The Enigma of Human Consciousness

The New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS)-hosted event, “The Emerging Science of Consciousness: Mind, Brain and the Human Experience,” began with a lively discussion titled, “The Thinking Ape: The Enigma of Human Consciousness.” Seeking to plummet this dense subject, moderator Steve Paulson of Wisconsin Public Radio’s Peabody Award-winning program “To the Best of Our Knowledge” submitted evocative questions to the unique and various sensitivities of panelists Nobel laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman, philosopher David Chalmers, primate cognition expert Laurie Santos, and physician-scientist Nicholas Schiff.

The complexity of the human brain and how it brings about a conscious understanding and experience of the world around us is one of the great mysteries still perplexing us. What is the origin and nature of consciousness? What specifically are the defining traits of human consciousness? These and more were addressed in the midst of a sold out audience.

Can science and philosophy explain the nature of consciousness? Will computers become conscious someday? How about coma patients — where does consciousness begin and end with them?

Chalmers expressed it as a challenge: physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, and sociology are within the path of disciplines for studying the material universe. But where does consciousness fit in? It seems that consciousness is a subjective phenomenon, and it can’t be explained from the objective point of view.

The science of consciousness is extremely challenging especially in making assertions regarding coma patients, for instance, according to Nicholas Schiff. We’re getting closer to acquiring better measurement tools but the better they become, the more challenging the process is.

Santos agrees that it’s difficult to measure subjective experience but is hopeful because of how far we’ve come in our development of cognitive understanding.

Kahneman is in the minority because he claims to have never been interested in the question in the first place, having never thought it possible to come up with an answer. He is troubled with the conundrum of robots. They will be expressing emotion and they will look conscious to us. And this will happen before we understand or have a theory of consciousness. “I will be convinced when the robot says to me, ‘I know deep down I am a robot but I can’t explain this experience I’m having …’ ”

Can science really understand the essence of what people are feeling? There is a difference between gathering data and explaining it; right now neuroscience is a science of correlation. Can we ever get an explanation for why these subjective experiences come about? If, in fact, we can identify consciousness, of people and other animals, building from the bottom up we can get a better understanding and/or description to bridge the gap between the material and the subjective.

Neuroscience can map brain activity but is that really getting at subjective experience? Neuroscience alone isn’t going to bridge the gap. Chalmers says you need to gather all the data and build it into a multilevel theory. Kahneman put a word in for experimental psychology where interesting data is coming in regarding mental activity which goes on outside of consciousness.

And then there were the ants …

Santos feels that what makes human consciousness different is that we’re motivated by wanting to share. This is what language is all about to humans. Chimps don’t seem to have the same motivation to share. Like Jane Goodall once said, if we could spend time inside of a creature’s mind we would learn more about what it means to be that creature than all the research. From the outside we attribute what we think but we can’t be sure. Ants bury their dead or so it looks like to the outsider (like us) but really they are really reacting to is a chemical that they emit when they die.

In the absence of a criteria, Kahneman feels, the ant story is interesting because it points to emotional responses. Our intuition of likening the ants’ activity to burying their dead makes us empathize; however when we learn the real reason for this activity we claim that the ants are not conscious. So our intuitions are not always to be trusted.

Clearly scientists, philosophers, and other interested persons continue to come up with a definition of consciousness: something it’s like, awareness of self and/or environment, what our intuitions suggest or as Chalmers referenced “that annoying time between naps.” It is curious to ponder the question of why evolution didn’t produce a race of zombies as he alluded to also.

During the question and answer time with the audience, a gentlemen asked the panelists and moderator to name their favorite authors who write about the subject of consciousness. The list included William James, Jane Goodall, Proust, and, at Nicholas Schiff’s recommendation, Helen Keller’s last book “Teacher,” in which she describes her pre-language “self” as a phantom, an entity pushed about sometimes violently by the forces of the environment.

The event was co-sponsored by the Nour FoundationThe New York Academy of Sciences“To the Best of Our Knowledge”, and WNYC. The full event video is available here.

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