January 2019 Philosophy Mini-Drive-In (Consciousness)

There’s this thing we have. It’s called consciousness. We pride ourselves in having it — other non-human animals (and sentient beings) may have it, too. Consciousness makes us aware and gives meaning to our lives. Yet, we don’t fully know what it is, how it arises, and where it “lives.”

In this TED Talk & Philosophy inspired movie night facilitated by Thomas Baumeister, we explored questions about consciousness through the practice of socratic inquiry. Primed by scholarly TED Talk films by Dr.’s David Chalmers and Anil K. Seth, we looked at the science and philosophy of consciousness e.g., what is it, how does it work, where does it live, what does it do for us, and why does it matter that we have it? 

Some questions that arose in the process included:

  • Is there a single definition of consciousness that we can all agree upon?  Is everyday language and meaning enough?
  • Should there be parameters on what counts as ‘consciousness’ and, if so, where are the lines drawn?  Why?
  • Is looking for physical explanations (as the origin) the right way to go?  Or ought we to start with the mental instead (e.g., do we create our own consciousness and reality? Is all of reality simply a mental construction)?
  • If we appeal to non-reductive accounts and consciousness as fundamental and universal, what sort of problems arise?  
  • Can reductive accounts of consciousness adequately capture its “essence”?  What do we even mean by that?
  • And more…


TED Talk Films & Synopses

Right now, billions of neurons in your brain are working together to generate a conscious experience — and not just any conscious experience, your experience of the world around you and of yourself within it. How does this happen? According to neuroscientist Anil Seth, we’re all hallucinating all the time; when we agree about our hallucinations, we call it “reality.” Join Seth for a delightfully disorienting talk that may leave you questioning the very nature of your existence.

Our consciousness is a fundamental aspect of our existence, says philosopher David Chalmers: “There’s nothing we know about more directly…. but at the same time it’s the most mysterious phenomenon in the universe.” He shares some ways to think about the movie playing in our heads.


About the Thinkers

Anil K. Seth is a Professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex and Co-Director of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science. His primary areas of study are consciousness and neuroscience and his approach is highly interdisciplinary.  With the aim of understanding the biological basis of consciousness, Seth brings together “research across neuroscience, mathematics, computer science, psychology, philosophy and psychiatry.” For a summary of his approach to consciousness science, read his essay “The Real Problem” (featured in Aeon).

Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellow, a Senior Fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, and Co-Director of the Leverhulme Doctoral Scholarship Programme: From Sensation and Perception to Awareness, Seth holds degrees in Natural Sciences (BA/MA, Cambridge), Knowledge-Based Systems (M.Sc., Sussex) and Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence (D.Phil./Ph.D., Sussex), and was Postdoctoral and Associate Fellow at The Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, CA.

He has published more than 100 scientific articles and book chapters and is a regular contributor to the New Scientist, The Guardian, BBC, and the Neurobantor blog.  He is also the Editor-in-Chief of Neuroscience of Consciousness and sits on the steering group and advisory board of the Human Mind Project

David Chalmers is an Australian philosopher and cognitive scientist specializing in the areas of philosophy of mind and philosophy of language. With respect to his work in philosophy of mind, Chalmers is best known for formulating what he calls the “hard problem of consciousness” in both his 1995 paper “Facing up to the Problem of Consciousness” and his book The Conscious Mind.  He offers a non-reductive approach to consciousness and argues that conscious experience “must be understood as an irreducible entity (similar to such physical properties as time, mass, and space) that exists at a fundamental level and cannot be understood as the sum of its parts.”  His approach is often referred to as “naturalistic dualism” — naturalistic because he believes mental states are caused by physical systems (such as brains); dualist because he believes mental states are ontologically distinct from and not reducible to physical systems.  Other important philosophical contributions include his work on “the extended mind” and two-dimensional semantics.

A Professor of Philosophy, ARC Federation Fellow, and Director of the Centre for Consciousness at the Australian National University; a University Professor, Professor of Philosophy and Neural Science, and a Director of the Center for Mind, Brain and Consciousness at New York University; and Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences (elected in 2013), Chalmers received his undergraduate degree in pure mathematics from the University of Adelaide in Australia, continued his studies (as a Rhodes Scholar) at the University of Oxford, and received his PhD in philosophy and cognitive science from Indiana University Bloomington.

Chalmers is also the lead singer of the Zombie Blues Band which performed at the Qualia Fest in New York in 2012  and — another interesting Chalmers factoid — experienced synesthesia as a child. 

Thank you to the Philosophy Learning & Teaching Organization (PLATO) for supporting philosophy in the community and helping us bring activities like these to the Helena community! 

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