After attending a talk in Portland, Oregon by neuroscientist Christof Koch (see here), I've been re-reading his book, "'Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist."
In his talk, as in my blog post about it, Koch emphasized his search for the neural correlates of consciousness. That is, the specific goings-on in the brain that produce a specific "percept," like seeing the color red.
A few commenters have correctly noted that this doesn't answer the Hard Problem question: how and why we have phenomenal awareness in general, leaving aside the question of how and why this particular bit of awareness comes to be.
The organizers of Koch's talk included a slip of paper where attendees could write down questions they'd like Koch to answer in a Q & A session.
Mine went something like this: "Do you think the Hard Problem of consciousness may turn out to be an illusory problem? Meaning, instead of answering it, we will realize that the Hard Problem never really existed in the first place?"
Not surprisingly, I liked my own question. It wasn't brought up by the moderator, though.
So I've been paying special attention to Hard Problem-related content in Koch's book as I re-read it, trying to imagine what he would have said about my question if he had been asked it.
I think he would have agreed with my premise, pretty much. After all, in my first blog post I said:
"Consciousness is a physical thing," Koch told us. "It's the brain."
In his view, consciousness is an integral aspect of the universe, like time, space, energy, matter. Organized pieces of matter have an additional property, Koch said, consciousness.
We don't talk about the Hard Problem of time, space, energy, or matter. These things just are. As noted here, some brilliant minds acknowledge the "facticity" of the universe. Simply put, it is what it is. Especially as regards its fundamental aspects.
I believe that consciousness is a fundamental, an elementary, property of living matter. It can't be derived from anything else; it is a simple substance, in Leibniz's words.
Well, actually it seems that Koch considers consciousness a property of all matter, not just living matter. Here's another quote:
You and I find ourselves in a cosmos in which any and all systems of interacting parts possess some measure of sentience. The larger and more highly networked the system, the greater the degree of consciousness. Human consciousness is much more rarified than canine consciousness because the human brain has twenty times more neurons than the brain of a dog and is more heavily networked.
I find this notion, which is akin to panpsychism, attractive in both a scientific and intuitive sense. Koch goes on to say:
By postulating that consciousness is a fundamental feature of the universe, rather than arising out of simpler elements, integrated information theory is an elaborate version of panpsychism. The hypothesis that all matter is sentient to some degree is terribly appealing for its elegance, simplicity, and logical coherence.
Once you assume that consciousness is real and ontologically distinct from its physical substrate, then it is a simple step to conclude that the entire cosmos is suffused with sentience. We are all surrounded and immersed in consciousness; it is in the air we breathe, the soil we tread on, the bacteria that colonize our intestines, and the brain that enables us to think.
Note that Koch is thoroughly materialistic. He doesn't believe in a supernatural, divine, other-worldly substrate to the cosmos. He dismisses the idea of soul or spirit being the essence of consciousness as nonsensical "hand waving."
Consciousness, rather, is another side to the universe. It isn't non-physical, yet in a certain sense it is:
A kind of blue is fundamentally different from electrical activity in the cone photoreceptors of the eyes, even though I'm perfectly cognizant that the latter is necessary for the former. One is intrinsic to my brain and can't be inferred from the outside, whereas the other has objective properties that can be accessed by an external observer.
The phenomenal hails from a different kingdom than the physical and is subject to different laws. I see no way for the divide between unconscious and conscious creatures to be bridged by more neurons.
To my understanding, the reason is that no such divide actually exists.
Consciousness is omnipresent in the universe. However, it comes in an infinity of guises, since consciousness is a continuum, not a duality (on or off; conscious/unconscious).
Thus arguably the Hard Problem truly is an illusion, a meaningless question. Again, it's akin to asking "why do we have the sense of space, or the perception of time?"
Because time and space are fundamental properties of the universe. There's isn't any why? to something fundamental. It just is.
Koch bases his ideas on those of Giulio Tononi. I wrote about them in "Phi, integrated information, the fountain of phenomena." Reading that post should help make this one more comprehensible.