Consciousness and pop stuff

What’s this about?

I once had a workmate who went to see the Robin Williams movie “The Bicentennial Man”. She came back to work the next day, full of scorn: “So he’s a robot who gets more and more parts replaced by organic bits, until he becomes an actual person. Bloody bullshit.”

As a post-grad philosophy student working in the mind-body sort of area, I was kind of intrigued by this. Science magazine articles often say stuff like “Consciousness is the software that runs on the hardware of the brain.” It’s quite a widely-held view in science circles; the Bicentennial Man scenario is generally thought to be a bit far-fetched, but not impossible or deeply conceptually incorrect.

Bicentennial Man - "Bullshit" - according to my colleague

The Bicentennial Man: "Bloody bullshit"

Generally-speaking though, people don’t really believe it. We sort of think of ourselves as computer programs. But we also think of ourselves as free spirits, somehow beyond the constraints of the molecular drudgery of brain activity, able to make things happen by “force of will”.

Exactly how this is supposed to work is not something we talk about much. It doesn’t come up in the pub very often. “Do you think we have souls, Dave?” Just doesn’t happen.

So this isn’t so much a blog as a survey, a collection of short reports. I’ll be looking at movies, books and whatever else I feel like ranting about, and classify them according to how they portray our minds and consciousness. Do they imply that there’s such a thing as a “mind” or “soul” beyond mere brain activity? Or does consciousness just seem to arise from having the right programming? Or do they portray some other conception of consciousness altogether? What do we find more-or-less credible and what do we think is just “bloody bullshit”?

Obviously we suspend our disbelief to some extent. Just because we liked “Finding Nemo” doesn’t mean we believe that fish can talk. But nonetheless there are various popular movies and stuff which give us some indication of blah blah blah, you get the idea.

Okay, so that’s the general idea. Hope you enjoy it, please do leave comments if you feel so inclined. For a summary of the results, see “The scorecard so far …”. For a summary of my own views on consciousness and the mind-body problem, please see “The Consciousness Verdicts explained“.

See you in the comments box.


3 Responses to 'What’s this about?'

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  1. Nicola said,

    Bloody brilliant idea!

  2. Andy said,

    After arguing for the idea of “objective experiences” and that conscious experience is scientifically intractable, and being dismissed by all and sundry, somebody kindly put me on to your site a few days ago. I loved your brief history of unmaterialism, although I was a little disappointed that my favourite guys didn’t get a mention (principally Leibniz (monadology) and Whitehead (panexperientialism), though I have to own up to being something of an admirer of Plotinus too who I’m sure I recognize in both the above). I was delighted to see so many points of contact between your views and mine, though there are also differences. If you’re up for a short tutoring session then I’d love to get your advice on those points of difference.

    • Trevor said,

      Hail Andy, fellow immaterialist. Glad you enjoyed the Unmaterialism site, hope it was helpful. I am moving it onto a WordPress platform at the moment, partly so that people can make comments there, but mainly because I just got a mortgage now i can’t afford to pay for hosting :-). 

      Of course I know of Leibniz but I did not realise how much of an idealist he was, that’s very interesting. I’ve always thought Whitehead was slightly batty though, so I haven’t read much about him, I’m afraid. By way of excuse, although the history of idealism was relevant to my thesis, it wasn’t the focus, which was contemporary theories of consciousness. 

      I’d be very interested to discuss your views, though I do this in my spare time between holding down a job, a house, a marriage and a toddler so I can take a while to respond sometimes. (I don’t actually hold my toddler down as such … actually sometimes I do.)

      Anyway, if you’d like to discuss further, drop me a line at unmaterialism[insert-relevant-symbol-here] and I’ll reply from there. Cheers.

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