ARTYFACTS: Barely conscious at State of Consciousness conference

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Barely conscious at State of Consciousness conference

Zen and loss of consciousness
Almost lost consciousness (twice) at this one day conference organised by the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science. First at a debate on ‘Zen and consciousness’ that was so dull, it must count as a purely Zen event, beyond experience and language. The two academics couldn’t use a microphone, and mumbled their way incoherently through the subject. At the end, when asked to sum up in a sentence, we got the old ying-yang line. Zen consciousness, he claimed, is not ‘either…or’ it’s ‘both and and’. So said the wise one, not realising that logicians are well aware of logical disjunction (OR) and the either/or fallacy (presenting just two choices when there are more). What does ‘both and and’ mean’? He was. I suspect, confusing identity with addition. All he could mumble was reference to the ‘ying-yang’ symbol. Since when was a symbol a theory?
Art and consciousness
I was looking forward to this one – big mistake. The chair got the name of the first artist/academic wrong and it went from bad to worse. The first speaker showed a piece of video from her Mac but hadn’t even thought about an audio lead, so had to talk it through. All three read (too quickly in monotone voices) from notes, giving the impression that they really didn’t know what they were talking about (I suspect this was true). I hope for the sake of the University of Sussex, Plymouth and UCL that these three don’t teach. They were appalling communicators and even in their own fields couldn’t EXPLAIN anything. It was all WHAT with no WHY. But what was really illustrative of the problem was the middle talk where maria (sorry missed her second name) described a ‘field of consciousness’ experiment that was trite, showed no real knowledge of neuroscience, linguistics, or consciousness. At least she was honest in telling us about her awful efforts at data gathering. It was magnificently trite.
The problem is that their art installations were really just derivative pieces based on old bits of neurological theory, the rubber arm experiment and so on. There was a laughable piece that used the old ‘look at yourself in a mirror and see something else’ approach (as if that hasn’t been done before) and some waffle about ‘mirror’ neurons. This is not cross-disciplinary work, it’s one way traffic. It was clear that art was being informed by science but it was also clear that art was not informing science. When asked, they could think of not a single example of where art had led to an insight or breakthrough in our knowledge of consciousness. This really was fourth-rate academia.
This is not to diminish art at the expense of science. It is simply to recognise that art and science and not two sides of the same coin but very different areas of human endeavour, with very different approaches, goals and methodologies. Art doesn’t need to pander to science in this way. Art is not mimicry. We must be careful with science’s claims, as if it were the only thing that matters, but not parody scientific experiments and bits of theory with half-baked installations.
It is clear that in ‘consciousness theory’, cross-disciplinary work is essential, but that doesn’t mean shoving every discipline into the omelette. The real cross-disciplinary work is between the big ‘Ps’ – Philosophy, Psychology, Physics and Psychiatry. In each of these cases it’s 2+2=5. With art and science it’s 2+2=1, in the sense that the science often produces poor art, such as the examples we were shown.
Thankfully there was redemption in the final session. Anul is a fine speaker and admirably lays out the issues in the field. At last some academics who could present, explain and be honest about the strengths and weaknesses of various approaches to research. Bit of a lost opportunity here, as we could have had more of the real deal, that’s real neuroscience and associated RELEVANT disciplines. Instead we got some fluffy talks that pandered to popularism.


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