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Free ebooks since Nonetheless, just occasionally, science has dropped tantalising hints that this spooky extra ingredient might be real. Weiskrantz showed him patterns of striped lines, positioned so that they fell on his area of blindness, then asked him to say whether the stripes were vertical or horizontal.
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Naturally, DB protested that he could see no stripes at all. Apparently, his brain was perceiving the stripes without his mind being conscious of them. One interpretation is that DB was a semi-zombie, with a brain like any other brain, but partially lacking the magical add-on of consciousness. Chalmers knows how wildly improbable his ideas can seem, and takes this in his stride: at philosophy conferences, he is fond of clambering on stage to sing The Zombie Blues, a lament about the miseries of having no consciousness.
McGinn, to be fair, has made a career from such hatchet jobs. But strong feelings only slightly more politely expressed are commonplace. Not everybody agrees there is a Hard Problem to begin with — making the whole debate kickstarted by Chalmers an exercise in pointlessness.
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This is the point at which the debate tends to collapse into incredulous laughter and head-shaking: neither camp can quite believe what the other is saying. Chalmers has speculated, largely in jest, that Dennett himself might be a zombie. But everybody now accepts that goldness and silveriness are really just differences in atoms. However hard it feels to accept, we should concede that consciousness is just the physical brain, doing what brains do. Light is electromagnetic radiation; life is just the label we give to certain kinds of objects that can grow and reproduce.
Eventually, neuroscience will show that consciousness is just brain states. After all, our brains evolved to help us solve down-to-earth problems of survival and reproduction; there is no particular reason to assume they should be capable of cracking every big philosophical puzzle we happen to throw at them. O r maybe it is: in the last few years, several scientists and philosophers, Chalmers and Koch among them, have begun to look seriously again at a viewpoint so bizarre that it has been neglected for more than a century, except among followers of eastern spiritual traditions, or in the kookier corners of the new age.
Besides, panpsychism might help unravel an enigma that has attached to the study of consciousness from the start: if humans have it, and apes have it, and dogs and pigs probably have it, and maybe birds, too — well, where does it stop?
Growing up as the child of German-born Catholics, Koch had a dachshund named Purzel. The problem is that there seems to be no logical reason to draw the line at dogs, or sparrows or mice or insects, or, for that matter, trees or rocks. Which is how Koch and Chalmers have both found themselves arguing, in the pages of the New York Review of Books, that an ordinary household thermostat or a photodiode, of the kind you might find in your smoke detector, might in principle be conscious. The argument unfolds as follows: physicists have no problem accepting that certain fundamental aspects of reality — such as space, mass, or electrical charge — just do exist.
Explanations have to stop somewhere. The panpsychist hunch is that consciousness could be like that, too — and that if it is, there is no particular reason to assume that it only occurs in certain kinds of matter. It is the argument that anything at all could be conscious, providing that the information it contains is sufficiently interconnected and organised.
But in principle the same might apply to the internet, or a smartphone, or a thermostat. The ethical implications are unsettling: might we owe the same care to conscious machines that we bestow on animals? Koch, for his part, tries to avoid stepping on insects as he walks.
Sure enough, when people fall into a deep sleep, or receive an injection of anaesthetic, as they slip into unconsciousness, the device demonstrates that their brain integration declines, too. Gather enough of this kind of evidence, Koch argues and in theory you could take any device, measure the complexity of the information contained in it, then deduce whether or not it was conscious. But even if one were willing to accept the perplexing claim that a smartphone could be conscious, could you ever know that it was true?
Surely only the smartphone itself could ever know that? Koch shrugged. Personally, I have no experience of black holes. But the theory [that predicts black holes] seems always to be true, so I tend to accept it. It would be satisfying for multiple reasons if a theory like this were eventually to vanquish the Hard Problem.
The universe is throbbing with it. Last June, several of the most prominent combatants in the consciousness debates — including Chalmers, Churchland and Dennett — boarded a tall-masted yacht for a trip among the ice floes of Greenland. This conference-at-sea was funded by a Russian internet entrepreneur, Dmitry Volkov, the founder of the Moscow Centre for Consciousness Studies.
About 30 academics and graduate students, plus crew, spent a week gliding through dark waters, past looming snow-topped mountains and glaciers, in a bracing chill conducive to focused thought, giving the problem of consciousness another shot. In the mornings, they visited islands to go hiking, or examine the ruins of ancient stone huts; in the afternoons, they held conference sessions on the boat. For Chalmers, the setting only sharpened the urgency of the mystery: how could you feel the Arctic wind on your face, take in the visual sweep of vivid greys and whites and greens, and still claim conscious experience was unreal, or that it was simply the result of ordinary physical stuff, behaving ordinarily?
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The question was rhetorical. Dennett and Churchland were not converted; indeed, Chalmers has no particular confidence that a consensus will emerge in the next century. It would be poetic — albeit deeply frustrating — were it ultimately to prove that the one thing the human mind is incapable of comprehending is itself.
An answer must be out there somewhere. And finding it matters: indeed, one could argue that nothing else could ever matter more — since anything at all that matters, in life, only does so as a consequence of its impact on conscious brains. Follow the Long Read on Twitter: gdnlongread. The long read.