I occasionally engage in a somewhat macabre exercise: lost in thought, I begin to imagine hypothetical reactions from everyone I know to the news of my sudden death, usually due to an unexpected event like a car accident. I don’t do this very often, maybe once every few months. And there is no specific recurrent trigger for it. The last time I did it, a little over a month ago, was soon after hearing about the death of Roger Ebert. I, like many others who followed his life and writings over the years, felt saddened by this loss, and that sadness prompted me to consider my own mortality. At first, it was the “typical” story. I thought about my girlfriend, my parents, and the people closest to me. I thought about all the years invested, the memories formed and the futures planned; about all that was worthy and that was hard won. Then I thought about the sadness that would engulf all these people, about their sense of loss and the emptiness that they would experience. And, as such exercises typically end for me, I began to experience a deep sense of sorrow. I felt saddened by the inevitability of my death, by the eventual destruction of all that I have built, by the wasted memories, meticulously acquired then blown away as if they were never experienced. Perhaps I even felt angry by the seeming meaninglessness of life, by an existence in which we strive to live great lives, only to have them yanked away from us by the fragility of an aging and imperfectly evolved biological machine. It is typically at this point that, feeling hopelessly defeated, I turn my attention to something else, get distracted, and go on merrily living a life of ignorant bliss. For some reason however, this time my thoughts took a different turn.
… For although in a certain sense and for light-minded persons non-existent things can be more easily and irresponsibly represented in words than existing things, for the serious and conscientious historian it is just the reverse. Nothing is harder, yet nothing is more necessary, than to speak of certain things whose existence is neither demonstrable nor probable. The very fact that serious and conscientious men treat them as existing things brings them a step closer to existence and to the possibility of being born.
Two weeks ago I attended NIPS, one of the leading conferences on machine learning and AI. This was my first time at NIPS, but I got the impression that they always like to have a sprinkling of neuroscience talks swimming in the sea of machine learning presentations. This year, they had no less than four talks with some variation of “consciousness” or “brain” in the title. They were given by Giulio Tononi, Scott Aaronson, Stanislas Dehaene, and Terrence Sejnowski. Despite the ambitious-sounding titles, unfortunately most of these talks did not really tackle the fundamental basis of consciousness, except for Giulio Tononi’s. On the other hand, while all the other talks were reasonably accessible, I found Giulio’s talk to be largely impenetrable. It was intriguing enough however that I will try to summarize my understanding of his theory, and offer some thoughts of my own on the subject. I should warn that I am not going to say anything particularly coherent, and I may in fact be grossly misrepresenting what Giulio intended to say because of my limited understanding of his talk.