Personally Speaking: 'If you can read this you must at least be conscious'

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The Independent Online
Are you conscious now?" I ask the latecomers, as they try to sneak round the back of the ragged circle of chairs.

"Yes" says the first. "And how do you know?" I go on. "Er...because I'm aware of things."

"But couldn't you just be a machine that says it's aware?" "Um..."

"I am because I know I'm here," says another. "And I won't be late next time."

They laugh.

Yes, the students are back. My precious weeks of quiet and solitary work are over. The place is swarming, there's smoke in the corridor, and the car park is full. There are big notices up saying, "No entry to students", and you have to squeeze through hoards of them to get to the office. And as for the e-mail - well don't talk to me about e-mail. They've been promising us a new system for years, and finally, during the summer, it arrived. "Simeon" it's called, and we all went off for Simeon lessons, and lessons to cope with changing to Windows NT, and discovering we need three separate passwords just to get in.

We coped. For at last we had real e-mail, like a proper university, like normal people (how quickly we get to treat such things as normality), and I began to enjoy it. Well, to be truthful, it did crash a few times, but that was just teething troubles, I'm sure. They kept reassuring us all would be well. Then term started. Whoops - another 10,000 people suddenly log on.

Guess what happened. When I finally did get back in, I read all the apologetic messages from the powers that be. Software troubles, hardware troubles, servicing troubles, and - can you believe it? - someone from estates accidentally turned off the power over the weekend. I suddenly felt sorry for whoever is in charge. It's a wonder the whole thing doesn't break down.

As one of my colleagues remarked, it's a wonder the whole university doesn't break down. There's enough going wrong. Like a prison, we have more students than the place can reasonably hold. The psychology labs were designed for a quarter of the number of students we have now. There aren't enough books, or photocopiers, or computers, and the student computers don't all have the same software, and there aren't enough admin staff to process those hundreds of thousands of marks, and printing is weeks behind and... So why doesn't it all break down?

Perhaps a university is like a giant organism. It has backups, and healing processes, and ways of coping with stress. It can take an awful lot without actually dying. There may be too many students for the buildings and the over-worked staff, but we can't stop them coming. And once they are here, we will teach them, and pack them in somehow, and they'll do their experiments, and the degrees will go on. The library is stretched to the limit, but there are books, and people borrow them, and copy them, and share them, and muddle through somehow. Then there are SPRs, and TQAs, and XPDs, and we are exhorted to put in that little extra effort, and read all the bumph and go to the meetings, and somehow we do.

So the organism survives another year. Perhaps if we think of our university as like a living thing, or like an ecosystem, or like the oceans, we can show it the proper respect. We can admire its self-organising and self- protecting properties, but we shouldn't assume it's immortal.

"Were you conscious before I asked you the question?" I go on. The new third year "consciousness" lot are sitting down now, 29 of them, more than last year, more than the year before. "No," says one. "But you're always conscious when you can ask yourself if you are." They laugh, and she's got the point. All week I am going to ask them to do an exercise. As many times as you can every day ask yourself, "Am I conscious now?" Funny how difficult it is.

I ask them what they've learned about consciousness so far in their degree. Nothing, they all seem to agree. I sigh inwardly. But a mention of Descartes doesn't meet with blank stares. Instead they're off, arguing about "I think therefore I am", and why Descartes doubted everything but his own experience. And they have heard of William James and the stream of consciousness, and they know something about neural activity in the brain. We'll soon be on to the "problem" of how brain cells can produce subjective experience.

In the midst of this incomprehensible and stressed out organism, we are doing what we came here for. I suppose the start of term's not all bad.

The writer is senior lecturer in psychology at the University of the West of England

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