University of Sussex neuroscientist Anil Seth, author of Being You: A new science of consciousness (October 2021), is quite determined to stamp out consciousness as an immaterial idea. It’s “stubbornly mysterious,” according to Tim Adams for The Guardian. But, we are assured, “Advances in understanding how the brain functions undermine those ideas of dualism, however.”
But those advances prove increasingly elusive. From the interview:
Anil Seth: It’s the boring answer of continuing to do rigorous science, rather than proposing some eureka solution to “the hard problem” [the question of why and how our brains create subjective, conscious experience]. My approach is that we risk not understanding the central mystery of life by lurching to one or other form of magical thinking. While science might be a little bit slower, there is much to be done in a straightforward materialist understanding of how the brain relates to conscious experience.
(August 21, 2021)Tim Adams, “Neuroscientist Anil Seth: ‘We risk not understanding the central mystery of life’” at The Guardian,
But what has it achieved?
[Tim Adams:] That first-person feeling is very stubborn. Most of us have a very strong sense of continuity between our childhood experiences and our current self. Is that perceived unity essentially a kind of Darwinian strategy?
[Anil Seth:] There’s a lot of argument about the evolutionary function of consciousness. But the answers you get to that depend on what distinction you’re trying to make. If you’re trying to say why is anything conscious at all, rather than just mechanisms evolving in patterns in the dark?, then you’re simply up against the “hard problem” again. But if you reframe it as what is the evolutionary benefit of the organism having these specific experiences?, then you see that an experience of selfhood is clearly important because it maximises the organism’s chances of survival.Tim Adams, “Neuroscientist Anil Seth: ‘We risk not understanding the central mystery of life’” at The Guardian, (August 21, 2021)
In short, no one knows how human consciousness, which includes great novels, symphonies, and science discoveries contributes to “evolution.” Bacteria and insects are much more numerous than humans. Some would argue that they are more successful. That fact that this is the level of discussion, even today, tells us a lot.
Nearer the close of the interview:
[Tim Adams:] Have your thoughts on that ever taken any spiritual swerve – in terms of the why of there being something rather than nothing?
[Anil Seth:] It’s more that I think there’s hubris in assuming that everything will submit to a mechanistic programme of explanation. I think it’s intellectual honesty to acknowledge that the existence of conscious experience as a phenomenon in a universe for which we generally have physicalist accounts seems weird. I want to figure out the ways in which we can undermine this seeming weird.Tim Adams, “Neuroscientist Anil Seth: ‘We risk not understanding the central mystery of life’” at The Guardian, (August 21, 2021)
What Seth is saying is that he wants to undermine the feeling that human consciousness is different from what happens to clams and sand dollars.
If that doesn’t work? Well, it never has.
You may also wish to read: Your mind vs. your brain: Ten things to know