Until the last few decades the question of consciousness fascinated philosophers, but was considered off-limits to science; but the discoveries of the last few decades have brought consciousness into the realm of neuroscience. Scientists such as Nobel Prize Winner, Francis Crick, have proposed that the brain has “neural correlates of consciousness.” (Francis Crick, Astonishing Hypothesis, 1994.) This episode is an introduction to the topic.
After considering the definition of consciousness, I introduce some of the classical questions of the philosophy of the mind:
- The "hard problem" (proposed by David Chalmers): How does the physical brain create subjective experience.
- Dualism: Is there some aspect of mind that is not physical?
- Free will: If the brain creates consciousness, can we still have free will?
I also introduce several famous thought experiments:
- Mary the color scientist (Frank Jackson,1982). Chalmers has argued that the subjective qualities of experience, which he calls qualia, can not be explained by what the brain does.
- What is it like to be a Bat? (Thomas Nagel) Do qualia exist?
- The philosopher’s zombie: Chalmers argues that a robot could exist that looks and acts just like us but that is “dark inside.”
- John Searle’s Chinese Room: An argument against what he calls “strong” artificial intelligence." Listen to John Searle argue against dualism on The Philospher’s Zone.
Philosopher Daniel Dennett rejects the existence of both qualia and zombies, and argues that the hard problem does not exist. To me, the interesting question is whether these arguments will be answered or made obsolete by scientific discoveries.
Perhaps the hard problem will disappear. I consider how the discovery of neurotransmitters has changed our understanding of the role of emotions in consciousness. We now know that neurotransmitters provide two-way signaling between our brains and the rest of our bodies, producing our experiences of emotions and feelings. Though there is still a tendency to regard logic as superior to emotion, researchers like Antonio Damasio are showing that emotions play an essential part in decision-making and other aspects of intelligence.
Philosophers are not the only ones unwilling to let go the idea that consciousness is a mystery that can’t be explained; but those philosophers who keep up with the science can help science ask new questions.
I will continue to introduce books about consciousness on future podcasts. Susan Blackmore writes books for general audiences, so I have listed a few of hers below.
- Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction, by Susan Blackmore: I haven’t read this yet, but it looks like a good first book if you want something short.
- Consciousness: An Introduction, by Susan Blackmore: This is actually a textbook, but it was one of the first books I read. It is a very thorough introduction, with a good mix of philosophy and science.
- Conversations on Consciousness: What the Best Minds Think about the Brain, Free Will, and What It Means to Be Human, by Susan Blackmore: Here Blackmore interviews almost everybody in the field, including Francis Crick shortly before he died. Here you can read a great diversity of views on the questions brought up in this episode.
- Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, by Francis Crick.