Consciousness and Choices

  • The problem of consciousness, and the resolution to a 25-year-old debate, via Vox and NYT’s Carl Zimmer;
  • The paradox of choice, in supermarkets and everywhere else, in our abundant, materialistic world.

Vox, Oshan Jarow, 30 Jun 2023: Why scientists haven’t cracked consciousness, subtitled “The science of consciousness still has no theory.”

This story has been showing up on various sites in the past couple weeks. About how the “wager” made 25 years ago between a neuroscientist and a philosopher, about whether neuroscience would be able to “explain” consciousness, has been “won” by the philosopher, because neuroscience has not yet done so.

I note this without passing any kind of judgment on the two sides. I’ve read a number of books on the subject, by Daniel Dennett and Nicholas Humphrey and others (I even have that one by Chalmers that I haven’t read), and my impression is that the rival factions can barely agree on what the problem is, or how to define it. Thus the “hard” problem of consciousness.

I’m fascinated to be a neutral observer in this ongoing exploration. There’s a new book by Nicholas Humphrey that I will try to get to.

Needless to say, attributing consciousness to some extra-material “soul” explains nothing, and has no evidence to support it.


Here’s NY Times’ Carl Zimmer (a writer of science books in his own right) on the same subject, from 1 Jul 2023: Leading Theories of Consciousness Square Off, subtitled “Scientists revealed the results of experiments testing how our brains give rise to conscious thought — and ended a 25-year-old bet.”

Recalling the bet from the auditorium stage, Dr. Koch admitted that it had been fueled by drinks and enthusiasm. “When you’re young, you’ve got to believe things will be simple,” he said.

My comment: The human mind has made astonishing advances in its understanding of the world and the universe over the past few centuries. The simplest problems, those solved by the apprehension of relatively simple physical patterns (“laws”), have been solved. But the universe has had billions of years to evolve and develop, emergently, more and more complex patterns. And so some remain elusive. All the bets, throughout history, that what humans cannot explain are due to “God” have failed, again and again; explanations have emerged, and may be counted on to emerge again.

Zimmer goes on to describe some of the research of the past 25 years.

A lot has happened over the subsequent quarter century. Neuroscientists and engineers invented powerful new tools for probing the brain, leading to a burst of revealing experiments about consciousness. Some scientists have used brain scans to detect signs of consciousness in people diagnosed as being in a vegetative state, for example, while others have used brain waves to determine when people become unconscious under anesthesia.

Those experiments fostered an explosion of new theories. To winnow them down, the Templeton World Charity Foundation has begun supporting large-scale studies that put different pairs of theories in a head-to-head test, in a process called adversarial collaboration.

And last month, researchers at the New York event unveiled the results of the foundation’s first trial, a matchup of two of the most prominent theories.

And then Zimmer describes the resolution of the 25-year-old debate.

But the 25-year bet, at least, has been resolved: No one has found a clear neural correlate of consciousness. Dr. Koch ended the evening by carrying to the stage a wooden box full of wine. He pulled out a 1978 bottle of Madeira and gave it to Dr. Chalmers.

Then he challenged his friend to a new bet, this time double or nothing: a brain marker of consciousness by 2048.

Dr. Chalmers instantly shook on the bet, despite the questionable odds that either will still be alive to see the outcome.

“I hope I lose,” he said. “But I suspect I’ll win.”


The Atlantic, Adam Fleming Petty, 24 Jun 2023: The Paradox at the Grocery Store, subtitled “What people really need is less choice, not more.”

Here’s an observation that’s come up again and again. The abundance of our materialistic, capitalist society has led to an odd paradox: with so many choices available, it’s more difficult for people to decide what to buy, not easier.

I think I’ve discussed how some people (I have one particular college buddy in mind) obsess about researching all the possible options, to find the most perfect choice, before buying a camera, say, or even sunglasses. I tend toward the opposite, when buying a new laptop, say: just get a decent one from Costco, it will be fine. On the other hand, whenever I’ve bought a new car, which I only do every 5 or 7 years on average (though my current car, the M3, is now 12 years old), I do the research and know *exactly* what car I want to buy.

So what is this writer’s solution? Find some way to shop that limits your options, and get on with your life. He defines SOS as a “single-option store.” He cites a chain I’ve never heard of, Aldi, but then says:

Trader Joe’s, with its whimsical decor and doodled chalkboard signs, is very much an SOS. Employees sometimes sport Hawaiian shirts and are encouraged to be friendly with customers.

While acknowledging the limitations of such stores:

While the SOS model reduces certain frustrations, it is not totally exempt from them. Any Trader Joe’s shopper will know the annoyance of searching in vain for some specialty item needed to complete a recipe, like a particular sauce or cooking wine. A person may also not like an SOS brand’s particular take on an item. Cottage cheese, for example, is hard to get right, as the slightest difference in texture can render it unpleasant to me. The only brands I like aren’t sold at Aldi; the store’s option just doesn’t measure up.

Still, the SOS is good at what it does: providing limited, mid-tier-quality food options, and maybe chipping away at my hundreds of daily decisions. I’ll gladly take that trade-off for the time it saves me, as well as the mental space it clears. Now on my afternoon errand runs, I can head to my local SOS, get some store-brand orange juice, and bask in the freedom of not having had to make any choice at all.

This entry was posted in Culture, Philosophy, Psychology, Science. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.