The mental block

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The mental block

Detail from the visualization of the model juvenile rat cortical column, as created by the Blue Brain Project in Lausanne, Switzerland. Photo courtesy EPFL/Blue Brain Project

Consciousness is the greatest mystery in science. Don’t believe the hype: the Hard Problem is here to stay

Michael Hanlon is a science journalist whose work has appeared in The Sunday Times and The Daily Telegraph, among others. His latest book is In the Interests of Safety (2014), co-written with Tracey Brown. He lives in London.

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Over there is a bird, in silhouette, standing on a chimney top on the house opposite. It is evening; the sun set about an hour ago and now the sky is an angry, pink-grey, the blatting rain of an hour ago threatening to return. The bird, a crow, is proud (I anthropomorphise). He looks cocksure. If it’s not a he then I’m a Dutchman. He scans this way and that. From his vantage point he must be able to see Land’s End, the nearby ramparts of Cape Cornwall, perhaps the Scillies in the fading light.

What is going on? What is it like to be that bird? Why look this way and that? Why be proud? How can a few ounces of protein, fat, bone and feathers be so sure of itself, as opposed to just being, which is what most matter does?

Old questions, but good ones. Rocks are not proud, stars are not nervous. Look further than my bird and you see a universe of rocks and gas, ice and vacuum. A multiverse, perhaps, of bewildering possibility. From the spatially average vantage point in our little cosmos you would barely, with human eyes alone, be able to see anything at all; perhaps only the grey smudge of a distant galaxy in a void of black ink. Most of what is is hardly there, let alone proud, strutting, cock-of-the-chimney-top on an unseasonably cold Cornish evening.

We live in an odd place and an odd time, amid things that know that they exist and that can reflect upon that, even in the dimmest, most birdlike way. And this needs more explaining than we are at present willing to give it. The question of how the brain produces the feeling of subjective experience, the so-called ‘hard problem’, is a conundrum so intractable that one scientist I know refuses even to discuss it at the dinner table. Another, the British psychologist Stuart Sutherland, declared in 1989 that ‘nothing worth reading has been written on it’. For long periods, it is as if science gives up on the subject in disgust. But the hard problem is back in the news, and a growing number of scientists believe that they have consciousness, if not licked, then at least in their sights.

A triple barrage of neuroscientific, computational and evolutionary artillery promises to reduce the hard problem to a pile of rubble. Today’s consciousness jockeys talk of p‑zombies and Global Workspace Theory, mirror neurones, ego tunnels, and attention schemata. They bow before that deus ex machina of brain science, the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. Their work is frequently very impressive and it explains a lot. All the same, it is reasonable to doubt whether it can ever hope to land a blow on the hard problem.

For example, fMRI scanners have shown how people’s brains ‘light up’ when they read certain words or see certain pictures. Scientists in California and elsewhere have used clever algorithms to interpret these brain patterns and recover information about the original stimulus — even to the point of being able to reconstruct pictures that the test subject was looking at. This ‘electronic telepathy’ has been hailed as the ultimate death of privacy (which it might be) and as a window on the conscious mind (which it is not).

The problem is that, even if we know what someone is thinking about, or what they are likely to do, we still don’t know what it’s like to be that person. Hemodynamic changes in your prefrontal cortex might tell me that you are looking at a painting of sunflowers, but then, if I thwacked your shin with a hammer, your screams would tell me you were in pain. Neither lets me know what pain or sunflowers feel like for you, or how those feelings come about. In fact, they don’t even tell us whether you really have feelings at all. One can imagine a creature behaving exactly like a human — walking, talking, running away from danger, mating and telling jokes — with absolutely no internal mental life. Such a creature would be, in the philosophical jargon, a zombie. (Zombies, in their various incarnations, feature a great deal in consciousness arguments.)

Why might an animal need to have experiences (‘qualia’, as they are called by some) rather than merely responses? In this magazine, the American psychologist David Barash summarised some of the current theories. One possibility, he says, is that consciousness evolved to let us to overcome the ‘tyranny of pain’. Primitive organisms might be slaves to their immediate wants, but humans have the capacity to reflect on the significance of their sensations, and therefore to make their decisions with a degree of circumspection. This is all very well, except that there is presumably no pain in the non-conscious world to start with, so it is hard to see how the need to avoid it could have propelled consciousness into existence.

Ray Kurzweil, the Messiah of the Nerds, thinks that in about 20 years or less computers will become conscious and take over the world (Kurzweil now works for Google)

Despite such obstacles, the idea is taking root that consciousness isn’t really mysterious at all; complicated, yes, and far from fully understood, but in the end just another biological process that, with a bit more prodding and poking, will soon go the way of DNA, evolution, the circulation of blood, and the biochemistry of photosynthesis.

Daniel Bor, a cognitive neuroscientist at Sussex University, talks of the ‘neuronal global workspace’, and asserts that consciousness emerges in the ‘prefrontal and parietal cortices’. His work is a refinement of the Global Workspace Theory developed by the Dutch neuroscientist Bernard Baars. In both schemes, the idea is to pair up conscious experiences with neural events, and to give an account of the position that consciousness occupies among the brain’s workings. According to Baars, what we call consciousness is a kind of ‘spotlight of attention’ on the workings of our memory, an inner domain in which we assemble the narrative of our lives. Along somewhat similar lines, we have seen Michael Graziano, of Princeton University, suggesting in this magazine that consciousness evolved as a way for the brain to keep track of its own state of attention, allowing it to make sense of itself and of other brains.

Meanwhile, the IT crowd is getting in on the act. The American futurologist Ray Kurzweil, the Messiah of the Nerds, thinks that in about 20 years or less computers will become conscious and take over the world (Kurzweil now works for Google). In Lausanne in Switzerland, the neuroscientist Henry Markram has been given several hundred million euros to reverse-engineer first rat then human brains down to the molecular level and duplicate the activities of the neurones in a computer — the so‑called Blue Brain project. When I visited Markram’s labs a couple of years ago, he was confident that modelling something as sophisticated as a human mind was only a matter of better computers and more money.

Yes, but. Even if Markram’s Blue Brain manages to produce fleeting moments of ratty consciousness (which I accept it might), we still wouldn’t know how consciousness works. Saying we understand consciousness because this is what it does is like saying we understand how the Starship Enterprise flies between the stars because we know it has a warp drive. We are writing labels, not answers.

So, what can we say? Well, first off, as the philosopher John Searle put it in a TED talk in May this year, the conscious experience is non-negotiable: ‘if it consciously seems to you that you are conscious, you are conscious’. That seems hard to argue against. Such experience can, moreover, be extreme. Asked to name the most violent events in nature, you might point to cosmological cataclysms such as the supernova or gamma-ray burster. And yet, these spectacles are just heaps of stuff doing stuff-like things. They do not matter, any more than a boulder rolling down a hill matters — until it hits someone.

Compare a supernova to, say, the mind of a woman about to give birth, or a father who has just lost his child, or a captured spy undergoing torture. These are subjective experiences that are off the scale in terms of importance. ‘Yes, yes,’ you might say, ‘but that sort of thing only matters from the human point of view.’ To which I reply: in a universe without witness, what other point of view can there be? The world was simply immaterial until someone came along to perceive it. And morality is both literally and figuratively senseless without consciousness: until we have a perceiving mind, there is no suffering to relieve, no happiness to maximise.

While we are looking at things from this elevated philosophical perspective, it is worth noting that there seems to be rather a limited range of basic options for the nature of consciousness. You might, for example, believe that it is some sort of magical field, a soul, that comes as an addendum to the body, like a satnav machine in a car. This is the traditional ‘ghost in the machine’ of Cartesian dualism. It is, I would guess, how most people have thought of consciousness for centuries, and how many still do. In scientific circles, however, dualism has become immensely unpopular. The problem is that no one has ever seen this field. How is it generated? More importantly, how does it interact with the ‘thinking meat’ of the brain? We see no energy transfer. We can detect no soul.

If you don’t believe in magical fields, you are not a traditional dualist, and the chances are that you are a materialist of some description. (To be fair, you might hover on the border. David Chalmers, who coined the term ‘hard problem’ in 1995, thinks that consciousness might be an unexplained property of all organised, information-juggling matter — something he calls ‘panprotopsychism’.)

Committed materialists believe that consciousness arises as the result of purely physical processes — neurones and synapses and so forth. But there are further divisions within this camp. Some people accept materialism but think there is something about biological nerve cells that gives them the edge over, say, silicon chips. Others suspect that the sheer weirdness of the quantum realm must have something to do with the hard problem. Apparent ‘observer effects’, Albert Einstein’s ‘spooky’ action at a distance, hints that a fundamental yet hidden reality underpins our world… Who knows? Maybe that last one is where consciousness lives. Roger Penrose, a physicist at Oxford University, famously thinks that consciousness arises as the result of mysterious quantum effects in brain tissue. He believes, in other words, not in magic fields but in magic meat. So far, the weight of evidence appears to be against him.

Reading these giants of consciousness criticise each other is an instructive experience in itself

The philosopher John Searle does not believe in magic meat but he does think meat is important. He is a biological naturalist who thinks that consciousness emerges from complex neuronal processes that cannot (at present) be modelled in a machine. Then there are those like the Tufts philosopher Daniel Dennett, who says that the mind-body problem is essentially a semantic mistake. Finally, there are the arch-eliminativists who appear to deny the existence of a mental world altogether. Their views are useful but insane.

Time to take stock. Lots of clever people believe these things. Like the religions, they cannot all be right (though they might all be wrong). Reading these giants of consciousness criticise each other is an instructive experience in itself. When Chalmers aired his ideas in his book The Conscious Mind (1996), this philosopher, a professor at both New York University and the Australian National University, was described as ‘absurd’ by John Searle in The New York Review of Books. Physicists and chemists do not tend to talk like this.

Even so, let’s say we can make a machine that thinks and feels and enjoys things; imagine it eating a pear or something. If we do not believe in magic fields and magic meat, we must take a functionalist approach. This, on certain plausible assumptions, means our thinking machine can be made of pretty much anything — silicon chips, sure; but also cogwheels and cams, teams of semaphorists, whatever you like. In recent years, engineers have succeeded in building working computers out of Lego, scrap metal, even a model railway set. If the brain is a classical computer – a universal Turing machine, to use the jargon – we could create consciousness just by running the right programme on the 19th-century Analytical Engine of Charles Babbage. And even if the brain isn’t a classical computer, we still have options. However complicated it might be, a brain is presumably just a physical object, and according to the Church-Turing-Deutsch principle of 1985, a quantum computer should be able to simulate any physical process whatsoever, to any level of detail. So all we need to simulate a brain is a quantum computer.

And then what? Then the fun starts. For if a trillion cogs and cams can produce (say) the sensation of eating a pear or of being tickled, then do the cogs all need to be whirling at some particular speed? Do they have to be in the same place at the same time? Could you substitute a given cog for a ‘message’ generated by its virtual-neighbour-cog telling it how many clicks to turn? Is it the cogs, in toto, that are conscious or just their actions? How can any ‘action’ be conscious? The German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz asked most of these questions 300 years ago, and we still haven’t answered a single one of them.

The consensus seems to be that we must run away from too much magic. Daniel Dennett dismisses the idea of ‘qualia’ (perhaps an unfortunately magical-sounding word) altogether. To him, consciousness is simply our word for what it feels like to be a brain. He told me:
We don’t need something weird or an unexplained property of biological [matter] for consciousness any more than we need to posit ‘fictoplasm’ to be the mysterious substance in which Sherlock Holmes and Ebenezer Scrooge find their fictive reality. They are fictions, and hence do not exist … a neural representation is not a simulacrum of something, made of ‘mental clay’; it is a representation made of ... well, patterns of spike trains in neuronal axons and the like.

David Chalmers says that it is quite possible for a mind to be disconnected from space and time, but he insists that you do at least need the cogwheels. He says: ‘I’m sympathetic with the idea that consciousness arises from cogwheel structure. In principle it could be delocalised and really slow. But I think you need genuine causal connections among the parts, with genuine dynamic structure.’

As to where the qualia ‘happen’, the answer could be ‘nowhere and nowhen’. If we do not believe in magic forcefields, but do believe that a conscious event, a quale, can do stuff, then we have a problem (in addition to the problem of explaining the quale in the first place). As David Chalmers says, ‘the problem of how qualia causally affect the physical world remains pressing… with no easy answer in sight’. It is very hard to see how a mind generated by whirring cogs can affect the whirring of those cogs in turn.

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. Once you have accepted that feelings and experiences can be quite independent of time and space (those causally connected but delocalised cogwheels), you might take a look at your assumptions about what, where and when you are with a little reeling disquiet.

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. The head of that bird on the rooftop contains more mystery than will be uncovered by our biggest telescopes or atom smashers. The hard problem is still the toughest kid on the block.

Correction, 10 Oct 2013: The original version of this article stated that Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine would have been Turing-complete. In fact, it was Babbage’s Analytical Engine that had this distinction. We regret the error.

Read more essays on consciousness & altered states, knowledge and philosophy of mind


  • ESNYC80

    I have two hypotheses that *might* explain consciousness, though I do not claim that either is accurate. I simply would like to posit them as they were unmentioned in the article.
    1) Consciousness, and for that matter "souls", are part of a symbiotic relationship between the conventional "meat" of our bodies and a plasma-based life form that is the actual "soul" or consciousness component. Most matter in the universe is plasma and on a universal time scale, matter in the solid/liquid/gas phases is relatively new (or at least the existence of any substantial quantities of it), so there was more than enough time for "life" to evolve in plasma, potentially to the point of some type of consciousness. Plasma can become organized, possesses remarkable electromagnetic properties, and can manifest itself as a double-helix structure, making it perfectly compatible with DNA, which itself has some remarkable electromagnetic properties (as does the brain, and it stands to reason that whatever consciousness is, it has a substantial electromagnetic component). Whether this plasma-based entity can exist or function absent the corpus I do not know. Perhaps a "seed" of such plasma is contained within DNA. At any rate it is worth investigating and would be rather hard to detect, so it would not surprise me that it has not yet been discovered despite this being the answer.
    2) We live in a simulation. Many are probably already familiar with this theory. There is evidence supporting it - my favorite candidates are things like Planck lengths and quantum effects. These suggest the possibility that our simulation runs much like a vector-based graphic in which the specific location of a pixel is not determined until the image is constructed (just as the location of an electron is not determined until the moment it is observed). This would further imply that our universe is itself an iterative process in which conscious perception plays a key role, which makes sense if we are in a simulation that is about "us" (or at least about life, as opposed to a simulation about the aggregation of interstellar dust in which humans happen to have evolved). That would allow for the concept we generally refer to as "free will", as it suggests our actions within this simulation are no more pre-ordained than the location of the electron, though, as a simulation, our choices and the likely outcomes are circumscribed by laws of probability much like those that apply to the electron.

    Both of my theories are entirely capable of being tested, and I hope scientists will eventually test both. At any rate I will test these myself at some point if no one else does, though at present I am building my business and have the next 10 - 20 years' business ventures planned out, so it will be a while (they're all tech and/or science related, and one is quite likely to solve global warming, so for both financial and humanitarian reasons I feel compelled to tackle that before dedicating precious time to trying to figure out consciousness).

    I hope my thoughts on the matter contribute to the discussion, or at least stimulate your consciousness.

    • Final_Word

      LOL. Ok.

    • Michael Hanlon

      The problem with hypothesis 1 is that even if there is some sort of plasma-soul-stuff, we are still no nearer to explaining the Hard Problem. How does this nebulous material generate self-awareness? We are back to homonculi in the head I fear. And yes we may be simulations - I think it seems quite reasonable to suppose we might be, but again that leaves the Hard Problem untouched.

      • EP

        Thanks Michael - this is exactly why the hard problem is so hard - because of the "so what" response that's always possible to whatever identity theory is offered.

        • randy

          No, thanks Michael. You offer no coherent definition of the "hard" problem. It just comes off as so much whining with an unsupported assumption that no explanation of consciousness is possible by science.

          • randy

            There is a "homonculi" in the head. It is as I said farther down, our self-model within our environment model. We do model ourselves and others in our own heads. When we think about ourselves, we interrogate this self-model and lose awareness of other parts of our environment model, and vice-versa.

          • Michael Hanlon

            No, I did not say it was impossible to explain consciousness. I said we have not done so and took issue with some of the claims (not approaches) that have been made, namely that consciousness is 'just another biological process'. I think consciousness is real, deeply weird and needs explaining and I am (fairly) confident that one day we will do so.

          • tennenrishin

            IF, as many want to believe, scientific knowledge is a set of objective facts about the physical universe, then it is rather obvious that no explanation of consciousness is possible by that kind of "science".

            Suppose you are in a sensory deprivation chamber, and a physical copy of your body is in another sensory deprivation chamber, and these chambers are in rooms that are recognizably different from each other. Suppose also there is a means by which both of you have access to complete objective knowledge of the entire physical universe including its present state. Note that the two of you start off in the same mental state, and have access to the same information. Therefore it is impossible for you to conclude which chamber you are in, until you climb out and have a subjective look around you. All the objective, "scientific knowledge" in the world cannot even determine/predict your subjective reality. It is an incomplete description of *your* reality.

    • cbartley17

      The simulation theory is elegant and cannot be discounted (although it sounds ridiculous). Anything that has not been disproven is, by definition, still a possibility. My problem with this theory as a theory of conscious is that it still doesn't tell us what consciousness IS. If we were to determine that the cosmic background radiation traverses along the lines of a constrained 3D lattice generated within a computer would this really tell us what consciousness is?

      If you read some of crazy Frank Tipler's stuff, which draws a lot upon Turing, then you know that one theory is that simulating computers would actually emulate cognition. That is, the process being carried out in the computer would be no different than that which is carried out in an organic mind. If so, we'd imagine that our simulated consciousness was no different than organic consciousness. If so, what the hell is consciousness?! (Where's the terrobang when you need it?!).

      I feel, and probably sound, like a crazy person.

  • Matt Sigl

    We're closer to answers than we think. (We just have to let go of some sacred cows to get there.) Good thing Giulio Tononi has it figured out:

    • randy

      The fact that when the "meat" malfunctions, and consciousness consequently disappears or is disrupted, makes it clear that consciousness is physiological, and in fact consists of a self-model imbedded in a model of our environment. Our brains function by modelling ourselves and our environment in neural field firing patterns. It is more interesting that subjectively this is hard to swallow. I believe that easily believing in the obvious, that our consciousness is not some fluid that exists independently from our neurons, debilitates fear of death and our will to survive under difficult circumstances. Also intuitively, we subjectively sense that we are continuous since our brains are conditioned to keep memories in sequence and keep track of our current state. We wake up knowing what day it is, where we are, etc. (at least most of the time). But science tells us that this is our neurons in action, not some mysterious fluid. That our subjective sense of pain comes from neural firings is obvious. That our self awareness is also neural firings should be just as obvious.

      • Matt Sigl

        A quick reply: The very concept of a "model" is wholly intentional (in the philosophic sense, as in pointing to, or "meaning") and therefore is loaded with mental terms through and through. The brain, the "meat," is the representation of a non-material causal system which uses the necessary truths of platonic geometry and spatiotemporal metaphors to "see" itself. The brain is a really good "map" of a territory that is, actually, irreducibly mental. The brain wiring (the connectome) is a "graphical" representation of our abstract belief network. To know everything about "the brain's" behavior one would have to know EVERYTHING about EVERYTHING. Brains do not exist in and of themselves. (That being said, it's important that, FOR SCIENCE, we continue to use the metaphor as it's a good and helpful one for interfacing with the causal world. We can study it AS IF it were real and "causing" our perceptions.) The best treatment of this POV (not just about the brain but perception in general) is from UCIrvine Professor Donald D. Hoffman who wrote an amazing paper on consciousness as an evolved "graphical user interface."

        • randy

          I have no idea what a "non-material causal system" is. All the causal systems that I know of are material, that is exist in this universe, even if they are mathematical constructs represented by neural firing patterns in someone's brain.

          • Matt Sigl

            There's no way to argue this without sliding down an ontological rabbit hole, but, in short, all causal systems are ultimately non-material with material itself being merely a metaphor that consciousness utilizes to help control it's own behavior, which is undetermined. 3-D material reality is like the interface that Windows uses so you don't have to write in binary code to send an email. (It's "real enough.") Again, check out Hoffman's paper for a thorough treatment.

            (Obviously, this is just how I parse the intellectual territory. These are obvious contentious issues so, i don't want to sound like a know-it-all.)

          • randy

            you are down the rabbit hole, if you believe that our reality is a "metaphor", whatever you mean by that, of some "non-material" something. You are either a solipsist or some weird sort of dualist, certainly not a materialist.

          • tennenrishin

            Of those three, materialist seems the weirdest to me.

          • Erik P Hoel

            Hey Matt Sigl - you make a lot of great points here. I read the Hoffman article you linked to, very interesting stuff. I did have some concerns about his approach - for example, whenever confronted with the traditional problems to the view of "consciousness creates the world" (or, the world is mind-dependent) he falls back on a "nexu" of consciousnesses", ensuring that no one consciousness gets the deciding vote (and therefore allowing objectivity). Ie, the world is "your mind independent" but not "mind independent".

            All in all, it there seem to be some big problems, mainly because that comes with the territory when your approach is so ambitious - most objects in the universe have not been observed (presumably) ever, but when they are, they are sensible. This leaves him in either a Kantian position (non-mind objects do have an underlying reality but it is unknowable) or to somehow come up with a way in which a nexus of observers can impact beyond what they have observed up to this point (which kind of violates the whole idea anyways).

            But he has other papers, maybe my concerns are addressed there. Regardless, I will definitely be picking up his book "observer mechanics" if only because I expect it to be highly interesting (and more formal), and have interesting stuff on "observer mathematics", so thanks for the link!

          • Matt Sigl

            Sure! And yes, I feel the force of that problem. It's always the problem with a principled "idealism;" how to account for the persistence of an objective reality that appears to be beyond the minds experiencing it? This is why, though something like idealism/panpsychism might be ontologically "true" (as I'm convinced it is) the paradigm of "matter" as "real" makes a lot of sense as a means of working through these issues scientifically, at least for now. This is what I love about the IIT. Its an important bridge between two very different ways of thinking about the world. (FWIW, I think Kant was wrong and consciousness IS the means by which we can experience the "Ding an sich." Schopenhauer also took this view.)

            The most serious, thorough attempt at a truly principled mental (sorta) ontology is Craig Weinberg at He's really articulating ideas at a higher level of abstraction than almost everyone else in philosophy. Check it out.

            BTW, I recognized your name. You wrote an essay somewhere about art and science that was really great. I enjoyed it very much and thought it was a sentiment in much need of expression.

          • Erik P Hoel

            Small world! Probably literally, "small world" in the Watts and Strogatz (1998) sense. Glad to hear someone read it!

            Funnily enough, I actually work on IIT - I'm a graduate student in Giulio Tononi's lab. So I'm definitely biased, but I also think that IIT IS an important bridge, although its panpsychist nature has not been emphasized very much. Philosophically it fits right into what Bertrand Russell pointed out - that physics and the rest give external properties of objects, but not the intrinsic nature of the objects themselves - and that's a good place (or at least, as good as it gets) to look for consciousness.

            But the theory needs a lot more philosophical work - right now very few people actually understand it, and it gets attributed a lot of things which it doesn't claim (your iphone is conscious! The USA is conscious!).

          • Guillermo

            excuse my english: what about if the unconsciuss it is what we really are, but it needs "an interfase" to manage the "outside". That interfase grows up ending in self or autonomus decision!

      • Michael Hanlon

        It's not obvious at all really. I think you are probably right but I don't think obviously so, and even if you/we are, this is a false-summit in the climb up the Hard Question. If it's just neurons doing their stuff, then it can be cogs and cams doing their stuff, and tell me that a conscious Babbage engine is not weird and in need of some serious explaining!

        • Elizabeth Stott

          A Babbage engine (an unlikely practical choice!) can rattle on as much as it likes, but if the program it is running is incoherent or nonsense then even one capable of processing human level thought would never approach consciousness. (It'd be unrealistically large and use so much energy that I think physics and thermodynamics would not allow it to work like that). Biological brains are very energy efficient.

          • Michael Hanlon

            Yes, but given a big enough Babbage engine it would work, at least theoretically. And if you are worried about all those cogs and cams overheating and needing a tame supernova to power the thing, then you could simply model the Engine in something more efficient, like an electronic computer.

          • Elizabeth Stott

            The energy requirement is an issue - and I think there will be a limit with respect to the information that can be organised. So maybe two supernovae! I have a feeing someone has calculated... I'm not sure that even the modelling of a Babbage machine would be a lightweight option energy-wise. Even the virtual has its origins in a physical process. For what it's worth, I have an idea that biological systems use not just their brains, but
            information embedded in cellular structures of our bodies, and much is cross-linked - we make short-cuts. We are a mix of hard-wired and heuristic, with our brains masterminding the show, with a good deal of creativity! Our systems are the result of millions of years of evolution, and the accumulated biological experience is built in.

        • randy

          You have offered no logical reason why the "hard" question is answered by something different than the kind of answer I gave. Our minds are babbage engines, weird or not.

    • Michael Hanlon

      But again we are saying 'consciousness' boils down to 'meat doing really complex things'. This does not get to the heart of the matter.

      • Matt Sigl

        We are? I'm not saying that.

        • Michael Hanlon

          Ultimately, you are. You are explaining what consciousness may be for and why it arose but not how the subjective experience is created nor what it is. Consciousness is unusual in philosophy/science in that he 'why' questions are less interesting than the hows-and-whats ...

          • Matt Sigl

            I hear ya. (And enjoyed the article very much BTW.) What is it? Science is going to have to expand its conceptual categories if it really wants to make headway on this problem. There are many reason for resistance; this is a conceptual revolution happening. So, here's an answer: Consciousness is existence itself. (Obvious point if you think about it.) All phenomenon are located within it, as is all understanding. What does it do? It's a selection mechanism that evolves (makes choices based on what it knows at any given time) to remove entropy from itself so that it may understand it's own nature with more clarity and make better choices in the future. More signal, less noise. The more it knows (is conscious of) how it is determined by antecedent circumstances, the freer it is to make informed choices. "Matter" is a current paradigm of understanding in which consciousness assigns ontological grounding to the geometric objects within its conceptual manifold when in fact they are evolved "interface icons." (A video game analogy is imperfect but effective here.) The "brain" is like a graphic representation of the evolved/learned network of abstract logic gates that determines what we perceive; when activated this network IS our perceptual conscious state. But don't take my word for it. Check out the Hoffman paper I mention below or the Tononi paper I linked to above. How does consciousness exist in the first place? Well, why is there something rather than nothing? It's that kind of problem.

          • randy

            This is nonsense. As far as we can tell, most of the universe was around without us, our consciousnesses, for a huge amount of time before the present. You really are a solipsist. Good luck with that.

          • Matthew Gaylard

            You are too quick to dismiss this, Elizabeth. IIT is a serious response to this problem. It is the middle of my working day, but I will try to respond at greater length to unpack IIT this evening. Michael - I think such an article would be a great follow up on this site, but its certainly beyond me.

          • Elizabeth Stott

            Not me, Matthew!

          • Michael Hanlon

            we have no idea if this proposition is true or not.

          • Michael Hanlon

            The Hoffman paper is fascinating. The thesis is (probably) insane, but extremely compelling and at least addresses the issue of the possible cosmological role of consciousness.
            Like many, I cannot get my head around the idea of a non-conscious universe existing pointlessly for maybe billions of years and then, bang, along come things that can perceive it and it is suddenly a very different place. This is not purely solopsism/mysticism; it is not inconceivable, for instance, that we, or our descendants (machine or animal), or some other alien species that either exists now or in the future - or indeed an alliance between many such species - decides that, faced with the impending heat-death of the Universe, something should be done about it. A conscious universe has at least the possibility of making itself immortal; a non-conscious universe does not care so it doesn't. So a universe with consciousness in it is a very, very different place to one which is just gas and rocks and stuff.

          • Edwin Eugene Klingman

            Michael, you say "Like many, I cannot get my head around the idea of the non-conscious universe existing pointlessly for maybe billions of years and then, bang, along come things that can perceive it and it is suddenly a very different place." The idea of a conscious universe is not particularly new, and some major scientists have discussed it seriously. But as far as I know, no one has offered any details, based on, I suppose, the idea that this makes the universe Zen-like, or God-like, or what have you.

            I'm not saying it doesn't, but then either you have a basic dualism, mind and matter, or there is some connection between the consciousness of the universe and the matter of the universe. If there is a connection, it is either physical or nonphysical. If nonphysical, then it's essentially of a spiritual or religious nature, but if physical, then there should be some physical interaction that is relevant when I decide to raise my arm and do work against gravity. Of course some think that physical reality is an illusion, but that's not very productive in any objective sense, although it may be subjectively pleasing, I don't know.

            If one assumes that 1.) Consciousness is inherent/innate to the universe and 2.) Consciousness interacts with matter, then it's possible to propose a theory of how consciousness interacts with material objects (such as brains) in the sense of a.) sensing physical phenomena (awareness) and b.) controlling physical phenomena (volition). This does NOT say what awareness IS (as it is subjective) but it does say (hypothesize) HOW interactions are governed. And it integrates well with logical physical structures such as neural networks.

            If you find a non-mystical view of a conscious universe of interest, I hope you find time to explore my ideas.

            Thanks again for the article and your participation in the comments.

            Edwin Eugene Klingman

          • Erik P Hoel

            Just to be clear - Tononi's integrated information theory of consciousness is wholly panpsychist. It is the best panpsychist theory presented, because it gets around the "mereological sum problem" whereby things like chairs are conscious entities by evoking the idea of a "complex", ie, maximally integrated causal structures.

            Intriguingly, such panpsychist views don't have the same relationship to consciousness as theories that divide the world into consciousness/non-conscious objects. Those dichotomous theories need reasons behind their dichotomies, and those are not forthcoming from any conceptual structures currently in place in science (as Michael well argues).

            But panpsychist theories (if framed correctly, as IIT is or is trying to be) have a relationship to the problem of consciousness that is different - they don't need to specify why this process vs this other process is conscious, as consciousness becomes, like existence itself, an inexplicable global property.

  • Elizabeth Stott

    Wonderfully provoking - thank you. Just a couple of ideas from a non-specialist. Consciousness must be energetically efficient for complex living organisms and work with the second law of thermodynamics. At the very least, consciousness perhaps gives us apparent continuity of process so that we can have a complex neuro-biological manifestation, which makes us more efficient thermodynamically. Separating the brain from the organism misses the importance of integration of the mind and body. I believe much of what we may consider 'abstract' in thinking terms is deeply integrated with physiological processes - we make efficient use of our biology. But ultimately, we are all fields!

    • Michael Hanlon

      Thank you! Yes the thermodynamic implications of consciousness are very interesting and something I didn't really touch upon. I think we touch upon the possible delocalised, detemporalised nature of consciousness as some sort of emergent entity (I hesitate to use the word field because it has all sorts of unhelpful cartesian implications) which sets it apart from the material universe.

      • Elizabeth Stott

        Thank you for the reply. My understanding of modern thinking in physics is that everything is a field. Matter is a localisation of energy, and geometry is at least 10 dimensional!

        • Edwin Eugene Klingman

          Matter is definitely a localization of matter. We know this as well as we know anything physical. But 10 dimensional geometry is a theory that has made no successful predictions, and after 40 years of failure to produce results should be taken with a grain of salt. I do like your comment above, "ultimately, we are all fields!" And your observation that there should be thermodynamic aspects of consciousness. Both of these topics are treated in the essay that I link to above.

          • Elizabeth Stott

            Thank you, Dr Klingman. I have downloaded your essay and will read it with interest - within my capabilities! It seems to me that thermodynamics is at the heart of the matter. It underpins the description of the universe.

          • Edwin Eugene Klingman

            Hi, I hope you enjoy it. The essay "Gravity and the Nature of Information" discusses thermodynamics in some detail.

        • Michael Hanlon

          My understanding is that it is all up for grabs at the moment. But there does seem to be a move to put old-fashioned thermodynamics back at the heart of Life, the Universe and Everything which I think is a good move. The no-free-lunch rule is so good that it must be at the heart of reality.

          • Elizabeth Stott

            Thank you, Michael. Notwithstanding the LHC, it appears to be an exciting time for theoretical physics. I think no free lunches come with the bonus of a dynamic and evolving universe! Again - really enjoyed the article.

  • Srinivas Shastri

    There's a fundamental problem with the scientific approach. Matter doesn't create Consciousness; it's the other way around.

    Since i have always put my money where my mouth is, am willing to bet Ray Kurzweil INR million (about USD 16,000) that computers can never ever become conscious.

    • David_Evans

      What would you accept as proof that a computer was conscious? If you can't specify that, it's not a fair bet.

      • Michael Hanlon

        Well I would ask it for its take on the Hard Problem - not proof, sure, but the answer would be interesting

        • tennenrishin

          If the computer is not conscious, it would speak like a physicalist. Perhaps that is also why physicalists speak the way they do.

        • JusMoney

          the computer would blow up. i saw that on star trek.

          • Philthyling

            I saw the Start Trek computer go insane. It was on the 'Two Ronnies'.

      • Srinivas Shastri

        Well, the computer should do something that it's _not_ programmed to do.

        Some more thoughts on this at Why Expert Systems Must Fail:

        • David_Evans

          From your link:

          "Am willing to pay USD 25,000 to anyone who can make an expert system do something that it's _not_ programmed for"

          In other words, you want someone to program a system to do something it's not programmed for. I think your money is safe there.

          Alternatively, just randomly damaging its RAM will eventually make it do something it's not programmed for. But I'm sure you won't accept that.

          How do you know we are not programmed, by our heredity and environment?

      • Chad

        I think this is the key question. Part of what makes this so hard is that we can't even agree what consciousness "is". It's like trying to explain the color blue to someone who's never had sight. We know vaguely it's a feeling of being "self-aware". We could theoretically program a computer to do some of the processing that our brains do but it's a huge unknowable leap to then say that the computer is "aware" that it's doing this processing. And no, it's not the Turing test... we can pretty easily trick people into believing they're talking to sentient beings when they're talking to a computer.

    • M Collings

      Dangerous idea. Like it! Perhaps we have it all backwards? Perhaps the Brain simply acts as matter based receiver of conciousness and matter is the very end result of conciousness. Oh the problems this would be causing us if our civilisation defining Science of the last 300 years was predicated on exactly the opposite way of looking at the world.

      • Srinivas Shastri

        Thank you; it was Peter Russell, ex-student of Stephen Hawking, who convinced me of this "dangerous idea" :-)

        More in Reality and Consciousness: Turning the Superparadigm Inside Out:

    • evensteve

      The strong intuition is that computers can't be conscious. But if this is true, then you have to explain why neurons firing produce conscious while computer hardware doesn't produce consciousness. I can see absolutely no good reason why that would be so -- can you?

      • Srinivas Shastri

        Good question; no good answers from me.

        One can experience consciousness (Ramana Maharshi used to say that the Biblical statement "I Am That I Am" was the best on this front) but i don't know whether one can explain It.

        The Infinite One
        Cannot be understood
        Only experienced.

        And, after reading the XP of George washington Carver, who discovered so many peanut products after a snafu, i stopped thinking of getting into that territory.

        More on that at:

      • Serge

        That question is only a problem if one believes that it is the neurons producing consciousness, the presumption of a material reduction of consciousness.

        • evensteve

          Do you have any examples of consciousness where there no neurons? When people die and their neurons stop firing, there isn't any evidence for consciousness there.

  • John Jacob Lyons

    I would welcome comments on my own explanation of consciousness as 'an adaptive model of reality that is emergent from the integration of sensory inputs and cognition'.

    • Michael Hanlon

      Your hypothesis explains what consciousness may do and why it came about, but it does not explain what it IS. The problem of how non-sentient meat generates self-awareness remains unaddressed.

  • Kevin Middleton

    "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."
    I'm glad, as a philosophy student, that there may still be job options in the future.

    • Michael Hanlon

      But who knows if solving the Hard Problem will pay?

      • Kevin Middleton

        I don't.

  • eyeoneblack

    We should simply strike the word 'consciousness' from our lexicon. It draws a circular logic of the sort that to think of consciousness is consciousness.
    Strike it and the hard problem goes away.

    Consciousness is an illusion, a proud and anthropomorphic illusion. We are not, in fact, conscious. The notion is like an ouroboros with its tail in its mouth, self-consuming.

    • Michael Hanlon

      But we ARE conscious. Saying we are not is just silly and illogical. The fact that we can all sort of agree that there is such a thing as an internal mental life, call it what you will, shows that there is a problem there that needs solving. The Hard Problem will not vanish in a puff of semantics. People have tried that and it doesn't work.

    • tennenrishin

      You can't explain the red experience to a person born completely blind. Words cannot capture the meaning of red, but that doesn't mean we should strike 'red' from our lexicon. We KNOW what we mean by 'red', and we KNOW what we mean by 'consciousness', even if there can be no objective definition of either.

      Striking words that cannot be objectively defined is ignoring the problem, not making it go away.

    • M Collings

      Well yes it is an illusion if that's how "you" perceive it. Enjoy.

    • Sasha

      Ladies and gentlemen, behold: A ZOMBIE!

  • cbartley17

    This, article, and every other theory of consciousness I've seen (other that Julian Jayne's theory) suffer from the same problem: they can't actually provide a rigorous definition of consciousness. What many describe is "awareness" however awareness doesn't allow us to distinguish our mental process from that of a say a dog. We might all agree that a dog is in some way "conscious" but, using this definition of awareness, we're hard pressed to identify what it is that's different between our consciousness and a dog's. The definition of consciousness as "awakeness" falls into the same trap.

    Nor does the definition of consciousness as "subjective experience" suffice. For example, different sea slugs can display different behavioral responses to the same external stimuli. This is the basis of personality and sea slugs have personality using this definition. This indicates that they have different subjective experiences. Whether or not they're aware of this subjective experience is irrelevant, they HAVE a different subjective experience. Yet no one would argue that a sea slug is conscious.

    My working definition definitely needs some work but I think it elides some of the problems of other definitions: 1) conscious requires the ability to perceive abstract reality and 2) consciousness is the intentional engagement with abstract reality in service of one's own survival (sorry computers). This is consistent with an evolutionary basis for consciousness.

    What the hell does abstract reality mean? Well, in my head, abstract reality contains those things that are objectively true but have no concrete existence. Math would be an example. God would be another (if God were to exist, I'd argue that's up for debate). Note that "abstract" does not mean "imperceptible" to humans (otherwise infrared sensing, which snakes can perceive but humans cannot, would suffice). "Abstract" means literally having no physical form. This definition allows us to easily see the difference between humans and lower species. Using this definition we can start to construct a hierarchy of consciousness of species that is more consistent with how we actually view different species (dolphins are more conscious than gerbils, any disagreements?).

    We see evidence of humans drawing upon abstract reality in purposeful ways all of the time. It is, I would argue, the basis of culture and religion. As soon as we realized that there is a reality outside of our direct experience we felt compelled to try to represent it in this physical world in some way. Hence art, music, script, literature, religion. We have constructed our civilization around abstract reality and this is the core difference between humans and all other species. We build monuments to gods unseen and launch satellites into space base on math we'll never touch. Of course not everything that we grope out of the ether is bound to be "real" but we are unique in our pursuit of and ability to detect such abstract reality. It is through the pursuit of abstract reality that we believe we will be able to ultimately know ourselves and our purpose.

    • Erik P Hoel

      "Every other theory of consciousness suffers from the same problem: they can't provide a rigorous definition of consciousness."

      This is the kind of thing that gets thrown up ever so often in these kinds of discussions and in the literature, but doesn't actually matter and relies on a category error.

      All that's actually required to do philosophical/scientific work is a "working definition", not a "rigorous definition", because for any philosophical/scientific phenomenon, a rigorous definition is impossible without a theory, which is what you seeking to construct to begin with. If all other types of theories were held to this standard, we wouldn't have science, philosophy, or history, because you wouldn't be able to start without what you would be seeking to prove (ie, a rigorous definition based in a theory, which is what you want).

      Consciousness is the ego-centric subjective mini-universe that you live in all day and that vanishes when you go into a deep sleep and which reboots when you wake up. Working definition, we all know what we're talking about, work can proceed unhindered.

      • cbartley17

        If consciousness is simply subjective experience then it becomes impossible to test and is therefore not a scientific question in the same sense that "does God exist" is not scientific. If consciousness is merely a subjective (internal) state then we cannot even necessarily say that clostridia aren't conscious then since they have active modes and sleep modes (spore state). They likely also have differential internal responses to external stimuli due to mutational differences. Should we study bacteria to understand consciousness? Clearly not.

        You have to rigorously define the question otherwise you have no way to interpret the results of your experiments. This is not necessarily always true of philosophical questions but it is certainly true of purely scientific questions. I think I'm being redundant here but in order to ask a scientific question you need to know explicitly what you're asking.

        • Erik P Hoel

          "You have to rigorously define the question otherwise you have no way to interpret the results of your experiments."

          See above, plus the history of all of science, plus how science is done on a day-to-day basis.

          • cbartley17

            ha ha, I'm not sure what "see above" is referring to. Whatever it is I clearly wasn't persuaded :) yes, I just used an emoticon.

            Actually poorly framed questions leads to uninterpretable, or worse yet, misinterpreted results. Rather I'd say that the history of efficient science is that one question leads to a new question or a reinterpretation of the theory.

            The question "what part of the brain is responsible for the consciousness" is unaswerable under at least two conditions: 1) if we haven't defined what consciousness is (it's the same as asking "what part of the brain is responsible for phlernum?"... um, what the F is phlernum?) or 2) if whatever we use to describe consciousness also applies to organisms that don't have a brain. Then whatever we're calling consciousness is clearly something either outside of the brain or not what we mean what we say consciousness.

        • Matthew Gaylard

          I see no reason why one should not study bacteria in order to understand consciousness. In fact, I can imagine several good reasons for bacteria being a good place to start.

          • cbartley17

            So what IS consciousness again?

      • Gerhard Adam

        "Consciousness is the ego-centric subjective mini-universe that you live
        in all day and that vanishes when you go into a deep sleep and which
        reboots when you wake up. Working definition, we all know what we're
        talking about, work can proceed unhindered."

        I would submit that "we" have no idea what we're talking about with such a definition. Are you suggesting that your conscious experience is different from my dog's? Not with such a definition you're not. I'm not even sure where you determined that this "mini-universe" vanishes when you sleep. Are you not the center of your dreams? What does abusing the word "reboot" offer in this discussion?

        I'm sorry, but this explanation demonstrates precisely why we don't know what we're talking about and the need for a more rigorous definition. For example, what is the difference between awareness, consciousness, conscious awareness, etc.? These are all states that exist and clearly are not the same thing.

        • cbartley17

          Totally agree. It doesn't matter what we decide consciousness "IS" as long as that definition clearly distinguishes it from other states from which we intuitively know it is distinct.

        • Erik P Hoel

          Since I've already reached my "internet debate limit" in the post above in the form of 1 example (working definition proposed) and 1 reductio (showing that science could not proceed if we held other fields to this insane "prove a rigorous definition first before you research it"), I will merely point to some links saying exactly what I said, but in more words.

          Working definitions for the philosophically orientated:

          And for the working definitions used by scientific consciousness researchers:

    • Michael Hanlon

      This seems to suggest that humans are conscious in a way that dogs are not ....I am uncomfortable with this because firstly it sets rather narrow constraints on what consciousness is and does and secondly invokes some sort of magic wall separating H. sapiens from the rest of the animal kingdom ...

      • cbartley17

        Thanks for responding Michael, I enjoyed the piece (which I guess is why I wrote such a long response).

        So you would say that there is no difference between our consciousness and that of a dog's? Would you say that conscious is a product of evolution? If so, different species would have different flavors of consciousness. The nervous system is a product of evolution and, if it is responsible for consciousness, there must be some difference between evolutionarily distinct species.

        But if we extend your argument then human consciousness = dog's conscious = bird's consciousness? (if human = dog ≠ bird then where is the dividing line, and how do you decide what the divding line is?). Regarding birds, I ask because they have nucleated brains entirely different in structure than the human brain. Seems to me then that fMRI studies of consciousness in humans would be pointless because it would localize brain regions that literally do not exist in birds despite bird being equally conscious. So, what are the fMRI's localizing? Or even do localize human consciousness which happens to be housed in a different brain region in bird, the fMRI still doesn't tell us anything about what consciousness IS.Taken even one step further, what about a jelly fish? It has a distributed nervous system, is it conscious? What about c. elegans with only some ~300 neural cells? Can we identify the region responsible for consciousness in c. elegans?

        I would argue that if consciousness is a property of being alive and is not constrained by our nervous system (i.e. not a product of evolution) then it really does take on some magical quality. In that case it becomes more akin to a soul and is wholly unmeasurable. It becomes axiomatic that a thing is conscious (or has a soul) because it is alive. No need to study it, it just is.

        Instead, if we say that consciousness is an emergent property of an evolved nervous system capable of abstract thought then I think we're getting somewhere.

        • Michael Hanlon

          We may be (getting somewhere), but there are other possibilities (see Idealism). For what it is worth, the argument that 'dogs are not conscious' has always seemed strange to me. Why shouldn't they be? They are animals and quite closely related to us and put together in much the same way. They are dogs, so their consciousness will be different (perhaps less intense) but again, we do not know.
          Where is the dividing line? Again, unclear. Crows are certainly conscious; fish? Probably. Worms, probably not, but box jellyfish? They have eyes and a brain, of sorts, and can hunt. But again we - I - am equating consciousness with intelligence, which may be the wrong approach.
          And we assume consciousness, if it is indeed an emergent property of matter, has a necessary condition of complexity, but again we have no reason to believe this is the case, save to say complex problems like consciousness seem to invoke complex solutions. As I said, beats the heck out of me ...

          • cbartley17

            Okay we partially agree then. It's not that I think dogs aren't conscious but rather that they are less, or at the minimum differently, conscious. I think any operating definition has to account for the differences in consciousness among species.

            I do not think that intelligence and consciousness are synonyms but I do believe that intelligence is a prerequisite of consciousness.

          • Edwin Eugene Klingman

            I agree with you that intelligence and consciousness are different (by my definition), but I see it the other way. Either awareness 'emerges' (which no one has ever shown, and which I believe is a mistaken view with no evidence to support it -- only 'just so' stories) or awareness is primordial (best conceived of as a field) and intelligence emerges as the logical structure of living organisms becomes more complex. In this sense it is awareness that is the prerequisite of intelligence. I've provided a little more detail in my reply to your reply.

  • Archies_Boy

    Let's get back to basics. Originally, every living creature on the planet, although quite different from each other have one thing in common: they evolved to survive the conditions on this planet. That requires two basics: safety and a means of obtaining food. Once those two needs are met, there's room for all the rest. But at bottom, there will always be those two requirements underlying everything else. So I say that human consciousness is ultimately that species' elegantly evolved means of meeting them. All the rest is gravy. (At least it was before WMDs...)

    One more thing: how can a crow be "cocksure"? Maybe "crowsure"... ;-)

    • Michael Hanlon

      Birds can be cocks or hens, as I understand it, regardless of species.

  • Keith

    You related the Difference Engine to Turing Completeness. This is incorrect. The Analytical Engine, had it ever been built, would have been Turing Complete, but not the Difference Engine.

    • Michael Hanlon

      Yes, many have pointed that out. You are correct and I will change in copy.

    • Ed Lake

      Corrected now. Thanks for your note.

  • Edwin Eugene Klingman

    Certainly a lot of strong opinions on consciousness. Here's mine: first, I define consciousness as 'awareness plus volition', where the basic terms are subjectively understood by aware beings. But I define intelligence (cognition) as consciousness plus logic, where logic means physical circuitry such as DNA/protein, silicon circuitry, or neural networks. My basic premise is that consciousness is the property of a field, and by that I mean a universal field. Thus, to some extent, this is panpsychism. But whereas panpsychism leaves it at that, I describe the interaction of the field with matter (and with itself). As far as I know, no one else actually specifies how the field couples to matter.

    Michael seems to dismiss this as "magical field" and as dualism, but my proposal is neither magical nor dualistic. It's impossible to detail these things in a comment to an article, but [noting that Michael Hanlon is a Templeton fellow] Templeton funded 'Fundamental Questions in Physics' which presents annual essay contests, and I've entered several essays:

    The Physics of the Consciousness Field --

    In my recent entry in the current contest

    Gravity and the Nature of Information --

    Each of the essays is accompanied by several hundred comments with more details.

    If either of these essays strikes your fancy, there are links to two more related essays and I have a 600 page explanation available on Amazon "Gene Man's World".

    I believe several commenters will find a coherent theory here. In summary, Michael is right that consciousness is not "explained" by dead matter evolving into aware matter. But his dismissal of a "field" is based on too simplistic an idea of the field, and, as Elizabeth Stott remarks, "ultimately, we are all fields."

    Srinivas also touches on it when he claims "matter does not create consciousness" but of course consciousness interacts with matter. I hope some of the interested parties here will investigate how this can be explained. For a recent treatment of the problem (not the solution) see Nagel's book "Mind and Cosmos".

    Thanks Michael for writing the article in responding to comments.

    Edwin Eugene Klingman

    • cbartley17

      Good, stuff, I have started reading these but the invocation of a field does seem somewhat mystical to me (not that consciousness cannot be mystical). That aside, I find your basic equation (consciousness = awareness + volition) seductive. However I cannot for the life of me determine how we measure volition. Based on your definition, which species are conscious and which are not and why?

      • Edwin Eugene Klingman

        Thanks. The theory hypothesizes a universal field that couples to matter. The coupling of interest is to matter in motion, and is thus "local". The matter most relevant organisms is the flow of ions in the brain and a vesicles across synaptic gaps. Therefore all species of organisms have some level of (local) awareness. According to this theory even the myosin and kinesin and and dynein 'walkers' in a biological cell interact with the field, and induce local disturbance in the field, and vesicle flows and cytoskeleton changes do also. In this sense there is, however minimal, consciousness associated with cellular life.

        However it is the structures that govern flow that yield the "logic" from which "intelligence" emerges and evolves. The awareness does not 'emerge', it is primordially a property of the field. If one assumes (as I do) that the field does couple to mass flow, then the force of coupling (i.e., the 'volition') is in theory measurable. Whether or not it is in fact measurable is an open question.

        The logical structure of the flows (in the neural net) correlate with the "thoughts" and "thinking" of which we are aware and that we associate with intelligence or cognition. This is of course species specific. The awareness is inherent to the field induced by local motion and is not species specific but universal in nature.

        Edwin Eugene Klingman

  • DireMouse

    I thank God that there are people interested in the really important, fundamental stuff like this. As they say, perception is everything. I only hope that it isn't all delusion. Thank you, Mr. Hanlon.

  • chconnor

    If this is the "hard problem", what's the "easy problem" (if one is supposed to exist)?

    I was always under the impression that the "easy problem" was explaining consciousness objectively: how the neurons work together to create a self-reporting experience of awareness, etc. (not that we have it solved); and that the "hard problem" was explaining the subjective experience from the inside. The last several articles i've read conflate the two into the "hard problem" (fair enough) but never explain what the implied "easy problem" might be.

    To me, the latter (let's call it the "really hard problem") is more interesting. I'll be very interested when scientists can create a computer program that convincingly claims consciousness, or when they develop a perfect explanation for why someone *else* would be self-aware, but none of that gets to the "really hard problems" of why I'm me and not you, wherre my awareness originally emerges from, if free will exists, and the intersection of such will with the world. Of course "hard" and "really hard" may be hopelessly entangled, who knows, but my (cautious) money is on science coming up with some impressive answers to the first in the next few decades, and the second remaining uncracked for the foreseeable future, as this article suggests. I'm not necessarily throwing in with Kurzweil et. al., here, just predicting that there's a lot more we can access from the materialist side.

  • nebraska

    The philosophers are the absolute last people to listen to on this topic, because they've fumbled this problem for centuries. Here's the rudiments to a solution to the so-called, arrogantly termed "Hard Problem":

    The Mind is material; it's electromagnetic radiation in a highly organized state and is indeed located within our cognitive structures. When you look at a clear sky and see that it is blue, it's because blue-wavelength light has entered your eye and been transmitted with high fidelity into your brain, which is a setting physically organized in such a way as to loop the input to make it available to memory, affect those functional structures we call the emotive faculties, etc. We don't properly see blue: a visual field that's totally blue "plays" the brain in a way characteristic of a blue visual field, and the simplest explanation for why is that the physical structure of our subjective is about the same as the input. We "see" blue because certain parts of our brain ARE blue when we see blue.

    When you see an image of something multi-colored (a parrot, let's say), the colors that compose the image we "see" have the same relative position to each other as the light striking the retina. Since we exhibit genes that were selected for in order to survive in a hostile, competitive environment, we know we observe the world without a level of distortion that would have prevented our ancestors from reproducing. Hence there's at least a very high physical similarity between the physical state of our brains when we see something and the physical state of what is coming in before our cognitive faculties process it. There HAS to be, given that our ancestors survived. So it stands to reason then that the similarity persists through the nervous system in between eye and brain.

    The fact that the retina is stuctured as a matrix of rods and cones, the optic nerve a matrix of nerve cells, et cetera into the brain strongly suggests our consciousness is not a "seat", some unified subjective. It's a complex system to deal with complex inputs. And it's material.

    • Michael Hanlon

      But how does this EM field generate self-awareness? You are just swapping weird-neuron-awareness with weird-electromagic-field-self-awareness

      • Edwin Eugene Klingman

        That is an excellent question, and, if one wishes to associate consciousness with a physically 'real' field, then gravity is a much better bet. The electromagnetic field does NOT interact with itself, whereas the gravitation field definitely DOES interact with itself, since it has energy, and energy has mass, and thus interacts with gravity. In fact, one might say that to interact with something one must (in some sense!) 'be aware' of something. Since gravity interacts with itself, it might be said, in some primitive sense to be 'self-aware'. As it seems likely that the universe at the moment of the big bang was nothing but gravity, then this would imply that self-awareness is 'built-into' the universe, and it is intelligence that emerges from the evolution of material, not awareness.

    • cbartley17

      I agree with all of this. Consciousness is an emergent property of a complex system. The more complex the nervous system the greater the diversity of stimuli it is "aware" of. Self-awareness is the system reporting to itself in order to prioritize decisions. Hey, the sky just turned from blue to grey, what would you like to do now?

      But, as I wrote below, I think there's something even subtler going on with aspect of consciousness. what about those things of which we're aware but have no physical basis? Like math. I'd argue that there are things that are wholly but also wholly abstract and that consciousness is the degree to which one can perceive the abstract but real. Awareness, logic, subjectivity are all prerequisites but that something additional is going on.

  • Derek Roche

    How can we think our way out of the hard problem if the hard problem is the way we think?

    (That's a clue)

    Science will not solve the hard problem because science, by definition and practice, is objective. It only admits physical causation despite the fact that, as several have mentioned, there are such phenomena as fields and for every fundamental quantum of matter there exists a corresponding quantum of force.

    So then, what if the world we live in is self-caused and self-organizing rather than physically caused by some external agent? Then what order there is must be the result of some form of self-referential logic; what exists must be that which is necessarily the case in sheer logical terms.

    I hear you, I hear you. A self-referential form of logic is circular, you say, and blows smoke up its own backside. But I say it's circular with a twist, like a Möbius strip, and that it necessarily evolves creatures like us with a nondual self and a nondual self-reflective consciousness.

    If we change the way we think, the hard problem gets a lot easier.

    • tennenrishin

      "How can we think our way out of the hard problem if the hard problem is the way we think?"
      Indeed. Science is the technique of putting things into black-boxes, and modelling the black box's input-output behavior; and thereby stripping it of it's mysterious character. This method cannot work with consciousness, because consciousness is a private phenomenon that won't show up at the box's interfaces. We can't access the box's consciousness from an external perspective, just like you can't feel my pain when I drop a hammer on my toe. The only way to make progress is to either go into the box (introspect after making direct neural connections between brains), or to *be* the box (pure introspection). But scientists usually cannot bring themselves to accept subjective reality as an absolute reality.

      • Derek Roche

        Direct neural connections between brains?! Please explain.

    • Serge

      Good points, but even causality itself is suspect. As Kant argued (in response to Hume's justified skepticism in that we never actually observe causality, only stastically common conjunctions of events), causality (along with time and space) are the mind's way of structuring experience. Such mental structures cannot prove that causality exists outside the mind itself. So, we cannot simply apply a causal relation between mind and world. As long as we try to think the world, we are trapped within the limitations of our own thought. How are we to step outside mind to understand mind? That is the (perhaps insoluble) conundrum. We only know mind immediately, subjectively, never as object.

  • CCCrazyPanda

    For me the ultimate brain bend regarding consciousness is the TRANSFER of such consciousness. As a mind experiment, let's look at the transporter from Star Trek. There are two ways in which this could work:

    1. It disassembles your body, transports the particles through say, quantum tunnels or something, and then re-assembles them exactly as they were. That means, every single particle that defined you was moved to a new location, no different than if you hopped onto a train and moved to that same location. It's still you.

    2. It scans your exact particle structure at a given instant, and then "transports" you by effectively de-materializing your current form, and then constructing an entirely new, but absolutely PERFECT copy of you from the particle scan it initially did.

    So the question with #2 is, would your consciousness just "resume" where it left it off, just in the new location that the new you was re-constructed at? That re-constructed copy will have the exact memories of the original, so in that sense that being would experience a totally seamless transfer, but would that being still be YOU?

    My mind can't grasp it.

    • Daniel Grubbs

      Then there's option 3: the new person has no consciousness and is really just a zombie, though it still looks and acts like the transported person. The transported person actually is dead, but again no one knows.

      • CCCrazyPanda

        I personally don't believe that a person can function like a person AND be a zombie (i.e. no self-awareness or introspection).

    • Michael Hanlon

      It's worse than that. The teleport permutations are extremely useful in illustrating what is weird about consciousness but in fact you do not need a teleport machine to make a weird copy of your girlfriend. Just wait for her to go to sleep, and then wake her up. To all intents and purposes her 'consciousness', the active, waking part of it anyway, has died while she was asleep and a new person, with all her old memories, personality and so on, is (re)created when she wakes up. She will insist it is her and everyone will agree because sleeping-waking is what humans do, but in reality it is no weirder than being teleported. This happens even more profoundly if she had an accident or illness and went into a deep coma and then recovered (this happens, although obviously more infrequently than sleeping). What is the 'her' that denotes continuity of existence? It can't be the literal neurons in her brain as firstly they are replaceable and secondly they are entirely generic; what happens if you make two copies? Two girlfriends I guess, both with equal rights to claim to be her. If one is a zombie we are back to magic.

      • Michael Hanlon

        I meant 'no less weird than being teleported' ...

      • tennenrishin

        Ok, but if YOU were one of the two, you would be ONE of the two, not both. If one was in a red room and one was in a blue room, you would see either a red or a blue room around you, not both. "I am in the blue room" is a fact. Moreover, it is a fact that is not derivable from the set of all objective facts about the physical universe, because nothing about the (objectively considered) state of the physical universe is any different from the converse case (in which I am in the other room). So the objectively described physical universe cannot explain my subjective reality.

        • Michael Hanlon

          There are two beings, both convinced they are 'you', one in a red room and one in a blue room.

          • tennenrishin

            The one in the red room is convinced that she is herself, and the one in the blue room is convinced that she is herself. Regardless of what they believe about their pasts, they are both correct about this. And no objective description of the physical universe can be a complete enough description of reality to tell either of them which room they are in (they will hear the same description, after all, as it is an objective description). To learn this fact (which room they are in), they have to open their eyes and look around. So their subjective experience (aka consciousness) gives them access to a piece of information that cannot be expressed in any objective description of the universe.

            Now an outside observer may say this "piece of information" is inconsequential or non-existent because they are identical copies anyway. To an outside observer, his information is complete because he can go to the one in the blue room and say "you are in the blue room" and go to the one in the red room and say "you are in the red room".

            But from THEIR perspectives it is an important piece of information. And we can always make it more important (to them) by putting poison gas in the red room. If physicalism implies that the universe is the same whether I am about to die or live, I disagree.

  • Huw

    All these theories all have the same thing in common: They all believe that consciousness is a *thing* that is somehow switched on. You can't blame people for making a comparison between the brain and the world of appliances we're used to (it's no accident that the classic metaphor for thinking involves rotating cogs), but this has to stop now. It's getting goddamn ridiculous.

    So, lets start from scratch. For starters, the word "consciousness" is so ill defined, most of the time people don't know what they're referring to. A new word is needed:


    Perspective is what you experience as reality. Other perspectives can only be inferred, this is known as the problem of other minds. But the simplest answer is usually correct so we can assume that all perspectives are equally “real”.

    A perspective contains information. From thoughts to vivid "qualia" experiences - all information, it's this information that *is* your reality. A lot of importance is placed on information, and it's because of this that the hard problem remains as defiant as ever.

    If you want to solve the hard problem, you have to acknowledge what's NOT there. The absence of information is known as: Oblivion. You are oblivious of information from other perspectives. You are also oblivious of information from your own past and future perspective. Recalling memories is not the same as experiencing a perspective in the present moment. If that was the case then you could relive any past experience, "Being John Malkovich" style.

    Why is oblivion important? Well, if you kill another brain, your perspective - reality - remains apparently the same. Yet brains are just a grapefruit sized lump of jelly. They're not electrical like a transistor, they're mostly chemical. Other than a physical boundary (which is known to be arbitrary anyway with particle physics), there is absolutely no explicable reason why reality is caused by one lump of jelly instead another!

    Calling a brain 'yours' makes no sense. Why is it yours? And who are you? A brain doesn't belong to anyone, yet because of this oblivion, there seems to be a "spooky boundary" that confines reality to an arbitrary blob of meat! This is weird!

    Now for the elephant in the room: Consciousness vs reporting a memory. Most people think "but my reality disappears when I go to sleep". What evidence do they base this on? They're oblivious to their past perspective! All they have is their ability to report a memory. "I don't remember it, ergo it didn't exist.". Out of all the experiences through every day of our lives, only a very small amount of information is recorded. But you assume you fully experienced each day, so why not sleep? It's known that everyone dreams several times a night yet only occasionally can a dream be recalled, can you honestly say you experience nothing?

    Explanation always comes after the fact, and if there's no explanation then a confabulation is provided instead. hemispherectomy patients have fascinated scientists with an idea of two consciousnesses in one head but arguably they do actually experience visual information, but because of the disconnect, are simply unable to report it as a memory - even to themselves.

    So why does this matter? It matters if you're going to upload your mind to a computer, or teleport - or if you die. Sure you can say "I won't exist anymore", but you can't assume there's "nothing" because that nothing is based on the same flawed logic that concludes you didn't exist for several hours because you have no memory of an event. Being able to report an event is not a reliable way of testing a perspective.

    The spooky boundary is the true face of the hard problem. If you solve the boundary, if you solve oblivion - you can solve life and death itself - and the great thing is, you can test it. Once you stop looking for that imaginary consciousness and start testing the limits of perspective, then you start to get an answer. What happens when we add more neurons? What happens when we directly interface a computer with our neurons, is the computer now part of our perspective? What happens when we use this interface to directly connect two people? What happens when we use this interface to directly connect two hemispheres half way across the world? How much of a difference does time and space between connections make?

    Can we define oblivion? Can we observe oblivion? Is oblivion like noise with a weak signal that's washed out by the strong signals of neurons? Or is the spooky barrier infallible?

    Lots and lots of questions, lots and lots of experiments. The answer to the hard problem is out there, you just need the right perspective.

    • Michael Hanlon

      But then the Hard Problem of consciousness simply becomes the Hard Problem of perspective. Back to square one.

      • Huw

        The search for consciousness asks the question "why is information there?". Now, think about it. What is the real meaning of that question?

        "Why is there something rather than nothing?"

        There you go. It's the "why does the universe exist?" argument in disguise. A disguise confabulated with of lots and lots of words. Words like p-zombie.

        Perspective doesn't ask the impossible question "why is there something rather than nothing?" it asks the question "what is oblivion?"; with which you can create hypothesis to predict outcomes and run experiments to prove these outcomes.

        The current memes of consciousness are so ingrained, we unknowingly map everything back to them. Free your mind. Assume nothing. Reject these tired old memes and start again - maybe you can find the answer.

        • Edwin Eugene Klingman

          Huw, not all theories view consciousness as a "thing" that is somehow switched on. I describe a theory that views consciousness (defined as awareness plus volition) as a property of a universal field. Thus awareness is primordial, and its interaction with matter is local. It is this **locality** that is the essence of "perspective", and so I believe perspective is encapsulated in the field theory.

          When you say a perspective contains information, you're adding **structure** to the local awareness, and this is (in my definition) intelligence or cognition, defined as consciousness plus logic (i.e., logical structure). I have an essay you may be interested in at, dealing with the nature of information. It also deals with your "spooky boundary", which I interpret to be the interaction between the field and local matter. I agree with you that this addresses the hard problem.

          Edwin Eugene Klingman

          • Huw

            Map vs territory is definitely the root of the problem. They're so familiar with the mathematical view, it's quite literally their reality!

            It's like the argument of Mary's room. Ok, maybe there's not a magical entity called a qualia, sure. But giving someone a schematic of how an eye works is different from physically changing your own brain based on that schematic, to make the experience real.

            I think a lot of this is a leftover from back in the days when they didn't have all this modern computing power; now we can even see atoms moving. I can't fully grasp your essay because I don't have the background in physics, but I hope your paper among other papers is the start of a global shift in thinking!

          • Edwin Eugene Klingman

            Thank you Huw. We agree on the root of the problem. And I believe a global shift is coming. Two excellent 2013 books on the problems with current ideas are: "Bankrupting Physics" by Unzicker and Jones and "Farewell to Reality" by Jim Baggott.

            They aren't mathematical, but they're not watered down either. As I mentioned elsewhere, Nagel's "Mind and Cosmos" (2012) is an excellent treatment of the topic of these comments.

    • tennenrishin
      • Huw

        Lets looks at it with consciousness first: "well erm, maybe everything is normal until you open the note and then like, your consciousness splits in two? Something something multiverse."

        Damn right I'm making fun.

        Now with perspective:

        Person A is oblivious to person B's experience. Person B is oblivious to person A's experience. Ergo, the information the subjects are experiencing is not the same. If you look at each room individually like in the classic consciousness model (ironically applying a perspective!) then you say these are the same person. But if you acknowledge perspective and look at the system as a *whole* - two people as a complete system, it becomes immediately obvious that they are distinct.

        Everything in both rooms is in an identical state down to the quark, yes, and yes they both have the same experience until they look at the number on the paper. But it's no different than two people watching the same movie together. And if you were to break down the walls of the rooms and have these perspectives interact, it would become very apparent they are not the 'same'.

    • cbartley17

      Perspective can be explained at the molecular level. Take two synthetic enzymes that differ by one amino acid such that they "work" at different rates. Given the same input (concentration of substrate) they will produce a different amount of product over time.

      Now, take that same proposition and extend it to all known proteins in all living things. Now consider all the variants of said proteins and their possible interactions. If the nervous system is responsible for the interpretation of external stimuli and reporting it to itself it follows (that given the nearly infinite combinations of protein states and interactions) that each living organism MUST have a distinct internal (subjective) experience in response to the same external inputs. There is no magic there, it's a mathematical inevitability.

      The only way to truly experience another's subjective state would be to become them.

      Consider tetrachromes, or women that can see four wavelengths of light; they have proteins that allow them to have a more diverse internal experience to the same spectrum of light that we all see. We know this because they can distinguish between wavelength of light that are two narrowly spaced together for the rest of us to perceive. They really DO have a verifiable experience that the rest of us cannot have.

      Yes no one would claim that they are more conscious than the average individual. Perception is a component of consciousness but does not equal consciousness in totality.

    • M Collings

      Better description than the article I would say and shorter no less. Well done.

    • Arnold Trehub

      I agree. The key is egocentric perspective in a living brain. For example, see here:

    • George

      So, this is a roundabout way of saying "consciousness is the context, background in which 1st-person experiences arise" - but using the word "perspective" because "consciousness" is now a ruined word?

      It fits nicely. And the idea of deep sleep no longer means an absence of you, since we're moving away from brain-identity, just an absence of trace in the present moment perspective, and so an inability to create a "past" for that period.

  • Felix Watts

    Wait a minute, no - I cannot imagine a thing that acts like a human but has no internal mental life. To act like a human, a thing would definitely need internal state, a system of attention and decision making. Consciousness is just the subjective aspect of that system.

    We don't need to worry about what that subjective realm is or how it effects the physical because it doesn't effect anything. The action of the universe creates the feeling of making a decision rather than vice versa. A river flowing around a rock probably feels as though it is deciding which path to take.

    • Michael Hanlon

      'just' the subjective aspect of that system? So much in so little a word ...!

  • Yavor Siderov

    A superb piece of informed scepticism. Thank you, Michael Hanlon, for translating an intellectually challenging topic into a text accessible to the layman!

    • Michael Hanlon

      Well thank you muchly sir

  • Ydre

    Sir, first we have to ask, why the consciousness appeared and when. This question is essential. Assuming that only humans have consciousness and we are the very best products of the Mother Nature, the ultimate hit; we can say that consciousness is only a step on the evolution scale. The very last step, still now. This awareness help us to socialize, to understand our peers, it's just a very sophisticated and efficient tool.
    It's a product from the same family with memory and intelligence. We need all of them to survive, to conquer, like lions need their teeth, claws and muscles. We are not Gods, we are just the ultimate predators. All these thoughts and questions are just the side effect of this formidable weapon. The Mother Nature didn't intend that. We are all ready the kings of the world, there is no enemy to face us, so we kind a play with the guns.
    In the end, to conclude, consciousness is just a weapon.

    • Michael Hanlon

      Why assume only humans have consciousness? Lots of other animals socialise and understand their peers, so it seems odd to assume that apes, dogs, crows even some invertebrates are not conscious.

      • tennenrishin

        When it comes to consciousness each of us has only one absolute data point: viz. "I am conscious".

        We cannot prove that other humans are conscious, but we believe they are because they are "like us".
        As we move to
        vertebrates>invertebrates>plants>inanimate objects
        we believe decreasingly that they are conscious, because they are decreasingly "like us".

        We center our circle on our one data point, but who knows what the radius is.

        • Michael Hanlon

          No, we cannot prove other humans are conscious but it seems reasonable to suppose they are. I cannot prove that the stars are not in fact lights shining through an immense dome a hundred miles over my head, and that an enormous conspiracy is afoot, but it seems to be reasonable to assume this is not the case.

          • tennenrishin

            Agreed, but WHY does it seem reasonable to suppose that other humans are conscious? I ask this question not to cast doubt on their consciousness but to identify the reason for this belief, with a view to exploring the prospects of extrapolating it.

            As far as I can tell, the reason ultimately comes down to:
            "I am conscious. They are like me. So they are conscious."

            Now, please suffer a metaphor with me. Suppose you have no background knowledge to inform your beliefs about some exotic planet's surface temperatures. Then you obtain a single temperature reading of 100K at a single point on its surface. You now know the temperature at that point, but what do you believe about the temperature elsewhere on that planet? If you have only one data point and no background knowledge, the best estimate is that the temperature over the planet's entire surface is 100K. To believe that the temperature drops to 0K as you move away from where your measurement was taken, is to attach unwarranted significance to the location of your data point.

            Likewise with believing that things are not conscious just because they are "not like me". A rock doesn't have a mouth to speak to me and limbs to interact with me, but if I have never felt what it is like to be a rock, how on earth can I be so sure that a rock isn't conscious in some very primitive sense of the word? I am, after all, just an intricately arranged rock myself, right?

            For all I know, each cell in my body may be primitively conscious. Perhaps any system/subsystem that we choose to draw a boundary around can be ascribed some level of consciousness. If you can split two brain hemispheres and each seems to exhibit its own personality, perhaps each does have its own consciousness.

            Two comments ago you said: "Why assume only humans have consciousness? Lots of other animals socialise and understand their peers." Now I ask you: Why assume only animals have consciousness? Is the ability to socialise and understand peers really a prerequisite for consciousness?

          • Michael Hanlon

            For all we know each cell may be. But when it comes to coming up with answers for things we do not understand, we have to start with what we know, or at least with what seems most obvious. Another human is more like me, a human, than I am like anything else. We share so much in common it seems odd to suppose that a property so apparently fundamental as consciousness is NOT shared between us. I know Occam's Razor is not a law but a guide, but it does seem to be useful here.

          • tennenrishin

            "But when it comes to coming up with answers for things we do not understand, we have to start with what we know..."


            "... or at least with what seems most obvious"

            Yes intuitions guide us. But even our intuitions are informed by underlying reasons. We consider them to be intuitions when we are not yet consciously aware of what those reasons are. Just because we are convinced of the intuitions doesn't mean their underlying reasons have no more use. If we successfully dig up the reasons underlying our intuitions, we often end up sharpening the intuition and converting it to more generalizable analytical knowledge. If we are interested in whether entity X is conscious, it helps to ask why we believe what we believe about the consciousness of other entities.

          • tennenrishin

            "I cannot prove that the stars are not in fact lights shining through an immense dome a hundred miles over my head."

            Actually, we can prove that, and it isn't even hard. I was talking about something that is *impossible* to prove, and not with the purpose of casting doubt on our reasonable beliefs, but with the purpose of pointing out a degree of arbitrary freedom in the reason that underpins those beliefs.

      • tennenrishin

        "Why assume only humans have consciousness? Lots of other animals socialise and understand their peers."

        Why assume only animals have consciousness? Is the ability to socialise and understand peers really a prerequisite for consciousness?

  • Jim Clark

    Our confidence in scientific knowledge about the world is NOT dependent on our understanding of consciousness. The knowledge that our intellect has developed using science is as sound as the empirical evidence, which is immense in some cases (evolution), more moderate in others, and limited in other cases. Nothing to do with consciousness. So that is a red herring, something Templeton-supported writers are famous for ... anything to diminish our confidence in science and enhance our confidence in speculation, usually of the religious or supernatural sort.
    As for understanding consciousness, the fact that it is hard does not mean that it is impenetrable. Understanding many aspects of the natural world has been extremely challenging and science has been up to the task. Indeed, many people have difficulty even grasping our known understanding of most topics understood by scientists. What will make consciousness more difficult to understand is the false claim that there is something special and ethereal about consciousness, rather than seeing it as another natural phenomenon. In much the same way, resistance to seeing humans as animals probably underlies many people's resistance to evolutionary models for human existence.

    • Erik P Hoel

      "Our confidence in scientific knowledge about the world is NOT dependent on our understanding of consciousness."

      Tell that to a locked-in patient.

    • Michael Hanlon

      Jim. I am not attacking science. Far from it. I think - no, I know - that the consciousness problem is a scientific problem and only science will answer it. My argument is that it has not done so, to date, nor has it even come close despite what many have claimed.
      As to the relationship between our scientific knowledge of the world and our (complete) lack of knowledge of how our minds work, you do not have to be a Templetonian to see that there is, at least potentially, a problem here.
      I am NOT advocating some sort of mystical explanation of consciousness, still less any traditional religious view (most religions have little or nothing of interest to say about this and for the record I have no faith) but just some recognition that this is a weird, rather wonderful area of mystery that might - just might - need some new thinking beyond 'it's neurons doing stuff'.
      A good analogy would be this: you are in charge of a large weather forecasting agency. You are pitched a brilliant new supercomputer that, the salesman says, will allow you to make accurate forecasts for weeks ahead. But he won't tell you how it works. Do you buy it?

      • Jim Clark

        The scientific meta-question is not whether we have come "close" but whether we are coming closer to understanding consciousness through scientific study. And as a psychologist, I find it disappointing to hear anyone comment about "our complete lack of knowledge of how our minds work." Nice to know that a century or more of work has led to nought. Not that whether our lack of knowledge is complete or partial infers anything about our knowledge in other domains, which stands independent of our understanding of the mechanism that produced that knowledge (i.e., our brain). I do not need to understand the workings of airplanes to fly from Toronto to Athens. Finally, whether scholars think they are attacking science or not or are personally believers in god is largely irrelevant to the question of the consequences of the messages being promulgated widely thanks to Templeton funding, very often including the message of the limitations of science, leaving a void to be filled by ?????. I would be very interested in hearing about any Templeton project that promoted the idea that religion is a negative force in society and impedes science, one view out there in the wider expanse of ideas about religion and science.

        • Michael Hanlon

          Templeton aside, for a moment, we really do not have any idea how our minds work. You don't, I don't, no one does. Decades of work and all we have is a lot of labels, a lot of descriptions; we can describe in acute detail lots of the things that DESCRIBE the mind and do all sorts of things to make ill people better. But that is it.
          It's a bit like a car mechanic understanding the basics of an engine, even being able to tinker with it, without knowing anything about the combustion of gasoline. I know quite a lot about how my computer works on one level - I can load software, change settings; I know about CPUs and flash memory and so forth - but can I explain, mathematically, the quantum tunneling that is the basis of the function of the semiconductors that make it all happen? Can I hell ...
          A question: as a psychologist, do you believe that when someone suffers from mental illness their brain is sick? Or their mind?

          • Arnold Trehub

            Michael, you claim that nobody knows how the mind works. I can' t accept this broad claim because there is abundant theoretical and empirical evidence supporting a particular model of how the human cognitive brain works. For example, see *The Cognitive Brain* (MIT Press 1991). Also, take a look at "Space, self, and the theater of consciousness" (2007) in *Consciousness and Cognition*, and "Where Am I? Redux" (2013) in *Journal of Consciousness Studies*.

            You might disagree with the views expressed in these publications, but you can't dismiss them without a principled rebuttal.

        • Michael Hanlon

          For what it is worth, the Templeton ethos is not to promote the supposed 'limitations of science'. More to challenge the (false) dichotomy that has arisen, especially in the United States, that says you can have God, or science, but not both.

    • Guest

      "Our confidence in scientific knowledge about the world is NOT dependent on our understanding of consciousness."

      You don't have to understand how a microscope works in order to look through it, but understanding the instrument is crucial in understanding the nature of what you're looking at - or, as is the case, the nature of looking, period.

  • Ianto_Jones

    Michael Hanlon is a science journalist and a Templeton Journalism Fellow

    This was all I needed to read in order to know this entire article was bollocks.

    • Michael Hanlon

      Such wit!

  • Emmanuel Karavousanos

    When one analyzes the obvious, only then can an individual attain full knowleddge of the consciousness dilemma. It can and does become innate ... intuitive! Whitehead wrote, "Familiar things happen and mankind does not bother about it. It requires a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious." Consciousness just IS.... In attaining the so-called mystical state, the individual KNOWS all. As crazy as this may sound from an intellectual standpoint, Attaining the higher state of consciousness oneaccepts the universe and life exactly as they are. Animals, birds and even insects know pure consciousness. How? Why? They live in what we know to be, the present!
    We too can attain that precious gift.
    Emmanuel Karavousanos

  • IMfrederick

    "Consciousness is the faculty of awareness—the faculty of perceiving that which exists.

    Awareness is not a passive state, but an active process. On the lower levels of awareness, a complex neurological process is required to enable man to experience a sensation and to integrate sensations into percepts; that process is automatic and non-volitional: man is aware of its results, but not of the process itself. On the higher, conceptual level, the process is psychological, conscious and volitional. In either case, awareness is achieved and maintained by continuous action.

    Directly or indirectly, every phenomenon of consciousness is derived from one’s awareness of the external world. Some object, i.e., some content, is involved in every state of awareness. Extrospection is a process of cognition directed outward—a process of apprehending some existent(s) of the external world. Introspection is a process of cognition directed inward—a process of apprehending one’s own psychological actions in regard to some existent(s) of the external world, such actions as thinking, feeling, reminiscing, etc. It is only in relation to the external world that the various actions of a consciousness can be experienced, grasped, defined or communicated. Awareness is awareness of something. A content-less state of consciousness is a contradiction in terms." Ayn Rand Lexicon

  • ec20flat

    Defining and deriving consciousness is overrated. Kurzweill predicts hard AI - not consciousness. Hard AI is functionally and fundamentally different.

    This article missed the camp (actually dismissed with disdain) that thinks consciousness is an evolutionary mechanism developed to make sense of sensations and preserve the state of being to the best of possibilities. If you make a machine, and program conservation of being, it still would not be conscious - just because it would never face the possibility of evolutionary material extinction (That's when you get violations of the programmer's sense of self-preservation - or Asimov's rules in lay terms).

    Instead the article chose to jump to material quantum interaction hypotheses which is just ripe for speculation. Therefore, the article suffers from the observer bias where the observer believes (showing a marked evolutionarily defined Dunning-Kruger bias) that their definition of 'human' consciousness is better than a mouse or an animal's state of consciousness. Note that animal consciousness is shaped by physiological semantic possibilities but defined according to human standards. For example, if Nim Chimpsky were allowed in the argument, then Nim had something on par with human consciousness. But instead we choose to believe 'Man was created lord of all animals' to justify our actions.

    My point here is, the author's description of consciousness - as outlined in the article's first paragraphs - is absolutely flawed. I can claim that all the author was doing with the anthromorphization and the self-tickling was simulate an imposition of themselves on external objects to predict possible outcomes in interaction or co-associate emotional sensations to help memorization.

    • Michael Hanlon

      Not sure what you are trying to say here. First off, evolution does not really 'develop mechanisms'; advantageous traits may arise as a result of natural selection, kin selection, sex selection and so forth. Consciousness is a complex property of some kinds of matter (animals, basically) that must have arisen as a result of evolutionary processes and yet it is unclear why. But I may be picking at semantics here.
      I don't think our amazement at our consciousness arises from 'a need to convey' anything. It's just weird that we are like this, when you think about it, which I accept most people do not most of the time but hey, I do, and so do others.

      • ec20flat

        Yes, you are picking at semantics and choosing to be obtuse. It is a rather well defined term.

        There is nothing unclear or 'complex' about evolutionary emergent properties. It is merely a stochastic representation and not a deterministic one. That's the reason for your incredulity - you desperately wish to choose the 'grand plan' as the reason for your being.

        The point of my earlier post is, you 'cherry picked' your 'descriptions of consciousness' to be the wildest and most unprovable. Then you blast them as being unprovable and support your conclusion 'consciousness is the hardest problem; we have not and we are not going to land any blows to it anytime soon'. You haven't once cited the technologist or theoretical linguist schools, Noam Chomsky/Marvin Minsky for examples - where the major works on philosophy of machine understanding, AI, consciousness, and the role semantics play in all of them, actually reside.

        When a technologist talks about 'Hard AI', those are the schools they cite. But you chose instead to cite minor characters that primarily study the language of philosophy (and not the technology of philosophy) or major characters who are not noted for their study of the technology of philosophy. It like you wrote an article on the future of Mexican politics by interviewing a WASP American for their opinion of Mexico. If you apply Occam's razor to your notions and the 'consciousness is an evolutionary mechanism arising from social language need' idea, you will find that evolution is the simplest formal description that answers all the questions about consciousness.

        • Michael Hanlon

          No it doesn't. Evolution, that is, does not 'answer all the questions about consciousnesses'.
          You can, for example, have a full understanding of how evolution operates and yet have no idea of how a bird can fly. Birds evolved flight, ipso facto, you seem to be saying, that's all we need to know. But of course that would be utter nonsense. You would also need to know a lot about aerodynamics to understand how birds can fly, just as you need to know a lot about biochemistry to understand photosynthesis. You are confusing cause with explanation.
          Evolution is a process that has allowed - caused - living structures to arise. But it does not explain how they work, any more than a full understanding of the 19th Century British Parliamentary Railway Acts would tell you anything about how a steam engine works.

          • ec20flat

            You choose to ignore my point about the linguistic and semantic conventions surrounding formal language and how language and speech and the necessity for social language play the critical role in defining 'notions of consciousness'. You choose to ignore my point on your selective interpretations presented in the article. You choose to not understand the implication of evolutionarily conserved mechanisms conferring consciousness (or maybe that's your personal limitation). And then you tell me I am confused?

            If you choose to approach consciousness from the perspective of qualia (which by definition has roots in semantics), it can never be well defined (since you restricted yourself to known language). However, if you choose to take a systemic view of consciousness - an emergent framework correlating sensory input with (stochastic) decision making while maximizing evolutionary success rate based on past experience and encoded (hereditary) knowledge - you have the means to a definition.

            We in the hard AI field take the view that consciousness is the 'stochastic, self-programming operating system' enabled by a plurality of sensorimotor components. The larger the number of components, the more complex a system gets. After a point your design equations, mapping sensor input to motor output, lose physical relevance and approach a black-box quality where only abstract statistical metrics matter. That is the tipping point, where metaphysically, you approach an embodiment of consciousness.

            Those abstract metrics are your effective qualia. The ability to predict behavior of the external world in order to manipulate it (or the ability to 'self-simulate') leads to the ability (possessed by the OS) to create an anthromorphic bird. Why would it do that, you ask? For the same reason as you - to evoke a certain sensation in the reader.

            Also, a single organism in the whole world, by itself cannot be defined intelligent or conscious. Even its existence cannot be defined. Intelligence and consciousness are social phenomena and require reference frames. So in your article, you build up consciousness to be something metaphysical and magical since you possess no language or grammar to describe it. Then you claim it cannot be reproduced in the next 37 years - all because your frames of reference are arbitrarily based on incomplete understanding, personal incomprehension and self-serving standards.

            Your article also suffers from confirmation bias where you need a conscious entity to behave like what you imagine it needs to look like before you will call it conscious. Given those high standards, you won't recognize consciousness if it slapped you with a salami.

            All psychological behavior, creativity and all those 'moments of
            brilliance or lucidity' have distinct physiological reasons
            (doctors/psychologists owe their bread to that) - but most of the time
            you don't have the ability to measure your internal serotonin/dopamine
            (etc.) levels - so you cannot ascribe cause to why you did what you did -
            and using correlation is causation and post hoc ergo propter hoc, you
            mistake your psychology (and all the complicated autonomous internal processes that you have no knowledge of) as something mystical. Humans can stoke their
            own ego as much as they like and pretend that consciousness is something
            special and unique and a mark of higher being and greater scheme of things - but it is not.

            And Ianto_Jones is quite accurate. Good day.

          • Michael Hanlon

            I chose to ignore these points because they did not make any sense. You are using language to obfuscate, not explain. Wading through it again you seem to be saying that 'consciousness' is some sort of linguistic/semantic construct. It isn't. Not is it (so far as I know) 'mystical'. But it is weird and odd and needs explaining. And what on earth do you mean by "Also, a single organism in the whole world, by itself cannot be defined intelligent or conscious. Even its existence cannot be defined."?

          • ec20flat

            Either you push an agenda here, or you shouldn't be writing opinion pieces.

            Language serves a social purpose and cannot exist independent of your social reality. Language shapes thought and culture and does not exist in isolation. These are not speculative opinions, these are facts (Theories of mind, origin of speech, origin of language - just look these up on wikipedia). So this raises the possibility that your personal notions on consciousness are shaped by the language that you use.

            Given no need for communication and no possibility for
            observations of interaction, what metric would you use to confer adjectives (like 'intelligent' or 'conscious') to that 'isolated organism'. That point illustrates the social and relative nature of language and its adjectives.

            See Minksy's argument against qualia. As organisms we do not possess any information on our chemical makeup at any point of time, and we do not possess absolute memory (only relative and that too compressed using noisy/stochastic processes, for example see Seung's NNMF and memory by parts). So when encountering a new sensation, your sensations of 'consciousness' or 'qualia' for example, it is hypocritical to assume that there is a mystic explanation for it - rather than just an unknown combination of internal states. There are many states, so the possibilities are many, but it does not mean the problem is one of 'quantum duality'.

            And what are the odds that even if consciousness were duplicated, people like you and from organized religion would deny it because it didn't fit in with their world-view?

          • Michael Hanlon

            "Either you push an agenda here, or you shouldn't be writing opinion pieces."
            Eh? Surely the whole point of writing opinion pieces is to push an agenda?

            Anyway. Your point being that 'consciousness' is no more than a socio-linguistic construct. Didn't ideas like this disappear up their own fundament some time around 1979? I am not assuming anything 'mystical' and I clearly take issue with the whole quantum duality explanation, so I don't know what you are getting at here.

            Of course language shapes thought and opinion. Whoever said it did not? But I do not see what bearing this has here.

          • ec20flat

            The point of opinion pieces from so-called intellectuals is to lead an open debate.

            Consciousness as a socio-linguistic construct died in 1979 - No they never disappeared. People were not willing to believe in the notion, neither were they able to challenge it. So they deviated to other notions that were easier to defend or attack. Big data, natural language processing and machine translation have brought the role of language in social/economical/technological development of cultures back up.

            Graziano's article, that I discovered later, supports my points. In fact, rereading my posts in the light of his 'attention schema' will be useful. He also refers to evolutionary arguments and a mental simulation system.

            Abusing the non-classical notions of physics, the observer influences observations. The observer can only describe the observation using 'language' to another. In this case, the observer is also on a non-inertial reference frame, so every measurement is with respect to itself.

            Given a limited language (set of symbols, to use information theory patois), the rate of information conveyance and possible interpretations of a noisy stream of symbols (interpretations are also non-markovian, the final idea depends upon the sequence and choice of symbols) - are all limited. The noise in such a limited channel is also high (noise coming from a vaguely defined dictionary). So given this idea, that your language, its richness and history, all affect consciousness and the ideas that your observations are already self-referential and self-conforming (observer influencin observations; influence of how you think - which depends on language), what you think of consciousness only becomes a personal construct.

            If the means of expression become a part of the expression itself, then the expression is suspect. Hence the argument, grandiloquent (what I called mystic earlier) consciousness is not based on repeatable metrology. Real consciousness is arguable more humdrum and less fascinating. (When you see it, you won't be amazed).

          • George

            ...what you think of consciousness only becomes a personal construct.

            ...a personal construct that you are aware of - conscious of, in other words. Surely you are just highlighting the difference between thinking-about something (communicating it to yourself, then perhaps others) and experiencing it? We might come up with schemes and descriptions, but they seem not to get at the real deal - the "what it is like to be me" of it all.

            This is the heart of the "hard problem".

          • ec20flat

            Addendum - On MH's note that evolution does not explain how consciousness works. My response -

            Evolution is basically an emergent phenomenon. Consider a simple Mandelbrot-ian model for emergent structures - a high dimensional random walk. An examination of the local structure does not have an intuitively satisfactory explanation of the geometry of the larger structure - but the local structure does have a mathematically accurate definition. What this is supposed to demonstrate is that emergent phenomena can only have stochastically satisfactory descriptions, but they are not necessarily classically satisfactory in the injective surjective sense. The individual part is easy to describe and explain, the sum of parts, not so much. (A side note: Evolution is only simplified to be Markovian, it is not. This would add far greater complexity to the system than we can handle at the moment.)

            Consider the equivalent question: Why do we walk on exactly two legs? Does the answer, "Because, evolution." appear satisfactory to you? To me, it does not. But it is the cause.

            So when I called consciousness an emergent phenomenon, that was, ipso facto, a sufficient and usable description of consciousness.

            The crux of the argument here is similar to the Copenhagen interpretation debates - probabilistic determinacy versus classical determinism. MH belongs to the classical group.

          • Ian Wardell

            This is the reason I no longer allow comments on my blog.

          • Ian Wardell

            "We in the machine intelligence field take the view that consciousness is
            the 'stochastic, self-programming operating system' enabled by a
            plurality of sensorimotor components".

            You can believe in whatever twaddle you like. But the fact is that consciousness is not physical and cannot in principle be reduced to any physical process.

      • Stan Klein

        Hanlon "Not sure what you are trying to say here"

        I think that is spot on. the problem s the source of the confusion. I suggest a mirror might hep disentangle.

  • Mike M

    Search for Jiddu Krishnamurti on Youtube, specially the dialogues with Prof. Allan Aderson and Prof. David Bohm

  • Sidney Clouston

    "The problem is that no one has ever seen this field." FALSE. I will simply say that someone saw my Astral Projection and reported to me what I saw him do (kick at me) when I did the visit and I did not prompt this validation. I have earned a Black Belt in Classical Karate with practice in Zazen (Meditation) in the Zen Tradition. I have studied with the Rosicrucian Order (AMORC) and attained a high degree, where the practice of conscious projection is an advanced technique. I had years of practice or preparation and a good amount of perspiration. This is of the epistemological section of A Posteriori not A priori theory with lack of experience or evidence. I reject the statement in quotes above from the article.

  • Keith Rowley

    Thank you for a well written piece on this deepest of subjects. Personally I look on the wild claims of science that its observations of brain areas associated with specific thoughts somehow reveal the nature of consciousness as entirely risible. I think it is worth at least considering that the physical brain may act essentially as a conduit for the thing we call consciousness, much as a radio receiver acts as a conduit for electromagnetic energy. Whatever the truth may be, it seems unlikely to be resolved by the materialist-reductionist paradigm which has been so fabulously successful in other endeavors. What science runs from like a frightened horse is any form of teleology, which is anathema to the reductionist paradigm. However, the consequence of this for science is that we end up with utter absurdities such as 'Boltzmann Brains', driven by probability, randomness and time, much as astronomers were driven to epicycles and related absurdities when they rejected the simplicity of heliocentricity.

  • DonnaCabel0

    First time i trusted an online job add and managed to make 90$ in 5 hours... ⅇ­x­i­t­3­5­.­c­ℴ­ℳ

  • srini

    This whole article boils down to "even if we know what someone is thinking about..., we still don’t know what it’s like to be that person"... and it gives clichéd examples of "redness of red", etc. why is it a problem (and "hard" one at that !)? In any part of science, including those we don't perceive existence of "problems", all we have is best estimation based on our observations (whether information fitting matter/energy
    or vice versa). Why is that yardstick not sufficient when it comes to consciousness?

    Is it vanity that we humans are exceptional that there is something beyond physical aspects of our awareness, thoughts and feelings (consciousness, as some call it) that compels us seek answers to a "hard problem" that does not exist? If consciousness is not physical, why does the consciousness get profoundly affected by physical things such as chemicals, magnetism, physical impact, etc.?

    You may say, "alright, physical it is... so why does consciousness exist and what is it". If we breakdown what we mean by consciousness to its component parts like awareness (self & external), thoughts, and feelings, then, one can recognize that these are the result of a self organizing evolutionary process, both as an individual organism and as part of an ecosystem. Evolution does not have to be confined to physical structure of an organism, but also information collection, analysis, and management that is required in order to prosper by manipulation of surrounding matter and energy.

    Just because consciousness is physical, consciousness' distinctiveness is not diminished. If we recognize that it is a path, and not a place, it becomes that much easier to appreciate. We do not know where it would lead us, but we know the path we have tread so far. If we take clue from the universe, this path is likely stretch infinitely in front of us.

    • Michael Hanlon

      Consciousness is set apart from most other scientific problems because with it we simply do not have a clue. At all. Not even a plausible guess as to what is going on. That is not true in physics, or most of biology, or astronomy. We don''t know for sure whether we live in a flat or saddle-shaped universe but we agree on what these terms mean at least and what sort of observations would confirm or refute either. But with how our minds work - what our minds ARE - we draw a blank. And I do not know what you mean by 'vanity'; how could it be otherwise that we humans want to know how we humans work?

  • aaron meldahl

    I've been following these recent articles about consciousness with interest, but only vague understanding. Just when I think I've apprehended the argument, it seems to slip through my mental net. Basically, it seems to me that many of the researchers and thinkers referenced here are not really even regarding the same question, but instead focused on one of the following:
    Does consciousness exist?
    Why does it exist?
    How does it exist?
    What is it like?
    All of these questions should be scientifically approachable (although answering "no" to the first one would obviate the need to even consider the others) yet probably the biggest reason for the continued fragmentation of the field is that the subjective experience of one's own consciousness colors the interpretation of any useful data that emerge. The only other area of study comparable in this regard would probably be linguistics.
    I think few would ever be able to accept that consciousness (or perception or attention or whatever) doesn't exist at all, and "why" is ultimately closer to a spiritual question than a scientific one. Mr. Hanlon obviously believes that the third question is more important than the last one. Since as far as we know, consciousness naturally only arises in living things (until we discover Solaris or some Star-Trekkian disseminated consciousness in interstellar gas), it must be a product of evolution. This leads me to compare it to all of the accidents of biology we understand to various degrees of certainty, for example, replication, sexual reproduction, photosynthesis, feathers, love, language, society, etc. Isn't it interesting that we may know how many of these things work and what they are like, but we still don't know how they arose? Moreover, while we can create systems or structures that behave like them (akin to "ratty consciousness"), why can we still cannot create exact versions even though we may know how they function down to an almost atomic level?
    Thus, could it be that the "hard problem" is actually more pervasive than minders of the mind recognize? As self-centered humans, the question of "What am I?" seems most mysterious and pressing, yet is it not the same old question of "What is life?" whose answer has eluded us for as long as we knew to ask it?

    • aaron meldahl

      Furthermore, while it's a good point that "we simply do not have a clue" what is going on with consciousness, I can't help but wonder if the reason is technical/ethical rather than something special about consciousness itself. People used to think plenty of bizarre things about the human body until dissections became acceptable, but to root out how the magic meat is creating consciousness in the same way would be, simply, far too cruel. Although knowledge of how the brain controls the body was supplied by exposing the living brain in direct (and cruel) animal experiments, how would one exactly go about digging around in a human's brain to find out what parts make sponge cake feel spongy and make the taster aware of his own perception of that sensation? The few and narrowly-proscribed chances afforded by brain surgeries cannot nearly be comprehensive enough. So fMRI studies are probably the only thing scientists really have to work with until another non-invasive, non-destructive technology comes along ...

      • Michael Hanlon

        Very good point. I think the answer will surely lie in Blue-brain-style modelling, but that in itself may raise ethical concerns if we decide that conscious entities (and hence entities which can suffer) are being created in a machine.

      • drokhole

        "So fMRI studies are probably the only thing scientists really have to work with until another non-invasive, non-destructive technology comes along ..."

        I believe psychedelics, when administered under safe and secure settings, could be an incredibly useful tool in this endeavor. Here is a fascinating article by Alan Watts to illustrate what I mean:

        Psychedelics and Religious Experience

        He uses the term "religious experience," but what he is strictly speaking of is an immediate, direct experience of a somewhat commonly reported "non-ordinary" state of consciousness in which psychedelics offer a, more or less, reliable reproduction of. Watts noted four key common characteristics: a slowing down of time/a concentration in the present; awareness of polarity; awareness of relativity; and awareness of eternal energy. As to why these are matters worth exploring, I'm in full agreement with William James on the matter, who said:

        "No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves those other forms of consciousness quite disregarded."

        No account of consciousness can be final, either.

        Before the effective moratorium on psychedelic research in the '60s, there was a great deal of experiments with promising findings that demanded further study (a few papers made their way into the excellent book The Highest State of Consciousness by John White). One such researcher is featured in this excellent long-read covering creative-breakthroughs, transcendent experiences, and more:

        The Heretic

        And here's a fascinating look at an informal experiment with Dr. Humprhy Osmond and Lord Christopher Mayhew:

        The Mescaline experiment: Humphry Osmond and Christopher Mayhew

        Osmond also famously administered mescaline to noted author Aldous Huxley, which led to Huxley's The Doors of Perception. His reasoning was that Huxley's mastery of language and reflection would make him uniquely capable of conveying the experience in a way better than most others. As scientists are some of the most highly trained observers in our society, I feel their insights would be of equally high value.

        Research has only picked up again recently, though with great difficulty and under quite severe restrictions. Roland Griffiths work at Johns Hopkins with psilocybin (the active ingredient in "magic mushrooms") is particularly fascinating, with participants counting it as one of the top five most significant experiences of their entire lives. Most of these studies are geared towards palliative care, though, so questions they raise/provoke in the realm of consciousness are not being pursued.

        Psychedelics could be as important to the study of consciousness as the microscope in biology and the telescope in astronomy. A tool, a technology - whatever you want to call it - I think we're crippling ourselves by suppressing their use. As to how to use them, Watts puts it best:

        "If you get the message, hang up the phone. For psychedelic drugs are simply instruments, like microscopes, telescopes, and telephones. The biologist does not sit with eye permanently glued to the microscope, he goes away and works on what he has seen..."

    • Michael Hanlon

      Thank you for this perceptive take. The overlap between the Hard Problem and the Adamsesque 'Life, the Universe and Everything' problem probably explains why we have made so little progress - it seems to put the question into the realms of the mystical rather than science and hence scares people off.
      A key question, which may or may not shed light on the Hard Problem, is whether or not consciousness can exist in on-living entities. Logically there would seem to be no reason why not, unless we are really made of magic meat, but it's unproven. If Markram gets his electrobrain fired up and teaches it enough English/French for us to make sense of what it is thinking, the first question I would ask it would be about the Hard Problem. Ditto if we ever meet/get a radio message from ET.

  • tpcowberry

    Why do we always begin with matter, and then try to explain how consciousness emerges from that? Doing so involves a completely arbitrary assumption. Start instead with consciousness, the ONLY thing we actually experience directly. Everything we believe to have solidity exists within that context, and possibly nowhere else at all.

    How do we ignore the obvious clues? What we see, hear, smell, taste, and feel---there's nothing more direct about any of this than a deciphering of electro-chemical impulses in the brain. What is "out there" is an experience in the brain---assuming that the brain is real at all. When we delve into the depths of solid matter, we quickly discover that the basic units that comprise what seems so solid consist almost entirely of empty space; when we tease apart what we think at last to be the truly solid bits, we're left with odd subatomic particles that in turn dissolve into equations and probabilities, with all our cherished, common sense presumptions about physicality fading away like the Cheshire Cat. As with the cat, the last thing to go is the grin.

    The "physical" bits of the world might only be units of meaning, from which Consciousness creates a universe. Reality may be no more real that a dream, which is actually as real as anything gets. Mathematics and physics might be like a study of the rules of grammar. This, I think, is every bit as likely as what we normally presume to be true.

    • jeremyweate

      Nice line of thought. What if consciousness were the organising principle, a form of fundamental intelligence that structures the existence of the world (and other possible worlds)? Consciousness as a process inherent in all things (including cellular and non-organic matter)?

      • tpcowberry

        What if consciousness were the organizing principle...

        My intuition tells me that this is so. My logic asks how it could be otherwise. Every aspect of the universe that we know exists entirely within the context of consciousness. What order do we actually know of that exists outside of that context?

        • Michael Hanlon

          I agree that all knowledge is conscious knowledge, but then again how could any other kind be possible? I suppose a race of zombies could discover all sorts of things about the universe but would this constitute knowledge or something else entirely?

    • joymars

      Human consciousness is but one of millions of consciousnesses that exist/have existed on this planet. Ours is a self-conscious type of consciousness, but that is not the only type. What distinguishes human consciousness -- the perception/recognition of self -- is OUR hard problem. The rest of nature finds no hard problems with consciousness.
      And, no, consciousness of any kind does not precede the laws of physics. (Laws are not consciousness.) "Eternal Forms" is the Platonic poppycock that has been responsible for most of our befuddled beliefs -- one of our specie's less endearing characteristics.

      • tpcowberry

        "And, no, consciousness of any kind does not precede the laws of physics."

        That is nothing more than an assumption, and one that could blind Western science to important avenues of exploration.

        What do we imagine is going on when the very act of observation affects the behavior of the universe on a quantum level? Is the existence of some sort of deep and fundamental interaction between consciousness and the material world not being hinted at?

        • joymars

          Observational changes on the quantum level do not change the nature of anything on the macro-level. We've got two systems of physical laws that essentially contradict each other -- as far as we can perceive them at this time. But this only refers to how we perceive, or can perceive. But please, go right ahead and theorize up the wazoo about what "hints" are hinting at.

          • tpcowberry

            I'm disinclined to accept the initial assumption of philosophical materialism as a self-evident truth simply because others are willing to do so based on faith alone.

          • joymars

            But the "give me that old-time religion" kind of faith you're good with.

          • tpcowberry

            I'm afraid you're attacking the wrong windmill. I'm the one who's disinclined to accept initial assumptions without evidence, remember?

          • tpcowberry

            If you've concluded that, you've made yet another assumption.

  • Arnold Trehub

    The hard problem is turned into an insoluble problem by the mistaken notion that consciousness must be something that is added to an essential brain process -- the activity of a particular kind of brain mechanism. The problem is an epistemological, one that arises because first-person/subjective descriptors and third-person/objective descriptors occupy separate descriptive domains. This problem does not arise for the theoretical explanation of other kinds of physical events. I have proposed a bridging principle as a practical way to circumvent the epistemological barrier:

    _For any instance of conscious content there is a corresponding analog in the biophysical state of the brain_.

    The scientific problem then is to find the system of brain mechanisms that can generate proper analogs of conscious content. My own theoretical solution is the retinoid model of consciousness. For example, see these publications:

  • jeremyweate

    The article makes the same basic mistake as many other articles on Aeon about the hard problem: it assumes that consciousness is the same in all cases, in other words that there is a basic duality between not-conscious and conscious. This doesn't tally with everyday experience, where at various points we are not aware of what we are doing, and at other times, vitally aware. We must begin with a phenomenology of consciousness, rather than assuming that it is a static abstract notion.

    That aside, we may find the journey to an answer from paranormal investigations and experiences, such as interaction with what appear to be the dead (via electronic voice phenomenon) and those who claim to be able to have out of body experiences. There are an increasing number of experimenters taking a scientific approach to both. What if it turns out to be true that conscious awareness can survive the body (either through the body's destruction, or temporarily leaving it at will)? A serious student of paranormal investigations available online will quickly be able to distinguish the pranksters from the serious work being done.

    If consciousness amidst of types and degrees (first paragraph) and can survive the physical body (at least the physical body as we know it), then we can at least begin our enquiry with a sufficiently broad set of assumptions. Without those assumptions, we may be destined to circle around the 'hard' problem and yet get nowhere.

    • Michael Hanlon

      An interesting point Jeremy. There are various forms of consciousness. When you are asleep, but dreaming, you are undoubtedly conscious but in a very different way to how you are conscious while awake. And, as you say, there are several varieties of wakeful consciousness.
      But I would argue that, different as they are, all these forms of consciousness are far, far more like each other than any of them is like anything else. The existence of mindful self-awareness, in any of its 57 varieties, must have an explanation that is not an explanation of anything else.

      • jeremyweate

        Dear Michael. I'm not sure that you can make the assumption that different forms of consciousness may be subject to the same kind of explanation and reduced to being varieties. It may be that certain forms of what we have historically taken to be "human" consciousness are indeed shared by non-human animals. You are no doubt aware of cellular consciousness research, which would then extend consciousness far beyond the realm of primates. In which case, it is perfectly legitimate to question whether we are talking about a single phenomenon with many varieties, or in fact different phenomena, some of which are unique to certain species, many of which are not and therefore, whether one explanation for consciousness is a valid approach.

        Interesting that you reference the consciousness inherent within dreams. Note that lucid dreamers have reflexive consciousness (they are aware that they are dreaming and can change the landscape of their dreams, rather than simply being aware and recording experience within a dream). If reflexive consciousness is available within dream states, it poses problems for those with biologistic/naturalistic explanations of the hard problem.

        One more philosophical (rather than scientific) approach to the problem of consciousness lies within ontology, particularly the phenomenological ontology of the late Merleau-Ponty. In texts such as The Intertwining, The Chiasm, he held that exteriority and interiority (transcendence and immanence) were intimately entwined and co-constitutive. This paradoxical thought may be a pathway towards understanding the inherent reflexivity of the experience of things beyond a simple dualistic frame of reference. There are no pure objects, just as there are no pure subjects, rather, there is an irreducible relationality between things which we abstract into dualistic categories. In comparison, the scienticism of current approaches to the problem - which assume dualism without question - will continue to flounder.

        • Michael Hanlon

          I am not sure anyone is assuming dualism without question these days - indeed some form of monism appears to be taken as read doesn't it?

          • jeremyweate

            A materialist monism is the orthodoxy, yes. But what if monism resolved around consciousness, rather than matter? Mainstream science recoils from the prospect...

          • Michael Hanlon

            See Nagel's recent book Mind and Cosmos ...

          • jeremyweate

            Thanks Michael. Looks interesting!

          • jeremyweate

            And it looks close to McKenna's "evolutionary mind" hypothesis:

          • Michael Hanlon

            It's probably completely wrong but weirdly persuasive and fascinating ... a new take on idealism (even though Nagel says it isn't) ...

      • Arnold Trehub

        I agree. One is conscious if and only if one has an experience of something somewhere in relation to oneself (I!). All forms of consciousness must have at least this minimal property.

        • George

          Is that so? The difference would seem to be one of attentional focus or filtering of the 'perceptual space' we experience.

          If I am concentrating on the image on a movie screen, completely absorbed, I'd still say I am 'conscious', even though my focus is excluding my body and thoughts in that moment, and so there is no relation to an experience of "I".

          There is consciousness, and there is content?

          • Arnold Trehub

            Even if you are completely absorbed in what is happening on the movie screen, you experience these events as happening somewhere in relation to your own locus of perspectival origin (I!). What you perceive is always *something somewhere* in perspectival relation to your self (I!) as the spatiotemporal origin of your phenomenal space.

          • George

            That would seem to make sense, when I think about it afterwards and picture what's going on - in terms of being a body sat in a chair with the television over there - but it's really not my experience. When absorbed in a movie, I don't feel or experience me being "over here" with the screen "over there" - I seem to be just the screen, or rather its content.

            Only afterwards do I 'wake up' and become aware of bodily sensations and thoughts and the distance between them and the screen.

            The answer seems to be (doing a bit of experimentation) that I am "everywhere" in terms of the extended 3d perceptual space, although I identify "me" as some parts of experience and not others, namely body sensations and thoughts. For instance, if I listen to a sound, I seem to hear the sound over where it is, rather than over here where my body is. (You might say this means that 'self-consciousness' drops out, but even without attending to bodily sensations and thoughts, "I-the-experiencer" still seems to be there, just like when I fall asleep and the world fades to be replaced by dreams.)

            If that makes sense!

            EDIT: That means that consciousness is the same in all cases, just the focus or content of consciousness changes?

          • Arnold Trehub

            George: "That means that consciousness is the same in all cases, just the focus or content of consciousness changes?"

            Exactly! For more about this you might want to read the following paper published in *Journal of Consciousness Studies* (2013).


          • George

            Looks interesting - thanks.

          • George

            Ah. Very good, and one of the clearest descriptions I've come across:

            As we shall see, the question “Where in my phenomenal world am I?, and the question “Where in the physical world am I?” can have two different answers.

            So the retinoid system basically captures the 'dream-space-like' nature of our 1st person experience. A world seems to assemble itself, and then an "I-token" or self is inferred and represented within it. Interestingly, if we attend a little, we find that our thoughts and conclusions about our surrounding seem to appear in the same space as the external world - although sometimes there is a vagueness to their location in the 3d space.

            For instance, right now I am sat in this chair - the only real sensory information I have is the feeling of contact with the seat, my fingers on the keyboard, and some neck and back pain plus forehead tension. The rest is just 'empty space', if I go looking. However, I sort-of-experience my inferred boundary on top of that. I seem to imagine myself on top of this experience. Similarly, looking out the window some of the objects in my garden are partially obscured by a chair on the patio. However, I 'feel' them to be there; I do experience the full objects 'on top of' the direct experience.

            In other words, it seems that beliefs and interpretations are directly incorporated into the world experience, located in place.

  • jeremyweate

    Part of my comment on the Graziano article can equally well apply here, so I've pasted it below:

    Stepping aside from this issue, Graziano's article also assumes what it must first define: what is referred to by consciousness? Should we assume that consciousness is a unitary and universal experience, and qualitatively similar in all cases? It seems to me that we can point to at least five qualitatively different forms of consciousness (this category structure could easily be expanded):

    1. Absent minded. This is the default setting for everyday consciousness. We are not fully aware of what we are doing, at any particular moment. Consciousness in this sense is not fully functioning. In Heideggerian terms, ever day consciousness is inauthentic, a form of forgetting

    2. Mindful. The Buddhist concept of mindfulness is essentially reflexive
    consciousness. We are aware of what we are doing, and bring ourselves into the present moment. Mindfulness, rather than just a mode of consciousness, is in fact a form of praxis.

    3.Flow state. The act of being absorbed in the moment – whether playing a sport or a
    game, or in the act of creation – is often reported as the height of experience, by sports people, artists, writers alike.

    4. Hallucinatory. The experience of creating a reality or realm of experience which does not correspond to actual sense data about the world

    5. Epiphanic/visionary. Heightened states of awareness – often achieved through psychedelic drugs or meditation – which appear to break through from ordinary experience to a more penetrating understanding of the nature of ultimate reality

    Until we begin by recognising that there are different modes of consciousness along these lines, its difficult to see the research as being able to address the question of consciousness.

  • joymars

    Magic meat, no. But magic fields? Yes. Let's just say that our consciousness is labeling, seeing it, as "magic." Why should we see clearly? We see as just one species. We assume we see it all, and what we can't see will be solved by more powerful machines that we devise and manufacture. What silly fools we are.

    • Michael Hanlon

      I do not think we are silly fools, actually. Why do you say that?

      • joymars

        We are organism who trash, devalue and ignore the environment we come from. You're right, "silly fool" is a silly and foolish description of us. We deserve a more sobering wake up call.

        • Michael Hanlon

          Any organism which had evolved to occupy the niche we inhabit would, I imagine, do more or less exactly what we have done. We trashed the environment because firstly we had the wherewithal to do so and secondly because we thought it didn't matter. This wasn't because we were foolish but because we didn't know enough. Now we do and are trying to change.

  • Arnold Trehub

    Michael, you claim that nobody knows how the mind works. I can' t accept this broad claim because there is abundant theoretical and empirical evidence supporting a particular model of how the human cognitive brain works. For example, see *The Cognitive Brain* (MIT Press 1991). Also, take a look at "Space, self, and the theater of consciousness" (2007) in *Consciousness and Cognition*, and "Where Am I? Redux" (2013) in *Journal of Consciousness Studies*.

    You might disagree with the views expressed in these publications, but you can't dismiss them without a principled rebuttal. So what is your rebuttal?

    • Michael Hanlon

      Arnold, I love the Dennett story, and your paper is convincing as an explanation for the locus of the self, but does it explain how the subjective experience actually arises? You give a description of how the brain is able to model the three-dimensional universe in which it finds itself, and I accept that this may well be the case, but even if so are we any nearer to answering the question, what is it about that brain that knows and feels it exists? I don't know what you feel about p-zombies but presumably the mechanism you propose would 'work' for them also and yet they would have no self-awareness.
      What it does do I think is to reinforce the suspicion that our perception of ourselves embedded in the 'world' may be iffy.

      • Arnold Trehub

        Michael, I think that what you are asking for is an explanation for the very existence of consciousness/feeling. Since we are not omniscient we cannot explain the very existence of anything, including consciousness. But notice that the same limitation holds for all the sciences -- we cannot explain the sheer existence of electrons, gravity, etc.

        • Michael Hanlon

          Arnold - your analogy does not hold. We can describe the properties of water, say, in such a way that our description is complete; we need to say nothing else other than describe oxygen and hydrogen atoms, hydrogen bonding and so forth, to get to the essence of what water is. We CAN explain its existence, and the existence of all its properties. There is no mysterious extra layer of 'wateriness' that needs further explanation.
          But we can describe every atom in the brain and still have no idea of how consciousness arises nor what it is. There IS a 'mindyness' that is both obviously there and is not explained by physical or psychological descriptions. Sensations etc are real.
          I do not think we need to be omniscient to crack this; I just don't believe we have done so to date and furthermore we seem to be a long way off doing so.

          • Arnold Trehub

            Michael, I've had extended discussions with Joseph Levine, father of the "HARD PROBLEM", and many others of a similar persuasion. The description of the properties of water as H2O, etc. is complete only within the 3rd-person domain of physics, not within the subjective 1st-person domain -- wet, cold, etc. I discuss the problem of relating 3rd-person descriptions to 1st-person descriptions in this chapter appearing in a new book edited by Peirera and Lehman, (Cambridge University Press, 2013): Chapter 7, "A Foundation for the Scientific Study of Consciousness"

          • Michael Hanlon

            I would argue that water's 'wetness' is not the same as the brain's consciousness. As you say, wetness is a 1st-person attribute insofar as it is defined by a feeling, for example the feeling of cold water on mammalian skin. But there are plenty of 3rd-person-domain things we can say about water that predict - exactly - what our first-person responses will be to it. 'Wetness' is a function of the way water molecules arrange themselves, the properties of human skin, relative temperature differences and so on. I'd guess that if we took two liquids that were completely novel (unobtanium trichloride and madeitupium oxide) and were able to measure their physical properties accurately we would have a good idea of what they would feel like if dripped on your skin. If you knew about the properties of ethanol, for instance, you would be able to predict that when poured on your skin it would feel cold when encouraged to evaporate.
            But I don't think anything similar applies to consciousness. There is NO WAY we can KNOW from brain states what a subjective experience is like for the entity having it. Yes we can draw inferences and compare similar brain states vis-a-vis reported subjectivities, but that ain't the same as knowing how water works.

          • Arnold Trehub

            Michael, you wrote:

            "There is NO WAY we can KNOW from brain states what a subjective experience is like for the entity having it. Yes we can draw inferences and compare similar brain states vis-a-vis reported subjectivities, but that ain't the same as knowing how water works."

            I disagree. The neuronal structure and dynamics of the putative retinoid system have enabled us to predict and control the vivid conscious features of an artificially induced hallucination. See the SMTT experiment in "Space, self, and the theater of consciousness. This experiment is a huge advance in understanding how consciousness works.

  • Matt Baen

    "The hard problem’s fascination is that it has, to date, completely and utterly defeated science. ... 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."

    A gauntlet thrown down to the self-congratulatory arrogance of scientism. (See: Pinker, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins...) However, I would tend to shy away from the New Agey mumbo-jumbo about consciousness creating the world or somesuch as another pitfall. In any case, the scientism boosters tend to redefine consciousness into something simpler or dismiss the problem as a problem at all because they know that qualia serves to debunk their grandiose claims about the near-omniscience of current science. Trying to crack the hard problem today is like alchemists trying to construct an atom bomb.

    • jeremyweate

      "New Agey mumbo-jumbo" - quite dismissive of a huge range of different phenomena that mainstream scientific discourse ignores (no matter how keen scientists may be in the topics when not at work). The mounting evidence for paranormal phenomena is quite obvious to anyone who cares to explore the serious amateur research that is taking place: so many similar accounts of ghost orbs and EMF blips in the presence of paranormal activity. Is everyone making this up, dreaming of an afterlife, and are all devices similarly at fault?

      Combined with what we mere mortals can understand of avant-garde physics - quantum non-locality, alternate universes with different properties and rules, dark energy/matter that is conjured up out of mathematical imbalances etc. its hard to understand why there remains a taboo around paranormal research in mainstream scientific discourse. It begins to look like an irrational prejudice, or a fear of a paradigm being popped like a bubble.

  • JJFrank

    "dualism has become immensely unpopular. The problem is that no one has ever seen this field. We see no energy transfer. We can detect no soul."

    And yet we are comfortable "knowing" that 95% of the universe is a completely unknown something called dark energy and/or dark matter.

    • Michael Hanlon

      The difference is that we can detect Dark Matter easily by seeing its gravitational effects, and we can infer the presence of Dark Energy by the behaviour of matter on the cosmological scale; we make no such observations regarding the soul.

      • JJFrank

        Sorry, I haven't been following this thread. In case you still are, then please know that your comment is silly. Try to do better, please. You still seem to believe that you "know" what dark matter is. Because you know that it has a gravitational effect? Are you serious? Can you say with any certainty at all that the dark matter does not contain the reality of a "soul" whatever that may be? Of course not! Dark matter is completely unknown, as is a scientific undertanding of "soul". They could very well be the same or one could be completely contained by the other. Try to at least be honest, not bigoted, please?

        • Michael Hanlon

          You have an odd turn of phrase, sir. But no matter. I'll try to answer your points. Where did I say that I know what dark matter is? If I did I'd have a Nobel Prize. I don't, no one does, and I didn't say I did.
          What I said was that we can detect dark matter, which is a completely different thing to saying we know what it consists of. This is a pretty straightforward viewpoint and I can't really see where you are coming form with your 'bigoted' assertion.

          • JJFrank

            bigoted: "having or revealing an obstinate belief in the superiority of one's own opinions and a prejudiced intolerance of the opinions of others."

            If you were not bigoted, you would say that "soul" is possible because it could be what dark matter contains.

          • Michael Hanlon

            What a silly thing to say. You seem to believe that anyone who does not agree with you is a bigot, right? Aside from your oddly non-standard use of the word (bigotry generally describes a viewpoint informed primarily by personal prejudice on grounds of race, sex, sexual orientation or some other intrinsic property, which isn't really the case here) there is no more evidence to say that the 'soul' is made of dark matter than that it is made of Camembert cheese or rabbit stew. Souls may exist and furthermore may indeed be made of dark matter/energy (or stew) but THERE IS NO EVIDENCE WHATSOEVER THAT THIS IS SO.

          • JJFrank

            Great! Glad that you have come around to be able to state that soul definitely may exist. That was my original point.

      • George

        Well, we do infer that other people have 'conscious minds' from their behaviour, even though we cannot detect those minds. This is not so far off.

        Dark Matter and Dark Energy are basically 'fillers' for certain behaviour, in much the same way. We don't observe them.

        (I'm not advocating souls, just pointing out that using Dark Matters as a response isn't really much of a zinger.)

  • Can Antunez

    Dr. Searle.
    The idea that consciousness is ontologically subjective and objectively
    explainable is both the solution to the mind-body problem and a confirmation
    of its experience, because, if your theory is correct, dualism would always be
    both scientifically false and empirically present. (Addressing John Searle's theory of consciousness) ------->

  • Mister Magoo

    Is Consciousness really a "hard" problem? Indeed, is it really a problem at all?

  • grnasser .

    Good article. What is missing from it is some discussion of the subject-object distinction. Science is unable to understand the non-causal connection we have with our bodies. We are always connected to our bodies in a way that circumvents the causal relationship science assumes exists between the subject and the object. Furthermore, consciousness is not entirely intellectual. The history of art over the span of human civilization attests to this.

    • George

      Care to expand on this? Do you mean this in the sense of, I don't lift my arm, I am my arm, so I move myself - the division between doer and done, actor and acted-upon, is fictitious?

  • Robert Landbeck

    "The hard problem is here to stay" just a little longer! Discovery is one of those delights that completely boggles professional imagination and throws ideas of logic or reason out the window, rewriting the rules for itself! Particularly for long standing questions, where positions have become heavily entrenched with both prejudice, self interest, even institutionalized, change is usually most unwelcome. So any new truth claim that hopes to upend the apple cart gets short shrift. Arthur Schopenhauer wrote: “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed.[ the means of avoiding serious discussion of the claim] Second, it is violently opposed. [by those who stand to lose the most and face considerable humiliation] Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” [when sufficient numbers have tested and confirmed the claim and when denying the new reality becomes no longer tenable.

    So will the question of consciousness be finally resolved but not in way that anyone expected nor welcomed!

  • James Hickman

    So . . . no definition of Qualia or the 'Hard Problem' is ever given. All this article demonstrates is the existence of a persistent myth.

  • rationall


  • Gabriel Finkelstein

    For the nineteenth-century history of this debate, please see the last chapter of my biography of Emil du Bois-Reymond:

  • R F Latta

    If we are not able to understand the processes of our cognition then perhaps it is because we have unstated premises or biases that lead us to misunderstand the totalized fundamental conditions that constitute the experience of a mind evolving in nature.

    Our body, brain and mind are the product of natural selection, a set of adaptations to evolving environmental conditions. Those fundamental conditions set the parameters of our physiological and cognitive adaptations. Our cognition of those conditions is the product of our adaptation to the environment. Our conscious cognition of fundamental conditions is a subset of our adaptation and cognition of our environment.

    The scientific process - proposing a hypothesis, testing predictions based on the hypothesis, evaluating results and reformulating theories - has produced a set of fine regularities that help us define those specific conditions. However the scientific process limits physical and temporal variables in order for theories to be testable and for experiments to be reproducible. The results of evidence based scientific process therefor produces a gradually increasing probability of accuracy in defining subset processes of fundamental conditions.

    Our mind and consciousness would be more understandable if the laws of nature were constant and the nature of reality was entirely predictable. We have not been able to explain consciousness because it is an adaptation to a complex unpredicted reality that we cannot consciously experience in it's totality except in moments of insight and inspiration.

    We try to understand our minds based on assumptions that are conditioned by our emotional preference for regularity. We assume our minds evolve in an environment where the laws of nature are constant and those laws define predictable processes. The cosmological implication of that assumption would be that time is an illusion of the mind. Although we may acknowledge the existence of time our conscious beliefs imply that our choices are limited and the possibilities presented in the environment are constrained if not largely determined. If time is real then in fact possibilities are not entirely determined and our choices are potentially infinite moment to moment. Our cognitive bias, the uncanny ability to notice and focus on irregular or novel events, is evidence that we have evolved within an environment where irregular and unpredictable processes exist in combination with regular processes.

  • T_Rat

    At the start of your article, you ask about the experience of a bird, the motivations that turn our gaze or emotions. And you contrast these with the existence of stars and rocks. You summarize this as the "hard problem" in other words, "how the brain produces the feeling of subjective experience."

    Regarding "we still don’t know what it’s like to be that person." I don't know if I agree. If the meaning of the term 'like" is sufficiently broad, information and empathy will go a long way to make that knowing possible. If you wonder how I feel when I am thwhacked with a hammer, please offer your leg and I will show you. Certainly, though, we cannot know "what it is to be that person." (Notice the absence of the approximating or comparing term "like.") That would require a degree of similarity in neuronal connectivity, parenting, and life experiences that would be hard to accomplish.

    I wonder how many of the people you mentioned in your article who studied the hard problem actually looked at the problem rather than study the materials, signals or the consequences of consciousness. In other words, how many of them meditated? By meditation I mean to first strengthen the power of concentration to reduce the mind's superfluous activity, then to use the new found skill of concentration to isolate the constituents of thought: memories, motivations, sense of self, and what I call the passenger function (the essence of "just being" - I admit it's an ad hoc term probably needing improvement. It is the experience of being the passenger in a limousine. This passenger dictates where to go but who does not get involved in the minutia of decisions and actions such as steering the wheel, applying the brakes or pressing the accelerator, or deciding which of many routes to take. This passenger just tells the driver his destination and then enjoys the ride. I offer that the getting involved in the minutia of the "trip" is what causes so many people their distress.)

    As a meditator I suggest consciousness is a complex system of intrusive thoughts, memories, and mental habits that have been learned from childhood and sustained by repetition and culture. There are several mental processes that bring about the conscious experience.

    1) Perpetual activity is the brain's status quo. It is an almost continuous generator of thoughts. Try to sit still and not have any thought for 60 seconds. Without training, this is nearly impossible for most. Sensations, memories, motivations, and emotions all conspire to produce thoughts that stimulate other memories, ignite motivations and emotions to continue the process like a perpetual Rube Goldberg machine.

    2) Emotions are intense internal experiences that ensure that a stimulus for a given emotion is placed under the spotlight of our attention. Emotions serve as motivators for behavior and an alarm system. As such they are intense and make whatever experience is associated with them more mentally significant.

    3) Conditioning, the capacity to make associations among related and unrelated events, which increases our repertoire for the stimuli for our perceptions and behaviors. Repetition, intensity, proximity and repetition are the elements that make conditioning possible.

    4) Extrapolation is the ability to take a limited about of information and, using the imagination, fill in blanks to make predictions and assumptions. Certainly, initial such attempts may be inaccurate but, with trial and error, imagined models start to approximate reality or the expected result. This is a valuable survival skill. Finding clues in the dirt helps to find prey and food, and to avoid dangerous environments or situations.

    Thus, the combination of perpetual thinking and experiencing, with emotions that make these events more significant, and extrapolation which encourage us to form "fake data" to fill the blank of "who is feeling these emotions and experiences", consciousness is almost unavoidable. And thanks to conditioning, and years of practice, the illusion of self is deepened further. And when the initial simple consciousness coopts the primitive motivations of survival, desire for pleasure and the avoidance of pain, the illusion is made more even complex.

  • quinnjin

    "Roger Penrose, a physicist at Oxford University, famously thinks that consciousness arises as the result of mysterious quantum effects in brain tissue. He believes, in other words, not in magic fields but in magic meat. So far, the weight of evidence appears to be against him."

    Actually, no that is not true, the weight of evidence supports the Orch OR theory co authored by Hammeroff and Penrose.

    The weight of opinion among many of the worlds neuroscientists and neurologists may be against them, but none of their actual counter arguments, the objections, have stood up to scrutiny.

    On of the major objections was the too warm too wet from quantum coherence argument.
    Unfortunately for the detractors it is now known that quantum processes happen in photosynthesis.

    In fact, Hammeroff and Penrose have pretty much the only game in town on this subject.

    Don't expect much from the neurologists, or the AI guys. They are well behind the eight ball. The microtubule quantum processing increases the processing power of the brain by many many orders of magnitude.

  • iman eman

    Until you experience the sensation of Qi, you will never fully understand conciousness. Read "Saam Medical Meditation" and "Saam Meditation: The Interpretation of Dreams".

  • Stan Klein

    What a pile pseudo intellectual "rubble" (word from article).

    NPR is increasingly looking like the Inquirer.

    So glad I refused to be interviewed (several occasions) for their so called psychological "science" programs.

    Exercise in programming with the outcome of making the educated public misinformed. Job well done!