Monday, 10 September 2012


Having felt quite sick for much of this first day of my experiment in obligatory blogging, I am now under some time pressure to churn out a post before bedtime. Therefore consciousness. Diz be ye topic of this post, or at least diz post be related to it.

Some say consciousness is the last big mystery of the Universe and that we haven't even begun to understand it yet, and others accuse those who say this of mysterianism. But whether or not you think consciousness is inherently mysterious, I would think that anyone who gives the issue some thought should agree that it's certainly confusing.

After all, the natural sciences have already carved out an impressively detailed account of all things material in this Universe, from the Big Bang to the present, including, in particular, the willy-nilly processes that lead to randomly occurring replicators constrainedly mutating their way into ever greater refinement in the unintentional art of survival and replication, majorly transitioning into replicating coalitions of smaller replicators, all the way up to the "gigantic lumbering robots" from the unforgettable last paragraphs of chapter 2 of The Selfish Gene - namely, us; complete with all the information processing and behavioural patterns that evolutionarily informed cognitive science at least provides a great framework for understanding and tracing back to their evolutionary origins; and yet - nothing in said narrative seems to provide any clue as to why those lumbering robots should be conscious. Why there should be anything it's like to be one of them, that is, to use Thomas Nagel's formulation, or why they shouldn't "simply" be Zombies, i.e. lumbering robots identical to us in material constitution and behaviour, but without that strange add-on of conscious experience.

And not just "why", but "how" - how does it work? What is consciousness made of? Magnets??

At this point, people seem to fall into very different philosophical camps. I would wonder whether, much like with moral questions, this falling into one of either camp tends to happen right away on an intuitive level, with all the rational arguments given for that choice of camp being elaborated after the fact (like a lawyer defending whatever position he's commissioned to defend), rather than our stance being the result of arguments we find convincing.

Some people, then, seem to feel quite strongly that it is clear that this most essential aspect of our lives - the very stuff our lives are made of so to speak - completely eludes our scientific understanding, and that any denial of this shortcoming of current materialistic science can only stem from a naive stubborn overestimation of the familiar scientific programs that we're already engaged in, or of the range of subjects it can elucidate.

Others may feel equally strongly that it just can't be anything more than that we just tend to get very confused about consciousness, much like other things that we now have perfectly good materialistic explanations for used to confuse us into invoking ghost-like forces and other products of mentalisation, and that any call for a new science, nay, for a new kind of science to deal with such matters as consciousness has got to just be an overreaction to things being counter-intuitive and confusing.

I shall leave things here for today. Until my next obligatory blogging-day on Wednesday, I leave you all with the task of guessing which of those two camps I am in. Everyone of you who guesses right shall have one of my Minecraft cows named after them. And let me know which camp you're in, too, if any.

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