March 20, 2020

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Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist
by Christof Koch.
The MIT Press,
2012 (181 pages)

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"A habitual misperception is that science first rigorously defines the phenomena it studies, then uncovers the principles that govern them. Historically, progress in science is made without precise, axiomatic formulations." (33)

"Scientists work with malleable, ad hoc definitions that they adapt as better knowledge becomes available. Such working definitions guide discussion and experimentation and permit different research communities to interact, enabling progress." (33)

"ln this spirit, let me offer four definitions of consciousness. Like the Buddhist fable of the blind men, each describing different aspects of the same elephant, each captures an important facet of consciousness, with none of them painting a complete picture." (33)

[1] "A commonsense definition equates consciousness with our inner, mental life. Consciousness begins when we wake up in the morning and continues throughout the day until we fall into a dreamless sleep. Consciousness is present when we dream but is exiled during deep sleep, anesthesia, and coma. And it is permanently gone in death. Ecclesiastes (in the Christian Holy Bible) had it right: 'For the living know that they shall die but the dead know not anything.'" (33)

[2] "A behavioral definition of consciousness is a checklist of actions or behaviors that would certify as conscious any organism that could do one or more of them. Emergency room personnel quickly assess the severity of a head injury using the Glasgow Coma Score. It assigns a number to a patient's ability to control his or her eyes, limbs, and voice. A combined score of 3 corresponds to coma, and a 15 marks the patient as fully conscious. Intermediate values correspond to partial impairment." (33)

[3] "A neuronal definition of consciousness specifies the minimal physiologic mechanisms required for any one conscious sensation. Medical clinicians know, for example, that if the brainstem is impaired, consciousness is dramatically reduced and may be absent altogether, leading to a vegetative state. (34)

Another condition necessary for any one specific conscious sensation is an active and functioning cortico-thalamic complex. This complex includes, first and foremost, the neocortex and the closely allied thalamus underneath it." (34)

[4] "The philosophical definition is that 'consciousness is what it is like to feel something'." (34)

"What it feels like to have a specific experience can only be known by the organism having the experience. This 'what-it-feels-like-from-within' perspective expresses the principal, irreducible trait of phenomenal awareness; namely, to experience something, anything!" (34)

"None of these four definitions is foundational. None describes in unequivocal terms what it takes for any system to be conscious. But, for practical purposes, the behavioral and neuronal definitions are the most useful." (34)

"Ask most people what they believe to be the defining feature of consciousness and most will point to self-awareness. To be conscious of yourself, to worry about your child's illness, to wonder why you feel despondent or why a person may have provoked your jealousy is taken to be the pinnacle of sentience." (36)

"People with widespread degeneration of the front of the cerebral cortex have substantial cognitive, executive, emotional, and planning deficits, coupled with a lack of insight into their abysmal condition. Yet their perceptual abilities are usually preserved. They see, hear, and smell, and are aware of their percepts." (38)

"Self-consciousness is part and parcel of consciousness. It is a special form of awareness that is not concerned with the external world, but is directed at internal states, reflections about them, and reflections upon such reflections. (38)

This recursiveness makes it a peculiarly powerful mode of thinking."

"Another singular human trait is speech. True language enables Homo sapiens to represent, manipulate, and disseminate arbitrary symbols and concepts." (38-39)

The primacy of language for most aspects of civilized life has given rise to a belief among philosophers, linguists, and [humanists] that consciousness is impossible without language." (39)

"Discovering and characterizing the neural correlates of consciousness by homing in on the relevant neuronal circuits is the theme of much of contemporary research, especially research on vision." (44)


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