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A theory of consciousness: The thalamus


Putting the mind back in nature
Gerald Edelman Scientist
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Whitehead pointed out that Galileo and Descartes removed the mind from nature, but both for different reasons. In the case of Galileo, he removed the mind from nature because it was in a sense none of his business; in his book The Assayer, he says, 'I know without animals you wouldn't have things like warm and green', or whatever he said, 'but that's none of my concern.' Whereas Descartes made it his central concern. He said, 'If I think and try to develop a method without doubt, a fundamental or a foundational method, what can I say? Well, I can say, "Cogito ergo sum, je pense, donc je suis: I think, therefore I am." And even a demon couldn't confuse me; even if he tried to confuse me I know I exist because I think.' And out of that came the philosophy of dualism, namely that science was not able to penetrate the issue of consciousness; that science had to do with res extensa, extended things, space and time; whereas consciousness was obviously not in space and time, and it was therefore outside of science, res cogitans. And thus began this whole philosophy of dualism which lives to this very day, and which is I think a common part of our language. Most people inherently one way or another are dualists without realizing it. Well, that's a good thing, because if they became propagandists for it, it would be really not too pleasant. Well, there are some. I forget... I forget our age and I forget the newspaper.

In any case, Descartes set the problem and so the problem is: well, how can you put the mind back into nature, all right? Because if you can't put it back into nature, science can't deal with it. Science is in fact... science is imagination in the service of the verifiable truth, and the verifiable truth relates to nature. So what do you do? Well, another figure came and I think he's largely responsible, even though he's beyond a philosopher – he was a psychologist as well – and that's William James. I'd say he's one of the few who put the mind back into nature. He said, 'No, you can actually study consciousness; you can actually do psychological studies and behavioral studies, etc.', and in his beautiful work The Principles of Psychology he outlines this thing very nicely. Now, this fell into oblivion with the early development of behaviorism, not in neuroscience but in psychology, where he said, 'None of that mental stuff counts; it's just not even... even in consideration, even as far as talking about it – you don't even talk like Descartes, you just ignore it.' Well, thanks to the cognitive psychology movement in the last three decades, that's been replaced, but unfortunately I think a lot of cognitive psychology treats the brain and mind as part of... as a machine model, as... as a computer, a Turing machine. So the question I've been interested in is: can we go beyond that and can we relate the brain theory I talked about to the issue of consciousness? And, above all, can we in fact even consider the heretical notion that some day we may be able to make a conscious artifact?

US biologist Gerald Edelman (1929-2014) successfully constructed a precise model of an antibody, a protein used by the body to neutralise harmful bacteria or viruses and it was this work that won him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1972 jointly with Rodney R Porter. He then turned his attention to neuroscience, focusing on neural Darwinism, an influential theory of brain function.

Listeners: Ralph J. Greenspan

Dr. Greenspan has worked on the genetic and neurobiological basis of behavior in fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) almost since the inception of the field, studying with one of its founders, Jeffery Hall, at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, where he received his Ph.D. in biology in 1979. He subsequently taught and conducted research at Princeton University and New York University where he ran the W.M. Keck Laboratory of Molecular Neurobiology, relocating to San Diego in 1997 to become a Senior Fellow in Experimental Neurobiology at The Neurosciences Institute. Dr. Greenspan’s research accomplishments include studies of physiological and behavioral consequences of mutations in a neurotransmitter system affecting one of the brain's principal chemical signals, studies making highly localized genetic alterations in the nervous system to alter behavior, molecular identification of genes causing naturally occurring variation in behavior, and the demonstration that the fly has sleep-like and attention-like behavior similar to that of mammals. Dr. Greenspan has been awarded fellowships from the Helen Hay Whitney Foundation, the Searle Scholars Program, the McKnight Foundation, the Sloan Foundation and the Klingenstein Foundation. In addition to authoring research papers in journals such as "Science", "Nature", "Cell", "Neuron", and "Current Biology", he is also author of an article on the subject of genes and behavior for "Scientific American" and several books, including "Genetic Neurobiology" with Jeffrey Hall and William Harris, "Flexibility and Constraint in Behavioral Systems" with C.P. Kyriacou, and "Fly Pushing: The Theory and Practice of Drosophila Genetics", which has become a standard work in all fruit fly laboratories.

Tags: The Assayer, The Principles of Psychology, Descartes, Alfred North Whitehead, Galileo, William James

Duration: 3 minutes, 17 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008