Want to tackle one of the most intractable mysteries in science? You’ve got a hold on it right now: consciousness. Nobody knows what it is, though everybody uses it to think, “What is it?”
Steven Pinker has a terrific article in this week’s TIME magazine, a special issue devoted to the mind and brain. In “The Mystery of Consciousness” he talks about the Easy Problem of consciousness, which basically concerns how mental processes function and are correlated with neural goings-on in the brain.
Tough enough, certainly, but researchers are making good progress delving into this area. However, barely a scratch has been made on the surface of the Hard Problem. This, says Pinker:
Is why it feels like something to have a conscious process going on in one’s head—why there is first-person, subjective experience….The Hard Problem is explaining how subjective experience arises from neural computation. The problem is hard because no one knows what a solution might look like or even whether it is a genuine scientific problem in the first place.
Cognitively, I’ve been fascinated by the Hard Problem ever since I read David Chalmer’s classic 1995 article in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness.” (I used to subscribe to the journal, until I realized that most of the articles focused on the Easy Problem).
Existentially, I’ve been fascinated much longer. Like, for as long as I’ve been aware that I was going to die one day. For the crux of the Hard Problem is how consciousness arises. If it’s the result of purely physical processes—brain cells reaching a certain level of complex functionality—then the precious self I know as “me” is dead meat when Brian’s body dies.
But if consciousness is somehow distinct from physical matter, hey!, I’ve got a chance of continuing on after I die in some form or another. I was glad to see that Pinker quoted Woody Allen, because Allen perfectly sums up my attitude toward death:
I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it by not dying.
I also was pleased that Pinker gave Descartes the due that I believe he deserves. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard Descartes put down by mystically-inclined types who dismissively say, “What an intellectual dualist! He thought that thinking makes you exist, cogito ergo sum. The guy didn’t know much about meditation, evidently.”
Well, Pinker gets Descartes right: “As Rene Descartes noted, our own consciousness is the most indubitable thing there is.” Yes. From my reading of Descartes he wasn’t referring to only thinking with his cogito. Rather, he meant consciousness of anything: thoughts, sensations, emotions, perceptions, imaginings, whatever.
Each of us is directly aware of our own awareness. We can be deceived about what is present in our consciousness (a mirage can make sand masquerade as a lake), but there’s no room for doubt that we’re conscious of something or other.
John Gregg puts it nicely near the end of his take on the Hard Problem:
Some people argue that what I call subjective consciousness is some kind of illusion. As attempts to dismiss consciousness go, this one does not stand up to much scrutiny. What is an illusion? It is something that seems one way but is really another. My claims rest on the observation that that red really seems red to me. The counter claim that this is an illusion boils down to, "red doesn't really seem red, it only seems that it seems red."
But seeming, like multiplying by 1, is idempotent - inserting more "seeming" clauses into my claim does not change it one bit. Whether red seems red, or seems that it seems that it seems that it seems . . . red, the Hard Problem stands before us. The Hard Problem consists of the fact that anything seems like anything at all. If subjective consciousness is an illusion, then who or what exactly is the victim of that illusion, and how can it be such a victim without the Hard Problem being a problem for it?
My seeing of red is not a philosophy; it is not a way of thinking about or interpreting some theory or idea; it is not an abstraction; it is not an inference I have drawn or some metaphysical gloss I have put over reality. It is a brute fact about the universe, a fact of Nature. It is really, really there. It is not a theory - it is explanandum, not explanation.
As such, it is incumbent upon our natural science to explain it. If my seeing of red is not amenable to the currently accepted methods of natural science, then so much the worse for the currently accepted methods. Those who deny the existence of qualitative consciousness remind me of the church officials who refused to look through Galileo's telescope because they did not want their neat and tidy theological world upset by what they might see.
Amen, brother. I am. My subjective awareness is much more self-evident to me than any other fact, because the evidence of everything else in existence depends on my self. Gregg says:
The problem is that subjective consciousness (or qualia) is not something we drag into the picture to explain something or other that we observe, as elan vital was invoked to explain what we observe about life, or to use another example reductive physicalists like, as the luminiferous ether was invoked to explain light waves in the 19th century. Consciousness is the raw data, the observed thing that needs explaining. It is the light, not the ether.
Every day I put in some meditation time, digging into the Hard Problem. Ever prone to grandiosity, I admit to fantasizing that could be me! when I read what Pinker thought might happen to his own favorite theory about how the Hard Problem will be solved.
I admit that the theory could be demolished when an unborn genius—a Darwin or Einstein of consciousness—comes up with a flabbergasting new idea that suddenly makes it all clear to us.
Well, I’d be happy just to make the Hard Problem clear to me alone. Making it clear to anyone else would be an unexpected bonus.
Pinker’s theory is that the human brain hasn’t evolved to the point where it can understand how consciousness arises; if he’s right, which seems likely, the only solution to the Hard Problem is going to lie outside of understanding.
Grokking. That’s where I place my hope, not in understanding. The nature of consciousness (a.k.a. “soul” if you’re spiritually minded) isn’t going to be comprehended by me or you trying to examine consciousness as if it were a specimen on a dissecting table.
For the examiner is the specimen is the dissecting table. It’s all one big mysterious glob of…who knows? There is a reasonable surmise, however, based on lots of research into the Easy Problem. Virtually every scientist accepts Francis Crick’s “astonishing hypothesis.” As Pinker puts it:
The idea that our thoughts, sensations, joys and aches consist entirely of physiological activity in the tissues of the brain. Consciousness does not reside in an ethereal soul that uses the brain like a PDA; consciousness is the activity of the brain.
Maybe. But I’m holding out hope that the alternative thesis held by nearly every mystic is true. Namely, that actually consciousness is the primal foundation of reality, not matter/energy, and it is possible for human awareness to merge with—or at least cozily nestle up to—the unseen conscious One that lies behind all manifest forms.
Plotinus, a second century Greek mystic philosopher, taught that consciousness has to be turned around from a preoccupation with outside things (the Easy Problem, essentially) and directed toward itself, thereby facing the Hard Problem head-on.
When it turns its attention to the nature of the things illuminated, it sees the light [of consciousness] less; but if it abandons the things it sees and looks at the medium by which it sees them, it looks at light and the source of light.
…This is the real goal for the soul: to touch and behold this light itself, by means of itself. She does not wish to see it by means of some other light; what she wants to see is that light by means of which she is able to see.
In his book, “Buddhism: The Religion of No-Religion,” Alan Watts said much the same thing in the form of a limerick.
There was a young man who said, “Though
It seems that I know that I know.
What I would like to see
Is the I that knows me
When I know that I know that I know.”
Oh, yeah. Me too.
Knowing that I know—easy. Knowing the I that knows—hard.
But well worth knowing. Heck, maybe the only thing worth knowing. Along with Woody Allen quotes, of course.
It's not that I'm afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens.