Introducing Consciousness: A Graphic Guide by David Papineau and Howard Selina is the latest book in this series I’ve read. It explores what this thing is that we call consciousness. There are no answers, because consciousness remains pretty elusive, but the book doesn’t aim to give you answers.
One of the ideas raised was philosopher Thomas Nagel’s question, “What’s it like to be a bat?” What does it feel like to use echolocation? But for you to even try to imagine what it would like for you to be a bat imposes your human perspective, which the bat doesn’t have, so despite whatever we may think we know, we actually don’t have a clue. What it’s like for a bat to be a bat has nothing to do with what your head thinks it would feel like in a bat’s body.
I didn’t think to look at the date the book was originally published until I got to the part about the brain and mind as hardware vs. software. It included a cartoon with a person throwing CDs like frisbees and saying that software is “the program that a machine is running – such as Microsoft Word, or Netscape, or Telnet.” Suh-weet! (Urban Dictionary’s top definition for that was from 2002, which is around the time we’re talking about here.) I don’t think that anyone non-computer geek-ish ever talked about Telnet, but Netscape was the maker of everyone’s favourite browser almost a quarter century ago, complete with some fancy-pants graphics…
Now, had the person in the cartoon been throwing the floppy disks that were actually floppy, that would have taken us back another 15 years or so. Although apparently it was only in 2019 that the US military stopped managing its nukes with 8″ floppy disks. A 2016 report said, “The system is still running on an IBM Series/1 Computer, which is a 1970s computing system, and written in assembly language code.” Well, you sure as fuck wouldn’t want Windows Vista anywhere the nukes, so bring on the ’70s OS!
Some of the theoretical bits aren’t all that interesting, and while it doesn’t get particularly nitty gritty, the casual reader is probably isn’t going to care all that much about what the various relevant theories say. What is interesting, though, is the questions those theories evoke. There’s also a curious mix of hmm, that sounds like it could be right, alongside urgh, that sounds weird.
One tidbit I found particularly interesting was the layer that our imaginative abilities add. Not only are we conscious of what we’re experiencing as it happens, but we can bring those conscious experiences up again by re-enacting them in our imaginations.
Some theorists have proposed that higher-level thought characterizes consciousness, meaning the ability to think about our experiences rather than just live them. But my pea-brain guinea pigs aren’t doing any higher-level thinking, and I would say they have some form of consciousness.
Another interesting tidbit was that we have a theory of mind; not only do we think about what we’re experiencing, but we can also think about what other people are thinking. One way of demonstrating this is the false-belief test. Let’s say watch a video where little Sally puts a Cadbury Creme Egg in a basket, then she leaves the room. Speaking of a quarter century ago, Creme Eggs used to be bigger, and they should have stayed that way. Okay, so then the Easter Bunny comes into the room and moves the Creme Egg into a drawer. Then the Easter Bunny leaves and Sally returns to the room. Where is she going to look for her Creme Egg?
If you’re more than 3-4 years old, you’ve developed a theory of mind, and you know that Sally will think the Creme Egg is still in the basket where she put it. If you’re younger than that, you haven’t developed the ability to think about what Sally is thinking, so you would think that she’d go look for it in the drawer, because that’s where it is now, so why would she go to the basket that doesn’t have the Creme Egg?
Anyway, the book itself is decent but not amazing, but the topic itself is fascinating. I don’t have any strong beliefs around consciousness, aside from the fact that I don’t see any reason to think that consciousness is detachable from the brain, which is probably part of why the idea of life after death has never done anything for me.
Do you have strong beliefs around what consciousness is?
Introducing Consciousness: A Graphic Guide is available on Amazon.
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