Thursday, April 15, 2004


A tribute to Crick and Koch, whose work on the neural correlates of consciousness is widely known, at least among people who follow this stuff. The New York Times reporter said a couple of notable things, though:
Body and mind are the twin problems around which Dr. Crick's life has spiraled, much like the double helix structure of DNA that he and Dr. James D. Watson are famous for discovering half a century ago. Though his research on "the molecule of life" is what he is best known for, in his 28 years at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, his work has focused on the mind, and in particular the question of consciousness.

Until recently, that subject was viewed with deep suspicion in scientific circles, but Dr. Crick has led a campaign to make it acceptable. These days it is even fashionable.
Until recently? Huh?

Then there's this:
In tackling consciousness, Dr. Crick and Dr. Koch have reframed the central question. Traditionally the problem has been cast in terms of subjectivity. How is it, for example, that when someone sees red (which physically speaking is electromagnetic waves of a particular frequency) there is also a subjective feeling of redness?

The "redness" of red and the "painfulness" of pain are what philosophers refer to as qualia. The gap between the objectivity of material science (the electromagnetic waves) and the subjectivity of human experience (the qualia) has led some philosophers to conclude that this chasm cannot be bridged by any materialist explanation.

Rather than getting bogged down in the depthless ooze of qualia, Dr. Crick and Dr. Koch sidestep the issue. Instead of asking the philosophical question of what consciousness is, they have restricted themselves to trying to understand what is going on at the neurological level when consciousness is present.
That isn't sidestepping the issue; it is avoiding the problem. It may be that consciousness is attended by 40-hertz oscillations (as Crick and Koch have argued, though this isn't discussed specifically in the article). But that just shifts the real problem to another level: Why should 40-hertz oscillations create subjective experience? Why that, and not something else? Finding neural correlates of consciousness is a useful task, but it leaves the real mystery of consciousness totally undisturbed.


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