How did you become interested in the study of consciousness?
I was interested in consciousness in college in philosophy classes, and I got interested in how the brain produced awareness. It goes back to what the ancient Greeks were arguing about: whether the brain produces the representation of the world outside, or whether we project something out onto the world. We don't know. René Descartes, much later, said the only thing we can really be sure of is that we're conscious. Well, you know the story of the Matrix, where everything is about assimilation: (The writers) had this idea that we're a brain in a bag. Well, there are all kinds of takes on it. The reality we perceive: Is it reality, or the way we perceive it? Or is it very sketchy, and the brain fills in the details, and that is how it can be fooled--or is it an accurate portrayal? We don't know.
How did you make the leap from philosophy and consciousness to medical school?
When I went to med school, I was really interested in the brain. I was going to be a neurologist, psychologist or neurosurgeon, actually. None of those ended up appealing to me. Once I came out here and did an internship and met with the chairman of the Anesthesiology Department, my direction changed. He said, "Well, you're interested in consciousness; figure out how anesthesia works," and it has been a very good tool to try to figure out how it works.
Are we closer to understanding the brain and consciousness?
You know, the brain is just a computer with neurons that act as switches, which explains a lot about motor control and sensory perception. That explains almost everything, but it does not explain conscious experience. It doesn't explain awareness, why we have feelings and inner life, sensations, consciousness. That's not just a form of computation. No other computer as far as I can tell is conscious, so there's something else. But, no, we don't know.
How did the conference in Tucson begin?
I'd gone to various conferences, and consciousness was usually one facet of neuroscience ... but no one wanted to talk about it, because it was so different, or you had ... new-age people talking about it, and the scientists didn't want to have anything to do with that. In about 1991, I got a call from ... Gordon Olson. He was going to have a conference on consciousness and invited me to come speak. ... A year later, he called me up and said he was thinking of having another conference ... I thought the time was right to have an interdisciplinary conference, which led to our first conference, with 350 people in 1994.
Who attends? Scientists and mystics?
It's across the board--primarily philosophers, but also neuroscientists, psychologists, experientialists, all kinds of people ... 44 countries and six continents are represented.
This study of consciousness is about the brain, but also our existence. How do you explain it?
The brain is a computer, but that's not the whole story. I liken it to autopilot, an airplane. There are a lot of things the brain does that can be explained by computation, like the control of behaviors, motors, all kinds of things, kind of like being on autopilot. Think of an airplane flying on autopilot. The pilot is sitting there in the cockpit reading a magazine or eating ... until something novel happens, and then all of a sudden, the conscious pilot immediately tunes in and takes control of the plane. So we can explain the autopilot functions of the plane, but we can't explain consciousness. That's the big mystery.
My own work has led me to think it has something to do with quantum physics and quantum mechanics. That's still a minority view, although ... this problem of consciousness is so wide-ranging. Philosophers since Aristotle and Plato have worried about it. So have neuroscientists studying the brain, and psychologists, quantum scientists, computer scientists, experientialists, mediators, people who take psychedelic drugs--just about anything addresses the issue about how and why we have consciousness. And that's why we have the conference on consciousness studies that brings all of these people together.