exist?” He expected us all to look blankly at him, and wait for him to enlighten us — but, of course, every hand in the room went up. As I pointedly said to him, at a gathering like this it’s not safe to assume that you are the smartest person in the room.
Later, the same guy tried to lecture my SF-writing colleague Dr. Peter Watts, saying “Let me explain evolution to you.” Peter, of course, is a marine biologist, and knows the topic cold — as he made quite clear to this fellow.
That was Robert Sawyer
If you go to the two blogs cited above, you can bask in much more argumentative and often self-aggrandizing gobbledygook. Some other time, here, I’ll explain to you what consciousness is, and how to know it when you are looking at it.
(I would like to thank an anonymous informant for alerting me to these blog posts.)