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Why cant the worlds greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness?

| Oliver Burkeman | Science | The Guardian

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Consciousness The long read

hy cant the worlds greatest minds solve


W
the mystery of consciousness?

hilosophers and scientists have been at war for decades over the question of what makes human
P
beings more than complex robots

Why cant the worlds greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness _ Oliver Burkeman _ Science _ The Guardian.htm[03/02/2015 11:58:56 a.m.]

Why cant the worlds greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness? | Oliver Burkeman | Science | The Guardian

Peter Gamlen cover3

Illustration by Peter Gamlen Photograph: Peter Gamlen

Oliver Burkeman

@oliverburkeman

Wednesday 21 January 2015 06.00GMT

Comments
1,241

ne spring morning in Tucson, Arizona, in 1994, an unknown philosopher named


David Chalmers got up to give a talk on consciousness,

by which he meant the


feeling of being inside your head, looking out or, to use the kind of language
that might give a neuroscientist an aneurysm, of having a soul. Though he didnt realise
it at the time, the

young Australian academic was about to ignite a war between


philosophers and scientists, by drawing attention to a central mystery of human life

perhaps the central mystery of human life and revealing how embarrassingly far they
were from solving it.
The scholars gathered at the University of Arizona for what would later go down as a
landmark conference on the subject knew they were doing something edgy: in many
quarters, consciousness was still taboo, too weird and new agey to take seriously, and

Why cant the worlds greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness _ Oliver Burkeman _ Science _ The Guardian.htm[03/02/2015 11:58:56 a.m.]

Why cant the worlds greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness? | Oliver Burkeman | Science | The Guardian

some of the scientists in the audience were risking their reputations by attending. Yet
the frst two talks that day, before Chalmerss, hadnt proved thrilling. Quite honestly,
they were totally unintelligible and boring I had no idea what anyone was talking
about, recalled Stuart Hameroff, the Arizona professor responsible for the event. As
the organiser, Im looking around, and people are falling asleep, or getting restless. He
grew worried. But then the third talk, right before the coffee break that was Dave.
With his long, straggly hair and fondness for all-body denim,

the 27-year-old Chalmers


looked like hed got lost en route to a Metallica concert. He comes on stage, hair down
to his butt, hes prancing around like Mick Jagger, Hameroff said. But then he speaks.
And thats when everyone wakes up.

The brain, Chalmers began by pointing out, poses all


sorts of problems to keep scientists busy. How do we
learn, store memories, or perceive things? How do
you know to jerk your hand away from scalding
water, or hear your name spoken across the room at a

noisy party? But these were all easy problems, in


the scheme of things: given enough time and money,
experts would fgure them out. There was only one
truly hard problem of consciousness, Chalmers said.
Philosophers and scientists have
It was a puzzle so bewildering that, in the months
been at war for decades over the
after his talk, people started dignifying it with capital
question of what makes human
beings more than complex
letters the Hard Problem of Consciousness and
robots
its this: why on earth should all those complicated
brain processes feel

like anything from the inside?


Why arent we just brilliant robots, capable of
Listen

retaining information, of responding to noises and


smells and

hot saucepans, but dark inside, lacking an


inner life? And how does the

brain manage it? How could the 1.4kg lump of moist,


pinkish-beige tissue inside your skull give rise to something as mysterious as the
experience of being that pinkish-beige lump, and the body to which it is attached?

The audio long read


/ Listen to an audio
version of Oliver
Burkeman's article on
the mystery of
consciousness Podcast

What

jolted Chalmerss audience from their torpor was


how he had framed the question. At the coffee break,
I went around like a playwright on opening night,
eavesdropping, Hameroff said. And everyone was
like: Oh! The Hard Problem! The Hard Problem!
Thats why were here! Philosophers had pondered
the so-called mind-body problem for centuries. But
Chalmerss particular manner of reviving it reached
outside philosophy and galvanised everyone. It

defned the feld. It made us ask: what the hell is this


that were dealing with here?

Why cant the worlds greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness _ Oliver Burkeman _ Science _ The Guardian.htm[03/02/2015 11:58:56 a.m.]

Why cant the worlds greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness? | Oliver Burkeman | Science | The Guardian

Two decades later, we know an astonishing amount


about the brain: you

cant follow the news for a week without encountering at least one
more

tale about scientists discovering the brain region associated with gambling, or
laziness, or love at frst sight, or regret and thats only the research that makes the
headlines. Meanwhile, the feld of artifcial intelligence

which focuses on recreating


the abilities of the human brain, rather than on what it feels like to be one has
advanced stupendously. But like an obnoxious relative who invites himself to stay for a
week and then wont leave, the Hard Problem remains. When I stubbed my toe on the

leg
of the dining table this morning, as any student of the brain could

tell you, nerve fbres


called C-fbres shot a message to my spinal cord, sending neurotransmitters to the
part of my brain called the thalamus, which activated (among other things) my limbic
system. Fine. But how come all that was accompanied by an agonising fash of pain?
And

what is pain, anyway?


Questions like these, which straddle the border between science and philosophy, make
some experts openly angry. They have caused others to argue that conscious sensations,
such as pain, dont really exist, no matter what I felt as I hopped in anguish around the
kitchen; or, alternatively, that plants and trees must also be conscious. The Hard
Problem has prompted arguments in serious journals about what is going on in the mind

of a zombie, or to quote the title of a famous 1974 paper by the philosopher Thomas
Nagel

the question What is it like to be a bat? Some argue that the problem marks
the boundary not just of what we currently know, but of what science could ever
explain. On the other hand, in recent years, a handful of neuroscientists have come to
believe that it may fnally be about to be solved but only if we are willing to accept the
profoundly

unsettling conclusion that computers or the internet might soon become


conscious, too.

Next week, the conundrum will move further into


public awareness with the opening of Tom
Stoppards new play, The Hard Problem,

at the
National Theatre the frst play Stoppard has
written for the National since 2006, and the last that
the theatres head, Nicholas Hytner, will direct before
leaving his post in March. The 77-year-old playwright
has revealed little about the plays contents, except
that it

concerns the question of what consciousness is


and why it exists, considered from the perspective of
a young researcher played by Olivia Vinall. Speaking
to the Daily Mail, Stoppard also clarifed a potential
misinterpretation of the title. Its not about erectile

dysfunction, he said.
Stoppards work has long focused on grand, existential themes, so the

subject is ftting:
when conversation turns to the Hard Problem, even the most stubborn rationalists

Why cant the worlds greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness _ Oliver Burkeman _ Science _ The Guardian.htm[03/02/2015 11:58:56 a.m.]

Why cant the worlds greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness? | Oliver Burkeman | Science | The Guardian

lapse quickly into musings on the meaning

of life. Christof Koch,

the chief scientifc


offcer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and a key player in the Obama
administrations multibillion-dollar initiative to map the human brain, is about as
credible as neuroscientists get. But, he told me in December: I think the earliest desire
that drove me to study consciousness was that I wanted, secretly,

to show myself that it


couldnt be explained scientifcally. I was raised Roman Catholic, and I wanted to fnd a
place where I could say: OK, here, God has intervened. God created souls, and put them
into people. Koch assured me that he had long ago abandoned such improbable
notions. Then, not much later, and in all seriousness, he said that on the basis of his

recent research he thought it wasnt impossible that his iPhone might have feelings.

***
By the time Chalmers delivered his speech in Tucson,
science had been

vigorously attempting to ignore the


problem of consciousness for a long

time. The source of


the animosity dates back to the 1600s, when Ren
Descartes identifed the dilemma that would tie scholars

in knots for years to come. On the one hand, Descartes


realised, nothing is more obvious and undeniable than
the fact that youre conscious. In theory, everything else
you think you know about the world could be an elaborate

illusion cooked up to deceive


you at this point, present-day writers invariably invoke The Matrix but your
consciousness itself cant be illusory. On the other hand, this most certain and familiar
of phenomena

obeys none of the usual rules of science. It doesnt seem to be physical. It


cant be observed, except from within, by the conscious person. It cant even really be
described. The mind, Descartes concluded, must be made of some special, immaterial
stuff that didnt abide by the laws of nature; it had been bequeathed to us by God.

In all seriousness,
Koch said he
thought it wasn't
impossible that
his iPhone might
have feelings

This religious and rather hand-wavy position, known


as Cartesian dualism, remained the governing
assumption into the 18th century and the

early days of
modern brain study. But it was always bound to grow
unacceptable to an increasingly secular scientifc

establishment that took physicalism the position


that only physical things exist as its

most basic
principle. And yet, even as neuroscience gathered
pace in the 20th century, no convincing alternative
explanation was forthcoming.

So little by little, the


topic became taboo. Few people doubted that the
brain and mind were very closely linked: if you
question this, try stabbing your brain repeatedly with
a kitchen knife, and see what happens to your consciousness. But how they were linked
or if

they were somehow exactly the same thing seemed a mystery best left to
philosophers in their armchairs. As late as 1989, writing in the International Dictionary
Why cant the worlds greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness _ Oliver Burkeman _ Science _ The Guardian.htm[03/02/2015 11:58:56 a.m.]

Why cant the worlds greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness? | Oliver Burkeman | Science | The Guardian

of Psychology, the British psychologist Stuart Sutherland

could irascibly declare of


consciousness that it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it evolved.
Nothing worth reading has been written on it.
It was only in 1990 that Francis Crick,

the joint discoverer of the double helix, used his


position of eminence

to break ranks. Neuroscience was far enough along by now, he


declared in a slightly tetchy paper co-written with Christof Koch, that consciousness
could no longer be ignored. It is remarkable, they began, that most of the work in
both cognitive science and the neurosciences makes no reference to consciousness
partly, they suspected, because most workers in these areas cannot see any useful way
of approaching the problem. They presented their own sketch of a theory, arguing
that certain neurons, fring at certain frequencies, might somehow be the cause of our
inner awareness though it was not clear how.

Illustration by Peter Gamelen

People thought I was crazy to be getting involved, Koch recalled. A senior colleague
took me out to lunch and said, yes, he had the utmost respect for Francis, but Francis
was a Nobel laureate and a half-god and he could do whatever he wanted, whereas I
didnt have tenure yet, so I should be incredibly careful. Stick to more mainstream
science! These fringey things why not leave them until retirement, when youre coming

close to death, and you can worry about the soul and stuff like that?

Why cant the worlds greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness _ Oliver Burkeman _ Science _ The Guardian.htm[03/02/2015 11:58:56 a.m.]

Why cant the worlds greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness? | Oliver Burkeman | Science | The Guardian

It was around this time that David Chalmers started talking about zombies.

***
As a child, Chalmers was short-sighted in one eye, and he vividly recalls the day he was
frst ftted with glasses to rectify the problem.

Suddenly I had proper binocular vision,


he said. And the world just popped out. It was three-dimensional to me in a way it
hadnt been. He thought about that moment frequently as he grew older. Of course,
you could tell a simple mechanical story about what was going on in the lens

of his
glasses, his eyeball, his retina, and his brain. But how does that explain the way the
world just pops out like that? To a physicalist, the glasses-eyeball-retina story is the
only story. But to a thinker of Chalmerss persuasion, it was clear that it wasnt enough:
it told you what the machinery of the eye was doing, but it didnt begin to explain that
sudden, breathtaking experience of depth

and clarity. Chalmerss zombie thought


experiment is his attempt to show why the mechanical account is not enough why the
mystery of conscious awareness goes deeper than a purely material science can explain.
Look, Im not a zombie, and I pray that youre not a
zombie, Chalmers said, one Sunday before
Christmas, but the point is that evolution could have
produced zombies instead of conscious creatures
and it didnt! We were drinking espressos in his
faculty apartment at New York University, where he
recently took up a full-time post at what is widely
considered the leading philosophy department in the
Anglophone world; boxes of his belongings, shipped
over from Australia, lay unpacked around his livingroom. Chalmers, now 48, recently cut his hair in a
concession to academic respectability, and he

wears
less denim, but his ideas remain as heavy-metal as
ever. The zombie scenario goes as follows: imagine that you have a doppelgnger. This
person physically resembles you in every respect, and behaves identically to you; he or
she holds conversations, eats and sleeps, looks happy or anxious precisely as you do.
The sole difference is that the doppelgnger has no consciousness; this as opposed to
a groaning, blood-spattered walking corpse from a movie is what philosophers mean
by a zombie.

Such non-conscious humanoids dont exist, of course. (Or perhaps it would be better to
say that I know Im not one, anyhow; I could never know for certain that you arent.)
But the point is that, in principle, it feels as if they could. Evolution might have
produced creatures that were atom-for-atom the same as humans, capable of everything
humans can do, except with no spark of awareness inside. As Chalmers explained: Im
talking to you now, and I can see how youre behaving; I could do a brain scan, and fnd
out exactly whats going on in your brain yet it seems it could be consistent with all
that evidence that you have no consciousness at all. If you were approached by me and
Why cant the worlds greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness _ Oliver Burkeman _ Science _ The Guardian.htm[03/02/2015 11:58:56 a.m.]

Why cant the worlds greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness? | Oliver Burkeman | Science | The Guardian

my doppelgnger, not knowing which was which, not even the most powerful brain
scanner in existence could tell us apart. And the fact that one can even imagine this
scenario is suffcient to show that consciousness cant just be made of ordinary physical
atoms. So consciousness must, somehow, be something extra an additional ingredient
in nature.
It would be understating things a bit to say that this
argument wasnt universally well-received when
Chalmers recently Chalmers began to advance it, most

prominently in his
cut his hair and
1996 book The Conscious Mind.

The withering tone of


he wears less
the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci sums up the
denim, but his
thousands of words that have been written attacking the

ideas remain as
zombie notion: Lets relegate zombies to B-movies and
heavy-metal as
try to be a little more serious about our philosophy, shall
ever
we? Yes, it may be true that most of us, in

our daily
lives, think of consciousness as something over and
above our

physical being as if your mind were a chauffeur inside your own body, to
quote the spiritual author Alan Watts. But to accept this as a

scientifc principle would


mean rewriting the laws of physics. Everything we know about the universe tells us that
reality consists only of physical things: atoms and their component particles, busily
colliding and combining. Above all, critics point out, if this non-physical mental stuff did

exist, how could it cause physical things to happen as when the feeling of pain causes
me to jerk my fngers away from the saucepans edge?
Nonetheless, just occasionally, science has dropped tantalising hints

that this spooky


extra ingredient might be real. In the 1970s, at what was then the National Hospital for
Nervous Diseases in London, the neurologist Lawrence Weiskrantz encountered a
patient, known as DB, with a blind spot in his left visual feld, caused by brain
damage. Weiskrantz showed him patterns of striped lines, positioned so that they

fell on
his area of blindness, then asked him to say whether the stripes were vertical or
horizontal. Naturally, DB protested that he could see no stripes at all. But Weiskrantz
insisted that he guess the answers anyway and DB got them right almost 90% of the
time. Apparently, his brain was perceiving the stripes without his mind being conscious
of them. One interpretation is that DB was a semi-zombie, with

a brain like any other


brain, but partially lacking the magical add-on of consciousness.
Chalmers knows how wildly improbable his ideas can seem, and takes this in his stride:
at philosophy conferences, he is fond of clambering on stage to sing The Zombie Blues,
a lament about the miseries of having

no consciousness. (I act like you act / I do what


you do / But I dont

know / What its like to be you.) The conceit is: wouldnt it be a


drag to be a zombie? Consciousness is what makes life worth living, and I

dont even have


that: Ive got the zombie blues. The song has improved

since its debut more than a


decade ago, when he used to try to hold a tune. Now Ive realised it sounds better if you
just shout, he said.

Why cant the worlds greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness _ Oliver Burkeman _ Science _ The Guardian.htm[03/02/2015 11:58:56 a.m.]

Why cant the worlds greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness? | Oliver Burkeman | Science | The Guardian

***

Illustration by Peter Gamelen

Why cant the worlds greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness _ Oliver Burkeman _ Science _ The Guardian.htm[03/02/2015 11:58:56 a.m.]

Why cant the worlds greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness? | Oliver Burkeman | Science | The Guardian

The consciousness debates have provoked more mudslinging and fury than most in
modern philosophy, perhaps because of how baffing the problem is: opposing
combatants tend not merely to disagree, but to fnd

each others positions manifestly


preposterous. An admittedly extreme example concerns the Canadian-born philosopher
Ted Honderich, whose book

On Consciousness was described, in an article by his fellow


philosopher Colin McGinn

in 2007, as banal and pointless, excruciating, absurd,


running the full gamut from the mediocre to the ludicrous to the merely bad. McGinn
added, in a footnote: The review that appears here is not as I originally wrote it. The
editors asked me to soften the tone of the original [and] I have done so. (The attack
may have been partly motivated by a passage in Honderichs autobiography, in which
he mentions my small colleague Colin McGinn; at the time, Honderich told this
newspaper hed enraged McGinn by referring to a girlfriend of his as not as plain as the
old one.)
McGinn, to be fair, has made a career from such hatchet jobs. But strong feelings only
slightly more politely expressed are commonplace. Not everybody agrees there is a
Hard Problem to begin with making the whole debate kickstarted by Chalmers an
exercise in pointlessness. Daniel Dennett,

the high-profle atheist and professor at Tufts


University outside Boston, argues that consciousness, as we think of it, is an illusion:
there just isnt anything in addition to the spongy stuff of the brain, and that spongy stuff

doesnt actually give rise to something called consciousness. Common sense may tell us
theres a subjective world of inner experience but then common sense told us that the
sun orbits the

Earth, and that the world was fat. Consciousness, according to Dennetts
theory, is like a conjuring trick: the normal functioning of the brain just makes it look as
if there is something non-physical going

on. To look for a real, substantive thing called


consciousness, Dennett

argues, is as silly as insisting that characters in novels, such as


Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter, must be made up of a peculiar substance

named
fctoplasm; the idea is absurd and unnecessary, since the characters do not exist to
begin with. This is the point at which the debate tends to collapse into incredulous
laughter and head-shaking: neither camp can quite believe what the other is saying. To
Dennetts opponents, he is simply denying the existence of something everyone knows
for certain: their inner experience of sights, smells, emotions and the rest. (Chalmers
has speculated, largely in jest, that Dennett himself might be a zombie.) Its like
asserting that cancer doesnt exist, then claiming youve cured cancer; more than one
critic of Dennetts most famous book, Consciousness Explained, has joked that its title
ought to be Consciousness Explained Away. Dennetts reply is characteristically breezy:
explaining things away, he insists, is exactly what scientists do. When physicists frst
concluded that the only difference between gold and silver was the number of
subatomic particles in their atoms, he writes, people could have felt cheated,
complaining that their special goldness and silveriness had been explained away. But

everybody now accepts that goldness and silveriness are really just differences in atoms.
However hard it feels to accept, we should concede that consciousness is just the
physical brain, doing what brains do.

Why cant the worlds greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness _ Oliver Burkeman _ Science _ The Guardian.htm[03/02/2015 11:58:56 a.m.]

Why cant the worlds greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness? | Oliver Burkeman | Science | The Guardian

The history of science is full of cases where people thought a phenomenon was utterly
unique, that there couldnt be any possible mechanism for it, that we might never solve
it, that there was nothing

in the universe like it, said Patricia Churchland of the


University of

California, a self-described neurophilosopher and one of Chalmerss most


forthright critics. Churchlands opinion of the Hard Problem, which

she expresses in
caustic vocal italics, is that it is nonsense, kept alive by philosophers who fear that
science might be about to eliminate one of the puzzles that has kept them gainfully
employed for years. Look

at the precedents: in the 17th century, scholars were convinced


that light couldnt possibly be physical that it had to be something occult, beyond the
usual laws of nature. Or take life itself: early scientists were convinced that there had to
be some magical spirit the lan vital

that distinguished living beings from mere


machines. But there wasnt, of course. Light is electromagnetic radiation; life is just the
label we give to certain kinds of objects that can grow and reproduce. Eventually,

neuroscience will show that consciousness is just brain states. Churchland said: The
history of science really gives you perspective on how easy it is to talk ourselves into this
sort of thinking that if my big, wonderful brain cant envisage the solution, then it
must be a really, really hard problem!
Solutions have regularly been foated: the literature is awash in references to global
workspace theory, ego tunnels, microtubules, and speculation that quantum theory
may provide a way forward. But the intractability of the arguments has caused some
thinkers, such as Colin McGinn, to raise an intriguing if ultimately defeatist possibility:
what

if were just constitutionally incapable of ever solving the Hard Problem? After all,
our brains evolved to help us solve down-to-earth problems of survival and
reproduction; there is no particular reason to assume they should be capable of
cracking every big philosophical puzzle

we happen to throw at them. This stance has


become known as mysterianism after the 1960s Michigan rocknroll band ? and the
Mysterians, who themselves borrowed the name from a work of Japanese sci-f but the

essence of it is that theres actually no mystery to why consciousness hasnt been


explained: its that humans arent up to the job. If we struggle to understand what it
could possibly mean for the mind to be physical, maybe thats because we are, to quote
the American philosopher Josh Weisberg, in the position of squirrels trying

to
understand quantum mechanics. In other words: Its just not going to happen.

***
Or maybe it is: in the last few years, several scientists and philosophers, Chalmers and
Koch among them, have begun to look seriously

again at a viewpoint so bizarre that it


has been neglected for more than a century, except among followers of eastern spiritual
traditions, or in the kookier corners of the new age. This is panpsychism, the dizzying
notion that everything in the universe might be conscious, or at least potentially
conscious, or conscious when put into certain confgurations. Koch concedes that this
sounds ridiculous: when he mentions panpsychism, he has written, I often encounter
blank stares of

incomprehension. But when it comes to grappling with the Hard


Why cant the worlds greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness _ Oliver Burkeman _ Science _ The Guardian.htm[03/02/2015 11:58:56 a.m.]

Why cant the worlds greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness? | Oliver Burkeman | Science | The Guardian

Problem,

crazy-sounding theories are an occupational hazard. Besides, panpsychism


might help unravel an enigma that has attached to the study of consciousness from the
start: if humans have it, and apes have it, and dogs and pigs probably have it, and
maybe birds, too well, where does it stop?

Illustration by Peter Gamelen

Growing up as the child of German-born Catholics, Koch had a dachshund named


Purzel. According to the church, because he was a dog, that meant he didnt have a soul.
But he whined when anxious and yelped when injured he certainly gave every
appearance of having a rich inner life. These days we dont much speak of souls, but it
is widely assumed that many non-human brains are conscious that a dog really does
feel pain when he is hurt. The problem is that there seems to be no

logical reason to
draw the line at dogs, or sparrows or mice or insects, or, for that matter, trees or rocks.
Since we dont know how the brains of mammals create consciousness, we have no
grounds for assuming its only the brains of mammals that do so or even that
consciousness requires a brain at all. Which is how Koch and Chalmers have both found

themselves arguing, in the pages of the New York Review of Books, that an ordinary
household thermostat or a photodiode, of the kind you might fnd in your smoke
detector, might in principle be conscious.
The argument unfolds as follows: physicists have no problem accepting

that certain
fundamental aspects of reality such as space, mass, or electrical charge just do exist.
They cant be explained as being the result of anything else. Explanations have to stop
somewhere. The panpsychist hunch is that consciousness could be like that, too and
that if it is, there is no particular reason to assume that it only occurs in certain kinds of

Why cant the worlds greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness _ Oliver Burkeman _ Science _ The Guardian.htm[03/02/2015 11:58:56 a.m.]

Why cant the worlds greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness? | Oliver Burkeman | Science | The Guardian

matter.
Kochs specifc twist on this idea, developed with the neuroscientist

and psychiatrist
Giulio Tononi, is narrower and more precise than traditional panpsychism. It is the
argument that anything at all could be conscious, providing that the information it
contains is suffciently

interconnected and organised. The human brain certainly fts the


bill; so do the brains of cats and dogs, though their consciousness probably doesnt
resemble ours. But in principle the same might apply to the internet, or a smartphone,
or a thermostat. (The ethical implications are unsettling: might we owe the same care to
conscious machines that we

bestow on animals? Koch, for his part, tries to avoid


stepping on insects as he walks.)
Unlike the vast majority of musings on the Hard Problem, moreover, Tononi and Kochs
integrated information theory has actually been tested. A team of researchers led by
Tononi has designed a device that stimulates the brain with electrical voltage, to
measure how interconnected and organised how integrated its neural circuits are.
Sure enough, when people fall into a deep sleep, or receive an injection of anaesthetic,
as they slip into unconsciousness, the device demonstrates that their brain integration
declines, too. Among patients suffering locked-in syndrome who are as conscious as
the rest of us

levels of brain integration remain high; among patients in coma who


arent it doesnt. Gather enough of this kind of evidence, Koch argues

and in theory you


could take any device, measure the complexity of the information contained in it, then
deduce whether or not it was conscious.
But even if one were willing to accept the perplexing claim that a smartphone could be
conscious, could you ever know that it was true? Surely only the smartphone itself could
ever know that? Koch shrugged. Its like black holes, he said. Ive never been in a
black hole. Personally, I have no experience of black holes. But the theory [that predicts
black holes] seems always to be true, so I tend to accept it.

Why cant the worlds greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness _ Oliver Burkeman _ Science _ The Guardian.htm[03/02/2015 11:58:56 a.m.]

Why cant the worlds greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness? | Oliver Burkeman | Science | The Guardian

Illustration by Peter Gamelen

It would be satisfying for multiple reasons if a theory like this were eventually to
vanquish the Hard Problem. On the one hand, it wouldnt require a belief in spooky
mind-substances that reside inside brains; the laws of physics would escape largely
unscathed. On the other

hand, we wouldnt need to accept the strange and soulless claim


that consciousness doesnt exist, when its so obvious that it does. On the contrary,
panpsychism says, its everywhere. The universe is throbbing with it.
Last June, several of the most prominent combatants in the consciousness debates
including Chalmers, Churchland and Dennett boarded a tall-masted yacht for a trip
among the ice foes of Greenland.

This conference-at-sea was funded by a Russian


internet entrepreneur, Dmitry Volkov, the founder of the Moscow Centre for
Consciousness Studies. About 30 academics and graduate students, plus crew, spent a
week gliding through dark waters, past looming snow-topped mountains and

glaciers, in
a bracing chill conducive to focused thought, giving the problem of consciousness
another shot. In the mornings, they visited islands to go hiking, or examine the ruins of
ancient stone huts; in the

afternoons, they held conference sessions on the boat. For

Why cant the worlds greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness _ Oliver Burkeman _ Science _ The Guardian.htm[03/02/2015 11:58:56 a.m.]

Why cant the worlds greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness? | Oliver Burkeman | Science | The Guardian

Chalmers, the setting only sharpened the urgency of the mystery: how could you feel the
Arctic wind on your face, take in the visual sweep of vivid greys and whites and greens,
and still claim conscious experience was unreal, or that it was simply the result of
ordinary physical stuff, behaving ordinarily?
The question was rhetorical. Dennett and Churchland were not converted; indeed,
Chalmers has no particular confdence that a consensus will emerge in the next century.
Maybe therell be some amazing new development that leaves us all, now, looking like
pre-Darwinians arguing about biology, he said. But it wouldnt surprise me in the least

if in 100 years, neuroscience is incredibly sophisticated, if we have a complete map of


the brain and yet some people are still saying, Yes, but how does any of that give you
consciousness? while others are saying No, no, no that just is the consciousness!

The Greenland cruise concluded in collegial spirits, and mutual incomprehension.


It would be poetic albeit deeply frustrating were it ultimately to prove that the one
thing the human mind is incapable of comprehending

is itself. An answer must be out


there somewhere. And fnding it matters: indeed, one could argue that nothing else
could ever matter more since anything at all that matters, in life, only does so as a
consequence of its impact on conscious brains. Yet theres no reason to assume that our

brains will be adequate vessels for the voyage towards that answer. Nor that, were we to
stumble on a solution to the Hard Problem, on some distant shore where neuroscience
meets philosophy, we would even recognise that wed found it.
Follow the Long Read on Twitter: @gdnlongread
This article was amended on 21 January 2015. The conference-at-sea was funded by
the Russian internet entrepreneur Dmitry Volkov, not Dmitry Itskov as was originally
stated. This has been corrected.

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Why cant the worlds greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness _ Oliver Burkeman _ Science _ The Guardian.htm[03/02/2015 11:58:56 a.m.]

Why cant the worlds greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness? | Oliver Burkeman | Science | The Guardian

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Why cant the worlds greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness _ Oliver Burkeman _ Science _ The Guardian.htm[03/02/2015 11:58:56 a.m.]

Why cant the worlds greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness? | Oliver Burkeman | Science | The Guardian

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Harris read his
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