Over the centuries, one of the questions that has plagued philosophers and scientists alike is the mystery of consciousness. What is it? What does it do? How did it evolve?
Of course, philosophers and neuroscientists approach the question in vastly different ways. Twenty years ago, there was a conference dedicated to this very topic. After spending a long day attending lectures, neuroscientist Christof Koch and philosopher David Chalmers spent their evening sharing ideas over many bottles of fine wine. They didn’t come up with any conclusions; rather, they made a wager of a case of wine on whether or not anyone would even partially unlock the mystery of consciousness in the next 25 years.
In an article published last month, Koch, now the head of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, believes that we can say with some certainty that conscious awareness originates in our cerebral cortex, which he describes as “an intricately folded and connected sheet of neural activities.” This is the fourth and latest version of scientists’ explanation as to the physical “location” of one of the world’s greatest mysteries. Chalmers, now a philosophy professor at NYU, is not ready to fork over a case of wine, claiming that the mystery of consciousness is what he calls a “hard” problem and in spite of his friend’s work, is a truly insolvable mystery. The case of wine will have to wait.
What makes consciousness such a mystery is its inherent subjectivity. No matter how hard we try, we can never comprehend what another human experiences, let alone another species. Philosopher Thomas Nagel focused on this issue when he published his famous paper in which he asked the question, “What is it like for a bat to be a bat?” He claims, for us to understand the experience we would literally have to be a bat, in which case we couldn’t really ask the question. In spite of the dead-end nature of Nagel’s thought experiment, we continue to look for answers in the hope that a solution to the mystery could result in unimaginable benefits to the human condition.
To help me delve deeper into the topic, I turned to a classmate of mine at Fordham and a lifelong friend, Owen Flanagan. After philosophy graduate school, I changed directions and became a lawyer in the hope of representing indigent clients. Owen, on the other hand, continued in philosophy and his career took off. Today, Dr. Flanagan, a professor at Duke University, a world-renowned author and lecturer, is recognized as one of the greatest philosophical minds on this topic and is quoted liberally in countless philosophical publications.
He is credited with coining the term “constructive naturalism.” By that, he means that consciousness is a natural phenomenon whose nature, form, role and origin can be comprehended through a melding of the disciplines of phenomenology, psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology.
In preparing this column, I thought it might be interesting to reach out directly to my Fordham buddy. He was gracious enough to respond:
Owen, it’s a pleasure to reconnect with you. It’s been a long time since our Fordham days—what made you decide to dedicate your life to philosophy?
It was pretty easy to go from worrying about the fate of my soul to worrying about the mind. Plus, I just found learning about the wisdom of the ages really thrilling.
What part of your professional career—teaching, writing, lecturing—do you find most rewarding, and why?
When I started my career, I thought almost entirely of my work as not work at all; but as what I would want to do anyway even if I weren’t paid for it. But, I thought of the vocation primarily as one of being a teacher first and foremost. I still do. I have written a fair amount for fellow philosophers and lecture a lot, too. But when I look back, I still think of my “job” as helping young people think carefully about things that really matter. What are those things that really matter: mind, morals, and the meaning of life.
You have written two fascinating books on a topic that has totally captivated me—consciousness. What drew you to that issue?
I have always been interested in the mind, the mind-body problem. Plus, I have worked closely with colleagues in psychology and neuroscience.
Can you give us a brief synopsis of your view of consciousness?
I am a philosophical naturalist, who is impressed by the explanatory power of the sciences. There are three mysteries: 1) Why is there something (the universe) rather than nothing? Why is there anything at all? 2) Why/how is there life? 3) Why/how is there consciousness?
Can science today trace the beginning of consciousness?
Fourteen billion years ago, the singularity exploded—earth emerged 10 billion years later! Three billion years ago, living things emerged; and more recently, maybe 500 million years ago, conscious beings emerged, followed only 250,000 years ago by our kind of conscious being.
So, my view is that life and mind (conscious ones) are emergent. They once did not exist but given lots of time and the work of evolution, creatures with conscious experiences emerged, maybe first with just the capacities to RING LOUDLY to pleasure and pain, then to experience in the sensory modalities, and so on.
I don’t think consciousness is miraculous, although I do admit it is pretty mysterious. But the bet is that it is a complex evolved ability of many kinds of animal—all birds, fish, mammals, etc.
Do you think about artificial intelligence?
Yes. I wrote about A.I. in my first book in 1984, “The Science of the Mind.” A.I. exists and it is world changing. I was interested in whether we should expect A.I. to be conscious. My bet is that it is made of the wrong stuff, i.e., not biological. But, I see no reason to think A.I. can’t be more intelligent, better at pattern recognition across most domains than actual humans.
I want to thank Dr. Flanagan for the time he has taken to answer my questions and share his insights. Many scientists have speculated that in the next 100 years, the mysteries of the brain, including consciousness, will be unlocked and with that disease, mental illness and other human problems will be things of the past. I only wish that I were around to witness such a glorious day.