This week's issue of New Scientist has a special section on consciousness. Conscious being that I am, I enjoyed reading about whatever the heck my consciousness consists of.
The articles contained a lot of interesting information. Much progress is being made on understanding how the brain works, including what causes something to be conscious rather unconscious. For example:
One of the most prominent attempts to turn this experimental data into a theory of consciousness is known as the "global neuronal workspace" model. This suggests that input from our eyes, ears and so on, is first processed unconsciously, primarily in sensory brain regions.
It emerges into our conscious awareness only if it ignites activity in the prefrontal and parietal cortices, with these regions connecting through ultrafast brainwaves.
However, the introduction to the special issue distinguished between "easy problems" like what's discussed above, and the "hard problem" -- what consciousness is in itself.
THERE are a lot of hard problems in the world, but only one of them gets to call itself "the hard problem". And that is the problem of consciousness – how a kilogram or so of nerve cells conjures up the seamless kaleidoscope of sensations, thoughts, memories and emotions that occupy every waking moment.
The intractability of this problem prompted British psychologist Stuart Sutherland’s notorious 1989 observation: "Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon… Nothing worth reading has been written on it."
The hard problem remains unsolved. Yet neuroscientists have still made incredible progress understanding consciousness, from the reasons it exists to the problems we have when it doesn’t work properly.
Is consciousness still fascinating? Yes. Elusive? Absolutely. But Sutherland’s final point no longer stands. Read on…
Some people, though, don't agree that there even is a hard problem. I'm coming to agree with them.
To me "the hard problem" bears a lot of resemblance to the famous question, "why is there something rather than nothing?" This presumes the validity of "rather than nothing."
Why not solve the problem of why there is something rather than nothing by simply saying, "there is something." End of story. No one has any experience of a cosmos that doesn't exist, of absolute nothingness.
Yet philosophers act as if this is a possibility. So, wow!, isn't it amazing that there is something rather than nothing!!! Let's ponder why this is so!
Noted philosopher Daniel Dennett doesn't believe there is a hard problem of consciousness. Here's what he says in his new book, "Intuition Pumps and Other Tools of Thinking."
The Hard Problem, for [David] Chalmers, is the problem of "experience," what it is like to be conscious, the inexpressible, unanalyzable thusness of being conscious.
...Some of us, myself included, think the Hard Problem is a figment of Chalmer's imagination, but others -- surprisingly many -- have the conviction that there is or would be a real difference between a conscious person and a perfect zombie and that this is important.
There is, of course, no evidence that a perfect zombie actually exists, someone who acts exactly like a normal person, yet has no conscious experience.
Again, this reminds me of the "something" rather than "nothing" question. Philosophers imagine that an entity which shows no sign of existing does, then wonder how it can be that what exists isn't what doesn't exist.
Dennett describes a magic trick called "The Tuned Deck." No one, even other magicians, could ever figure out how Ralph Hull performed the trick with a deck of cards. After he died, Hull revealed the secret.
Hull's basic approach was that he would repeat "The Tuned Deck" trick, fooling people with the singular word "The" so they wouldn't recognize that Hull was using a wide variety of well-known "pick a card, any card..." tricks.
Without revealing the exact details (a magic no-no), Dennett writes:
And so it would go, for dozens of repetitions, with Hull staying one step ahead of his hypothesis-testers, exploiting his realization that he could always do some trick or other from the pool of tricks they all knew, and concealing the fact that he was doing a grab bag of different tricks by the simple expedient of the definite article: The Tuned Deck. As Hull explained it to Hilliard:
Each time it is performed, the routine is such that one or more ideas in the back of the spectator's head is exploded, and sooner or later he will invariably give up any further attempt to solve the mystery.
Hull's trick was introducing a single common word: "the" -- for heaven's sake. This modest monosyllable seduced his audience of experts, paralyzing their minds, preventing them from jootsing. They found themselves stuck in a system in which they were sure they had to find a big, new trick, so they couldn't see that their problem(s) had not one solution, but many; they failed to jump out of the system.
I am suggesting, then, that David Chalmers has -- unintentionally -- perpetuated the same feat of conceptual sleight of hand in declaring to the world that he has discovered "The Hard Problem." Is there really a Hard Problem?
Or is what appears to be the Hard Problem simply the large bag of tricks that constitute what Chalmers calls the Easy Problems of Consciousness? These all have mundane explanations, requiring no revolutions in physics, no emergent novelties. They succumb, with much effort, to the standard methods of cognitive science.
I'll readily admit to being conflicted. As noted above, I'm coming to feel that the Big Mystery of consciousness is indeed reducible to a bunch of Little Mysteries.
But damn! I want my consciousness to be a freaking Big Mystery!
For most of my life I've meditated, taken psychedelic drugs, sat at the feet of a mystic guru (both literally and metaphorically), studied esoteric literature, marveled at how I'm aware of a vast cosmos that seemingly could have remained without consciousness in any corner of it.
Reading Dennett, part of me feels... Hey, dude, don't take away that Big Mystery I've been so invested in fathoming. What am I supposed to do with the rest of my life?
While another part of me feels... There's nothing wrong with being a Little Mystery. Even a Teeny-Tiny Mystery. After all, does size really matter?