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The Day Philosophers Started To Take Consciousness Seriously

Of course, once they did, they found themselves deep in huge conundrums

We sometimes forget how far we are from solving the mystery of consciousness.

An anecdote from 1994 might help us understand. Picture an utterly boring, pointless conference in Tucson, Arizona, one of whose attendees was an obscure philosopher from Australia, scheduled to give the third talk. And shook everything up:

The brain, Chalmers began by pointing out, poses all sorts of problems to keep scientists busy. How do we learn, store memories, or perceive things? How do you know to jerk your hand away from scalding water, or hear your name spoken across the room at a noisy party? But these were all “easy problems”, in the scheme of things: given enough time and money, experts would figure them out. There was only one truly hard problem of consciousness, Chalmers said. It was a puzzle so bewildering that, in the months after his talk, people started dignifying it with capital letters – the Hard Problem of Consciousness – and it’s this: why on earth should all those complicated brain processes feel like anything from the inside? Why aren’t we just brilliant robots, capable of retaining information, of responding to noises and smells and hot saucepans, but dark inside, lacking an inner life? And how does the brain manage it? How could the 1.4kg lump of moist, pinkish-beige tissue inside your skull give rise to something as mysterious as the experience of being that pinkish-beige lump, and the body to which it is attached?

What jolted Chalmers’s audience from their torpor was how he had framed the question. “At the coffee break, I went around like a playwright on opening night, eavesdropping,” Hameroff said. “And everyone was like: ‘Oh! The Hard Problem! The Hard Problem! That’s why we’re here!’” Philosophers had pondered the so-called “mind-body problem” for centuries. But Chalmers’s particular manner of reviving it “reached outside philosophy and galvanised everyone. It defined the field. It made us ask: what the hell is this that we’re dealing with here?”

Oliver Burkeman, “Why can’t the world’s greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness?” at The Guardian (January 21, 2015)

Chalmers’s talk brought the term “Hard Problem of Consciousness” into circulation.We’re still nowhere with it, actually, because consciousness is — as one writer put it — like looking into and out of a window at the same time.

Some useful work is being done. We are discovering, for example, that

➤ people in a persistent vegetative state can have active conscious lives

➤ people can control artificial limbs by thoughts alone

➤ in, perhaps, the strangest development, the mind can sometimes discover information when detached from a clinically dead brain.

None of these discoveries confirms the materialism with which the academic world had become so comfortable.

Burkeman suggests,

It would be poetic – albeit deeply frustrating – were it ultimately to prove that the one thing the human mind is incapable of comprehending is itself. An answer must be out there somewhere. And finding it matters: indeed, one could argue that nothing else could ever matter more – since anything at all that matters, in life, only does so as a consequence of its impact on conscious brains. Yet there’s no reason to assume that our brains will be adequate vessels for the voyage towards that answer.

Oliver Burkeman, “Why can’t the world’s greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness?” at The Guardian (January 21, 2015)

In a way, that makes sense. We can’t really understand our own consciousness for the same reasons as we can’t really see ourselves the way others see us. And the others can’t see themselves the way we see them. That’s all part of the remarkable fact of human consciousness. In one sense, we are each our own little interior world. In another sense, we are part of something much larger. The science that can help us understand this better will not be committed to materialism.

You may also wish to read: Will we soon be able to test theories of consciousness? Proponents of two leading theories of consciousness are trying to develop tests for their models, in a hitherto baffling field. Panpsychism, in the form of integrated information theory (IIT) , is a much more serious competitor to dualism and idealism than materialism could hope to be.


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The Day Philosophers Started To Take Consciousness Seriously