Science Seeks to Understand Human Consciousness

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Science Seeks to Understand Human Consciousness

At its heart, the study of consciousness gets at the most fundamental questions there are. 

Why?  Because we encounter the world through our minds, in the context of “self.”  Every decision we make is judged in terms of what it means for “self.”  Without a self, all we do in business, science, and life would not only be pointless, it would be impossible.

But, why is it that every fully-functioning human being perceives that there is a “self,” to which they refer as “I” or “me”?   At least since the time of Socrates, people have asked this and many other questions about consciousness.  But, it has only been in the past fifty years that scientists have seriously applied modern biology and physics to answering them. 

The Trends editors have been tracking this trend for decades.  However, it was The Science of Consciousness conference held in April in Tucson, which prompted an update. Since 1994 this biennial conference has brought together hundreds of people, including top researchers, to discuss the latest findings in so-called “mind-body research.”1 

These researchers are seeking to validate or refute some of mankind’s most important assumptions about reality.  Their findings will ultimately determine what we know about ourselves. 

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the prevailing western view said the answers to the mind-body problem lay in three real and distinct components inherent in every person: the body, the mind and the soul or spirit.  The body is a physical organism, the mind directs the non-autonomic functions of the body, and the spirit or soul is a nonphysical embodiment of personality that survives the body. 

More recently, scientific materialism has challenged this intuitive concept, asserting that “mind” is most likely a product of the complexity of the body’s nervous system and the soul is nothing but a myth.  Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the DNA code, spelled out this hard-core materialist credo in his 1994 book The Astonishing Hypothesis.  He declared that “you, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of neurons.”2

Over the last decade, a new twist has been added to scientific materialism’s take on consciousness.  As envisioned by Ray Kurzweil, the technological singularity will lead to conscious machines.  This will ultimately enable the physical brain to connect to a computer and for the human mind and personality to become part of the computer...

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