Tue, 10 Jul 2012 19:56 CDT
Are you conscious now?"
A simple enough question, but one that had scientists in a muddle last week at the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness
conference in Brighton, UK.
of the University of Plymouth, UK, challenged visitors to the conference with this problem during her talk on meditation
We were given a gentle introduction, and ten minutes later I found myself in the middle of a silent room full of meditating psychologists and philosophers, trying (and not really succeeding) to calm my mind before struggling with Blackmore's tricky questions.
I found it easy to say "Yes, I am conscious now, because I'm thinking about it", but did that mean I wasn't conscious before? I couldn't have become "more" conscious so I'm left wondering what was happening, and what continues to happen, when I'm not thinking about this question. Ultimately, says Blackmore, what we really want to know is "What is consciousness like, when I'm not asking what it's like?"
The conundrum was first suggested by philosopher William James
back in 1890 when he wrote: "[Introspective analysis] is in fact like seizing a spinning top to catch its motion, or trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks." Or there is Blackmore's modern version: trying to catch the fridge with the light off just before the door is opened.
We can't think about something we're not thinking about - so how do we think about our own unconscious consciousness?
Blackmore suggests that you ask yourself: "What was I conscious of a moment ago?" and use this to build "one big mindful integrated picture".
Rather annoyingly I found that doing this brings us back to where we started: we're just creating a stream of experiences, which fails to correspond to catching Blackmore's "dark fridge". This is as intriguing as it is frustrating.
Clearly there is no quick way to resolve things, but Blackmore suggests that meditation might just help inspire new theories of consciousness.
So what were you conscious of when you were reading this?
And are you conscious now?