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General News    H3'ed 7/20/21

The White Elephant Hunt Continues?

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My review of Mark Solms' book "The Hidden Spring: A Journey to the Source of Consciousness"

The White Elephant Hunt Continues "


The "hard problem of consciousness" has been the "white elephant" of neuroscience since the 1980s when I too began this intellectual chase.

It was Julian Jayne's incredible book that got me started. He examined the archaeology of brain architecture and concluded, among many other things, that consciousness likely evolved in all humans around the same time, because their monuments, burial rituals, the hearing of voices, invention of gods, and other rudiments of abstract thinking, all had similar manifestations and occurred roughly everywhere around the world without one group being aware of the other's existence.

Jaynes' main thesis claimed: that the breakup of the bicameral mind had begun this chain reaction leading to more complex abstract thinking. His view held sway through the 1980s.

It also gave impetus to the notion that a homogulus inside the head named "I" sat at the head of the table of these new unrecognized mental powers. The gods, angels, and devils eventually morphed into the TV screen in our heads.

It was a consensus view that the neocortex was at the center of this brain evolution.

But then the paradigms of consciousness began shifting.

The mid-1990s gave us the fetish of the mind being a computer. The analogy between "byte" and "neuron" was pushed to the breaking-point because only on the surface did the comparison appear cogent. Otherwise, bytes and neurons were as different as night and day. Except for being hierarchical, the deeper one looked, the less like a computer the brain seemed. The differences in the mechanisms was stark.

We then jumped from the fetish of computerization of the brain to that of the quantum physics of the brain. And here again a boutique island of consciousness theorizing developed around investigations of "the energy levels needed to produce a thought," and the use of "active information" at the quantum level.

David Chalmers, the recognized "white elephant herder in charge," tried to restore a sense of order to the consciousness enterprise, and made mid-course suggestions for future research, but the herd had already bolted the gate, and now consciousness theorizing was pretty much a "free-for-all." Not only were quantum physicists in on the act, but also mathematicians and philosophers. Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett, for instance, emerged with similar mind-bogglingly complex descriptions of the internal mechanisms of consciousness. Occam would have blushed.

Finally, into this dark hallway walks the modern neuroscientists and brain surgeons, armed with their own latest scientific methods, and the powerful tools of recent medical research.

Antonio Damasio and Mark Solms were among the blind men feeling their way round the folded layers of white elephant skin too, but now using brain anomalies and the role emotions play to better understand the hard problem of consciousness, they seemed to be on to something?

However, when all is said and done, all we can say for sure is that each of these blind men have touched the elephant parts nearest their specialty, and thus, that any reader who has followed their descriptions closely enough, now has a pretty good outline of what the elephant looks like.

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Herbert Calhoun Social Media Pages: Facebook page url on login Profile not filled in       Twitter page url on login Profile not filled in       Linkedin page url on login Profile not filled in       Instagram page url on login Profile not filled in

Retired Foreign Service Officer and past Manager of Political and Military Affairs at the US Department of State. For a brief time an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Denver and the University of Washington at (more...)
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