Information Age Education
   Issue Number 68
June, 2011   

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 http://iae-pedia.org/ 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 from http://www.cainelearning.com/Community.html.

Beyond Consciousness

"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 conscious computer.

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 existence.

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 eternal.
  • 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.

Educational Implications

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/.


Final Remark

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.”


References

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. 

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. Current IAE activities include a Wiki with address http://IAE-pedia.org, a Website containing free books and articles at http://I-A-E.org, a Blog at http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog.html, and the free newsletter you are now reading.

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