This is a great set of introductory material from the Guardian on the fascinating subject of consciousness. This podcast is thoroughly enlightening where it pits a philosopher, a neuroscientist and a neurobiologist - with all three moderated by a journalist who studied physics :) Each of the three guests have also written short pieces that are up on that site. Definitely worth reading. Here are my highlights from their articles.
To a large extent consciousness has been dethroned from the central role it used to occupy in the study of our mental lives. Freud persuaded us that there is more going on mentally than we are consciously aware of, and that sometimes others can know more about what we are thinking and feeling than we do. Now we are also learning more and more from neuroscience and neurobiology about how much of what we do is the result of unconscious processes and mechanisms. And we are discovering that there are different levels of consciousness, different kinds of awareness, and that much of our thinking and decision-making can go on without it. So a more pressing question might be, what is consciousness for? Is it just a mere mental accompaniment to what is going to happen anyway? In that case it may be our sense of self and self-control that is most in need of revision.
He then goes on to write the following, quite assertively I shall think.
The sense of ourselves as consciously deciding everything we do is surely an illusion: but a persistent one. Equally, the idea that consciousness is unified and must be that way comes under increasing pressure in contemporary neuroscience. There are levels of consciousness and perhaps splits in conscious awareness. Can we have consciousness and lack awareness of it? Do we always know what our experience is like, and is experience always as it seems? Much recent experimental evidence from neuroscience suggests that this may not be the case. So it is a fruitful time for philosophers and neuroscientists to work together, to revise previous models and provide new accounts of how we perceive things and why our experience patterns in the way it does.
Studies of patients with brain damage reveal how much can be achieved without awareness. Patients with damage to the right side of the brain (“spatial neglect”) can successfully pick out the better of two objects (eg. an intact rather than a damaged house) while reporting that they cannot see any difference between them. Patients with damage to visual areas of the brain (“visual agnosia”) can’t recognise objects from their shape, but will adjust their hand to the shape of the object when picking it up. In these cases, information of which the patient is unaware is nevertheless sufficient to achieve a successful action.
He follows that up with this powerful insight into our irrational behaviour.
In some situations our conscious experience is not simply absent – it is misleading. In “choice blindness” people are asked to choose which they prefer of two kinds of jam. They are then given the jam again and asked to explain why they preferred it. By trickery, on some occasions they are actually presented with the jam they had just rejected. In most cases people are unaware of the switch and then proceed to justify the “conscious” choice that they actually never made.
Anil Seth (Neurobiologist/Neuroscientist) took the most concise route out of all three by articulating eight open questions that are currently under study. All of them are mind opening in and of themselves. So read his article fully.
A disorganised existence that is still measurable. A chaotic connectome that is still traversable. A meaningless reality that is still meaningful. Above all, entropy will light the way, wherever that may lead!