This past Friday, I went to the Exploratorium on a field trip with other students in my major, symsys. We aren’t known for being particularly cohesive, so whenever an opportunity to meet and hang out with other students with similar interests, I usually try to make it. And though I had been to the Exploratorium this past summer with family friends already, it seemed like a place worth going again and again.
The Exploratorium is primarily oriented towards little kids, but it certainly has universal appeal. The museum is covered with a bunch of mini-exhibits, each showing off one or two scientific concepts. For example, a ring rolling around in a dish was supposed to represent chaos theory, and a drinking water fountain over a toilet bowl demonstrated our developed aversions. The advising fellows for symsys had justified the trip with the “Mind” area in the back, which was mostly a series of optical illusions. I had wandered around with Te, a senior who had taken a class on these exact topics. He would look at an exhibit, see the trick, then say something like, “Oh… that’s just lateral inhibition.”
While not all of us have had the same coursework, I think we all recognized some of the phenomenon at least from our high school education. But we were just as excited as the little kids running around, amazed by these things they had never seen. Reading about something in a textbook and accepting that it’s true just isn’t quite the same as being able reach out and touch it or feel yourself falling for a mental trick.
Just before I had left for the field trip, I had been in section for a class, “Mind, Matter, and Meaning.” In the class, we basically just talk about consciousness. Most of our reading is from David Chalmers’ “The Conscious Mind,” and our early discussion was focused around the difference between what he calls the psychological and phenomenological aspects of consciousness. Psychological aspects are primarily focused on what mental states do and the sort of functions associated with that. Phenomenological aspects are primarily focused on what mental states feel like and why something feels like it does. And when we’re trying to figure out if our brain and our mind are the same thing, this is where the phenomenological part gets messy.
Because it’s a hard question to say why something “feels” like it does. What does an apple taste like? What it is like to see the “redness” of an apple? What’s interesting about these questions to me is that they are absolutely subjective. We’re trying to boil down all these sciences into a disembodied, objective explanation, but what we feel seems linked to who we are. I’m certain many people have come to the questions about whether everyone else is conscious or what the nature of others’ consciousness is. I mean, even if I assume all of you fine readers are conscious (in the sense used above, not the awakeness sense; I know the latter to be false), how do I know what you see to be red is the same red I see? Maybe my red is your blue.
And I think it’s amazing to probe the differences in how we experience things. One of the most unforgettable experiences I’ve had here at Stanford was helping one particular student with a program in the computer cluster. She was a little slow in finding her mistakes, but she was entirely capable of using her computer and thinking through and fixing her mistakes. It probably would’ve been otherwise insignificant if not for the fact that she’s also blind and deaf in one ear. Thanks to Microsoft Sam, she could navigate her code line-by-line, jump between windows, and very quickly fix even syntax errors with her code.
I can’t even imagine how she could do something like that. For one, she was able to navigate her file system very quickly and without error based on snippets of words. I kind of have a sense about how my file system is structured, but I have to look things up everytime, and I know I’m constantly depending on context cues to go to the right place. So being able to have a mental representation for that is amazing. But moreover, I just can’t even imagine what code would look like if I had never seen a letter of the alphabet before. On a psychological level, I understand that in such cases, it’s common that areas of the brain responsible for processing visual input can be retooled to enhance capabilities with the other senses. On a phenomenological level, that’s just baffling. What does a block of code “sound” like?
But I guess if I believe the distinction here, it’s all kind of peripheral. Walking around the Exploratorium, I don’t have to feel to learn. It’s just the psychological process of learning where I have a new experience that creates a different representation and new pathways to understand something. And my joy is just a trained response to learning that causes my eyes to widen and my body to get jittery. Maybe a zombie version of me, which has the exact same psychological processes but no phenomenological experience, would have done the exact same things that I had. But I don’t think that makes the sensation any less valuable. I’d still say the Exploratorium is worth going to because you can actually see and touch everything.