This question always comes up on every single neuroscience course I’ve ever attended. It is a matter of debate with my friends every time it comes up. And a big fascination of all those lovely hippie friends of mine.
“What is consciousness?”, you ask and then the the Zen Master slaps you in the face and suddenly you’re enlightened. The question is extremely stupid because it already contains the answer.
Everybody feels what consciousness is, but no-one can quite define what it is. As the lecture quite well pointed out, we have to split this problem into smaller parts: consciousness as self-awareness, as a social phenomena, as attention. As the philosopher: in order to study reality, we have to split reality into smaller parts and study them. But then again, that is no more THE Reality, is it?
But surely natural sciences are capable of understanding this probelm, you say! It is only our puny human mind that is able to grasp it. With the rational thought and gift of observation we will be able to pinpoint consciousness and reproduce it! As the physics have pointed out the laws of the universe, so shall neurosciences point out the laws of our own consciousness.
There are no physical laws. There never were, and there never will be. Or sure – there are. But only existing in your mind and nowhere else. Newton thought he was right. He had made the calculations and he had the models that could predict the movements of all beings in his Heavenly Clockwork.
Well then Einstein came up and destroyed that law. Time was not fixed, but relative? Gasp. Well, quantum mechanics are now destroying Einstein ideas.
But the universe doesn’t seem to care. It just goes on with it’s daily business. Because there are no laws. The laws you made up are models. Very good models, yes. Models that allows me to write on this computer. Models that allow us to fly even into space. But they are just that: models of prediction and nothing else. But to say that they are the laws of the universe is heresy.
But could The Reality be a formal system? Sure. I’m not saying that.
But aren’t our brains also made out of matter and part of this universe? Yes. Absolutely. What I’m trying to say, is that trying to define consciousness in terms of a model is impossible.
But we are so close! We have the answers and the models! Brain scans can prove it!
Well, lets say you did have the models. Let’s say we have an incredibly good model that can predict all of human behaviour and thoughts. Now who did that modelling? Who is the person thinking about that model? Can your model predict that the model is predicting itself predicting about it’s model? Now what you have, is a fascinating problem called a self-referential loop. If I am always lying, am I telling the truth? Go ask Kurt Gödel and see what he thinks.
But there is Consciousness. This is something you can be absolutely sure of. And we should talk about Consciousness to understand more about it. But what is consciousness then? Is is a separate part of you? Or is it that part who is doing the talking in your head? The one who does the continuous thinking and talking? Or the one that feels the happiness and sorrows of the world? Surely, if you think about it for awhile you will quickly notice it is none of these. They can be part of it, but they are not the whole.
But you are a clever neuroscience student. You will say that Consciousness is the collapser of the quantum wave function! Well, now we are getting somewhere.
But everything in this world is a collapser of the quantum wave function. In each and every object, each and every atom is collapsing the quantum wave of each and every atom. Thus even every single particle in each atom is a wave function collapser. But then why do we say that something isn’t conscious? I am conscious, and I’m pretty sure you are too if you’re reading this. But then where do you draw the line? Why animals wouldn’t be conscious? Why plants wouldn’t be conscious? Why everything wouldn’t be conscious?
But this what I am saying is of course again only a model of thinking. But thinking models, or philosophies, are useful for interacting in the world and for personal development. And which thought is more viable and fruitful: the one where we are only selfish genes fighting for our survival? Or the one where we are all one, only mirroring our own personal Truths in this Reality?
And that is why I love neuroscience. I love it how it is a real natural science studying humanistic phenomena – Ourselves. It tackles the problem of existence itself in a very practical manner. The Other is always different for the Self. Your qualia, your personal Truth, remains in a sense always inaccessible to me. But maybe trough shared experiences and understanding, through systematic research and brain scans I can get a better glimpse on how it feels to be you.
And in here the biggest question remains, how will we use neuroscience? What are those models we will come up with it? Newton’s and Einstein theories are so important, because they are useful models in a certain part of Reality. They were essential for the development of our species. They are now essential for our technology. In the same way, the answers brought by future of neuroscience, should not be judged only for their factor of truth but by their usefulness as well. When we look into ourselves, the line between objective and subjective gets blurry and we must remain alert and skeptical yet truthful and honest.
Will we turn our findings into yet another religion of science? Will we use it mindread and control people? To suppress them even more of their own inner beings? Or will we use it as a tool for self-exploration and -knowledge? As something that could evolve the Consciousness of Humanity as a whole?
I will now get out of this library. Sun is shining and the life is good. There will probably be kids eating ice cream. And I’m pretty sure they know what consciousness is better than I do.