Article of the Week: Why can’t the world’s greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness? by Oliver Burkeman

The article I have selected for the week addresses a curious question. Curious, because depending on which camp you are in, it is either the most important question humanity and sciences face today, or it is not a question at all. We know a lot about how our brains work. We understand how we learn, how memory works and how we perceive things. But despite all the progress in neuroscience and related disciplines, we don’t have an answer to the question of why “should all those complicated brain processes feel like anything from inside”. How does any of it result in Consciousness? The question has come to be known as “the Hard Problem of Consciousness” (the article describes how this phrase came to be).

But does the problem really exist? Is Consciousness really something that needs explanation? Apparently for many people, it doesn’t.

Daniel Dennett, the high-profile atheist and professor at Tufts University outside Boston, argues that consciousness, as we think of it, is an illusion: there just isn’t anything in addition to the spongy stuff of the brain, and that spongy stuff doesn’t actually give rise to something called consciousness. Common sense may tell us there’s a subjective world of inner experience – but then common sense told us that the sun orbits the Earth, and that the world was flat. Consciousness, according to Dennett’s theory, is like a conjuring trick: the normal functioning of the brain just makes it look as if there is something non-physical going on. To look for a real, substantive thing called consciousness, Dennett argues, is as silly as insisting that characters in novels, such as Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter, must be made up of a peculiar substance named “fictoplasm”; the idea is absurd and unnecessary, since the characters do not exist to begin with.

Some think we are never going to understand consciousness, and some others have the notion that we probably already understand it, although the implications are bizarre.

in the last few years, several scientists and philosophers, Chalmers and Koch among them, have begun to look seriously again at a viewpoint so bizarre that it has been neglected for more than a century, except among followers of eastern spiritual traditions, or in the kookier corners of the new age. This is “panpsychism”, the dizzying notion that everything in the universe might be conscious, or at least potentially conscious, or conscious when put into certain configurations.

It appears difficult to agree on even the question where consciousness is concerned, much less the answer. The views on the question almost seem a matter of faith rather than of understanding. Everyone seems to find their position to be the obvious one and nobody seems to have argument enough to convert people from other camps.

Read the complete article on The Guardian and let us know where you stand on the Hard Problem?

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. I actually would like to focus on the “convert people from other camps” at the very end. I think Planck had a good one for this:
    “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” – Max Planck, Theoretical Physicist and Nobel Prizewinner in Quantum Physics.
    I am an agnostic, the only view that, in keeping with a logical stance, withholds its decision on a god or gods due to the lack of proof and disproof. This, however, seems to have strong ties to Cartesian dualism, the supposition that a human is two parts (as opposed to an animal). Those two parts — a non-physical mind and a physical body — are ontologically distinct from one another yet “occupy” the same being. This debate has raged since Descartes’ time and, with respect to what knowledge is, how we gain it, and — as seen in my most recent post — where it comes from. With the advent of technology which yields publically observable evidence that we are nearly the same to every other animal. Hopefully, the camp most evidenced in a publically observable way (empirically) in keeping with science (the thing with the best record for truth) will win out.

    1. “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

      That had me grinning. Given how difficult it is to argue people out of even the most stupid notions they hold dear, I am almost convinced of it.

      And yet in a few years time I have gone from “Any religion’s conception of God is unlikely to be right. But how can there not be a supreme power? Who, after all, decides what ‘natural laws’ should be.” to “Uh oh! We are probably the result of an accident after all, or a large number of accidents one after the other.” So, may be, just may be, we don’t always need to die! Arguments are not what brought about the change though. Something else did! Don’t know what that is. Something like experience, but not quite just that.

      1. I guess it depends on how you define supreme power. I want badly for there to be something like a great oneness, but I just do not know.

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