»  National Review

May 19, 2008

  Inside Story

[The eighth biennial "Toward a Science of Consciousness" conference was held at the University of Arizona in Tucson, April 8-12, 2008. Among the 800 participants from 45 countries was me. I blogged the event for National Review Online, April 9-13, and posted my blogs as a single web page here. This is a condensed, more "polished" write-up I did for the print version of National Review.


Can there be a science of mind? There has of course been a philosophy of mind since the time of the Ancients, but is this really an area that the scientific method can penetrate? A growing body of academics from several disciplines are betting that it is. Hoping to find out whether or not they are right, I attended the eighth biennial "Toward a Science of Consciousness" conference hosted by the University of Arizona at Tucson this April. This was a multidisciplinary gathering of about 800 scholars from a wide range of fields. Best represented were neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, and physics. Mingling among us were representatives from anthropology, sociology, theology, ethical and legal studies, and even "literature and hermeneutics."

My conclusion, after a week of lectures and discussions: Yes, there are probably new truths we can establish, and some age-old problems we may be able to resolve. On the evidence so far, though — and to be sure, the evidence is still thin and patchy — we shall not like what we learn.


Time Out of Mind
When psychology began to organize itself in the later 19th century it was taken for granted that the answer to my opening question was "Yes." Early psychologists, like the great William James, bent their efforts to the study our inner mental life, our sensations and experiences, from the merely physical to the spiritual. The article on psychology in the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, written by pioneering British psychologist James Ward, declares flatly that: "Psychology … is the science of individual experience."

Unfortunately my individual mental experiences are accessible to nobody but me, while a key feature of scientific method is scrutiny of data by several different, independent observers. This conundrum, and distaste for the imaginative but data-light and largely untestable theories of Freud, soon brought on a reaction: the era of behaviorism. John B. Watson, the great champion of that school, famously said in 1913 that "introspection forms no essential part" of psychology's methods. Only behavior could be independently observed; only behavior could furnish objective data. Psychology became the only science to rule out of bounds its nominal subject matter: the psyche, the mind.

Interest in subjective experiences is hard to suppress, though. In the 1950s the barrenness of behaviorism, along with the emergence of computer science and studies of brain-damaged WW2 veterans, led to new ways of thinking about thinking. Then, from the late 1970s, techniques for imaging brain activity were developed. In 1990 came the best of those techniques, "functional magnetic resonance imaging" (fMRI), which maps tiny changes in blood flow from less-busy to more-busy regions of the brain. With fMRI we can watch the brain thinking. Now, when a subject reports some inner experience, we can see the corresponding brain activity — the "neural correlates of consciousness."

The development of fMRI was a major stimulus to the birth of a new field: Consciousness Studies. The Journal of Consciousness Studies was founded in 1994. Also in that year was organized the first of these biennial "Toward a Science of Consciousness" conferences. That "toward" indicates a proper humility about the proceedings. Most of the participants would, I think, agree with me that the answer to my opening question is yes, a science of mind is possible. We don't have one yet, though, only overlapping interest from several long-established academic disciplines, and a handful of suggestive, mostly rather disturbing, experimental results.


New Departures
The disciplines most prominently on display at Tucson were neuroscience and philosophy. These two fields had collided quite sensationally in 1985, when Benjamin Libet published his discovery that the subjective experience of willing an act is preceded by the brain activities required to initiate the act. The measured gap between unconscious initiation and conscious decision-making was less than a second in Libet's experiments, but later researchers have since pushed it back to seven seconds.

Seven seconds! Your brain starts up the neural processes necessary for you to push a button. Seven seconds later you experience the wish to push that button. You then push the button. Where is free will? Where Schopenhauer left it, perhaps. Loosely translated: "We can do what we want, but we can't want what we want."

Libet himself died last year. (Signing up for the conference a few weeks ago, I misread the program as saying that Libet would be giving an address. Now that would have been a breakthrough in Consciousness Studies!) His results have generated an enormous and contentious literature. There is a good, though early, discussion in Chapter 6 of Daniel Dennett's 1991 book Consciousness Explained.

We heard the latest news from four different researchers on the conference's second day. Psychologist William Banks suggested that conscious volition may be just a tale we tell ourselves after the event, and wondered aloud if our precious consciousnesses are "dragged through life by zombies." Neuroscientist Francesca Carota described her extension of Libet's experiments from button-pressing to speaking. Philosopher John Jacobson told us about his computer program to play rock-paper-scissors. It is unbeatable; and, by dint of a subtle illusion, the computer appears to move before its human opponent.

Jacobson raised some questions about the legal implications of all this research. Our laws, he pointed out, are based on the notion that I first consciously decide to do a thing, then I up and do it. If these new results stand, it seems that this "folk volition" is as far from the truth as the folk-astronomical idea of the sky as a crystal dome. What then happens to our laws? What happens to ethics, to responsibility?

The fourth speaker was physicist Daniel Sheehan, who tried to embed Libet's weird results in the deeper weirdness of quantum mechanics. The idea that the truth about consciousness may lie in the sub-atomic realm has been around for some years, its best-known promoters being British mathematical physicist Roger Penrose (The Emperor's New Mind, 1989) and Arizona's own Stuart Hameroff, organizer of this very conference. There have always been knotty problems of causation down at the quantum level, and Sheehan wondered whether Libet's results might be evidence for "retrocausation" — time flowing backwards. He had shown sequences of images to his subjects, some images emotionally "cold" (landscape), some "hot" (naked woman). Watching the corresponding brain activity, he claimed to have recorded a flutter of unusual interest before a "hot" picture was shown. Presentiment, or "retrocausation"?

(In a later session, when parapsychologist Dick Bierman mentioned Sheehan's presentiment results, I asked why someone hadn't tried to "fool" the effect. While showing that sequence of "hot" and "cold" pictures to a subject, on observing an interest flutter just before presentation of a "hot" picture, find out what happens if you then don't show the picture. Bierman, a phlegmatic Dutchman with a weight-lifter's physique and a streak of wry humor, said he had suggested this to a colleague, but the colleague had said, presumably in jest: "If we do that, the universe might collapse!")

After all this metaphysics we got a splash of cold water from another physicist, Sue Pockett of the University of Auckland, New Zealand. She pooh-poohed Sheehan's "retrocausation" on statistical grounds — sound ones, it seemed to me. She gave less-weird interpretations of common quantum paradoxes. She said Libet had made "unjustified assumptions." Pockett's was a star turn. The audience loved her. The previous speakers did their best to defend themselves, and some scholarly tag wrestling broke out. Hadn't X and Y made these arguments against Libet years ago? And hadn't he responded fully? Yes, but P and Q had pointed out that … Etc., etc. This was great academic theater. I wonder if there isn't a reality TV show to be made.

In conversation with Sue Pockett later, I remarked on the odd fact that, speaking very generally, antipodeans seem determined to live up to their stereotype as down-to-earth, no-nonsense debunkers of all theories straying too far from everyday experience. A certain Monty Python sketch comes to mind. There is actually a school of metaphysics called "Australian Materialism" which argues that the mind simply is the brain, no further explanation required. The main originator of this school has a crisply reductionist name: Jack Smart. I asked Dr. Pockett what accounted for this vein of antipodean skepticism. She gave me a deliciously New Zealandish answer: "There are a lot of sheep out here, and they need sheepdogs to keep 'em in order. I'm a sheepdog."


The Origin of Mind
The troubling thoughts raised by Libet and his followers were relieved with another cold splash from some speakers on the reporting and recording of conscious states. There is, I was surprised to learn, no general agreement among experts about how much conscious experience we have. Are we conscious of a lot of things all the time, as early psychologists like William James believed? Or is our consciousness really a very occasional thing, most of our mentation being transitory thoughts and feelings immediately forgotten — what Virginia Woolf called the "cotton wool" of mental life? As philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel told us, we can't work up a general theory of consciousness until this preliminary matter is settled.

How can we settle it? The most popular technique employs beepers. You give beepers to your subjects, then send them out to live their lives. At random times through the day, you beep them. They must record exactly what, if anything, they were conscious of in the instant before the beeper sounded. The results are sometimes disconcerting. Developmental psychologist Sarah Akhter of the University of Nevada used beepers to explore the consciousness of adolescents. (Consciousness Studies researchers know no fear.) One bright, normal 12-year-old female subject seemed to have no inner life at all. As the father of a teenage girl, I was not as shaken by this finding as perhaps I should have been.

Also open is the question of when consciousness first showed up. I was surprised again to learn that the theories of the late Julian Jaynes still have some currency. In his 1976 bestseller The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Jaynes had argued that consciousness did not appear until historic times, and that the earliest people who left us any account of their inner lives had no executive consciousness as we understand it. Their decision-making was driven not by conscious volition, but by auditory hallucinations. We describe our own acts in terms like: "I'd made up my mind to do it, so I did it." In Bronze Age texts like the Iliad or early books of the Old Testament, wrote Jaynes, matters more often proceed along lines like: "A god told him to do it, so he did it."

I read Jaynes' book when it came out. It occurred to me at the time, as it did to many reviewers, that his theories ought to be easy to test, since pre-modern peoples can still be found in remote parts of the world. Folk of not merely the Bronze Age, but of the actual Stone Age, are still among us. Why had not Jaynes done some testing on them to confirm his theories? I put this question to philosopher Jan Sleutels of Leiden University. "Because it would not have been politically correct!" Sleutels replied with a chuckle. It is apparently a gross breach of etiquette to suggest that naked head-hunters have thought processes in any way different from ours.

Be that as it may, fMRI research seems to confirm some of Jaynes' ideas, and Jaynesian psychology is enjoying a revival. This is another unsettling thing to learn. If the earliest human civilizations were built by people obeying voices in their heads, without anything we would consider reflective consciousness, then … do we really need reflective consciousness?


A Field of Astonishing Breadth
A dilettante outsider is at a disadvantage in gatherings like this, among people who have spent years, sometimes decades, in the field. They have a disconcerting tendency to speak to each other in allusions and abbreviations, and you have to try to catch the jargon as it flies by: the Cartesian Theater, the Chinese Room, Leibniz's Mill, NCC (that is those "neural correlates of consciousness") and GWT (Global Workspace Theory, a popular account of the interactions between conscious and unconscious brain processes). I came away from Tucson with a long reading list.

The breadth of the field is astonishing, as I hope I have illustrated. From child-development psychology to metaphysics; from quantum mechanics to epistemology; from evolutionary biology to the mental states of Achilles and Elijah. I don't know how anyone with an active intellect could not be fascinated by Consciousness Studies.

There are issues of large general consequence here, too. After sitting through a dozen hours or so of these lectures and debates, you begin to get an uncomfortable feeling of the ground shifting beneath you. I have mentioned John Jacobson's remarks on the ethical and legal issues. Our nation — it would not be too much to say our civilization — is founded on Enlightenment ideals about free men following the dictates of reason. What if our freedom is an illusion, as Libet's results suggest? Psychologist Richard Nisbett (not present at Tucson) has studied the reasons people give for their actions, and found that: "for a shocking range of things, we don't know the answer to 'Why did I?' any better than an observer." So perhaps reason, like freedom, is an illusion.

Or it may be that acknowledging these illusions for what they are will only be to state openly what many have long suspected. While attending the Tucson conference, I happened to read about a Pew Research Center poll done in late March, finding that voters are supporting Barack Obama because he makes them feel good about themselves. Free men following the dictates of reason? Has that ever really been a full picture of our political life?

How far do we still have to go "toward a science of consciousness"? A long way yet, was my parting impression. In his 2007 Teaching Company lecture series Consciousness and its Implications (which I recommend), philosopher Daniel Robinson remarks that: "Despite the tremendous growth of knowledge over recent decades, the problem of mental causation … is pretty much where it was in the time of the ancient Greek philosophers." That matches my own conclusions from the Tucson meeting. Given the explosive implications of some of this work, perhaps it would not be obscurantist to hope that Robinson's judgment will remain true for a while longer.