[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
Hugo and Nebula Winner

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Further Reading

Copyright © 2005 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

       Consciousness is back, baby! For most of the twentieth century, brain studies avoided any discussion of consciousness — the feeling of subjective experience, the apprehension of qualia, the sense that it is like something to be you or me. But in the last decade, the issue of consciousness has very much moved to center stage in the exploration of the human brain.

       Although I touched on the nature of consciousness in my 1995 novel The Terminal Experiment, and again in 1998's Factoring Humanity, I find myself drawn back to this fertile ground once more, in large part because consciousness studies are so multidisciplinary — and I firmly believe it's the interplay of disparate elements that makes for good science fiction. Whereas twenty years ago, you'd be hard-pressed to find any academic talking seriously about consciousness, these days quantum physicists, evolutionary psychologists, neuroscientists, artificial-intelligence researchers, philosophers, and even lowly novelists are engaged in the debate.

       (Indeed, one could argue that novelists were the only ones who took consciousness seriously for much of the last century: we strove, however ineffectually, to capture the stream of consciousness in our narratives, and to explore the limitations and richness of constrained points-of-view and subjective experience ... all while the Skinnerian behaviorists were telling the world that such things were meaningless.)

       The resurgent interest in consciousness is perhaps best summed up by the existence of the essential Journal of Consciousness Studies, published by Imprint Academic. JCS is subtitled "Controversies in Science and the Humanities," and refers to itself as "an international multidisciplinary journal."

       I own a complete set of this journal, which is now in its twelfth year, and consulted it extensively while writing Mindscan. However, the papers in it are often very technical; for those interested in popular discussions of consciousness, I recommend the following books, which also influenced me while I was working on this novel.

Carter, Rita. Exploring Consciousness. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. An excellent introduction.

Carter, Rita. Mapping the Mind. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. A good overview of how the brain works.

Crick, Francis. The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1994. Crick — the co-discoverer of the helical structure of DNA — believed that consciousness didn't really exist.

Dennett, Daniel C. Consciousness Explained. New York: Little Brown, 1991. Often referred to by those who think there's something special about human self-awareness as "Consciousness Explained Away."

Freeman, Anthony. Consciousness: A Guide to the Debates. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2003. A fascinating look at the various controversies.

Jaynes, Julian. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1990 [reissue; originally published in 1976]. An enchanting, if ultimately unprovable, hypothesis that true human consciousness didn't emerge until Classical times; utterly fascinating.

LeDoux, Joseph. Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. New York: Viking, 2002. A good look at the neuronal nature of human minds.

Kurzweil, Ray. The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence. New York: Viking, 1999. A fascinating, optimistic look at thinking machines and uploaded minds; see also my dialog with computer scientist A.K. Dewdney about this book.

Moravec, Hans. Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1988. A classic about artificial intelligence.

Ornstein, Robert. The Evolution of Consciousness: The Origins of the Way We Think. New York: Touchstone (Simon & Schuster), 1991. Makes clear that Darwin has a lot more to teach us about consciousness than does Freud.

Penrose, Roger. The Emperor's New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. A classic proposing that human consciousness is quantum mechanical in nature.

Penrose, Roger. Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. Among many other fascinating things, explores the possible relationship between microtubules and human consciousness.

Pinker, Steven. How The Mind Works. New York: Norton, 1997. A fine overview of modern cognitive science, mostly from an evolutionary-psychology perspective.

Richards, Jay W., ed. Are We Spiritual Machines?: Ray Kurzweil vs. the Critics of Strong A.I. Seattle, Washington: Discovery Institute Press, 2002. Precisely what the title says.

Searle, John R. The Mystery of Consciousness. New York: New York Review, 1997. The originator of the "Chinese Room" problem cited in this novel spells out his beliefs about the ineffable nature of human consciousness.

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