Francis Crick was being coy when he titled his book “The astonishing hypothesis”: that all cognitive processes, including consciousness, are the product of neurons is much more than a hypothesis — it is a mature theory and a subject of active multidisciplinary investigation. The popularization of this insight may meet similar resistance as Darwin’s theory (although it may simply be lumped together with ‘Darwinism’). The view of consciousness as interaction of several mechanisms (or as Dan Dennett calls it, “a bag of tricks”) disagrees with the common sense notion of self as indivisible whole, the starting point in philosophical search (Cogito ergo sum). Therefore, all interesting philosophy of the next decades will be informed by recent experimental findings in neuroscience. Many authors are attempting to popularize the notions of neuronal nature of self. Others are taking advantage of the confusion to push a pet speculation or dogma.

Below I have compiled this chart with several books I have read that address questions of consciousness in intriguing ways. I rated these books based on how much new knowledge or insight they seemed to provide and whether these insights came by way of empirical findings or unfounded speculation. Click to enlarge.

Luckily, many popularizers of scientific understanding of mind and consciousness have made public presentations that are now available online. These make good previews of the contents of their books, and, if you have a couple of hours, getting to know these people will be time well spent.

Daniel Dennett:

Lectures on consciousness:

Jeff Hawkins, “On intelligence”

Christof Koch, “The Quest for Consciousness”

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Photo by Shane Willis

A key element of any definition of consciousness is the ability to view itself as an object in the external world. It arises when the system becomes sufficiently sophisticated to see parallels between itself and others.

Douglas Hofstadter is obsessed with all things self-referential. He rose to fame thanks to his 1979 Pulitzer-winning treatise Gödel, Escher, Bach, in which he draws parallels in music, math, and art and pays particular interest to the seemingly absurd and baroque idiosyncrasies of constructs that apply to themselves. As soon as self-reference is introduced, wild things happen and opportunities for complexity and emergence surge. Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorems shook the very foundations of mathematics when theorems were applied to themselves leading to paradoxes.

In his 2007 book I am a Strange Loop, Douglas Hofstadter conjectures that consciousness and our sense of I is another example of a strange effect of a perception system turned onto itself. The book is replete with delightful examples of feedback phenomena in language, mathematics, logic, electric circuits, and human relationships. The book is mostly playful conjecture when it comes to the nature of consciousness, but it points to what we should be looking for when defining and discussing consciousness.

I enjoyed some of the short example of self-reference that lead to intellectually puzzling and humorous effects. Here are some found on page 62:

  • If the meanings of “true” and “false” where switched, this sentence would be false.
  • I am going two-level with you.
  • This analogy is like lifting yourself up by your own bootstraps.
  • If wishes were horses, the antecedent clause in this conditional sentence would be true.

I would like to add the following fun constructs that draw on self-reference for their humorous effect:

  • There are two categories of people: those who believe that people can be divided into two categories and those who don’t.
  • Reality has a well known liberal bias. -Stephen Colbert (To see the recursive nature of this statement, first, define bias.)
  • Referring to the fact that people missing the cerebellum often function quite normally: The best known description of the cerebellum’s function is to compensate for its own absence.

Others?