Roger Penrose’s book ‘Shadows of the Mind’ was published some twenty years ago. When it first came out I immediately added it to my reading list but one thing and another intervened including a career change and relocation from London to Mid Wales and it slipped down the agenda and wandered off into the infinite labyrinth of my mind. My Glia’s, however, are equipped with roller skates and a sense of mischief. Left to themselves they hunt about for interesting stuff and present it for my inspection and approval in the same way as Dog presents his latest wastepaper basket installation art piece to me, that is to say, hopeful but not certain of approval. Anyway recently they tracked down this particular ‘to do’ somewhere between the mid-Palaeolithic and teatime and dragged it back up to the surface. So after a shamefully long flash to bang time I am finally reading it.
Penrose, who is a mathematician, sets out to explore what modern physics has to tell us about the mind and to examine what we mean when we talk of ‘awareness’, ‘understanding’, ‘consciousness’ and ‘intelligence’. These questions go to the root of what it is to be human and also whether digital computers (in the sense of Turing Machines) can achieve conscious awareness. In the intervening period I read Iain Mcgilchrist’s book ‘The Master and The Emissary’ which examines the same concepts but from the point of a neuroscientist.
Penrose takes the view that appropriate physical action of the brain evokes ‘awareness’ but this physical action cannot be properly simulated computationally (he argues against the argument that all thinking is purely computational and feelings of ‘awareness’ are evoked by the carrying out of appropriate computations – a position that, if correct would mean that a computer controlled robot which convincingly behaves as though it possesses consciousness must be considered actually to have a conscious mind). His book is largely an exploration and argument in support of the proposition that we perform non-computational feats when we consciously understand. The distinction between the two viewpoints has profound implications for questions of free will, determinism and what it means to be human.
Iain Mcgilchrist’s book examines the way in which the division of our brain into two hemispheres is essential to human existence making possible incompatible versions of the world with quite different priorities and values. He doesn’t expound the old left-brain-right-brain divide but looks at the functioning of the hemispheres as related to the type of attention we pay to the world. My mind placed Penrose and McGilchrist’s ideas alongside each other and came up with a synthesis or at least the idea that the type of attention paid by the right hemisphere is the non-computational element of Penrose’s proposition. The bit of our brain that allows us to understand intuitively that if Abraham Lincoln’s left foot is in Washington his right foot will also be there, or to gain from an early age an understanding of the concept of three from three oranges or dogs or whatever and from there to go on to understand the infinite sequence of whole numbers. The left hemisphere’s attention more closely resembles that of a Turing machine and performs in a way that can be explained in entirely digital computational terms. The right hemisphere, however, operates in a manner that is non-computational other than possibly on a quantum level.
I find this extraordinarily fascinating. To me it explains much about the way we function as a species as well as on an individual level. Why for example we would need to invent language and why we consider that because our cerebellum controls things such as motor skills that have become ‘automatic’ it does not have ‘conscious’ thought but acts unconsciously. Surrealism as a movement explored the idea of the unconscious mind to reveal it and reconcile it with rational (conscious) life but I think what we are dealing with here is a different kind of consciousness bearing the same relationship to what we now classify as ‘conscious’ thought as quantum theory has to the Newtonian world of classical physics. One of the most bizarre premises of quantum theory is the idea that by the very act of watching, the observer affects the observed reality. I think here we approach a convergence of quantum theory and the Buddhist and/or Daoist philosophy of ‘mindful attention’, the concept of interconnectedness and ‘being’ in the now.
I would argue that the type of attention we pay to the world changes what we find there (the glass half empty or the glass half full being a simplistic example) with important philosophical, societal and technical implications for the future. How we respond to climate change, whether our thinking is governed by labels that discriminate and separate, whether we collaborate or compete these all shape the world not only that we inhabit now but also the one in which future generations will have to live.
The ability to look at things from a different perspective, to fail to conform to stereotypes and to value diversity and difference; in other words to squeeze ourselves through the eye of the needle and follow the Fool out across the rainbow are all in my view necessary prerequisites for a healthy future for our species.