15 August 2013

2005 Skeptics Society Conference: Brain, Mind and Consciousness:

The Brain, Mind & Consciousness conference, on what Nobel Laureate Francis Crick called "the greatest unsolved problem in biology," was held over the weekend of May 13--15, 2005 at Caltech.

Research on the brain, mind, and consciousness was given a significant boost by Nobel laureate Dr. Francis Crick in 1994, when he wrote in his book, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, "that 'you,' your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules."

This is what is called "the hard problem"—explaining how billions of neurons swapping chemicals give rise to such subjective experiences as consciousness, self-awareness, and awareness that others are conscious and self-aware; that is, not only the ability to wonder, but the ability to wonder why we wonder, and even wonder why others wonder why....

Explaining each of the functional parts of the brain is the easy problem, such as the differences between waking and sleep, discrimination of stimuli, or the control of behavior. By contrast, what has come to be known as the hard problem in consciousness studies is experience: what it is like to be in a given mental state? Adding up all of the solved easy problems does not equal a solution to the hard problem. Something else is going on in private subjective experiences—called qualia—and there is no consensus on what it is.

Dualists hold that qualia are separate from physical objects in the world and that mind is more than brain. Materialists contend that qualia are ultimately explicable through the activities of neu- rons and that mind and brain are one. Our speakers, some of the top neuroscientists in the world, will address these and other problems, such as the evolution of the brain, and how and why it got to be so large. Skeptics will get a chance to interact with these world-class scientists on the breaks, during meals, and in a formal discussion period. We will also consider the implications of this new brain research to better understand apparent paranormal phenomena, as well as how and why people believe weird things.

Lectures included: The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach with Dr. Christof Koch, Children as Scientists: How the Brain Learns to Think with Dr. Alison Gopnik, In Search of Memory — True, False, Repressed, Recovered with Dr. Richard McNally, Sleep, Dreams, and the Subconscious with Dr. Terry Sejnowski, Exploring Altered States of Consciousness with Dr. Susan Blackmore, The Search for the Neurological Basis of the Social Emotions with Dr. John Allman, From Whence Trust Comes: Oxytocin and Behavioral Economics with Dr. Paul Zak, Consciousness is Nothing But a Word with Dr. Hank Schlinger, and From Biology to Consciousness to Morality with Dr. Ursula Goodenough.

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