Is consciousness a hard problem and why hasn’t it been solved yet?

The birth of self-consciousnss: 'Holy smoke, I'm standing here!'

The birth of self-consciousnss: ‘Holy smoke, I’m standing here!’

Yeah that’s how probably many imagine consciousness to have emerged, all in one single stroke. But is consciousness such tractable? Is it explainable? The question of what is consciousness has dominated science and philosophy for many centuries now. Yet, a satisfactory solution to this problem still eludes the best minds amongst us.

At one time, conciousness was considered as a question to be pondered only by philosophers. This came into prominence with Rene Descartes and his Cartesian Duality theory( though Aristotle and Plato also had some versions of mind-body duality).In theory, everything else you think you know about the world could be an elaborate illusion cooked up to deceive you – at this point, present-day writers invariably invoke The Matrix – but your consciousness itself can’t be illusory. On the other hand, this most certain and familiar of phenomena obeys none of the usual rules of science. It doesn’t seem to be physical. It can’t be observed, except from within, by the conscious person. It can’t even really be described. The mind, Descartes concluded, must be made of some special, immaterial stuff that didn’t abide by the laws of nature; it had been bequeathed to us by God.This whole duality regime persisted until the 18th century when physicalism came into the uncharted region of neurology.

And yet, even as neuroscience gathered pace in the 20th century, no convincing alternative explanation was forthcoming. So little by little, the topic became taboo. Few people doubted that the brain and mind were very closely linked. But how they were linked – or if they were somehow exactly the same thing – seemed a mystery best left to philosophers in their armchairs. As late as 1989, writing in the International Dictionary of Psychology, the British psychologist Stuart Sutherland could irascibly declare of consciousness that “it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written on it.”

Then in a conference held in Arizona (1994) came up a chap who dressed up in all jeans looked like he belonged in a rock concert than the established, grumpy conference he gave a talk. What he said was to introduce consciousness as a hard problem in biology. He agreed positively with the advancement in sciences which had worked up so much to explain the inner workings of a brain but he asked how do you explain sensations, such as colors and tastes. Can we scientifically explain how the bunch of interconnected network of neurons leads to a highly subjective process such as sensations? David Chalmers proposed his zombie thought experiment wherein a zombie is a hypothetical being that is indistinguishable from a normal human being except in that it lacks conscious experience, qualia, or sentience. For example, a philosophical zombie could be poked with a sharp object, and not feel any pain sensation, but yet, behave exactly as if it does feel pain (it may say “ouch” and recoil from the stimulus, or say that it is in intense pain).

The notion of a philosophical zombie is used mainly in thought experiments intended to support arguments (often called “zombie arguments”) against forms of physicalism such as materialism, behaviorism and functionalism. Physicalism is the idea that all aspects of human nature can be explained by physical means: specifically, all aspects of human nature and perception can be explained from a neurobiological standpoint. Some philosophers, like David Chalmers, argue that since a zombie is defined as physiologically indistinguishable from human beings, even its logical possibility would be a sound refutation of physicalism. However, philosophers like Daniel Dennett counter that Chalmers’s physiological zombies are logically incoherent and thus impossible.

Ever since then, research into this area which was long abandoned by mainstream science simply exploded. An early convert into this question of consciousness was the Nobel prize winner Francis Crick.

Upon taking up work in theoretical neuroscience, Crick was struck by several things:

  • there were many isolated subdisciplines within neuroscience with little contact between them
  • many people who were interested in behaviour treated the brain as a black box
  • consciousness was viewed as a taboo subject by many neurobiologists

Crick hoped he might aid progress in neuroscience by promoting constructive interactions between specialists from the many different subdisciplines concerned with consciousness. He even collaborated with neurophilosophers such as Patricia Churchland. In 1983, as a result of their studies of computer models of neural networks, Crick and Mitchison proposed that the function of REM sleep is to remove certain modes of interactions in networks of cells in the mammalian cerebral cortex; they called this hypothetical process ‘reverse learning‘ or ‘unlearning’. In the final phase of his career, Crick established a collaboration with Christof Koch that lead to publication of a series of articles on consciousness during the period spanning from 1990 to 2005. Crick made the strategic decision to focus his theoretical investigation of consciousness on how the brain generates visual awareness within a few hundred milliseconds of viewing a scene. Crick and Koch proposed that consciousness seems so mysterious because it involves very short-term memory processes that are as yet poorly understood. Crick also published a book describing how neurobiology had reached a mature enough stage so that consciousness could be the subject of a unified effort to study it at the molecular, cellular and behavioural levels. Crick’s book The Astonishing Hypothesis made the argument that neuroscience now had the tools required to begin a scientific study of how brains produce conscious experiences. Crick was skeptical about the value of computational models of mental function that are not based on details about brain structure and function.

But now the things have come up to a stage where there are two camps- one which agree with David Chalmers, Christof Koch and their panpsychism or collective consciousness theory OR another led by Daniel Dennett, Patricia Churchland which argue that consciousness might just be an emergent property of such an interconnected network and there is nothing special about it.

Daniel Dennett argues that consciousness, as we think of it, is an illusion: there just isn’t anything in addition to the spongy stuff of the brain, and that spongy stuff doesn’t actually give rise to something called consciousness. Common sense may tell us there’s a subjective world of inner experience – but then common sense told us that the sun orbits the Earth, and that the world was flat. Consciousness, according to Dennett’s theory, is like a conjuring trick: the normal functioning of the brain just makes it look as if there is something non-physical going on. To look for a real, substantive thing called consciousness, Dennett argues, is as silly as insisting that characters in novels, such as Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter, must be made up of a peculiar substance named “fictoplasm”; the idea is absurd and unnecessary, since the characters do not exist to begin with. Its this criticism which hits the panpsychism idea. “The history of science is full of cases where people thought a phenomenon was utterly unique, that there couldn’t be any possible mechanism for it, that we might never solve it, that there was nothing in the universe like it,” said Patricia Churchland of the University of California, a self-described “neurophilosopher” and one of Chalmers’s most forthright critics. Churchland’s opinion of the Hard Problem, which she expresses in caustic vocal italics, is that it is nonsense, kept alive by philosophers who fear that science might be about to eliminate one of the puzzles that has kept them gainfully employed for years. Look at the precedents: in the 17th century, scholars were convinced that light couldn’t possibly be physical – that it had to be something occult, beyond the usual laws of nature. Or take life itself: early scientists were convinced that there had to be some magical spirit – the élan vital – that distinguished living beings from mere machines. But there wasn’t, of course. Light is electromagnetic radiation; life is just the label we give to certain kinds of objects that can grow and reproduce. Eventually, neuroscience will show that consciousness is just brain states. Churchland said: “The history of science really gives you perspective on how easy it is to talk ourselves into this sort of thinking – that if my big, wonderful brain can’t envisage the solution, then it must be a really, really hard problem!”

So, with the Big Brain initiative in US and Europe can we finally get more answers into what consciousness is? Would it turn out to be nothing much but an emergent property of neurons or something as fundamental property of universe?

For more, read these:

  1. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  2. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  3. Four philosophical questions to make your brain hurt
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