This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David
Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is
one component of the Information Age Education project. See
and the end of this newsletter.
In the previous issue
of this newsletter on stress in schools we inadvertently omitted the
following free and quite helpful 24-page reference:
Caine, Geoffrey and Caine, Renate N. (n.d.) Community First! How
Process Learning Circles can increase joy, reduce stress, and optimize
professional development. Caine Learning Center. Retrieved 6/10/2011
"I don’t want to achieve
immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not
dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want
to live on in my apartment." - Woody Allen
This is the first of a pair of articles that review a couple recent developments in an intriguing field called Neurotheology (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neurotheology
—the use of neuroimaging technology to scientifically explore areas
that had formerly been the purview of theology and philosophy. The
first article focuses on consciousness and especially the issue of a
celestial afterlife, and the second article will focus on the nature of
evil and cruelty.
The Mysteries of Consciousness
Solving the mysteries of consciousness is the final great
problem in biology. We all intimately experience consciousness, but
find it almost impossible to explain. The grandmother of all Nobel
Prizes will go to whoever unravels the complexities. The two March 2011
editions of IAE Newsletter focused on the latest of Antonio Damasio’s
series of four acclaimed but somewhat technical books on the underlying
neurobiology of emotion and consciousness, Self Comes to Mind:
Constructing the Conscious Brain (2010). (See http://i-a-e.org/iae-newsletter.html
Nicholas Humphrey, an Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the London
School of Economics, is one of many renowned scientists who have
tackled the enigma of consciousness. His latest effort is a very
engaging light-hearted book, Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness
(2011). Humphrey pretty much ignores specific brain systems per
se—choosing rather to approach consciousness functionally, from the
armchair of a philosopher.
Scientists who study consciousness differentiate between what they call
the easy problem and the hard problem. The easy problem is to identify
the neuronal systems that regulate conscious behavior (such as to focus
attention and to discriminate/integrate/report information).
The hard problem is to explain how our brain, which is composed
entirely of physical matter, can subjectively experience feelings
(called qualia) that can’t emerge out of matter alone and that can’t be
effectively communicated other than by metaphor. Think of the taste of
apple pie, the beauty of a sunset, depth perception, and pain. It’s
obvious that the hard problem will be especially difficult to solve for
those who believe that it will possible at some point to develop a
Consciousness as we commonly think of it disappears during sleep and
under anesthesia, and reappears when we waken. Humphrey seems less
interested in the underlying neurobiology of consciousness than in its
purpose. He argues that it became biologically adaptive because it
enhanced life—elevating it to a truly enjoyable almost otherworld
experience, a magical show that we put on for our self. Objective
sensory input sparks a subjective response in our inner theater, where
we transport our self into that other world we enjoy so much. And we
love ourselves because we can do it. We can be with others at a social
event, but we each experience it uniquely.
Drama doesn’t replicate life but rather comments on it in order to
educate, persuade, and entertain. That one part of our conscious brain
might stage a show for another part to influence our judgment gets to
the heart of what first person consciousness does.
Human beings (and being is what it’s all about) who enjoy the feeling
of existence develop a will to live that goes beyond a mere instinct to
exist. Nature had to make sexual behavior pleasurable to encourage
animals to engage in it, and it similarly made the feeling of existence
pleasurable via consciousness to encourage us to behave in a creative
and productive manner that extends the quality and length of our
From Being to Not Being
And that creates a problem. We really enjoy being and want to continue
to be, but our conscious intelligent mind has figured out that not
being is our certain fate at some unpredictable point. Humphrey thus
devotes much of his book to a fascinating exploration of the enigmas
associated with the certainty of death. He suggests that our fear of
death isn’t that we fear being somewhere that we can’t imagine, but
rather that we fear not being somewhere that we can imagine and
typically do enjoy—on the earth we inhabit. The prospect of death
threatens to take away what’s beautiful and enjoyable about our life
while we’re still living it.
We humans have developed three strategies for maintaining meaning and joy in life despite the inevitability of death:
- Live for and enjoy the known present rather than focusing on the uncertain future. As Walter Hagen (1956) famously put it:
You’re only here for a short visit.
Don’t hurry, don’t worry.
And be sure to smell the flowers along the way.
- Identify with and focus on family and cultural entities that will
survive us. These range from nurturing our own children to supporting
cultural and environmental programs that will continue to enhance life
in others after our death. The prospect of death loses some of its
negatives if we know that the things we have come to value will
continue on. We tend to see our familial and cultural world as stable,
lawful, and protected from alien influences, and thus potentially
- Deny the finality of bodily death, and believe rather that the
individual self (as transcendent soul) is immortal. Humphrey suggests
that it should come as no surprise that spirituality and religion have
become dominant forces in human life, because they reduce many of the
conscious anxieties that most people have about death. Humphrey
suggests that despite the doubts that even true believers have at one
point or another about the reality and nature of a celestial afterlife,
the vast majority of us at least want to believe in something like it,
and so it’s perhaps sufficiently adaptive biologically to persist.
K-12 public schools in the United States are precluded from promoting religious
beliefs about a spiritual afterlife, but it’s important that they
promote an awareness of and appreciation for the present in ways that
enhance the lives of students and others. It’s also important that
students begin to think beyond their own parochial needs and desires
and thus to extend their typically very limited space/time boundaries.
Computer scientists interested in the field of artificial intelligence
have long struggled with the possibility of developing a computer
system that has consciousness. Most people who study and write about
consciousness do so from the point of view that humans have
consciousness. Can consciousness be defined in a manner in which a
computer system might become conscious? Author Isaac Asimov and Robert
Silverman do a good job of exploring the question in their 1993 novel,
The Positronic Man. The Positronic Man formed the basis of the film
Bicentennial Man, starring Robin Williams.
If this topic interests you, you will also want to learn about Ray Kurzweil and his insights into this area. See http://www.kurzweilai.net/
The English poet John Donne (1572-1631) famously wrote “No
man is an island.” Consciously we are individual islands—but perhaps
the term archipelago is more descriptive for a social species. These
archipelagos are just now beginning to include artificially intelligent
robots and other devices. Sometime in the future these robots may have
a type of “computer consciousness” that is related to but is different
from “human consciousness.”
Damasio, A. (2010) Self comes to mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. New York: Pantheon.
Gopnik, A. (May 21, 2011). The New York Times Review
of Books. “Consciousness: The Great Illusion.” A review of the
Humphrey’s book Soul Dust. Retrieved 6/23/2011 from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/22/books/review/book-review-soul-dust-the-magic-of-consciousness-by-nicholas-humphrey.html?_r=1&ref=bookreviews.
Hagen, W. (1956) The Walter Hagen story. New York: Simon and Schuster (chapter 32)
Humphrey, N. (2011) Soul dust: The magic of consciousness. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.
Searle, J. (June 9, 2011) The New York Review of
Books. “The Mystery of Consciousness Continues.” An extensive review of
Antonio Damasio’s Self Comes to Mind. Retrieved 6/23/2011 from http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/jun/09/mystery-consciousness-continues/.
About Information Age Education, Inc.
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