‘Fathoming Consciousness’ explores shared human experience


The profound subjective experience shared by all humankind called consciousness is the focus of “Fathoming Consciousness,” a free symposium for the academic community and the public from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday in the fourth floor auditorium of the Rackham Building.

The public and experts in the field can hear the latest views on the topic of consciousness through several disciplines. The symposium is presented by U-M’s Center for the Study of Complex Systems and Institute for Complex Adaptive Matter.

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“Indeed, that state of the brain is so central to the human experience that it is an essential object of study in the humanities, the social sciences and the physical sciences,” says James Allen, professor emeritus of physics and an event organizer. But he adds that consciousness is so complex that each discipline has developed its own view, each one having validity and relevance.

Says Patrick Grim, professor of philosophy at The State University of New York at Stony Brook and another organizer, “Philosophers may be the most conflicted of all on the topic of consciousness, and represent rival views that mirror or multiply divergences across other disciplines.”

Charles Doering, professor of physics, mathematics and complex systems, is acting director of the Center for the Study of Complex Systems. Much of its mission is to facilitate different disciplines coming together to discuss broad topics of mutual interest. “In this symposium speakers will explore notions of consciousness from viewpoints of machines, medicine and meditation. We’re looking forward to discovering some common conceptions and determining differing ideas from these distinct areas,” he says.

Charles Doering, professor of physics, mathematics and complex systems, leads a lecture before a Nonlinear Dynamics and Chaos class. Doering is a co-organizer of the “Fathoming Consciousness” symposium. (Photo by Paul Jaronski, Michigan Photography)

Interest in the topic of consciousness is both old and new. Buddhist monks more than 2,000 years ago developed a sophisticated theory of consciousness. Today, the most prevalent trend in consciousness studies stems from the explosion of technology.

“There have been great technical advances in brain imaging and brain scans and right now the neuroscience community is excited to try to understand how the brain works through such studies,” Allen says. Researchers can measure and map areas and functions of the brain like never before. Magnetic resonance imaging can even record how specific areas of the brain respond to music, or other stimuli.

Another trend in consciousness studies involves the application of network theory and information theory, and how they might guide creation of artificial consciousness or awareness. “In this symposium we ask, what do we mean by consciousness and can we bring quantification and measurement to the various meanings that different disciplines might offer?” Allen says.

Presentations are “Consciousness and the Dying Brain,” with George Mashour, associate professor of anesthesiology and neurosurgery, U-M Medical School; “That Which is Clear and Knowing: Buddhist Views of Consciousness,” with Donald Lopez, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist & Tibetan Studies, Department of Asian Languages and Cultures, LSA; “The Diverse Accounts of Consciousness Now Available, and a Possible Way to Get Past Them,” with Paul Churchland, professor of philosophy, University of California, San Diego; “Levels of Consciousness,” with John Holland, professor of psychology, LSA; and “Evolutionary Approach to Artificial Consciousness,” with Chris Adami, professor of microbiology and molecular genetics, Michigan State University.

 “We anticipate lively discussion among the five speakers, and between them and the audience, and we dare to hope that some synthesis of different viewpoints may emerge,” Allen says.

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