Fie, Fie, Phi!

I’ve been thinking about consciousness lately.  I gave the book, Phi, A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul by Giulio Tononi, to one of my nerd friends for Hanukkah.  Christmas.  Solstice?  Well.  Is there a December holiday for formerly Jewish, formerly Christian atheists?  Festivus?  Whatever, I gave it to him in December!  Anyway, I figured we’d both love it, since it’s a science book with loads of art and poetry, so I gave myself a copy too.  For Solstice.   (The most Earth-centered and ancient of December holidays!)

Phi (which Tononi says means “integrated information”) follows Galileo on an imaginary journey exploring consciousness.  Galileo’s first guide is a scientist based on Francis Crick; the second is based on Alan Turing; and the third is based on Charles Darwin.  Each brings his own specific scientific/mathematical perspective to consciousness.

My friend and I have started our own little book club around this tome.  It is a gorgeous book, full of reproductions of great paintings and drawings, as well as poetry from many poets, from Emily Dickinson to James Merrill and more.  The art and poetry beautifully illustrate the main themes of every chapter.

Now, to the actual content.  My friend and I have read the first 4 chapters.  And we’re already jumping into our first disagreements (it’s so much fun!).  He’s very much a materialist, and in perfect agreement with the Francis Crick character that consciousness is  only a matter of chemistry and physics.  Synapses fire, chemicals change, and voila!  You have consciousness.  I, on the other hand, disagree.  I am the agnostic in the room.  I don’t think we know enough yet to have a definitive understanding of consciousness.  For example, quantum physics has challenged our notions of how everything works; why not consciousness and the brain?  In fact, great scientists such as David Bohm and Roger Penrose argue for the impact of quantum physics on consciousness.  I am trying to learn more about this now.

There are the New Age-y takes on quantum physics and consciousness, and while I find them interesting, those aren’t what I’m looking for right now.  I’m really interested in hard science on this.  I’d love to hear from anyone who is familiar with the hard science in this area!

I don’t know enough about this yet to advance a convincing argument against strict materialism to my friend.  And that’s what’s great about our little book club – it’s making me dig more deeply into the subject.  As an artist who loves science, I relish such an opportunity!

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