Nineteen Ways of Looking at Consciousness

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One of my interests is peering into the debate about "free will". Determinists maintain it's an illusion; I'm fond of thinking that it's real. I want to ask the determinists: Hey, if free will is an illusion, I wonder, what about consciousness? Is that an illusion too? (And—just maybe—is "illusion" really the most appropriate word to apply to these phenomena?)

So I picked up this book from Portsmouth Public Library. It's by neuroscientist Patrick House, and I think I was expecting a rather straightforward description of the current state of brain research and how it applies to either the illusion or reality of consciousness. What it is (however) is a kind of science-based prose-poetry. The title is an homage to Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, a book about translating a single poem from ancient China.

As a result:

What we call "thinking", thus is manipulation of practice gestures, where gestures are thoughts derived from learning loops and conscious thoughts can be manipulated as inputs to a radio broadcast, a network of causes and effects, a collapse of quantum uncertainty, or a lie.

That's some pretty writing. To be honest, I'm on the fence about whether it's tremendously insightful or gussied-up bullshit. I think I would have to meditate carefully over each paragraph and sentence of the book to be sure. Might take years. For better or worse, not gonna happen.

Each of the "nineteen ways" has its own chapter, with semi-whimsical titles. Clear favorite: "An Itsy-Bitsy Teeny-Weeny Quantum-Dot-Like Non-Machiney". Which discusses microtubules as a possible location of free will. (And if you are too young to get that reference, here you go.)

But there is a lot of interesting material here, and I recommend the book to anyone interested, even those with less patience than I. House keeps returning to a 1998 Nature paper where open-brain surgery was performed on epilepsy patient "Anna". She remained conscious throughout the procedure, and the surgeons/researchers discovered that they could make her laugh by electrically stimulating a small region of her brain. And this wasn't a knee-jerk reflex; Anna reported that it was accompanied by a (as near as she could tell) genuine mirthful feeling. When asked why she was laughing, she made up reasons. (E.g., "The horse [a picture she could see] is funny.") The paper is an appendix in the book.

Last Modified 2024-01-10 5:42 AM EST