What do we mean when we say we are conscious? Can we explain consciousness by describing electro-chemical phenomena in the brain? How do we detect consciousness? I know that I am conscious but how can I be sure that other persons experience consciousness in a similar fashion to the way I sense it? This line of questioning led René Descartes to reduce his knowledge to the famous statement, “I think, therefore I am” (cogito ergo sum).
Are dogs conscious? Are the fleas on a dog’s back conscious? Could a computer ever attain consciousness? What if we were able to create human and mechanical hybrids; would they experience consciousness? This is a question often explored in science fiction characters such as “Data” in Star Trek The Next Generation or “The Doctor” in Star Trek Voyager.
David J. Chalmers, a philosopher of the mind, has made consciousness his area of study for many years. He says,
Consciousness poses the most baffling problems in the science of the mind. There is nothing that we know more intimately than conscious experience, but there is nothing that is harder to explain. All sorts of mental phenomena have yielded to scientific investigation in recent years, but consciousness has stubbornly resisted. Many have tried to explain it, but the explanations always seem to fall short of the target. Some have been led to suppose that the problem is intractable, and that no good explanation can be given.1
He calls this the hard problem of consciousness.
Why doesn’t all this information-processing go on “in the dark”, free of any inner feel? Why is it that when electromagnetic waveforms impinge on a retina and are discriminated and categorized by a visual system, this discrimination and categorization is experienced as a sensation of vivid red? We know that conscious experience does arise when these functions are performed, but the very fact that it arises is the central mystery. There is an explanatory gap (a term due to Levine 1983) between the functions and experience, and we need an explanatory bridge to cross it. A mere account of the functions stays on one side of the gap, so the materials for the bridge must be found elsewhere.2
What is that elsewhere? What bridges the gap between function and experience? Both atheists and Christians marvel at consciousness.
How can a three-pound mass of jelly that you can hold in your palm imagine angels, contemplate the meaning of infinity, and even question its own place in the cosmos? Especially awe inspiring is the fact that any single brain, including yours, is made up of atoms that were forged in the hearts of countless, far-flung stars billions of years ago. These particles drifted for eons and light-years until gravity and change brought them together here, now. These atoms now form a conglomerate- your brain- that can not only ponder the very stars that gave it birth but can also think about its own ability to think and wonder about its own ability to wonder. With the arrival of humans, it has been said, the universe has suddenly become conscious of itself. This, truly, it the greatest mystery of all.3
Is this one more place where we see the that science can take us far but cannot take us all the way to understanding? Is there a God factor in consciousness? Perhaps we can only understand consciousness as we understand the image of God in us.
Chalmers, David J. “Facing Up To The Problem of Conciousness.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 2 (1995): 200-219.
1 (Chalmers 1995, 200)
2 (Chalmers 1995, 204, 205)
3 V.S. Ramachandran, The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human