Is there anything we can be absolutely certain is ‘real’? The answer to that question is, yes! There is one thing, and it is consciousness. Always however, and especially here, we need to define our terms, lest there be any misunderstandings. By ‘consciousness’ I mean subjective experience, whether of thoughts, of feelings, or of sights, sounds, smells, tastes or touches. Consciousness is what it feels like to be you, at any particular point in time. There’s surely nothing more real to us, or better known to us, than our moment-to-moment conscious experience. We don’t ‘think about it’ – we take it for granted.
René Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am”. There is, however, a story about Descartes walking into a pub. The barman asks him if he wants a beer. Descartes says, “I think not”, and instantly vanishes. The existence of an autonomous ‘self’, or ‘I’, is under serious dispute, so perhaps we should rather say, “there is experience, therefore experience (or awareness, consciousness or mind) exists.”
How strange it is, then, that despite several centuries of stunning advances in scientific know-how, no one has the faintest idea what consciousness precisely is, nor how it ‘comes to be’. I’m reminded of Augustine saying, “What then is Time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. But if I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.” It’s a bit like trying to describe, to someone born blind, what the colour red is like, and how it differs from the colour green. How would we even begin?
This is what’s called the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. We’ve gained considerable understanding of how the brain works; of how its neurones process electro-chemical signals to interpret inputs from our senses, and to initiate corresponding behavioural outputs. I see a cup starting to fall from a table, and manage to catch it before it hits the floor. I may well feel a sense of relief, but what on earth is that? It’s not a physical thing, like a cup or a floor, or like electrically stimulated neurones releasing chemicals. A feeling of relief has no visible, locatable, measurable existence. It just isn’t ‘there’, and yet it is, and it’s very ‘real’.
What makes this a ‘hard problem’ is the fact that the human brain is a lump of physical tissue, which functions by means of these electrical signals and chemical reactions. But how can that conceivably give rise to the subjective experience of the smell of coffee? If you opened up my brain, would a coffee smell emerge? It’s not there, and yet it is! The ‘hard problem’ is, how can something that’s physical be the cause of something that’s immaterial – that’s absolutely of a different nature from itself? As has been said, it’s like the genie unexpectedly and mysteriously emerging from Aladdin’s lamp. It’s magic! So not only do we not know what consciousness is, but we haven’t the faintest idea of how to go about finding out.
If we care to blame someone for this, we could point a finger at Galileo, who’s been called the father of modern science. He had a brainwave. Pondering the world of ‘things’, he noted that as well as having size, shape, location and motion, they also had colour, smell, taste, texture and sound. But whereas the first four had to do with quantity, which could be measured and expressed in the language of mathematics, the next five had to do with quality, and there’s no equation that can measure and express the smell of coffee. So he decided that whereas the first four belonged to the realm of science, the other five belonged to the ‘soul’ of human beings.
That proved to be a very helpful kickstart for modern science, since it narrowed the field of exploration to only what is objective – to those things that can be measured by, and expressed in, mathematics. This setting aside of the subjective, has enabled science to make such impressively uncluttered strides – until now. Quantum physics has unearthed the unexpected and disturbing fact that the ‘subjective’ observer can no longer be detached from the ‘objectively’ observed.
Consciousness, ‘parked’ for 400 years by Galileo, is now insisting on its rightful place. It’s like the forgotten relative, unexpectedly turning up, with no one quite sure how to handle this embarrassing, even troubling, situation. Science must now give serious attention to something conveniently ignored for so long …..