The Brain: The Mystery of Consciousness

You exist, right? Prove it. How 100 billion jabbering neurons create the knowledge--or illusion--that you're here

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Illustration for TIME by Istvan Orosz

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No one knows what to do with the Hard Problem. Some people may see it as an opening to sneak the soul back in, but this just relabels the mystery of "consciousness" as the mystery of "the soul"--a word game that provides no insight.

Many philosophers, like Daniel Dennett, deny that the Hard Problem exists at all. Speculating about zombies and inverted colors is a waste of time, they say, because nothing could ever settle the issue one way or another. Anything you could do to understand consciousness--like finding out what wavelengths make people see green or how similar they say it is to blue, or what emotions they associate with it--boils down to information processing in the brain and thus gets sucked back into the Easy Problem, leaving nothing else to explain. Most people react to this argument with incredulity because it seems to deny the ultimate undeniable fact: our own experience.

The most popular attitude to the Hard Problem among neuroscientists is that it remains unsolved for now but will eventually succumb to research that chips away at the Easy Problem. Others are skeptical about this cheery optimism because none of the inroads into the Easy Problem brings a solution to the Hard Problem even a bit closer. Identifying awareness with brain physiology, they say, is a kind of "meat chauvinism" that would dogmatically deny consciousness to Lieut. Commander Data just because he doesn't have the soft tissue of a human brain. Identifying it with information processing would go too far in the other direction and grant a simple consciousness to thermostats and calculators--a leap that most people find hard to stomach. Some mavericks, like the mathematician Roger Penrose, suggest the answer might someday be found in quantum mechanics. But to my ear, this amounts to the feeling that quantum mechanics sure is weird, and consciousness sure is weird, so maybe quantum mechanics can explain consciousness.

And then there is the theory put forward by philosopher Colin McGinn that our vertigo when pondering the Hard Problem is itself a quirk of our brains. The brain is a product of evolution, and just as animal brains have their limitations, we have ours. Our brains can't hold a hundred numbers in memory, can't visualize seven-dimensional space and perhaps can't intuitively grasp why neural information processing observed from the outside should give rise to subjective experience on the inside. This is where I place my bet, though I admit that the theory could be demolished when an unborn genius--a Darwin or Einstein of consciousness--comes up with a flabbergasting new idea that suddenly makes it all clear to us.

Whatever the solutions to the Easy and Hard problems turn out to be, few scientists doubt that they will locate consciousness in the activity of the brain. For many nonscientists, this is a terrifying prospect. Not only does it strangle the hope that we might survive the death of our bodies, but it also seems to undermine the notion that we are free agents responsible for our choices--not just in this lifetime but also in a life to come. In his millennial essay "Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died," Tom Wolfe worried that when science has killed the soul, "the lurid carnival that will ensue may make the phrase 'the total eclipse of all values' seem tame."


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