Wednesday, July 24, 2013

John Searle, Dan Dennett, Antonio Damasio, and Simon Lewis on the Strange Phenomenon We Call Consciousness

The folks at TED have assembled four of their best TED Talks on consciousness into one post. Beginning with a new talk by John Searle, one the of the elder statesmen in the study of consciousness, who spoke at TEDxCERN (2013), they also include Daniel Dennett from TED2003, Antonio Damasio from TED2011 (this is one of the best talks - Damasio is in my opinion, the foremost theorist in the science of consciousness and how the brain creates a sense of self), and Simon Lewis from TED partner INK Talks (2010).

4 talks on a strange phenomenon we all experience: Consciousness

Posted by: Kate Torgovnick
July 22, 2013

John Searle shares why it is possible to study consciousness in today’s talk, from TEDxCERN.

John Searle studies consciousness — which, as he points out in today’s talk, is a “curiously neglected subject in our scientific and philosophical culture.” Curiously — because it is, after all, a pre-condition for anything else we think about. And yet neglected — because consciousness is a subject that makes scientists huffy (they see it as something subjective) and that makes philosophers uncomfortable (since it speaks to the mind and body being of different realms).

In this talk, Searle lays out a simple way to understand this complex phenomenon: as a condition of our biology. As he puts it, all states of consciousness are the result of neurobiological processes in the brain. “Consciousness is a biological phenomenon like photosynthesis, digestion or mitosis,” he says. “Once you accept that, most though not all of the hard problems about consciousness evaporate.”

Watch this fast-paced talk from TEDxCERN as Searle debunks some commonly held ideas about consciousness — like that it is an illusion, that it is a computer program running in the brain, that you can’t make objective claims about something that is subjective. And once you’ve checked out this romp through the experience of experiencing, watch these other talks that deal with the tricky issue of consciousness.

At the bottom of the page are bios for each of the speakers presented in this post.

Dan Dennett: The illusion of consciousnessPhilosopher Dan Dennett agrees that there is a strange bias against studying consciousness—he says his colleague’s lips snarl upon hearing his field of interest. But after this point, Dennett diverges a bit from Searle. In this talk from TED2003, Dennett shares why every single person thinks they’re an expert in consciousness — and why each of us might be wrong. It’s a fascinating look at the tricks of the brain that are a result of biology.

Antonio Damasio: The quest to understand consciousnessIn this talk from TED2011, Antonio Damasio points out an amazing fact — that every morning, we wake up and are conscious once again. Showing stunning images of a living brain, Damasio takes a closer look at the things we take for granted — a flow of mental images, an experience of a self, and ownership of a subjective perspective.

Simon Lewis: Don’t take consciousness for grantedSimon Lewis has experienced “the full consciousness of inner space” — after a devastating car accident, he was in a coma for a month. In this talk, from the INK Conference, he outlines some of the ways that consciousness is under threat all around the world — from head injuries, strokes, Alzheimer’s disease, migraines, depression and drug addiction as well as some surprising other factors.


American philosopher John Serle has made countless contributions to contemporary thinking about consciousness, language, artificial intelligence and rationality itself. In his early work, he focused on the nature of language and what we are conveying when we speak and how the intention behind what we intend to say can the meaning of words from context to context.

He is best known for his “Chinese Room” thought experiment, which challenges the notion of a truly intelligent artificial intelligence. In it, he imagines a room containing an individual, who speaks only English, working with a set of English instructions to write a series of Chinese characters in order to anonymous communicate with a Chinese speaker outside the room. If that individual follows the instructions carefully, she can effectively fool the Chinese speaker into thinking he’s talking to someone who understands his language. Serle argues that, at the very least, the metaphor raises deep complications as to whether or not one can truly describe convincing simulations of intelligence as intelligent.

He remains of firm believer that subjective experiences are real -- even if they don’t always describe things are they really are -- and are worth thinking about in objective terms because of it.


One of our most important living philosophers, Dan Dennett is best known for his provocative and controversial arguments that human consciousness and free will are the result of physical processes in the brain. He argues that the brain's computational circuitry fools us into thinking we know more than we do, and that what we call consciousness — isn't.

This mind-shifting perspective on the mind itself has distinguished Dennett's career as a philosopher and cognitive scientist. And while the philosophy community has never quite known what to make of Dennett (he defies easy categorization, and refuses to affiliate himself with accepted schools of thought), his computational approach to understanding the brain has made him, as Edge's John Brockman writes, “the philosopher of choice of the AI community.”

“It's tempting to say that Dennett has never met a robot he didn't like, and that what he likes most about them is that they are philosophical experiments,” Harry Blume wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in 1998. “To the question of whether machines can attain high-order intelligence, Dennett makes this provocative answer: ‘The best reason for believing that robots might some day become conscious is that we human beings are conscious, and we are a sort of robot ourselves.'”

In recent years, Dennett has become outspoken in his atheism, and his 2006 book Breaking the Spell calls for religion to be studied through the scientific lens of evolutionary biology. Dennett regards religion as a natural -- rather than supernatural -- phenomenon, and urges schools to break the taboo against empirical examination of religion. He argues that religion's influence over human behavior is precisely what makes gaining a rational understanding of it so necessary: “If we don't understand religion, we're going to miss our chance to improve the world in the 21st century.”

A prolific writer, Dennett's landmark books include The Mind's I Fantasies And Reflections On Self & Soul, co-edited with Douglas Hofstedter, Consciousness Explained, and Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Read an excerpt from his new book, Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking, in the Guardian.


Antonio Damasio is a leader in understanding the biological origin of consciousness. He also argues that emotions, far from being barriers to it, are a crucial component of decision-making. He is founder and director of the USC Brain and Creativity Institute, which draws on partners across academic disciplines to use the explosion of new neuroscience results to tackle issues from mental health to societal and global change.

Damasio is the author of Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain, which was adapted into a musical composition performed by Yo-Yo Ma at the American Museum of Natural History, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain (2003), The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (2000), and Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (1995).

Born in London, Simon Lewis is a film and television producer and author. After earning law degrees from Christ's College Cambridge and Boalt Hall, Berkeley, Lewis moved to Los Angeles, where his Hollywood experience includes managing writers, directors and stars, as well as producing Look Who's Talking, critically acclaimed films such as The Chocolate War, the Emmy-winning international co-production for HBO and ITV Central A Month of Sundays (Age Old Friends), and variety specials starring Howie Mandel.

He's the author of Rise and Shine, a memoir that uses his personal story -- of recovery from coma -- to illustrate deep and universal insights about consciousness itself. An acclaimed author, speaker and commentator, Lewis uses creative visualizations that fuse cutting-edge medicine, scientific research and digital art to illustrate solutions to society’s most pressing problem: the erosion of consciousness and need for solutions to nurture and grow our minds through cognitive and other therapies.

An advocate for change in how we educate our children and ourselves, he says that we must not take our consciousness for granted, but use specific tools to screen and detect learning weaknesses and prevent academic failure. Bridge the gap from our potential mind toward our actual mind and maximize consciousness itself across our population, from child to adult.

The Atavist magazine devoted Issue No. 7 to Chris Colin's in-depth biographical profile of Lewis, called "Blindsight." Read a review or buy the issue.

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