How can you compare the Jewish understanding of “consciousness” with a scientific explanation of the neurological algorithms that create “thoughts” in our brains?

I was challenged to consider this question earlier this year by a Scientists in Synagogues program at The Jewish Center of Princeton entitled “How Do You Think? A Jewish & Scientific Exploration of Consciousness,” with Rabbi Daniel Nevins from the Jewish Theological Seminary and neuroscientist Professor Michael Graziano from Princeton University.  

An important difference in their outlooks centered on the concept of transcendence. Rabbi Nevins referenced Dr. Graziano’s research, saying, “His book talks about the social mind—that is, we are not little islands of consciousness, but interactions. We maintain a schema—a mental conception—of who we are and what we are thinking, and also schemas of what others around us are thinking. And not only around us—also people who lived long ago, or are far away, or who do not yet exist.”

Rabbi Nevins went on to compare this concept of a schema to Jewish ideas of transcendence:

“It is undeniable that Jewish ‘thinking about thinking’—about consciousness—is to a large extent about transcending one’s limited state of thought and connecting to a much larger universe of meaning. We study and practice and pray for the sake of linking mind to mind, and thus becoming something far more meaningful and enduring than our little old selves. 

“We recognize that God is not just a projection of human experience and desire. Yet we persist in efforts to glimpse an ultimate mind, a collective consciousness, the very source of life. That, I think, is what’s on the Jewish mind. We are embodied, we are conflicted, we are limited; and yet we also have the capacity to transcend our individual limits, to form a community both horizontal and vertical, uniting across time and space and, together, connecting to God.”

This beautiful and moving description of Jewish thinking about consciousness and transcendence does seem connected to Professor Graziano’s concept of schemas. However, in his remarks, Professor Graziano talked about these schemas as a product of algorithms created by the mind, without transcendent attributes. In an article in brainworldmagazine.com, he says:

“We’re working on a particular perspective or theory of why brains have this being aware experience and what purpose this would serve. We use a very rationalist, scientific approach. It’s decidedly nontheological, nonreligious, nonmagical.

…One of the things that we realized… is that we don’t just attribute awareness to ourselves, we attribute it to other people as well. And actually, that’s one of the key uses of awareness as an idea, as a construct or perception — we perceive awareness in other people. And this is really crucial to us as social animals.

[But] [w]e have trouble distinguishing between what’s really true about a person and the kind of model that we’ve constructed and attributed to that person. We tend to think that the awareness and the thoughts and the perspectives are real things, really inside that other person, and yet they’re just biased constructs emanating from our own brains and we often get them wrong.”

In his talk, Professor Graziano also defined these constructs as creations of internal neurological algorithms. This unknowability contrasts sharply with Rabbi Nevins’ concept of “transcending one’s limited state of thought and connecting to a much larger universe of meaning.” Where might there be common ground among these divergent views of the transcendence of consciousness?

Building on those constructs, the discussion between Rabbi Nevins and Professor Graziano also included thoughts about artificial intelligence and consciousness.  Professor Graziano said that intelligent machines that have self-awareness and consciousness are not that far in the future. Rabbi Nevins, who has researched and written on this topic, brought up the question of how machines could make ethical choices. He used the example of what a self-driving car would do if a pedestrian darted into the road. Artificial intelligence has to choose between hitting the pedestrian, or avoiding the pedestrian through maneuvers that would endanger its passengers – like going off a cliff.

As I think of the differences between these two perspectives on consciousness, one question comes to mind: on the day that an intelligent machine is programmed with an algorithm that gives it consciousness, what thoughts will be flashing through the consciousness of those reciting the following Birkhot Hashahar prayer?

The soul which You, my God, have given me is pure.  

You created it, You formed it, You breathed it into me; 

You keep body and soul together.

One day you will take my soul from me, to restore it to me in life eternal.

So long as this soul is within me I acknowledge You, Lord my God, my ancestors’ God

Master of all creation, sovereign of all souls…

(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. At the Jewish Center of Princeton, NJ on May 14, 2019, Rabbi Daniel Nevins, the Pearl Resnick Dean of the JTS Rabbinical School, joined Michael S.A. Graziano, PhD, a professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Princeton University, to explore the topic “How Do You Think? A Jewish & Scientific Exploration of Consciousness.” Jon Katz is the co-chair of Adult Education at the Jewish Center).

Image from video by Marco Bagni