Week 5 / Dissecting Qualia / Stephany Howard

The topics we’ve approached over the last four weeks share two major qualities: (1) they represent ways that humans seek to understand the external world, and (2) they reflect our undying interest in our subjective experience of the external world. Simply by taking on a subject like “art, science, and technology” the class promises to represent these two uniquely human investments.

Science seeks to understand the world, art arises out of our subjective experience of that world, and technology functions both as the result of scientific and artistic thinking and facilitates true innovation in those fields. Technology often bridges the gap between human intellect and the rest of the material world; that is, technology ideally makes better and more relevant our inborn faculties of reason, deduction, observation, and imagination—it ultimately helps us make effective changes and impacts upon the rest of the world, which loops back again to reshaping human perspective.

Ultimately no matter what we think about—whether we produce scientific or artistic meaning, whether we think more about the objective world or the subjective one—we never step out of our subjective experience of information. Because our wisdom ultimately enters us via the brain and senses, we process it through deduction, and maybe we reformulate it with our imagination, the data we receive via science / art / technology comes mediated through the limits of our cognitive functions.

I think that my project proposes a way to truly unify the cultures of art and science. My proposal hopes to do away with our oversimplified dichotomy between the emotional / rational sides of human nature. By making evident the physical basis for our emotional experiences, the interactive piece I’ve designed hopes to show people how truly complex and yet ordered and mathematical our bodies are.

Modern neuroscience understands that a patient whose left and right brain hemispheres are disconnected (split-brain patients), ceases to understand and explain the world as a unified self. The two sides of the brain exhibit strikingly different behavior—the right side may claim to want to become a racecar driver, while the patient’s left brain says he wants to be a draftsman While holding an apple in the left hand, that same patient may recognize the apple but won’t be able to express with words that he recognizes the apple—language often comes from the left brain. This observation may show us that the corpus callosum (what connects the two hemispheres) allows us to talk about our emotions, explain our intentions, to produce effective art or reflect about the ethical implications of our scientific research. Without this bit of white matter, we cease to act as unified selves, as the holistic personalities we take ourselves to be.

Thus as magnificent as human subjectivity is, it comes from our physical bodies, which are subject to the same elegant laws of nature as the rest of the physical world. And I don’t think that confronting our physical nature makes subjectivity any less remarkable than when we explain it with metaphysical terms—in fact, it seems just the opposite to me. I therefore want to argue that artists and poets and musicians have an obligation—as supposed experts on the subjective—to have the most current understanding of how consciousness emerges. Likewise, scientists must recognize that though their findings may prove logically consistent—not matter how logical, the data comes through consciousness. I believe that only upon fully understanding the lens through which we interact with the world (consciousness / qualia / the self) can scientists ever have a sense for the ultimate relevance of their findings.

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