Thursday, December 02, 2010

Gopnik, Alison. "How Weird is Consciousness?" SLATE November 29, 2010.

Consciousness used to be the crazy aunt in psychology's attic. Behaviorists and cognitive scientists alike practiced denial, but the squeaking floorboards troubled our dreams of a truly scientific discipline. Now, the old lady has been given pride of place in the parlor, with all the respectable scientific furnishing of societies and journals. But let's face it—she's still weird.

In some ways, the scientific study of consciousness has been a great success. We know more than ever about the relationship between specific types of conscious experiences and specific mind and brain states. Discouragingly, though, we are still no closer to solving the Problem of Big-C Consciousness. How is consciousness possible at all? How could the few pounds of gray goo in my skull give rise to my experience of the particular blue tint of the sky? Scientists and philosophers have suggested everything from quantum effects to information integration to brain-wave patterns. Some deny that consciousness exists at all; others argue that consciousness couldn't possibly be the result of just the brain. The scientific organizers of one of the principal consciousness conferences, in fact, deliberately let in woo-woo stuff about altered states and past lives on the principle that we have no idea where the answer might come from.

This may be less dispiriting when you realize we've been here before. The philosopher Patricia Churchland has pointed out that the problem of "Life" in the 19th century was much like the problem of "Consciousness" in the 21st. How could a few molecules ever give rise to breathing, moving, living creatures? The answer turned out to be that it was the wrong question. We now understand a great deal about the many different ways in which complex organisms with a multitude of different properties arise from much simpler chemistry. The Problem of Big-L Life has simply faded away. . . .

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