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….

[from Sandwalk]

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.)

Comments

  1. #1 Stephanie Z
    March 18, 2008

    Don’t miss the comments on Sawyer’s post: “I’ve only ever encountered trolls before online; it was interesting to see one in person”.

  2. #2 Virgil Samms
    March 18, 2008

    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”… Some other time, here, I’ll explain to you what consciousness is, and how to know it when you are looking at it.

    How convenient; you really do have a solid, testable definition of consciousness (although most people who discuss consciousness are not aware of this definition), but you can’t tell us what it is. Anyhoo, that’s off the topic, let’s get back to dickering over the price of this bridge.

  3. #3 Greg Laden
    March 18, 2008

    Virgil: Why the vitriolic response? I had neither the time nor energy to write about consciousness in this post, yet I wanted to bring it up for conversation. I assure you there is no “convenience” … which I take as a nasty remark of some sort that you can, frankly, stuff.

    What I have to say is interesting, fun, and controversial. Stay tuned. But don’t be an ass about it, please. I think you need to examine your subconscious!!!

  4. #4 Stephanie Z
    March 18, 2008

    Virgil, just because you can’t do it doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Why don’t you give Greg more than an hour or two before you decide he’s never going to post his explanation? I’d want my coffee to kick in before writing something that’s going to be scrutinized down to the last semicolon.

  5. #5 Virgil Samms
    March 18, 2008

    I don’t know what you mean by “vitriol,” I never once mentioned your mother. I look forward to your definition. Without a definition, any insistence on existence is quite empty.
    I doubt very much whether all the people in the room with Moran were using this same definition.

  6. #6 Stephanie Z
    March 18, 2008

    Virgil, Moran didn’t start a discussion on the meaning of consciousness then decide that no one had a workable definition. He began with the assumption that they didn’t agree with him because he was the only one who had considered the basics.

    Personally, I define consciousness as a non-reflexive awareness of self vs. other. I.e., the response to outside events is not functionally deterministic. Sure, it has some weaknesses: Where do we draw the line on reflex? Where does it leave the narcisists and solipsists? (/joke) But it’s a useful working definition.

    I’m sure Greg’s definition will be more entertaining, but feel free to tear into this one while you’re waiting.

  7. #7 Frederick Ross
    March 18, 2008

    Stephanie Z, I think that is the only time I have ever seen someone tossed a semantic bone.

  8. #8 Don Cates
    March 18, 2008

    Moran didn’t start a discussion on the meaning of consciousness

    Did he start the discussion or just get involved?

    Personally, I define consciousness as a non-reflexive awareness of self vs. other. I.e., the response to outside events is not functionally deterministic.

    Your definition is fine. Now, what makes you believe that such a thing exists? (ie [a]response to outside events [that] is not functionally deterministic.)

  9. #9 Virgil Samms
    March 18, 2008

    Interesting comment from John Hawks over at Moran’s post.
    Stephanie Z.: Personally, I define consciousness as…
    Personally, I suspect 90% of the people in that room each had their own “personal” definition, and they were all different.

  10. #10 Stephanie Z
    March 18, 2008

    Don, neither. He interrupted the discussion with what amounted to an assertion that no one had considered what they were talking about. Not that they were wrong–that they hadn’t bothered to think about it.

    Given the definition, I believe that it exists because very little about the “wiring” of complex brains is deterministic or reflexive. Big masses of fluctuating action potentials and all that. It is a materialist perspective, and it doesn’t suggest that consciousness is anything specific to humans.

    I’m not arguing with Moran’s idea. I’m suggesting that he could use a clue about making friends and influencing people. How difficult would it have been to say, “Okay, let’s make sure we’re not disagreeing on a matter of semantics. Let’s give a brief definition of consciousness and why we think it’s special to humans”? It’s less likely to produce winners and losers, but it’s much more likely to get someone to rethink their position.

  11. #11 Stephanie Z
    March 18, 2008

    Frederick, I was thinking something more like this, although the concept is the same.

    Cool curriculum posts on your blog, by the way.