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One of the best things about living in Oxford is the fact that it’s not short of people who want to tell you stuff. A work colleague sent me an email of seminar programmes related to archaeology the other week of which there appear to be at least 13. In other words I could go to two public lectures a day for the next eight weeks on topics as diverse as ‘The architecture and decoration of Umayyad mosques’, ‘Dakota Sioux Women’s Dress and its Cross-Cultural Development Throughout the Nineteenth Century’, and ‘Desiring Structures: Exhibiting the Dendritic Form’. I have never decorated an Umayyad mosque, worn a Sioux woman’s dress or exhibited my Dendritic Form, but should I ever wish to, I shall know whom to turn to for advice.

Alas, my heavy drinking schedule means that I am only able to attend a select few of the many seminars available. Last term one of the parallel multiverse Leifs (indeed, perhaps several of them) dipped a toe into the expansive water of the Philosophy of Physics. Not all of them made it back to shore. This term Ithought I’d go easy on the algebra and have a go at a course of lectures entitled ‘Pompeii and Ostia: a Tale of Two Cities’ and a one off event called Neuroscience and the Meditative Mind: Western Science meets Eastern Tradition.’

To start with the Roman stuff – I was kind of expecting the first lecture (by Janet DeLaine) to be a bit yada-yada, having read a lot on both cities, but was in fact treated to an interesting history of their of the excavation and recording. Or lack thereof. It turns out that the two sites have influenced one another’s interpretations in a remarkable, and often pernicious, fashion as the personalities involved attempt to demonstrate both their similarities and differences from one another – frequently leading to clear demonstrations of the old archaeological adage that ‘you find what you’re looking for’. Most depressing of all – I also discovered that the rather pleasing photo I took of the Theatre of Agrippa as Seen From the ‘Temple of Ceres’ (see my Flickr photos) comes mainly courtesy of Mussolini and his cultural apparatchiks. In fact, by the end of the talk I was beginning to wonder whether there was anything special about the preservation of Ostia at all or whether it was just more excavated (and reconstructed) than anywhere else.

The Neuroscience talk was an entirely different kettle of fish organized by a friend of mine who studies the Science of Consciousness. Essentially they got a guy who teaches Taoism, a philosopher of science, and my buddy, and then all (sort of) had a go at explaining their concepts of ‘mind’. It was quite enjoyable but somewhat short of illuminating. The Taoist guy came from Noo Yoik and was apparently gifted with ninja skills in his youth which enabled him to win numerous karate/kung fu/ju jitsu/whatever tournaments. Whilst visiting Japan however he was cut down to size by an elderly couple and their kidneys which apprently played a substantial role in their fighting prowess. Cue twenty years at the top of a mountain with an assortment of white-haired Ancient Masters learning the Five-Point-Palm Exploding Heart Technique. How this all related to the principles of Taoism or the mind was not entirely clear to me, but the fellow was fairly jocular and, despite being this side of car wreck which put paid to his Kane the Avenger lifestyle (I assume), he leavened the proceedings somewhat with his Big Apple attitude.

The philosopher, perhaps bearing in mind Favorinus’s remark that ‘he is most learned who has thirty legions’, chose not to pick a fight with the warrior-monk, but mumbled something politely about the gulf between Western philosophical tradition and Eastern practice.

My friend was the most interesting of the three but left me kind of depressed because, despite his assertion that the Science of Consciousness is actually attempting to achieve very little, it struck me after the discussion that it doesn’t even manage that.

To elucidate a little: SoC basically accepts that we can’t as yet find any kind of bridge between observations of physical states and observations of mental states. i.e. we appear to observe both but there isn’t a way to decribe one in terms of the other. Apparently, in an attempt to just at least get the ball rolling and keep the neuroscientists of the streets, it was decided to start recording Neural Correlates of Consciousness (or NCCs) which seemed to work reasonably well. In other words when people are happy, certain kinds of things happen in the brain, when they feel pain other kinds of things happen, and if we rig folks up to a big shiny machine then we can see those things happening and look for the correlations. And as we begin to get more sophisticated so at last we seem to be learning something. And when we discover that wiring Shaolin monks up to Brain Reading Devices (excuse the technical jargon) gives gamma ray readings that go off the scale then it seems that we really are learning something. And even the monks seem chuffed and stop breaking the furniture.

But hold on.

Problem no. 1: Prima facie, i think i know what it’s like to be happy, and so when i see correlations between my brain reading and my experience of happiness and your brain reading and your experience of happiness then we’re all good. But I don’t know what it’s like to be Shaolin monk in a moment of profound Zen enlightenment (as my juxtaposition of the two no doubt illustrates clearly to those who do). And that means that it’s not clear what i have actually learned other than that wiring monks up to machines gives a certain reading on the Big Beeping Machine. It certainly isn’t a quick path to enlightenment. In fact I haven’t learned anything new about consciousness whatsoever – not even a correlation.

Problem no. 2. But it’s even worse than that – because it’s not only the monk whose inner life I don’t know about, it’s you, and the other experimenters, and David Cameron (especially David Cameron), and of course everyone else in the whole wide world. All I know is their outward behaviour – the rest I just infer. So when I say that I’m correlating neural activity with mental states, I’m actually just correlating with behavioural states. i.e. activity in certain parts of the brain correlates nicely with people saying ‘I’m happy’ or ‘ouch!’. Well leaping lizards Dr. Science! Given the level of determinism observed in the physical world, that hardly comes as a surprise. So the only mental states we can actually tie it back to are those of the experimenter – and that’s hardly a correlation, it’s just behaviourism by the back door. To put it another way – the fact that we both look at the same blue object, say ‘i see a blue object’, and have the same brain activity, is very far from proving that that our inner experiences of blueness are the same. It just shows that our bodies have learned to respond in the same way.

So to return to my slight sense of depression – my friend’s PhD still seems cool to me (they get to program robots and everything) but calling it Science of Cnsciousness seems to be a complete misnomer because the one thing that has been categorically cut out of it is consciousness.

Maybe next week I’ll go and watch some stand up.



  1. Leif, this cracked me up. I love how you philosophers wreak destruction with the phrase “But it’s even worse than that”. To you I say Positron Emission Tomography.

  2. You’re clearly not drinking enough.

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