Which consciousness are we talking about?

Oliver Burkeman wrote an article for the Guardian on consciousness research and philosophical thinking. I was pleasantly surprised with the historical discussion of the consciousness ideas and with (what seemed to me) a fairly balanced discussion. The new Stoppard play “The Hard Question”, may have prompted him to write the article and may account for the large number of readers. Here is a link.

Despite my liking the piece there were some places that stopped me cold.

Right at the start there is a paragraph that sums up many of the problems I had with the article. “Two decades later, we know an astonishing amount about the brain … But like an obnoxious relative who invites himself to stay for a week and then won’t leave, the Hard Problem remains.” I keep encountering this idea – that we know how the brain works. What I see is the iceberg picture. We may or may not have 10% of an understanding of the brain (less I think). Our ignorance is enormous, so not understanding this or that problem should not be surprising and should not imply the it is insoluble or even particularly stubborn, as brain problems go.

After explaining Chalmer’s philosphical zombie idea (ie people who have no conscious experience but act exactly as normal people) we have Chalmer’s justification for using the idea of zombies. “If you were approached by me and my doppelgänger, not knowing which was which, not even the most powerful brain scanner in existence could tell us apart. And the fact that one can even imagine this scenario is sufficient to show that consciousness can’t just be made of ordinary physical atoms. So consciousness must, somehow, be something extra – an additional ingredient in nature.” What bearing does being able to imagine a thing have to do with its possibility, let alone its existence? That Chalmer can imagine zombies does not mean they are possible. If it is true, as I believe it is, that consciousness is required for many processes in the brain, then a zombie is impossible, even if Chalmer can imagine one. That this may sound like a logical deduction depends on ignorance of what consciousness does and how it does it. If consciousness is a physical process and if it is required for normal thought and action then a zombie is impossible. The zombie idea simply begs the question.

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. … However hard it feels to accept, we should concede that consciousness is just the physical brain, doing what brains do. ” I think it is fair to say that Dennett does not think that the physical mechanisms that are associated with consciousness are an illusion but only that the idea that consciousness is something separate from the functioning of the physical brain is an illusion. It really depends what you are calling consciousness – how it is defined. Burkeman seems to me to not make this problem, of defining consciousness, clear.

Burkeman’s closing picture of the important thinkers from both sides of this disagreement, discussing the question on an arctic trip and ending the experience without having convinced one another to change their views, is a good illustration. They are trying to explain different things that go by the same name. Their notions appear to the other side to be somewhat ridiculous and missing the point. The other side can talk but just do not address their sort of consciousness.

I am sure that Crick was right in his belief that if the neural correlates of consciousness are all found and connected that consciousness will cease to be a puzzle but will be seen as a physical process of the brain. It was this belief that prompted him to spend his later years documenting some of those correlates.

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