I recently attended “The Science of Consciousness,” the legendary inquest held every two years in Tucson, Arizona. I reported on the first meeting in 1994 and wanted to see how it’s evolved since then. This year’s shindig lasted from April 26 to April 30 and featured hundreds of presenters, eminent and obscure. I arrived on the afternoon of April 27 and stayed through the closing “End-of-Consciousness Party.” The only event I regret missing is a chat between philosopher David Chalmers, who loosed his “hard problem of consciousness” meme here in Tucson in 1994, and Deepak Chopra, the New Age mogul and a sponsor of this year’s meeting. I feel obliged to post something fast, because conference organizer and quantum-consciousness advocate Stuart Hameroff complained that most reporters “come for free, drink our booze and don’t write anything.” Hameroff also generously allowed me to give a talk, “The Quest to Solve Consciousness: A Skeptic’s View,” even though I teased him in my 1994 article for Scientific American, calling him an “aging hipster.” What follows is the first of four highly subjective accounts of the meeting. (See Further Reading for links to next three posts.) I’d call this a “stream-of-consciousness report on consciousness,” but that would be pretentious. I'm just trying to answer this question: What is it like to be a skeptical journalist at a consciousness conference? -- John Horgan
DAY 1, WEDNESDAY, APRIL 27. THE HOROR
A bullet-headed former New York fireman picks me up at the Tucson airport. Driving to the Loews Ventana Canyon Resort, he argues strenuously that President Trump will make us great again. As we approach the resort, he back-peddles a bit, no doubt worried about his tip. I tip him well, to show how tolerant I am. Everyone’s entitled to an irrational belief or two.
The resort is a sprawl of pinkish brick guarded by saguaro cactus and back-dropped by mountains. I rush to afternoon lectures in the Kiva Ballroom, a vast, dimly lit cavern with a floodlit stage flanked by two immense screens. Gray ponytails and, conversely, shaved heads abound in the audience. Hypothesis, based on hair, clothing, etc.: many attendees have taken—and are here because they have taken—psychedelics.
Neuroscientist Naotsugu Tsuchiya comes on stage to tell us about integrated information theory. IIT was invented by Guilio Tononi and popularized by Christof Koch. Heavy hitters. Chalmers likes IIT too, because it incorporates the notion, which he proposed here in Tucson in 1994, that information pervades reality.
IIT holds that the consciousness of a system is proportional to its phi, which is the system’s interconnectivity, or synergy, or information density, or something. Tsuchiya thinks the theory can address questions like the one posed by Thomas Nagel in his famous 1974 essay “What is it like to be a bat?” To dramatize the point, Tsuchiya flashes a slide of a bat with Nagel’s head photo-shopped onto it.
That’s the high point of the talk. Tsuchiya promises to give us an “intuitive,” “nutshell” account of IIT, then shows us a baffling matrix of circles and arrows. To be fair, I was also confused after hearing Tononi and Koch propound IIT at New York University last fall.
Next up is philosopher Richard Brown on a theory of consciousness called Higher Order Representation of Representation, or HOROR. Brown is so unintelligible that I stop taking notes, and I never stop taking notes. My rebellious mind thinks, The HOROR! The HOROR! Spotting a little girl wriggling in a chair a few rows before me, I wonder, Who would bring a child to this lecture?
Scientists are entitled to be difficult, but what’s philosophers’ excuse? Don’t they have a moral duty to be comprehensible to non-specialists? Maybe it’s the topic. When otherwise reasonable people talk about consciousness, their utterances often become gobbledygook, as if they’re possessed.
I calm down listening to the next speaker, philosopher Jakob Hohway, because he seems, at first, to speak to my frustration. He acknowledges the confusing diversity of approaches to consciousness, counting at least 13. He then tells us about his favorite, prediction error minimization, PEM.
I panic, because I’ve never heard of PEM, but then I realize with a flood of relief that it’s another name for the Bayesian-brain models I learned about at an NYU conference last fall. Bayesian models mimic human pattern-recognition with probabilistic algorithms derived from Bayes theorem.
The only problem, Hohway concedes, is that PEM explains perception but not consciousness. Hohway doesn’t mention another problem: Bayesian algorithms might not explain perception either. Just because computers can recognize faces with Bayesian algorithms does not mean brains work that way.
When the lectures in Kiva Ballroom end, I check out the “concurrent sessions,” eight talks taking place at the same time in small rooms. I am cruelly reminded of the Law of Concurrent Sessions: No matter how promising a session sounds, after it starts you will wish you were in another session.
I pop into sessions with intriguing titles: “The Extended Mind,” “Panpsychism, Idealism and Metaphysics,” “Agency and Free Will.” I like a talk by philosopher Claudia Passos on whether infants have a sense of “conscious agency.” Yes, even babies have free will!
Otherwise, each session is more baffling than the last. The HOROR! The HOROR! Exterminate them all! (Come on, he was asking for it.)
Exhausted, I consume a bowl of angel hair, return to my room, flip open my laptop and upload Star Trek on Netflix. For months, I’ve been plowing through the old series, which comforts me. The next episode, “Return to Tomorrow,” poses mind-body conundrums. Coincidence, or synchronicity?
Disembodied, super-intelligent aliens take over the bodies of Kirk, Spock and beautiful astrobiologist Ann Mulhall. The aliens are reluctant to give the bodies up, because they enjoy human sensuality—i.e., sex. Quasi-Kirk and Quasi-Mulhall, naturally, end up canoodling.
Singularitarians who want to become disembodied super-intelligences should watch “Return to Tomorrow.” So should philosophers, who can ponder whether strict materialism rules out possession by super-intelligent aliens. This question is surely as interesting as whether zombies are possible, which Chalmers popularized.
Oblivion beckons, I succumb, gladly.
[In my next dispatch, I report on my second day at the conference, when I struggle with quantum decoherence in a hot tub.]