The Harder Problem of Consciousness: Us

6 min read
Personal photo.

The mysterious consciousness of a feline

Source: Personal photo.

As I lounge on my couch typing, my gray cat sits defiantly across the room, with his back turned against me. Surely, it’s not the looming grant deadline that bothers him. Is he frustrated at the delay in his dinner? Annoyed at my criminal neglect of his scratchy neck?

What goes through the mind of a feline is very difficult to tell; even two-legged humans can be challenging. And yet, as we each look inside, a vivid psychological drama is unfolding.

Right now, I hear the sound of my keyboard, its touch at my fingertips, and the glare of the screen. A train of thoughts is rushing through my mental theatre, and I inspect one idea. I am consciously aware of that thought, that I am sitting here, thinking, and that I’m aware.

Such experiences form part of my consciousness—the subjective “feel” of my mental life, and my sense of being “me”. Nothing can be stronger, more immediate, and certain. And yet, how consciousness arises seems mysterious.

When I introduce myself to people and mention I’m a cognitive scientist, consciousness quickly creeps into the conversation. How does consciousness happen, they wonder?

I can, of course, tell them about some of the recent theories of how the brain gives rise to consciousness, and how scientists test them. But I don’t think that’s quite what my friends are asking.

When laypeople ask “how consciousness happens,” it’s usually not quite the how they are after. Those details matter in the way they do in a murder investigation. For the grieving family, a knife vs. a gun is of little consequence. But if you have the weapon, you know that, indeed, a murder took place. It’s the murder, not the weapon, that matters.

By the same token, if scientists could get all the consciousness details right, then this would present evidence that, indeed, they have cracked how consciousness emerges in the brain—a chunk of meat. We would then know that my sense of “being me” arises much like light arises from electromagnetic radiation and heat from the kinetic energy of atoms. And while the precise mechanisms are still under debate, it seems highly likely that they boil down to electrochemical processes in the brain; in short, physics. For most people, this is really all that matters.

Why, then, is it that these discoveries feel more like a mystery than a solution? Some might even sense that, as they are reading about how the brain “secretes” consciousness, it almost feels like watching a murder unfolding.

This reaction—part discomfort, part fascination—likely arises for good psychological reasons. My consciousness is my dearest possession—this is what “being me” is all about. And people primarily identify themselves not with matter—with their body, including their brain—but rather with their ethereal mind.

Think about it: if a futuristic scientific device were to create a replica of your body, that replica, it seems, would surely have your two hands, your black hair, and the dimple on your cheek. But would it know what you told your wife yesterday over dinner? Somehow, the notion that a replica of your body can keep your inner thoughts and memories is far harder for us to fathom. Intuitively, our mental life, consciousness included, doesn’t quite feel like it “lives” in the body.

So, when neuroscience suggests to us that consciousness—my very sense of “me”—is really all about physics, we react with a mixture of horror and fascination. The horror arises from the assault on our intuitive sense of “me”; the fascination emerges for the same reason we watch natural disasters. Just like the ferocious winds shutter houses and boats, the science of consciousness seems to wreak havoc with our psychological understanding of who we are. We stare in disbelief that this can really be happening.

But this psychological Dualism is likely a figment of our imagination. Recent results from my lab have even shown that psychological Dualism—the belief that the mind is ethereal, distinct from the body—arises from a tension between two psychological mechanisms: the mechanisms we deploy as we think about objects, on the one hand, and people, on the other. Once we recognize how our psyche gives rise to Dualism, we have no reason to assume that the mind, consciousness included, is not physical. With all likelihood, our conclusion to the contrary is just a psychological illusion.

Consciousness Essential Reads

This psychological illusion takes a stiff toll on many aspects of our reasoning. And by “we” I don’t just mean laypeople. Being mere mortals, scholars are hardly exempt. If they aren’t careful, consciousness research, too, can fall victim.

An influential philosophical theory has long claimed that consciousness is distinct from the physical world. Its author, philosopher David Chalmers, doesn’t merely claim that consciousness seems non-physical (i.e., psychological Dualism). Rather, Chalmers asserts that the separation between consciousness and the physical world is real—it’s a fact of nature. He supports this conclusion by various demonstrations. For example, Chalmers notes that it’s perfectly possible for us to conceive of creatures that are identical to us physically but are devoid of consciousness. Consciousness, then, cannot be physical.

Chalmers’ elegant reasoning has gained enormous traction among scholars and laypeople alike. But, as he notes, how people react to his demonstrations ought to be tested experimentally. Now these tests have been conducted, and the results do not bolster his analysis.

Briefly, if consciousness were indeed distinct from the physical world, and people were privy to this fact (as Chalmers seems to assume), then our intuitions about conscious experiences (e.g., how transformative they are) ought to be independent of whether we link these experiences to the body. This prediction, however, isn’t borne out by the experimental results. Furthermore, there is evidence that the consciousness intuitions of experimental participants depend on their psychological Dualism.

The full analysis of how our psychological biases beget these consciousness intuitions are complex, and they are detailed elsewhere. Here, suffice it to note that these intuitions stand in stark contrast to Chalmers’ predictions that consciousness really is distinct from the body. With all likelihood, then, these intuitions do not reflect reality, but rather arise from within. They are manufactured by our brain, courtesy of psychological Dualism.

Consciousness, then, is hard to “get right,” not only because science is difficult, and our understanding of the human brain is incomplete, but because, as we study it, we look within, and our vista is filtered through the prism of our biased human cognition. Consciousness is hard for psychological reasons.

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