There are two broad traditional and competing metaphysical views concerning the nature of the mind and conscious mental states: dualism and materialism. While there are many versions of each, the former generally holds that the conscious mind or a conscious mental state is non-physical in some sense. On the other hand, materialists hold that the mind is the brain, or, more accurately, that conscious mental activity is identical with neural activity.
ConsciousnessThere were lots of interesting things going on at SciBarCamp over the weekend but I want to pick out one topic that came up several times.
At one point there was a group of us talking about a number of different things when the topic of consciousness arose. One member of the group happened to mention that humans were special because they are "conscious."
Now, I happen believe that there's no such thing as "consciousness" in the sense of something tangible that we can point to and say. "That's consciousness." I think it's merely a descriptive term for brain activity. It's an epiphenomenon. Consciousness may be an important and useful word for describing the phenomenon but that's all it is. I don't know whether an octopus is conscious, or a dolphin, or a dog, or a chimpanzee. The reason I don't know this is because nobody can tell me what consciousness is.
Nobody in the group seemed to share my view. They all seemed to think that consciousness was something tangible and real—something that set humans off from the rest of life. Lee Smolin, a physicist at the Perimeter Institute, was particularly vocal about this. He expressed a great deal of surprise at the fact that anyone could question the existence of consciousness. In fact, Smolin insisted that the onus was on me to prove that consciousness doesn't exist.
I tried out some of my standard approaches on the group. For example, I asked them whether the character Data on Star Trek (TNG) was conscious. (The question applies equally well to any sophisticated robot.) Several people said yes. To me, this means that they define consciousness as simply complex electronic activity. If a robot/android can possess consciousness then how, exactly, do you define consciousness as anything else?
Other weren't sure whether Data was conscious or not. Unfortunately, they weren't able to explain why Data was not conscious and the other members of the Star Trek crew were conscious. At that point the group broke up because sessions were starting. My suspicion is that some people at the meeting were true dualists and they had never thought seriously about any other possibility.
The question is complex. Even a cursory review of the Wikipedia entry will be enough to confuse almost everyone [Consciousness]. What surprised me the most about the group I was talking to is that they seemed to take for granted that there was such a thing as a meaningful definition of consciousness that could be used to separate humans from all other animals. Some of them seemed to be genuinely puzzled by the fact that they couldn't define consciousness. It was as though they had never thought about the problem before.
The question came up again in the afternoon when I attended a discussion led by Robert Sawyer. Sawyer is a science fiction author, and a very good one at that. One of his books Calculating God is an excellent story about discovering God. I highly recommend it. His latest book is Rollback and I will be buying a copy as soon as I get to a bookstore.
I've met Robert Sawyer before. He's been to Skeptics meetings and to the Centre for Inquiry. He's a smart guy, and he knows it. I like people like that.
Sawyer is currently working on a series of books where the World Wide Web acquires consciousness. He organized a session to talk about his books under the title "World Wide Web Gaining Consciousness." As he explained it, this was supposed to be a brainstorming session to help him with his book. It was also pretty good publicity.
Sawyer began by explaining that consciousness evolved in humans about 40,000 years ago. We know this, according to Sawyer, because that's when we see the first signs of human adornment. Apparently, the ability to be self-aware is the hallmark of consciousness. In his book, the World Wide Web becomes self-aware and conscious.
There was a lot of discussion about what it meant for the WWW to be conscious. There were some questions about how the characters in the book knew that the WWW had become conscious. This was quite interesting. Most of the people in the room seemed to be having some difficulty understanding what it meant for Web to be conscious.
At one point I asked whether consciousness was ever defined and whether the characters in the book discussed the idea that there might not be any such thing as consciousness. Sawyer responded that, of course, everyone thinks about such things and so will his characters. I mentioned that some people don't seem to know about the difficulty in defining consciousness and don't seem to have thought about the fact that it may not actually exist.
I called for everyone to raise their hands if they had thought about the idea that consciousness may not exist. Everyone raised their hands. This is when Sawyer said that it's not a good idea to think you are the smartest person in the room, Larry.
It was embarrassing. The result of the survey indicated that everyone in the room had pondered the consciousness problem and all but one (me) had reached the same conclusion after careful thought. Consciousness, which none of them could define, exists and furthermore, it evolved uniquely in humans in the recent past.1 Whatever it is, the same kind of consciousness was also able to arise spontaneously in a network of fiber optic cables.
I admit I was wrong. The evidence is clear. All smart people have thought about these things. Most of them have made a "conscious" decision to be dualists and reject the notion of consciousness as a mere epiphenonenon. The lunch group seems to have been an exception.
Later on the the same session, another science fiction writer named Peter Watts mentioned that consciousness arose by natural selection. I pointed out that there was another possibility; namely that it could evolve by accident. This would be similar to how it evolved in the World Wide Web. (Sawyer did not indicate that natural selection was involved there.) Peter assured me in no uncertain terms that he knew as much about evolution as I did.
Science fiction writers sure know a lot of things.
In case you want the see another version of this story go to Robert Sawyer's blog and read what he has to say about this discussion [SciBarCamp].
1. I wonder how this actually worked. Since consciousness evolved it must have a genetic component. Otherwise it's not evolution. Presumably a mutation causing consciousness arose some 40,000 years ago. It rapidly spread though the population in a short period of time. It must have been interesting times. In some families you would have had a mixture of children; some were conscious and some were not. How did they tell which was which?