In this TED talk, David Chalmers gives a summary of the problem whose name he coined, the hard problem of consciousness.
It seems like people who’ve contemplated consciousness fall into two groups, those who are bothered by the hard problem, and those who are not. In my mind, one of these camps is seeing something the other is missing.
Naturally, since I fall into the second one, I tend to think it’s those of us who are not bothered by the hard problem who are more aware of the fact that our intuitions are not to be trusted in this area. No matter how much we learn about how the brain works, it will never intuitively feel like we’ve explained the experience of being us. So, in my mind, the people bothered by the hard problem will never be satisfied, but that will not prevent us from moving forward.
Chalmers talks about three responses to the hard problem. The first is Daniel Dennett’s view that the hard problem doesn’t really exist, that we will gradually learn more about how the brain works, solving each of the so called “easy problems”, until we’ve achieved a global understanding of the mind. I have to say that my view is close to Dennett’s on this.
The second response is panpsychism, the idea that everything is conscious. From what I’ve read about panpsychism, it’s a view that comes about by defining consciousness as any system that interacts with the environment, or something similar. By that measure, even subatomic particles have some glimmer of consciousness.
But this is a definition of consciousness that doesn’t fit the common meaning of the word “consciousness”. Using such an uncommon definition of a common word allows someone to say something that sounds profound, that everything is conscious, but that when unpacked using their specific definition, is actually a rather mundane statement, that everything interacts with its environment. My reaction to such verbal jujitsu is to tune out, and that’s what I generally do when talk of panpsychism comes up.
Finally, Chalmers talks about a view of consciousness as it being something fundamental to reality, like maybe a fundamental force such as gravity or electromagnetism. The idea is that consciousness arises through complex integration (which itself sounds more emergent than fundamental to me) and if we can just measure the degree of complex integration, we have a measure of consciousness. This is a view that I’ve seen some physicists take. It’s attractive because it might boil consciousness down to an equation, or a brief set of equations.
Personally, I think consciousness as fundamental or whatever is wishful thinking. It’s an attempt to boil something complicated and messy down to a simple measurement. And it still leaves the borderline between conscious and non-conscious entities as some magical dividing line that we can’t understand.
My own view is that consciousness, whatever else it is, is information processing. The most compelling theories I’ve seen come from neuroscientists such as Michael Gazzaniga and Michael Graziano, who see it as something of a feedback mechanism. (Just for the record, my sympathy for these guys’ theories have nothing to do with me sharing a first name with them 🙂 )
The brain is not a centrally managed system. It doesn’t have a central executive command center making decisions. Rather, it processes information and makes decisions in a decentralized and parallel fashion. What allows the brain to function somewhat in a unified fashion is a feedback mechanism that we call awareness.
Awareness is the brain assembling information about its current and past states. It is an information schema that allows the rest of the brain to be aware of what the whole brain is contemplating. It doesn’t really control what the brain does, but it can affect what the brain will decide to do.
If true, our internal experience is simply this feedback mechanism. Is this the whole picture? Almost certainly not. But it is built on scientific evidence from neuroscience studies. It will almost certainly have to be revised and expanded as more evidence becomes available. But I think it is far more promising than talk of fundamental forces and the like.
Of course, even if it is true, it won’t satisfy those who are trouble by the hard problem. Consciousness as a feedback mechanism and information model, still doesn’t get us to the intuitive feeling of being us. I’m not sure that anything ever will.