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A deep dive into the consciousness controversy

by CIFAR Mar 21 / 17

As Joshua Rothman put it in his New Yorker profile of eminent consciousness philosopher Daniel Dennett this week, the secular story of human creation – from chemicals to simple organisms to self-awareness—has been written collaboratively by many scientists over the centuries.

But if it could be said to belong to any single person, it might as well be Dennett himself. Dennett, an advisor in CIFAR’s Azrieli Program in Brain, Mind & Consciousness and a professor at Tufts University, has spent the majority of his career exploring how evolution could have given rise to the human mind.

The article elegantly explains the division in consciousness theory between two camps – physicalists like Dennett, who believe “that science can explain consciousness in purely material terms,” and dualists like his rival David Chalmers, who believe science only tells half the story, leaving unsolved the “hard problem” of how pure neuronal mechanisms give rise to this unique entity we call consciousness.

The article also takes a look at the inner workings of a CIFAR program meeting last December in Seattle at which members of the Azrieli Program in Brain, Mind and Consciousness debated the idea of animal consciousness. There, while the group debated theoretical and experimental frameworks for measuring subjective experience in animals, Dennett promoted his view that consciousness is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon, but rather a spectrum. 

The interaction between researchers, which Rothman describes in depth, is the same open, congenially combative debate common to all CIFAR program meetings, and a glimpse not only into this particular complicated question – how our brain gives rise to consciousness—but into the collaborative atmosphere we believe necessary for finding the answers.

Read the full article at The New Yorker