»  The American Spectator

June 2014

  Chasing Down the Ghost in the Machine


Writing The Principles of Mathematics in the spring of 1901, Bertrand Russell got stuck on a simple problem in the theory of classes (we would nowadays say "sets"): "Whether the class of all classes is or is not a member of itself." In his autobiography Russell recalled: "It seemed unworthy of a grown man to spend his time on such trivialities, but what was I to do? … Trivial or not, the matter was a challenge.

I feel the same way about my own interest in Consciousness Studies. Surely I have better things to do than ponder Philosophy of Mind, a topic only properly of concern to salaried academics, and in which I am now much too far along in life to acquire any real expertise. Well, yes; but like the problem that snagged Russell's attention, understanding consciousness is a challenge — a challenge, I should think, to any reflective person.

What is this inward, private state of awareness that flickers on with the sound of the morning alarm clock and fades away on the late-night pillow? Is it made of the same stuff as stars, rocks, and flesh — of atoms and molecules — or of some different stuff? Do chimps have it? Did our remote ancestors have it? Might a computer have it? Every thoughtful person has mused on these things. Probably most have felt guiltily, as I do, that there is something absurd about such musing, unless one can support one's family by being paid to do it.

My own way of assuaging my guilt and getting the topic out of my system for a few years at least is to attend one of the "Toward a Science of Consciousness" conferences held every other year by the Center for Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona in Tucson … …

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[Read the entire article in the June 2014 issue of The American Spectator.]