From Margaret Wertheim at Aeon:
I feel therefore I am
Giulio Tononi’s book Phi (2012) asks the question: ‘How could mere matter generate mind?’ As a neuroscientist, Tononi says this is a mystery ‘stranger than immaculate conception… an impossibility that defie[s] belief’. Nonetheless, he offers us an explanation of consciousness grounded in information theory that has been admired by both Tegmark and Koch. He wants to do for psychic phenomena what Descartes, Galileo and their heirs did for physical phenomena: he wants to explain subjective experience by generalised empirical rules, and he tells us that such experiences have shapes in a multidimensional mathematical space.
Personally, I don’t have a problem with the idea that subjective experiences might have mathematical correlates any more than Father Coyne minds the notion of neural correlates. As an admirer of co-ordinate geometry, I like Tononi’s concept; at the same time, I don’t accept information theory as a bridge to subjectivity.
Neurological and informatic models of subjectivity will no doubt have their uses and values, as did mechanistic models of the world before them. Yet, like their mechanistic forebears, these theories are grounded in an insistence that subjectivity is a secondary phenomenon whose explanation resides in something prior. Chalmers wants to insist, along with Descartes and Locke before him, on the primacy of subjective experience or, as the philosopher Bitbol puts it, ‘that consciousness is existentially primary’. Rather than being something that can be ‘described by us in the third person as if we were separated from it’, Bitbol argues that consciousness ‘is what we dwell in and what we live through in the first person’. This feels reminiscent of what the German philosopher Edmund Husserl in 1936 called the ‘life-world’ of conscious experience, and I suspect that it is where we must look to locate the source of our selves. But I also expect that philosophers and scientists will be arguing the point for centuries to come.
Wertheim is onto something there.
Consciousness is, as someone said, like looking into and out of a window at the same time. If that’s too Zen for us, consider: Consciousness means what it is like to be the subject of an experience rather than the observer. By definition, it cannot be reduced to what is observed.
If that’s the “hard problem,” then it is probably a permanent feature of the research landscape.
As I am writing a series on animal minds, I’ve had to think about this a lot. Philosopher Thomas Nagel perceptively suggested that, to understand animal consciousness, one should consider that there must be something that it is like to be a bat.
See also: Would we give up naturalism to solve the hard problem of consciousness?
Neuroscience tried wholly embracing naturalism, but then the brain got away
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Note: I would have put up a YouTube at this point, on “consciousness,” but you will see why I didn’t.
On the other hand, this guy Bitbol may be one to keep an eye on: