What Is 'Consciousness'?

Article excerpt

In Time magazine's "Predictions for the Next Century" issue (Fall 1992), its religion writer, Richard Ostling, predicted that the cold war between science and religion would end, and atheism and agnosticism vanish, when a future computer calculation finds life too intricate to have evolved entirely by "random natural selection."

Not only is the opposite computer result much more likely(1) but a major new science-religion confrontation is shaping up, this time over the question of consciousness. Yet neither camp seems particularly aware of it. Whether sooner or later, this confrontation stands to surpass confrontations over Galileo and Darwin in historical importance. Galileo desanctified where we live. Darwin desanctified where we came from. Explaining consciousness will desanctify what we are. You can't get closer to home than that, and it is hard to imagine this becoming anything less than all-out philosophical war, especially with Darwin still largely undigested.(2)

The Consciousness Problem: How Can a Piece of Meat Have Feelings?

Nobel Laureate George Wald expressed the view of many scientists when he said science has only two great mysteries left: consciousness and cosmology. A definitive scientific treatment of the former is now within grasp. As I summarize current consciousness theory and experiments below, I believe they will suggest that we are now converging on a relatively simple but profoundly surprising--and disturbing--explanation of consciousness.

Several books in recent years have explicitly or "implicitly declared the consciousness problem to be solved, especially: Society of Mind by Marvin Minsky, Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire (On the Matter of the Mind) by Gerald Edelman, A History of Mind by Nicholas Humphrey, and The Astonishing Hypothesis by Francis Crick.

These books work from the same data but are somewhat different in their approaches. However, the fact that important scientists and philosophers are declaring the problem solved, prematurely or not, is itself a new phenomenon in this historical topic. All these books are saying much the same thing, despite different language, and what follows draws heavily upon them. (Oral comments by Professor Minsky in classes and lectures at MIT are also a major source.)

The consciousness problem, also known as the mind-body problem, is basically this: how can a physical entity like the brain feel, exert will, and experience? We know about the mind from two basic sources: (1) the study of people and their brains as physical objects and (2) our subjective experiences in our own heads. The two have been out of kilter since day zero. All the great philosophers of history have tied themselves in knots trying to deal with it.

You can see the problem in Model A. Model A represents our subjective experience of our own mind. The issue is that blob in the middle. You can't find it in the brain's anatomy. More profoundly, you can't even imagine finding it in the brain's anatomy. To explain any part of the blob as a physical mechanism would instantly expel that part from the blob. The explained part becomes "ordinary information processing" and still leaves behind a blob--a blob that still contains the mystery of feeling, willing, and experiencing. In other words, trying to explain the blob as a mechanism leads to an infinite regression.

Earlier Theories: Begging the Question

The classical solution to the mind-body problem, called "dualism" and associated with Descartes, is to conclude the blob is supernatural: it is the Soul. Though eschewed by most modern scientists and philosophers, supernatural consciousness is still embraced by nearly all religions and the majority of the population.

The fatal problem with supernatural consciousness is that it requires a point or points in the brain where the supernatural communicates with the natural: neural synapses, if you will, receiving transmissions from never-never land. …