Saturday, November 20, 2004

ATTN: attention in science

I talked to Eric Postma, he's a professor in artificial intelligence at Maastricht University here in Holland. I have translated his email to the best of my knowledge. Here it is.


Dear Ronald,

Thank you for your message. I find your questions regarding attention very inspiring. I distinguish in your questions three categories:

(1) questions regarding the mechanism of attention
(2} questions regarding the interhuman and emotional aspects of attention
(3) questions regarding the "esoteric" aspects of attention

As you will understand i am definitely interested in questions of category (1). There is a great deal of knowledge about the mechanisms of attention, but (like i said) that doesn't mean that one knows what attention is. I think it is because questions of category (2) have not been investigated enough. Cognitive neuroscience have (until now) mostly aimed at the individual aspects of attention. One the one hand because of the [tijdgeest] (sign of the times ?; literally = time spirit) and on the other hand because of practical restrictions (it is more difficult to do attention experiments with multiple persons). So it won't surprise you that I consider the questions of category (2) scientifically extremely defying.

Remains the questions of category (3). These questions may (and must) be posed, but as yet there are no indications for a mysterious force non-describable from the current scientific framework. In other words, a scientist can not (yet) "handle" it. To philosophise about it can and must be done. Surely scientific progress is partly based upon "crazy" or "esoteric" ideas. You could make a comparison to the (previously) esoteric subject "awareness". Recently past away DNA investigator (and Nobel prize winner) Frances Crick undertook serious attempts to explain awareness in terms of (individual) brain processes. He failed doing so, but he did manage to place the subject on the research agenda. The central questions are "what is awareness" and "where is it located?" Like attention, awareness exists by the [gratie] (virtue? literally = grace) of "other people". The solution should in my opinion be searched for in questions of category (2).

I hope this gives you an image of my opinion regarding attention and the questions thereabout.

Best regards,
Eric Postma

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