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Science Journalist: No Hype. Consciousness Is a HARD Problem!

Michael Hanlon reflected on the many futile efforts to “solve” consciousness

British science journalist Michael Hanlon (1964–2016), co-author with Tracey Brown of In the Interests of Safety (2014), had some sobering things to say about the trivial pursuit of an easy theory of consciousness. Considering materialist philosopher Daniel Dennett and less materialist philosopher David Chalmers (who coined the term the “Hard Problem of Consciousness”), he reflects,

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, Daniel Dennett wrote that: ‘Human consciousness is just about the last surviving mystery.’ A few years later, Chalmers added: ‘[It] may be the largest outstanding obstacle in our quest for a scientific understanding of the universe.’ They were right then and, despite the tremendous scientific advances since, they are still right today. I do not think that the evolutionary ‘explanations’ for consciousness that are currently doing the rounds are going to get us anywhere. These explanations do not address the hard problem itself, but merely the ‘easy’ problems that orbit it like a swarm of planets around a star. The hard problem’s fascination is that it has, to date, completely and utterly defeated science. Nothing else is like it. We know how genes work, we have (probably) found the Higgs Boson; but we understand the weather on Jupiter better than we understand what is going on in our own heads. This is remarkable.

Consciousness is in fact so weird, and so poorly understood, that we may permit ourselves the sort of wild speculation that would be risible in other fields. We can ask, for instance, if our increasingly puzzling failure to detect intelligent alien life might have any bearing on the matter. We can speculate that it is consciousness that gives rise to the physical world rather than the other way round. The 20th-century British physicist James Hopwood Jeans speculated that the universe might be ‘more like a great thought than like a great machine.’ Idealist notions keep creeping into modern physics, linking the idea that the mind of the observer is somehow fundamental in quantum measurements and the strange, seemingly subjective nature of time itself, as pondered by the British physicist Julian Barbour.

Michael Hanlon, “The mental block” at Aeon (October 9, 2013)

Idealism is simply the mirror image of materialism. All mind instead of all matter. As philosopher of science Bruce Gordon has pointed out recently, it is a defensible position, in the light of what we now know from quantum physics. See, for example, “In quantum physics, reality is what “we choose to observe.” Idealism may be wrong, just as materialism may be wrong — but not in principle. Rather, right or wrong on the evidence.

Hanlon is honest about the fact that “Consciousness is the greatest mystery in science.”

I don’t know. No one does. And I think it is possible that, compared with the hard problem, the rest of science is a sideshow. Until we get a grip on our own minds, our grip on anything else could be suspect. It’s hard, but we shouldn’t stop trying.

Michael Hanlon, “The mental block” at Aeon (October 9, 2013)

Perhaps the biggest challenge for some is to resist the lure of simple theories like “Consciousness doesn’t really exist!” or “One single mutation made all the difference.” And look past interesting chance findings: meat, fat, or starch made our brains bigger and human consciousness naturally followed.

Almost certainly, the human mind is not a material entity but an immaterial one, like information. If we accept that, we can perhaps convert it from an opaque mystery that can never yield any results because we are on the wrong track to a mystery that is difficult but solvable in principle because we are now looking in the right places.

This article is part of a series on great questions in human consciousness.

You may also wish to read: Mystery: Our brains divide up events but we experience them whole. That’s one of the conundrums of consciousness.

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Science Journalist: No Hype. Consciousness Is a HARD Problem!