"What Is the Biological Basis of Consciousness?" is one of the top 25 questions from the 125th anniversary issue of Science magazine [Science, July 1, 2005]. The complete reference is ...
Greg Miller is a news writer for Science. He begins by describing the classic mind/body problem in philosophy. Rene Descartes claimed that mind and body were two separate things.
Recent scientifically oriented accounts of consciousness generally reject Descartes's solution; most prefer to treat body and mind as different aspects of the same thing. In this view, consciousness emerges from the properties and organization of neurons in the brain. But how? And how can scientists, with their devotion to objective observation and measurement, gain access to the inherently private and subjective realm of consciousness?This is a slippery slope. The real question is "Does Consciousness Exist?" There's no point in asking about the biological basis of something until you establish that the "something" actually exists. As Miller hints in his introduction, consciousness could be just an epiphenomenon—a kind of illusion that's produced when a brain operates.
If that's true then the right question would be something like "How Are Memories Stored and Retrieved?" As it turns out, that is one of the top 25 questions, but it's not this one.
The article ends by pointing to promising lines of research that might arise from asking the "right" question.
Ultimately, scientists would like to understand not just the biological basis of consciousness but also why it exists. What selection pressure led to its development, and how many of our fellow creatures share it? Some researchers suspect that consciousness is not unique to humans, but of course much depends on how the term is defined. Biological markers for consciousness might help settle the matter and shed light on how consciousness develops early in life. Such markers could also inform medical decisions about loved ones who are in an unresponsive state.This is begging the question (in the old-fashioned sense of the phrase). The question we should be answering is not "why does consciousness exist?" but "does consciousness exist?" I don't think it does exist, so naturally this ranks as a very silly question as far as I'm concerned.
The statement that "some researchers suspect that consciousness is not unique to humans" is very disturbing. It implies that most workers think otherwise, as does Greg Miller. Personally, I'm not aware of any serious research scientist who thinks that "consciousness" (if it exists) is something that only a human possesses and not a chimpanzee or even (gasp!) an octopus. (Readers are invited to post the names of anyone who thinks otherwise.)
And the idea that there might be "biological markers for consciousness" seems to portray sloppy thinking at best and profound misunderstanding at worst.
Questions about how the brain works rank right at the top of my list of important questions. This question is not one of those. It is badly formulated and the explanation in the article makes it even worse.