Friday, April 4, 2014

Toward a Science of Consciousness 2014

Why does it feel like anything to be you? Is it like anything to be your cat, your dinner or your smartphone? What if someone built a robot that looked and behaved so exactly like you that nobody could tell you apart? Would that robot be conscious? Is subjectivity an emergent neurobiological effect or is it something metaphysical, like an immortal soul? These are the most important of all possible questions, right? A significant part of human history has been devoted to pondering these questions and acting out the answers that different philosophical, religious and political communities have come up with over the ages. The fact is that motivated people will eventually answer every question they consider, whether there is any genuine information on which to base their answers or not. In the case of consciousness there is no objective information available at all, other than the raw fact that it feels like something to be you, so all these answers have been cooked up in a vacuum and sustained for centuries without any feedback. This accounts for the mind-boggling array of contradictory opinions about what consciousness is and what that says about our identity and fate.


Until very recently consciousness appeared to be the same as intelligence, which led to what philosophers call The Mind/Body Problem. But in the same way molecular biology and genetics finally explained life as a chemical process, neuroscience and the cognitive sciences are now explaining intelligence and mind in ordinary physical terms, although not subjectivity itself. Philosophers call this The Hard Problem and no real scientific progress has yet been made on it. Don't believe any of the opinions you hear about what it means to be conscious; they are all wrong or hopelessly simplistic. This means that you are not necessarily just a machine hurtling toward death, which is as good as it gets. It may not be clear at first why this is good news, but it is. Trust me.


This month in Tucson marks the 20th anniversary of Toward a Science of Consciousness, which is a multi-disciplinary academic conference devoted to a scientific understanding of subjectivity. When the conference was formed in 1994 there was a great deal of optimism and an assumption within the conference community that a scientific understanding of consciousness was possible and would be forthcoming in the following decades. Twenty years later absolutely no positive progress has been made and no promising hypotheses have been offered, although enormous progress has been made in neurobiology and the cognitive sciences. Although the mystics and the kooks were visible at the TSC conferences from the beginning, their prominence has been increasing as the scientific side of the investigation more and more clearly falters. Deepak Chopra will be one of the main attractions at the conference again this year, as he was for the first time at the Tucson conference in 2012. This year all of the distinguished scientists that have worked on the problem of consciousness over the last two decades will return to Tucson to reflect and share their perspectives, which I will attempt to summarize at our next Kitchen on 4/30 at my house. Going forward I am sure the kooks will take over the conference completely and I do not expect to follow this thread any further.

In preparation for our Consciousness Kitchen on 4/30, please read David Chalmers' classic paper Facing Up To The Hard Problem Of Consciousness, which frames the scientific problem of subjectivity in the clearest possible terms. The essential point of The Hard Problem is to distinguish the problem of consciousness from the "easy" problems of intelligence, thinking and mind. For those of you who are interested in a broad perspective on the various theories of consciousness that have been fielded over the years, I have included a summary from the Standard Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

I have created a separate blog for the TSC 2014 conference in case you want to follow my thoughts about the conference and its contents as it unfolds. I look forward to talking through all of this fascinating material at our Kitchen on 4/30!

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Interior Life


“How sour sweet music is when time is broke, and no proportion kept!  So it is in the music of men’s lives. And here have I the daintiness of ear to check time broke in a disordered string; but for the concord of my state and time had not an ear to hear my true time broke. I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.”

 Shakespeare, Richard II
In Mike Boone’s session on proximity we discussed the limitations of our perceptions in space and time and to our benefit, we have regularly referenced that apparent reality of limitation in subsequent discussions. Truly our contemplative process has yielded a bit more clarity about our dilemma in being human and “short” on time. We have hinted at the possibility of expanding our brief time from the inside by deepening our awareness or heightening our phenomenological view/experience. Is this simple but curiously painful process of deepening our awareness like Shakespeare’s “daintiness of ear,” or Rilke’s ‘transcendence?’ 

Plato’s Kitchen Mates have embraced the ‘Contemplative Life,’ but we have not had a holistic term for the place or state of being where this life enhancing contemplation and reflection takes place. Yes we know “in the mind”, but defining thought merely as an intellectual product of mind-meat may rob us of the romantic and coherent threads and qualities of our lives the wide variety of metaphysical notions and reports have tried to address or validate.

“The Interior Life,” might prove to be a phrase we can get consensus around as the part of us we are enriching and using to expand and deepen our experience of living, and our ‘awareness of awareness.’ Is this mental space where we have our internal reflective conversations with ourselves, the source of our most cherished values (to the unknown extent to which we are able to override some of the social and cultural programming that helped shape us)?
Robert Grudin’s  Time and the Art of Living” is an excellent way to consider the interior life. The style of the book itself is a process we can use to consider the “considered life” and become more attentive to time. (The first few chapters are in the drop box but many readers agree you will enjoy reflecting on it slowly and repeatedly with your own copy. The format of the book is explained in the Preface.) Amazon.com has out of print copies of the soft back for sale.

IF we do not engage in examination of our lives followed by contemplation and reflection; everything is about what we are doing and thinking in a secular world. We could be unconsciously limited by an education designed to develop and reward only utilitarian thought and achievement. The feelings we notice could become organized exclusively around activities and relationships. Peace could become merely an absence of conflict. Love might be limited to a relationship to one other person. Joy could be found only in what we are doing, our work, and leisure activities. The unexamined life could rob us of time by restricting us to a habitual routine where many of the experiences and possibilities of a full subjective, creative, emotionally rich, exuberant life are left unacknowledged, unexplored and worst of all, unloved.
To contemplate time as Shakespeare did and Grudin has in this book, is a suggested pathway to the realm of our Interior Life. Like ancient and modern philosophy, it is intelligent thinking about life, with a practical emphasis on how to enjoy your life and live well. Let’s discuss it together online and on March 26that 6:30 at “Terry’s Casa in the Village.” Please select in advance one of the many reflective aphorism’s that may have resonated with you. If at all possible also please bring in any format, a pre-teen picture of yourself or, better yet, upload it into the folder Fergi has created for that in the PK dropboxHealthy homemade Mexican food will be on the menu. We will toast to the Art of Living!

Terry

Thursday, February 6, 2014

SEX & PHILOSOPHY

Right off the bat, I will break one of our new Retreat ad hoc rules by refusing to post my views of the readings prior to our February gathering at Joe's. (All three are in the PK DropBox.) 

Let's call it an oblique approach to the topic of sex and philosophy.  I hope for an impressionist absorption of the readings prior to our conversation, then we shall let loose our ideas. 
Allan Bloom: " 'Great Sex is better than Great Books.' Sure, but you can't have one without the other."

Gung Hay Fat Choy!  Sun Nin Fai Lok!
Charles

Monday, January 27, 2014

Monday, December 30, 2013

RETREAT 2014


Our theme for 2014: "What Matters: Death and Sex (and Love and Ethics)," launches January 24th at the annual PK Retreat.  The (nearly) final schedule is as follows:

PK RETREAT JANUARY 24-26  -- Hacienda Hot Springs Resort, Desert Hot Springs, CA


FIVE MEALS
Friday dinner: ROGER
Saturday breakfast: CHARLES
Saturday lunch: GROUP SANDWICHES
Saturday dinner: PAUL
Sunday breakfast: CHRIS
Sommelier: DAN

SEVEN CONVERSATIONS AND A JAUNT

Friday    ANDREW: Mortal Questions by Thomas Nagel
Friday    TERRY: Eros and Ethos
Saturday   JOE: What Plato's Kitchen Means by Philosophy
Saturday   MIKE: The Thought Leader by David Brooks
Saturday   CHARLES: The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields
Saturday   CHRIS: Ruskin Memorial Hike
Saturday   PAUL: Ethics & Meaning
Sunday     GROUP: Summary and 2014 programming

Retreat reading materials are posted to the PK DropBox.

Please mark your calendars now for our 2014 Wednesday meetings:
February 26, March 26, April 30, May 28, June 25, July 30, August 27, September 24, October 29, and November 19 or December 3). Venues TBD, although Mike's purpose built salon beckons...

Happy New Year, all!
Charles
Plato’s Kitchen 2014  --  Proposed Readings


The Thought Leader by David Brooks (NYT, 12/20/2013) 
Mortal Questions by Thomas Nagel
Nobility of Spirit by Rob Riemen (Yale Press)
The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The Flame of Eternity: an interpretation of Nietzsche's thought
, by Krzysztof Michalski
The Ambassadors by Henry James
Summing Up by W. Somerset Maugham
Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity by Richard Rorty
Another Beauty by Adam Zagajewski
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (John E. Woods translation).
How to Be Idle by Tom Hodgkinson
Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics by Reinhold Niebuhr and Cornel West (Foreword)
Cultural Amnesia by Clive James
The Epistle to the Romans by Karl Barth
The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard
Open City by Teju Cole
Tolstoy or Dostoevsky by George Steiner
Notebooks 1935-1951 by Albert Camus 
All Gall is Divided: Aphorisms by E.M. Cioran
Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil
Civilization and its Discontents by Sigmund Freud, (trans. by J. Strachey
All Things Are Possible and Penultimate words and other essays by Lev Shestov
Illuminations: Essays and Reflections by Walter Benjamin, ed. by Hannah Arendt
The Essential Tillich by Paul Tillich
The Birth of Tragedy, by Nietzsche trans. by R. Spiers. Cambridge University Press
The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Plato's Kitchen 2014 Desert Retreat

Gents,

Everyone in attendance at last Wednesdays salon at Mike's picked January 24-26 (checking in Friday afternoon and checking out Sunday) for our 2014 retreat.

Karl at Hacienda Hot Springs resort had been holding those dates for us and is standing by to take your individual reservations and billing information at: 760-251-2885. As usual it is first come first served and we can spill over to the Sagewater Inn next door if we fill up and need more rooms. (We will also have use of the Library  at no cost if someone wants to camp out in there).

Please reply to the group ASAP by "reply all" regarding your plans to attend. Please Call Karl at the Hacienda to make your individual reservation.

What a great time we will have recapping 2013 and finishing the planning for 2014. We will arrange the schedule and meals by separate email after we are booked.

Terry