War of the World Views

March 6, 2012

It’s headed by professor and anesthesiologist Stuart R. Hameroff, M.D. who was featured in the film, What the Bleep Do We Know?, shown in more than 30 countries, as well as BBC, PBS, Discovery and History Channel documentaries.

“Consciousness is the most interesting, important and essential question we face – because it determines our existence, the nature of reality and our place in the universe. This is not just a science or philosophy issue – it’s really all that matters. If you don’t have consciousness you don’t have anything,” he said.

The study of human consciousness is one of science's last great frontiers – and the University of Arizona has long been at the epicenter of these developments. The UA’s biennial conferences promote open rigorous discussion of all phenomena related to conscious experience.

Quirky Worldwide Success

The center evolved from the first UA consciousness conference in 1994 – developed by Hameroff, mathematics professor Alwyn Scott and psychology professor Alfred Kaszniak. It was a quirky worldwide success from the start.

At the time, the internet was new and Hameroff was part of the first email discussion group on consciousness called “Psyche.”  “We said let’s invite all the big names. All they can do is say no,” Hameroff said. Surprisingly, most said yes. More than 350 attendees from all over the world came to the conference.

That ultimately led to a $1.4 million grant from the Fetzer Institute to establish the UA Center for Consciousness Studies four years later. 

Youngest Regents' Professor 

A young Australian philosopher who presented at the inaugural conference became the center’s director. David Chalmers went on to become the UA’s youngest Regents Professor before returning to Australia. Chalmers and Hameroff continue to moderate –and even provoke – the potentially contentious plenary discussions each year.

This year’s conference opens with physician, author and explorer of Eastern spirituality Deepak Chopra and physicist and author Leonard Mlodinow, co-authors of the bestselling War of the World Views: Where Science and Spirituality Agree and Disagree, the debate about whether consciousness exists in the brain or in the world. They’ll be joined by Chapman University physicist Menas Kafatos and well-known skeptic and cognitive scientist Susan Blackmore.

Many other presenters also are at the top of their field, but less well known to the public. Just two examples: Steven Laureys, M.D. of the University of Liege in Belgium studies comatose and vegetative patients – looking for, and sometimes finding, “islands of consciousness” in their brains. Cornell University psychologist Daryl Bem has conducted repeated studies that suggest information can go back in time – that it is indeed possible to “feel the future.”

Provocative Interdisciplinary Debates

This week-long conference spans the spectrum: sleepwalking and dreams; potential medical benefits from hallucinogenic mushrooms; the role of microtubules and fractals inside neurons; blind humans who learn echolocation – the form of navigation used by bats, dolphins and whales; people whose sense perceptions are crossed so they can “hear” colors. What happens when Eastern philosophy meets quantum mechanics? The possibilities are mind boggling.

This provocative conference brings together the perspectives of philosophy, cognitive sciences, neuroscience, social sciences, medicine, physical sciences, the arts and humanities to move toward an integrated understanding of human consciousness.

It’s profoundly serious – yet playful and fun, according to Hameroff. There’s the very popular Poetry Slam along with many impromptu verses of the Zombie blues – an inside joke, because zombies have no inner feelings, so can’t really get the blues. The conference concludes with the End of Consciousness party.

The UA hosts this international conference every other year in Tucson and co-sponsors it on alternate years at other locations around the world. Last year it was in Sweden. Next year it will be in India. More than 600 are expected to attend.

For more information, including video clips.

The conference, held at Loews Ventana Canyon resort, is open to the public. Prices for the week-long conference are $350 for students, $450 for others. This includes an all-day pre-conference forum “Eastern Philosophy and Consciousness” on Monday, April 9. This was organized by the UA Center’s sister Center for Consciousness Studies at Dayalbagh University in Agra, India, co-sponsors and hosts for the 2013 conference. Monday evening Deepak Chopra will host a dinner and workshop “The Neuroscience of Enlightenment,” also open to the public ($50 for dinner, $75 for the workshop).

Make reservations online at or contact Abi Behar-Montefiore at centeru.arizona.edu or (520) 621-9317 or  (520) 247-5785.