Below you can read a letter in New Scientist that raises a question I've pondered. Is there really such a thing as consciousness?
It's clear that, along with other living beings, we humans are aware of both our external surroundings and internal states like hunger, thirst, fear, sexual attraction, thoughts, and such.
However, since that awareness is the brain in action when neurons reach a certain level of complexity, is it necessary to call that brain activity by a special name? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
As the letter writer notes, at one point people thought that there must be some medium that allows light waves to move through space. But when electromagnetism came to be understood, the need for that medium vanished.
Likewise, it is possible that what we now call consciousness is the product of our ignorance about how brains function. When the mechanisms of brain activity are more fully understood, "consciousness" may come to be viewed as a concept that no longer is relevant.
On a related note, today I listened to part of a dialogue Sam Harris had with Loch Kelly regarding dual and non-dual awareness. Because they are both deep into esoteric Buddhist philosophy, I'm finding their hour and a half discussion both interesting and irritating.
Irritating, because both Harris and Kelly like to talk about how consciousness is unbounded, not being confined to the space within the head. I sort of get why they say this, but it seems obvious that (1) the brain is inside the head, and (2) the brain is necessary for consciousness.
Thankfully, today I heard Harris say something that went a long way toward alleviating my irritation. He noted that there is a difference between how we experience consciousness, and the ontology of consciousness.
Meaning, there is the reality of what consciousness actually is, how it arises, what its nature is, and all that, and then there is the felt subjective experience of consciousness or awareness. Harris and Kelly are mainly, if not entirely, speaking about the experiential aspect of consciousness, not how science currently objectively understands it.
So two things can both be true. Consciousness feels like it is unbounded, and consciousness also is the product of brain activity within the limited area of a human head.
Here's the New Scientist letter.
Published 1 July 2020
From Ólafur JÓnsson, Mendrisio, Switzerland
I do enjoy the frequent letters and occasional articles on the subject of consciousness (Letters, 6 June). I am, however, bewildered by how the concept is defined. It seems to me that no two people can agree on what it is they are trying to describe.
Maybe because I have learned a spattering of languages in my life, I’m used to trying to guess a word’s meaning from its context, and the context seems to me to vary significantly in writing on the matter of consciousness. I wonder if the search for it is like that for the luminiferous aether, the proposed medium that would allow light waves to move through space. What reason do we have to assume consciousness exists, however much we “feel” it must?