review

If you are interested in the questions scientists can't answer, rather than those they confidently can, then you should be watching Brainspotting, Channel 4's timely series about consciousness. Timely, because this subject is a rising stock in the scientific community, a blank space on the intellectual map which attracts ambitious and adventurous minds. Here be Nobel prizes. The only problem for a broadcaster is that it is a difficult territory, too, involving the audience in the mental equivalent of juggling with eels ("like trying to taste your own tongue," was the programme's own vivid analogy for the awkward task of thinking about thinking).

I did initially wonder whether Ken Campbell, English theatre's resident zany, would be the best guide for such an expedition. Granted, his head makes a good drawing surface, so that an anaesthetist was able to sketch a map of the brain directly onto his bald dome, but the eccentric contents of that pink sketch-pad - its pleasure in surreal invention - seemed likely to obscure rather than clarify this challenging material.

Some viewers might also be startled by Campbell's diction: "I wanted to know who this Searle geezer was who gave Marvin such a short circuit," he said, referring to two distinguished opponents in the debate about artificial intelligence (AI). Occasionally, he just snorts, his face crumpling with bemusement. "Pfwarr!" he exclaimed at one point, after a peculiarly testing concept had been explained to him. But it would be a mistake to see Brainspotting as a work of crude popularisation. It actually turns out to be a work of sophisticated popularisation, relishing the possibilities of a field in which elaborate metaphor is a legitimate experimental tool (sometimes, indeed, the only legitimate one).

So when, in last week's programme, Campbell morosely summarised one theory about consciousness as being "like some Ronald Reagan presidency" ("Things are being done and decided and I'm only told about it afterwards"), the joke wasn't just a distracting flippancy. What's more, the argumentative gimmicks are presented with a nice wit. Returning from a conversation with Marvin Minsky, chief guru of strong AI (a camp that believes consciousness can be constructed), Campbell bounced into the room to announce that he had seen the light, only to find his doppelganger still gloomily convinced that John Searle is right. The doubling offered a kind of reassurance to confused viewers but the fact that the Minsky/Campbell was wearing a photographer's jerkin, just like his new hero, added a nice joke about the imitative behaviour charismatic thinkers inspire in their fans.

Last night's programme concentrated on that central disagreement - between those who believe that consciousness is essentially computational (and will eventually be replicated by a good enough computer), and those who argue that programmed intelligence, however convincing an imitation of sentience it gives, will never explain the mystery of consciousness. The best thing about Brainspotting was that it allowed you to choose where on this see-saw you wanted to sit, or, indeed, whether to climb on at all. I find myself somewhere on Minsky's side of the fulcrum, if not quite as far out - partly because the resistance to his arguments seems to display an essential vanity, an indignation that our privileged status in the world of matter might be threatened. (It is intriguing, incidentally, that those opposed to strong AI are so keen on building remodelled versions of the Cartesian theatre to prove their point, little rooms inhabited by imaginary observers or operators. It's as if the idea that consciousness might be a team effort, a neuronal ant's test rather than a room of one's own, is literally unthinkable for them.) But, because Brainspotting was offering good questions rather than good answers, there's no sense of being able to rest back on a comfortable fact. Whatever the mind is, this series makes it work.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Barnardo's: Corporate Audit and Inspection – Retail Intern (Leeds)

    Unpaid - £4 lunch allowance plus travel to and from work: Barnardo's: Purpose ...

    Recruitment Genius: Content Writer - Global Financial Services

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: From modest beginnings the comp...

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - PHP

    £35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: From modest beginnings the comp...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service / Receptionist

    £15000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Day In a Page

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future