The Nature Of Consciousness: A Question Without An Answer?

by Marcelo Gleiser

Today I’d like to go back to a topic that leaves most people perplexed, me included: the nature of consciousness and how it “emerges” in our brains. I wrote about this a few months ago, promising to get back to it. At this point, no scientist or philosopher in the world knows how to answer it. If you think you know the answer, you probably don’t understand the question:

Are you all matter?

Or, let’s phrase it in a different way, a little less controversial and more amenable to a scientific discussion: how does the brain, a network of some 90 billion neurons, generate the subjective experience you have of being you?

Australian philosopher David Chalmers, now at New York University, dubbed this question “The Hard Problem of Consciousness.” He did this to differentiate it from other problems, which he considers the “easy” ones, that is, those that can be solved through the diligent application of scientific research and methodology as it’s being already done in cognitive neurosciences and in computational neuroscience. Even if some of these “easy” problems may take a century to solve, their difficulty doesn’t even come close to that of the “hard” problem, which, some speculate, may be insoluble.

Note that, even if the hard problem may be insoluble, the majority of scientists and philosophers still stick to the hypothesis that matter is all there is and that “you” exist as a neuronal construction within your brain (and body, as the two are linked in many ways, not all understood yet).

Here are some of the problems Chalmers call easy:

  • The ability to discriminate and react to external stimuli
  • The integration of sensorial information
  • The difference between a state of wakefulness and sleep
  • The intentional control of behavior

These questions are on the whole localized, amenable to a reductionist description of how specific parts of the brain operate as electrochemical circuitry through myriad neural connections.

Recently, Henry Markram from the Federal Polytechnic School in Lausanne, Switzerland, received a billion-euro grant to lead the Human Brain Project, a consortium of more than a dozen European institutions that intends to create a full-blown simulation of the human brain. For this, they will need a supercomputer capable of more than a billion-billion operations per second (exaflops, where “exa” stands for 1018), about 50 times faster than today’s high-end machines. Optimists believe that such computing power is within reach, possibly before the end of this decade.

Of course, Markram’s project, or the intent of modeling a human brain in full in a computer, clashes frontally with the notion of the hard problem.

Markram and the “computationalists” believe that if the simulation is sufficiently complete and detailed, including everything from the flow of neurotransmitters across each individual synapse to the amazingly complex network of the trillions of inter-synaptic connections across the brain tissue, that it will function just as a human brain does, including a consciousness in every way as amazing as ours. To them, the hard problem doesn’t exist: everything can be obtained from pilling neuron upon neuron on computer chip models, as bricks compose a house, plus all the other building details, plumbing, wiring, etc.

Although we must agree that Markram’s project is of enormous scientific importance, I can’t quite see how a computer simulation can create something like a human consciousness. Perhaps some other kind of consciousness, but not ours.

Another philosopher from New York University (that ought to be an amazing department to work in), Thomas Nagel, argued that we are incapable of understanding what it is like to be another animal, with its own subjective experience. He took bats as an example, probably because they construct their sense of reality through echolocation and are so different from us. Using ideas from MIT linguist Noam Chomsky, who has argued that every brain has cognitive limitations stemming from its design and evolutionary functionality (for example, a mouse will never talk), Nagel showed that we will never truly understand what it is like to be a bat.

This is another way of thinking about Chalmers’ hard problem, what philosopher Colin McGinn calls “cognitive closure.” (McGinn has just left the University of Miami after much controversy. Who knows, maybe he will also join NYU’s philosophy department?)

Back to McGinn’s ideas, he and other “mysterians” defend the idea that our brains can only do so much and one of the things that it can’t do is understand the nature of consciousness. Being a philosophical argument there is of course no scientific proof of this limitation (what physicists fondly call a “no-go theorem”), but McGinn makes a compelling case, arguing that the difficulty comes from consciousness being nowhere and everywhere in the brain, thus not amenable to the methodic reductionist analysis as we tend to do with scientific issues.

This being the case, it becomes very hard to see how the subjective quality of the experiential mind will emerge from neuronal modeling in silicon chips: to capture thinking is not the same thing as capturing what the thinking is about.

McGinn leaves the door open to more advanced intelligences, with brains designed in more capable ways than ours. Of course, unless you are Ray Kurzweil and are convinced that it is just a matter of time before machines will be able to not just simulate the mind but leave us all behind, we can’t ever predict reliably whether such technological marvels will come to be. But even if a more advanced (machine?) intelligence one day figures out what consciousness is about, it seems that for today we will have to continue living with the mystery of not knowing.

This article was originally published at: The Nature Of Consciousness: A Question Without An Answer?

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13 Responses to The Nature Of Consciousness: A Question Without An Answer?

  1. While he asks “Are you all matter,” he then rephrases the question: “Or, let’s phrase it in a different way, a little less controversial and more amenable to a scientific discussion: how does the brain, a network of some 90 billion neurons, generate the subjective experience you have of being you?” But this is an entirely different question that does not consider the possibility that consciousness—ourself—is not matter. And to me it shows a huge bias in the scientific community. The author acknowledges that “the majority of scientists and philosophers still stick to the hypothesis that matter is all there is and that “you” exist as a neuronal construction within your brain.” But the article would have been much more balanced if he himself suggested that perhaps consciousness is not physical and that such a proposal is perfectly reasonable and as empirically supportable.

    No wonder they can’t find it, consciousness is not an emergent property of the brain. All instances of emergence in nature are found to include in the emergence only properties that in another form are already present in that form from which the emergence arises. But there is no evidence that first person experience exists in any form within a nonexperiental existence. And it is illogical to think it might.

    Here is good assessment of the state of affairs in philosophy and science as to how reasonable any of the numerous reductive explanations of consciousness available today are:

    Well known British Michael Loockwood testifies as follows:

    “Let me begin by nailing my colours to the mast. I count myself as a materialist, in the sense that I take consciousness to be a species of brain activity. Having said that, however, it seems to me evident that no description of brain activity of the relevant kind, couched in the currently available languages of physics, physiology, or functional or computational roles, is remotely capable of capturing what is distinctive about consciousness. So glaring, indeed, are the shortcomings of all reductive programmes currently on offer, that I cannot believe that anyone with a philosophical training looking dispassionately at these programmes, would take any of them seriously for a moment, were it not for a deep-seated conviction that current physical science has essentially got reality taped, and accordingly, something along the lines of what the reductionists are offering must be correct.”

    Obviously, the idea that the complexity of consciousness can be reduced to matter may not be correct. The Gaudiya Vedanta position is that it is not correct, and for good reason: We all matter!

    • Not only does the author stick to the emergence hypothesis, he admits he would still do so if the hard problem was shown to be insoluble! We could consider this to be a straight up case of bias, but a more likely explanation is that many scientists aren’t well informed about the philosophical issues, and the author is a physicist not a philosopher.

      I think this bias (which is mostly ignorance), comes from conflating the scientific naturalist method with ontological naturalism. Without understanding the distinction between them, the dazzling success of the scientific method produces an assumption of ontological naturalism. With this mindset, it’s only a matter of time (and sufficient funding) before the truth of it is established. This idea is so endemic, it could be called the modern mythology.

      But what Micheal Lockwood calls a “conviction” among philosophers, isn’t a bias or ignorance. Lockwood goes on to say, “To that extent, the very existence of consciousness seems to me to be a standing demonstration of the explanatory limitations of contemporary physical science.” . . . “Having said that, we can only work with what we have. And for all it’s shortcomings, fundamental physics provides the currently most authoritative guide to the material world, which as I conceive it, has consciousness as an integral constituent.”

      Philosophers will be committed to naturalist methods because this is the Western Enlightenment project and the tradition they’re a part of. But that also entails they’re open to any idea that can be expressed in a rigorous way.

      I have wondered what contribution Vedic philosophy could make to the discussion. How would you translate the Gaudiya Vedanta ontology into western philosophical language and concepts? Is it actually a substance dualism requiring a solution to the interaction problem, or a substance monism (of consciousness) along the lines of idealism?

      The Vedic ideas seem to suggest the soul is inactive in the material world which would mean there is only the illusion of interaction going on, and the physical world is something like the matrix.

      • Yes, I understand why naturalists think the way they do. But I do not think that exempts them from the charge of being invested in a particular notion as to the nature of consciousness that drives their pursuit and interpretation of evidence and leaves them deaf to alternative nonmaterial notions of consciousness, however rigorously expressed. And I still think Lockwood’s words support that. But here is something that speaks more bluntly to the point.

        In his book, The Last Word, the well-known naturalist Thomas Nagel is honest about his bias and wishful thinking (charges naturalists readily make against theists): “I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.” That is bias, and Nagel is not alone in his thinking.

        We might translate Gaudiya Vedanta’s acintya bhedabheda “trans-rational monistic dualism.” It is a form of substance dualism, but one in which the natural world (maya-sakti) is also one with consciousness (jiva-sakti), despite their larger difference from one another. They are one with one another in that they are both saktis of Bhagavan. They are different from one another in that one is experiential and the other is non-experiential.

        In Gaudiya ontology the world is really there but we only experience an idea of it. It could also be called idealistic dualism perhaps. But this is Maung’s term for his position, and his form of it acknowledges only correlation between the natural and the spiritual (objective process and subjective experiences). He understands subjective experience to supplement the physical world as an extra fact, preserving causal closure while remaining ontologically distinct from the physical world. But here we are getting away from Gaudiya Vedanta it would seem. And causal closure is far from a scientific fact.

        While Advaita Vedanta does not posit the idea that consciousness is an agent of action, but rather a witness, an awareness alone, Gaudiya Vedanta does. The jivatma is an agent (doer), experiencer of qualia, and an apprehender, among other things. Somehow it moves matter. The Bhagavata describes it’s doing so as more or less magical. It gives the example of a magnet moving iron filings by is magical power (sakti), without itself undergoing transformation. Such a folk science explanation of how consciousness is a causal agent in the world is probably not much more convincing to a naturalist that the centuries long argument of Christianity that attributes God’s intervention in the world to his miraculous power.

        But as I mentioned in my earlier comment, I believe it is more reasonable to be a mysterian with regard to exactly how consciousness moves matter rather than to embrace the performative contradiction that does not acknowledge the causal efficacy of consciousness staring us in the face. All of us think, feel, and will and live our lives as if consciousness has such efficacy, but exactly how it does remains a mystery that there is no need to solve.

        • What is the significance of the term “trans-rational” (acintya)? I don’t know how to understand trans-rational in the context of ontology. Is this referring to epistemology? So when you say there is no need to solve the mystery of how the jivatma moves matter, are you also saying it’s impossible to do so with the rational faculties? i.e. the naturalist project is doomed to failure since the knowledge is trans-rational?

          • Yes, I was suggesting the acintya could be rendered trans-rational. How the jiva and maya are one with God and different at the same time is thought to be inconceivable. It is something to realise/experience through the trans-rational exercise of sadhana but will remain beyond word and thought. How God is the world and is not the world at the same time, or by extension how the jiva, being divine, is the world and is not may be beyond the pay grade of the intellect. God and the jiva move the world even while never touching it.

            But then just what the objective world is, is another related question. Is there any “thing” out there? And the quantum perspective really brings our understanding into question. The teaching of the Bhagavatam is that it is impossible to fully grasp. So how does the jivatma move “what” might be the question? Chomsky reasons that while we thought we took the ghost out of the machine, in fact the machine has been taken out. The mechanistic world is in question. As Russell writes in his study of matter, all we really “know” is our own consciousness. And I might add, we don’t know it very well. But I am not suggesting pure idealism.

            That said, when I say there is no need to solve the mystery, I mean that there are better things to do. Solving it proves the existence of the immaterial, the supernatural. So that would be good, if possible to do so objectively. I now doubt it is possible. But it has no bearing on those who have ruci.

            The naturalist project is doomed to failure if it involves demonstrating that consciousness is reducible to matter.

  2. Dear Harmonist and Marcelo Gleiser

    Thank you for your post. I have wrestled with these questions for over 40 years and have some thoughts that appear pertinent. Like McGinn, I think that understanding of brains is beyond the closed rules of modern science. But I have devised some approaches to get around such closure.

    Starting with the “materialism” question, if a “non-material” influence — e.g., a non-material soul — makes a person’s decision, it “somehow” has to connect to the person’s material body to carry out that decision. But the “somehow” has to have both a non-material aspect and a material aspect, so the same problems re-appear. Thus, Descartes thought the connection was through the pineal gland, but that did not work out.

    I have a different approach. In my approach, consciousness, awareness and feelings (what I call “imagery”) are material phenomena that are beyond the reach of “the modern scientific view.” Thus, I agree with statements of Michael Lockwood quoted in the earlier comment by Swami BV Tripurari.

    I suggest that imagery is produced during phase changes occurring in brains. Such phase changes are changes in operations and occur within a material environment that can maintain a large repertoire of activities. Metaphorically, it’s somewhat like different programs in a computer — but I propose very different kinds of operations. Other phase changes that are beyond the reach of “modern science” include snowflakes and “martensitic” transformations in metallurgy. Science deals in “fixed” and “conserved quantities,” especially “conserved energy,” which are concept that do not apply to snowflakes and other highly “dissipative” transformational phase changes.

    I suggest that imagery — including the imagery of science, religion and legal systems — is often useful but tends to induce delusions. We are a delusional species and we have extensive histories of damaging delusions. To reduce delusional propensities, I suggest that we direct attention to the phenomena of actual life, namely muscular movements and related bodily feelings. Feelings of the body are the first stage of consciousness (imagery) and one strongly tied to movements of the body. Material phenomena and imagery are closely connected during muscular movements.

    Science sits still and is detached from phenomena under consideration. There is no freedom under such circumstances. Freedom is based on movements. Movements and freedom are prior to consciousness or “will.”

    Please see my essay “How to solve free-will puzzles and overcome limitations of platonic science” at

    • Bob,

      Starting with the “materialism” question, if a “non-material” influence — e.g., a non-material soul — makes a person’s decision, it “somehow” has to connect to the person’s material body to carry out that decision. But the “somehow” has to have both a non-material aspect and a material aspect, so the same problems re-appear. Thus, Descartes thought the connection was through the pineal gland, but that did not work out.

      Are you familiar with Physicist Henry Stapp’s work and his “Quantum Interactive Dualism?”

      Hane Htut Maung’s “Mirror” approach/solution laid out in his book Consciousness, An Inquiry Into The Metaphysics of the Self is also interesting.

      I would have to study your position to comment. So I will will look it over. But at this point, to me, the question is which is more troublesome, the counterintuitive and performative contradiction lacking empirical support that consciousness does not move matter, or the fact that we cannot measure how it does if it does. I find the latter much less troubling. Thus I am content (kind of) to be a mysterien in this regard.

      I think we would also be remiss to not look seriously at the intersubjective testimony from mysticism as to the nature of consciousness, especially given the measure of objectivity involved in the mystic disciplines (detachment fosters objectivity). The base starting point of such disciplines is the theoretical understanding and practical commitment to a culture of objectivity or absence of bias as to the nature of the world. But I may have lost you there . . .

      • Thanks for your interest.

        I am indirectly familiar with Stapp’s ideas and more familiar with those of David Bohm (Aharonov–Bohm effect) on which I understand Stapp’s ideas are based. I take a different approach. I think that quantum mechanics has many defects in these areas and that the defects obscure whatever significance is to be found.

        Looking at your own interests, I have been a yoga practitioner for many years, mostly following teachers of the Sivananda school. I base some of my work on investigations into my own bodily feelings during asana and pranayama practice. Also qigong (chi gong) where actual movements are the content of the practice. It is noteworthy that “scientific” investigations into “consciousness” have mostly ignored such skillful consciousness practices and similar practices of consciousness like martial arts — karate, gongfu and judo. I have set forth some of my ideas in these areas in another website:

  3. Swami, I couldn’t find a reply option to your last comment.

    So trans-rational should be understood as mysticism (as a means of knowing or perceiving)? The ontology is not unknowable, but knowable only by the method of mysticism (experience) and not by the method of rational analysis?

    Is it possible for faith (shraddha) to arise from the naturalist method? Do you think someone could be persuaded by reason alone of the logical necessity of the trans-rational or mystical method? Would this ever be sufficient to produce faith that would inspire someone to engage in some type of sadhana, and Hari Nama sadhana in particular? Or is faith only produced (or received?) by the mystic method of perception?

    In Chalmers book, The Character of Consciousness he describes a metaphysic he calls Type F monism. He says, “We might call this view Russellian monism because it takes its cue from Bertrand Russell’s discussion of physics in The Analysis of Matter. Russell pointed out that physics characterizes physical entities and properties by their relations to one another and to us. At the same time, physics says nothing about the intrinsic nature of these entities and properties. … Phenomenal properties seem to be intrinsic properties that are hard to fit in with the structural-dynamic character of physical theory, and arguably, they are the only intrinsic properties that we have direct knowledge of. Perhaps the intrinsic properties of the physical world are themselves phenomenal properties.”

    The idea is reminiscent of the Vedic terminology which describes internal and external energy. It seems the closest idea conceptually to the Gaudiya view. Depending on how the details are cashed out, it can be seen as a neutral monism, or an idealism, which retains physical realism. Are there any Gaudiya Vedantists who have translated their metaphysical details into Western concepts in this way?

    • So trans-rational should be understood as mysticism (as a means of knowing or perceiving)? The ontology is not unknowable, but knowable only by the method of mysticism (experience) and not by the method of rational analysis?

      Well there is a rationally unknowable aspect of Gaudiya Vedanta. Does it include knowing how the jiva moves matter? I do not think it explicitly says this. It does not seem particularly interested in this detail. God wills and “glances” at the world and it begins to move. Then within the world the jiva also moves matter. Today’s more rational world wants a more detailed explanation because it seems that movement requires a point of contact and their appears to be universal physical closure to some (I don’t agree). So the Bhagavata gives an answer but it causes the modern world to ask further. And its answer is also interpreted differently by different systems of Vedanta, sometimes very differently.

      I think that the naturalist method could lead objective persons to conclude that consciousness is not part of or does not emerge from, etc., etc. the brain. But I would think that they would have to go much further to turn to mysticism. Still I think that will happen. Modern science as a whole was born Christian. In its adolescence it became agnostic. Now in its adult life it is heavily influenced by atheism. But it if it so live into the wisdom of old age, I argue that it must become a mystic.

      I do not know of anyone who has translated the metaphysical details of GV into Western concepts, although I have tried my best at times.

      • Thanks for your replies. I think you do an exemplary job of distilling the modern debate to the essential issues. Your ideas inspired me to educate myself about the subject. I was surprised how weak the case for metaphysical naturalism actually is, since it’s often presented as something beyond doubt (like in this article). But that confidence only seems possible if the method and the metaphysics are conflated.

        GV (like all Vedanta I suppose) seems to launch from an axiom directly opposite to naturalism by claiming consciousness as the fundamental substance of reality. So right from the first step, naturalism and Vedanta part ways irreconcilably. Most of Vedanta seems to be different positions about the nature of Brahman, rather than debate over its existence.

        There is plenty of contemporary discussion on the case against naturalism, but not so many alternative positive proposals to be found. They still talk of Descartes substance dualism and Berkeley’s idealism. I’m not sure if there are even any modern proponents of these alternative views in academic circles. So I was interested to try and understand how GV translated into the Western concept-space.

        The Western tradition represents a commitment to naturalist explanations, so I find it hard to see how it would ever be possible for them to commit to the necessity of mystic, or trans-rational epistemology. I was thinking maybe faith itself was trans-rational and not something that was actually produced from rational justification. But even if this is true, there is benefit in detailing the rational justification that would lead someone to accept the Vedic axioms as the most reasonable, given the evidence we have available.

        • I appreciate your input. One place to look for contemporary arguments against naturalism and also for positive alternatives is I also recommend Henry Stapp’s book Mindful Universe, and for a different non quantum approach, Maung’s Consciousness An Enquiry Into the Metaphysics of the Self. I could not put Maung’s book down but was somewhat let down in the end by his approach to how consciousness moves matter. His approach is more philosophical. Stapp’s book on the other hand is more difficult to wade through and much more scientifically rigorous.

        • One point I partially raised earlier: Krsna is non different from his saktis, and acintya bhedabheda speaks of a form of panentheism. So, in Gaudiya Vedanta the maya-sakti is not entirely different from God. He is the world while simultaneously he is not the world. Given this conclusion, physical causal closure, as it is thought of today, does not arise because there is only one whole system in which everything is contained, the body of God—jagat avyakta murtina. Even Krsna’s personal form is unlimited and contains everything, as demonstrated in the Damodara-lila. And the question of how two distinct substances interact is also not applicable in this form of non dualism—advaya jnan tattva. Consciousness and matter are both related to one another and both of them are related to Bhagavan.

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