As someone who reads widely in the fields of psychology, cognitive science, and to a lesser extent in neuroscienHow to get consciousness from zombies.
As someone who reads widely in the fields of psychology, cognitive science, and to a lesser extent in neuroscience (and comes into contact with many of the adjoining areas) it becomes weary at times to repeatedly see the same information over and over again. If you read much in this area, you will probably know of what I speak: the face-vase illusion, the Wason selection task, Phineas Gage, etc.
In fact, I started reading this book several months ago and put it down about a quarter way through when I came to those over worn topics.
(And of course, I know that many of these books are written to be a wide-ranging introduction, but the author should then say something in the introduction such as "Skip chapters x-x if you are familiar with the such and such material" as I have seen numerous other authors do.
Nevertheless, I picked the book back up again yesterday and realized that I should have never put it down to begin with.
Eagleman, while perhaps spending too much time on the introductory-level stuff, does indeed offer us some new and insightful arguments. These mainly come in chapters 5 & 6.
Chapter 5: "The Brain is a Team of Rivals"
This chapter describes how our minds are undeniably best described as modular in nature. While this is certainly not a new idea in and of itself, Eagleman offers a novel and intriguing treatment of the subject, often inviting the reader to reflect on instances in their own experience that reveal this characteristic of human brains.
The author uses this discussion of modularity as a lead-in to his discussion about consciousness and offers us a nice summation:
"I propose that a useful index of consciousness is the capacity to successfully mediate conflicting zombie systems. The more an animal looks like a jumble of hardwired input-output subroutines, the less it gives evidence of consciousness; the more it can coordinate, delay gratification, and learn new programs, the more conscious it may be." (p. 144)
Consciousness to Eagleman is the foreman overseeing and mediating between the worker subsystems of the mind. But the foreman analogy is imperfect as the title of the chapter shows. He argues that the relationship of our mind(s) to ourself(s) isn't so much as employer to employee but more so as a team of rivals.
By way of illustration, Eagleman tells us to think of the many times we are conflicted about an issue--even something so simple as to have a slice of chocolate cake. On the one hand, our short term mental subsystems (or zombie systems as Eagleman terms them) are telling us to eat the cake for its pleasurable taste and rich lode of calories. After all, in the crucible of the ancestral environment where the brain evolved, eating foods rich in fats and sweets was a good bet.
On the other hand, our long-term zombie systems try to sway us to think of our waistline 3 months down the road.
If you are like me, you encounter situations like this daily and they may even seem mundane. After all, isn't this just the conscious and singular "I" weighing different decisions? No says Eagleman, and I tend to think he is correct.
We are conscious of conflicts such as these and it is the job of the consciousness and the reason it evolved to begin with to mediate these disputes between the zombie systems that solve a problem in different ways. This is certainly not the ONLY reason Eagleman says consciousness evolved, a major other one being delegation, but I'll limit it to this one for the sake of space.)
Using that topic as a stepping-stone, the author takes us into the next discussion.
Chapter 6: "Why Blameworthiness is the Wrong Question."
This chapter deals with the impact that these neuroscientifically-informed ways of thinking will influence the judicial system both on theoretical and pragmatic grounds. While initially dealing with the usual objections such a topic raises of explanation and exculpation, Eagleman quickly moves on to the more interesting discussion of how many of our intuitions about punishment and rehabilitation are (mostly) wrong. But contrary to the fear often evoked in such a talk, Eagleman's recommendations are for refining the process of jurisprudence with the help of science.
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