Despite an early start on Tuesday and a full day of lectures, I didn’t sleep well and, when the morning light began to shine through my window, I slipped out of my room. I had plenty of time to walk around the resort before the first plenary session of the day, where I heard about consciousness in anesthesia, coma, and sleepwalking. Also that day, I learned of Stuart Hameroff’s strange theory of “fractal consciousness” which involves the arrangement of microtubules within the neuron. Another interesting Wednesday debate was between Bob Kentridge and Jesse Prinz who disagreed on whether attention could exist unconsciously, with the former arguing that this was indeed the case, and the latter providing an alternative–that orientation rather than attention could explain what seems like unconscious “attention”.
Given little time to rest, I attended concurrent sessions about sleep and dreams, and then met with a few other students (one of whom was from Cambridge as well, and who had a car to drive the rest of us to a cheaper place to eat).
Later that night, I found the semi-official party in the hospitality suite of the hotel. Somehow, despite — or perhaps because of — the cases of beer along every wall and general chaos, talk of consciousness continued.
Then the security showed up. This has to have been the first science conference to get a party shut down.
Well, we weren’t discouraged. And the following day was even better. It started out on a good note, with a debate about higher order thought (HOT) between David Rosenthal and Hakwan Lau against Ned Block, with whom I had a longer conversation later. David Rosenthal and Hakwan Lau argued in favour of HOT, the former from a philosophical perspective, and the latter from a neuroscientific one. Ned Block was able to counter both, since the neuroscientist Victor Lamme was unable to attend the conference.
Steven Laureys followed with an interesting keynote presentation on anesthesia, in which he compared the effects of various anesthetics on consciousness.
Immediately after, with no break for lunch, we all dispersed to our various “side trips”. I was lucky enough to go on a jeep tour of the desert, with only our driver and the neuroscientist Chris Duffield for company. The resulting nearly-private tour was exciting in several ways: the conversation was interesting, and the scenery of flowering cacti, views of wildlife, and frequent stops to taste the desert flora made for a wonderful afternoon.
Friday was more hectic, with three plenary lectures, concurrents, posters, and the obligatory parties that followed.
The first plenary was fascinating–the three speakers spoke of echolocation, and one of them was himself a blind human echo-locator. His descriptions, in combination with those of the two other speakers (who studied human echolocation and echolocation in bats respectively) were able to provide some (if minimal) insight to Nagel’s famous question of “what is it like to be a bat”.
The following keynote presentation was a bit less pleasing to those of us with a scientific mindframe. Daryl Bem described psi phenomena, and the experiments that supposedly supported them. In a later chat with Susan Blackmore (who had spent many years failing to prove these very claims, before giving up on the paranormal), she confirmed my unease with a concept such as psi, which, if true, would undermine our entire current understanding of science. Bem seemed unconcerned with these blatant problems.
After a lovely lunch I had with Gary Weber, during which he described his unusual meditative experiences further and listened patiently to my own halfhearted attempts to sound enlightened, we returned to listen to a debate about the explanatory gap, the “gap” between neural circuits and consciousness. Kevin O’Regan, arguing that the explanatory gap could easily be crossed, discussed how “qualia” or the “what-it-is-like-ness” of something is correlated to how much bodily movement it involves, as well as its ability to draw the subjects attention to that particular feeling. From this, he distinguished between thoughts and more specific feelings, such as colour, emotion, and pain. Anthony Jack countered that if such a thing as a “soul” or “free will” exist, then the explanatory gap is unbreachable. While I agree with that statement, I would maintain that it is much simpler to say that neither free will nor the soul exist than leaving an unsolvable problem. Nonetheless, I am looking forward to working with Tony Jack this summer.
That night, at the poster session, I met Alex Hankey, whose views on energy healing I disagree with, but who kindly offered me a few meditation tips. After a few attempts at meditation, I attended a hilarious poetry slam followed by David Chalmers’ Zombie Blues, where he and others who had written some lines, mourned the plight of the unconscious philosopher’s zombie. When, past midnight, the Zombie Blues finally reached their end, the party continued, with live music and dancing. Even hours later, when the band took away their instruments, the party did not end. Some of us stayed behind for more alcohol and a conversation, but I left with the few who were more exhausted with the day and chose to sit outside in the presence of a Saguaro cactus and the clouds that were beginning to obscure the stars.