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Copyright © 2005 by Robert J. Sawyer
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Consciousness is back, baby! For most of the twentieth
century, brain studies avoided any discussion of consciousness
the feeling of subjective experience, the apprehension of qualia,
the sense that it is like something to be you or me. But in the
last decade, the issue of consciousness has very much moved to
center stage in the exploration of the human brain.
Although I touched on the nature of consciousness in my 1995
novel The Terminal Experiment,
and again in 1998's Factoring Humanity,
I find myself drawn back to this fertile ground once
more, in large part because consciousness studies are so
multidisciplinary and I firmly believe it's the interplay of
disparate elements that makes for good science fiction. Whereas
twenty years ago, you'd be hard-pressed to find any academic
talking seriously about consciousness, these days quantum
physicists, evolutionary psychologists, neuroscientists,
artificial-intelligence researchers, philosophers, and even lowly
novelists are engaged in the debate.
(Indeed, one could argue that novelists were the only ones
who took consciousness seriously for much of the last century:
we strove, however ineffectually, to capture the stream of
consciousness in our narratives, and to explore the limitations
and richness of constrained points-of-view and subjective
experience ... all while the Skinnerian behaviorists were telling
the world that such things were meaningless.)
The resurgent interest in consciousness is perhaps best
summed up by the existence of the essential
Consciousness Studies, published by Imprint Academic. JCS is
subtitled "Controversies in Science and the Humanities," and
refers to itself as "an international multidisciplinary journal."
I own a complete set of this journal, which is now in its
twelfth year, and consulted it extensively while writing
However, the papers in it are often very technical;
for those interested in popular discussions of consciousness, I
recommend the following books, which also influenced me while I
was working on this novel.
Carter, Rita. Exploring Consciousness. Berkeley: University of
California Press, 2002. An excellent introduction.
Carter, Rita. Mapping the Mind. Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1998. A good overview of how the brain works.
Crick, Francis. The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific
Search for the Soul. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1994.
Crick the co-discoverer of the helical structure of DNA
believed that consciousness didn't really exist.
Dennett, Daniel C. Consciousness Explained. New York: Little
Brown, 1991. Often referred to by those who think there's
something special about human self-awareness as "Consciousness
Freeman, Anthony. Consciousness: A Guide to the Debates. Santa
Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2003. A fascinating look at the
Jaynes, Julian. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of
the Bicameral Mind. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1990 [reissue;
originally published in 1976]. An enchanting, if ultimately
unprovable, hypothesis that true human consciousness didn't
emerge until Classical times; utterly fascinating.
LeDoux, Joseph. Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are.
New York: Viking, 2002. A good look at the neuronal nature of
Kurzweil, Ray. The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers
Exceed Human Intelligence. New York: Viking, 1999. A
fascinating, optimistic look at thinking machines and uploaded
minds; see also my dialog with computer scientist
A.K. Dewdney about this book.
Moravec, Hans. Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human
Intelligence. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University
Press, 1988. A classic about artificial intelligence.
Ornstein, Robert. The Evolution of Consciousness: The Origins of
the Way We Think. New York: Touchstone (Simon & Schuster), 1991.
Makes clear that Darwin has a lot more to teach us about
consciousness than does Freud.
Penrose, Roger. The Emperor's New Mind: Concerning Computers,
Minds, and the Laws of Physics. Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1989. A classic proposing that human consciousness is quantum
mechanical in nature.
Penrose, Roger. Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing
Science of Consciousness. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Among many other fascinating things, explores the possible
relationship between microtubules and human consciousness.
Pinker, Steven. How The Mind Works. New York: Norton, 1997. A
fine overview of modern cognitive science, mostly from an
Richards, Jay W., ed. Are We Spiritual Machines?: Ray Kurzweil
vs. the Critics of Strong A.I. Seattle, Washington: Discovery
Institute Press, 2002. Precisely what the title says.
Searle, John R. The Mystery of Consciousness. New York: New
York Review, 1997. The originator of the "Chinese Room" problem
cited in this novel spells out his beliefs about the ineffable
nature of human consciousness.
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