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Month: April, 2012

Red Dwarf and the Meaning of Life

English sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf is one of the finest examples of existential comedy I think I’ve ever seen. It deals so elegantly in matters of free will and determinism, time travel, the idea and pursuit of happiness, and any number of philosophical and mythological conundra. But what shines through mostly is the quest for meaning in life.

Marooned 3 million years away from Earth following a nuclear explosion is an on-board crew of Lister, the last man alive who was safely sealed in Stasis as punishment for keeping a cat on the ship; Rimmer, a hologramatic projection of his former bunkmate; the Cat, a lifeform evolved from Lister’s pet cat Frankenstein; and Kryten, a service mechanoid rescued from the Nova 5. Steering them and ostensibly aiding them on their journey is the on-board computer, Holly, who after 3 million years on his own has lost a little of his former 6,000 IQ points and is now to all intents and purposes computer senile. Between them they do all the usual sci-fi things, getting into scrapes and dealing with cosmic phenomena, on their way to finding a way home, but underpinning the whole thing are some beautiful forays into the meaning of existence – and in many ways the lack of it. It’s universe is one which is unequivocally without a god or benign being, and without even alien life forms: any creature that they encounter is something developed and/or mutated from Earth, millenia ago sent out into deep space. Read the rest of this entry »

Does consciousness pose a particularly ‘hard’ problem?

Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings

– John Keats

David Chalmers, in Facing up to the Problem of Consciousness (1995) begins by differentiating between two types of consciousness problem: the ‘easy’ problems, and the ‘hard’ problem. The easy problems in this instance refer to those which can be investigated and explained on functional, neurophysiological bases. For example, if we want to explain a specific process such as the focus of attention, we can (relatively) easily formulate a detailed description of how this is achieved: an appropriate cognitive or neurophysiological model can clearly do the explanatory work (Chalmers, 1995). The ‘hard’ problem however is subjective experience: we cannot explain what it is like to experience something, or indeed to be something (Chalmers, 1995). In Nagel’s famous example, it is beyond our imagination of what it is like to be a bat (Nagel, 1974). Although we might have a thorough account of its functions and mechanisms, of its behaviour and environment, the very essence of what it is like to be a bat is not something we can imagine. Even understanding what the sensation of having echolocation, for example, is impossible, and this is what Chalmers calls the ‘hard’ problem of consciousness. The qualia of echolocation are much like our sensation of ‘red’. It is ineffable, and accessible only to us. A well-known thought experiment has arisen to illustrate this differentiation, often known as ‘Mary the Neuroscientist’ (Jackson, 1982). Here Mary is a scientist forced to investigate the world from a black-and-white room, in which she learns everything there is to know about the perception of colour: the wavelength combinations, how the eye and brain respond to colour etc. She has solved the easy problems through functional reasoning and investigation. However, at no point is she exposed to the colours themselves. Upon leaving the lab, it is asserted that Mary will learn new information about colour simply by perceiving it directly. It is this ineffable information within the subjective experience which signals the hard problem of subjective experience.

It is my view that consciousness does NOT pose a particularly hard problem, but is rather an illusory synthesis of all of its constituent easy parts; and the sensation of consciousness is created post hoc, leading to a fallible consciousness, prone to change blindness and the illusion of free will of both thought and action – all of which will be expanded upon later. By first of all illustrating how imperfect the consciousness is, we can then begin to understand the possibility of the task of explaining it. For the time being however, it is undoubtedly problematic to some extent, since we do not know the process by which these constituent parts synthesise (if at all), in terms of creating subjective experience. However, this is not beyond the scope of human imagination. Nevertheless, there is – to our minds at least – a synthesis, and there is some experience of subjectivity and conscious experience, and as such Chalmers’ views must be considered with reference to other like-minded thinkers. Read the rest of this entry »

Distractions from the Ultimate Inevitability: another post on death and acceptance

I hate to keep banging this, by now quite battered, drum but we are going to die some day.

Somebody for whom I had a great deal of affection and was something of an honorary aunt of mine died last week and, as always in these situations, I thought of my own mortality. That night I had perhaps the most startlingly real realisation of my young life that I would actually die some day.

Incidentally, with every key press I make with one finger, I’m having to suppress the urge of another three fingers from hitting the backspace key. I’m very aware that I’m giving you very little insight when I talk about these feelings, but what is most fascinating is how people respond to this self-evident fact. It has conjured up the most outrageous ideas, distractions, confabulations and counterintuitive notions, from religions to fandoms to New Age quackery. Anything to take our minds off that which is so fundamental and yet so inconceivable. Read the rest of this entry »