Scientists don’t know how consciousness works, although they are still confident they can at least get a better idea. A recent story illustrates this point well.
Neuroscientist Christof Koch made good when he lost a bet made 25 years ago and gave philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers a case of fine Portuguese wine.
Koch had bet that by 2023, neuroscientists would unlock the answer to how neurons drive consciousness in the brain. The bet was public at a conference in 1998, and a recording made by a science journalist reminded the men of their wager so long ago, hence the wine.
While the scientist thought that “consciousness was fundamentally measurable,” per Vox, scientists still have no answer. In ’98, Chalmers famously called such a question the “hard problem,” and was correct that there would be no explanation for what creates sentience by this year.
Although the answer remains unsolved, Chalmers told Scientific American in 2017 that he thinks there may be a solution someday.
“I think there is some true story about why there is consciousness in the universe. There is some basic set of laws or something that explains it as well as it can be explained…Whether we are going to be in a position to come up with that really great story is a further question,” he said.
However, he did not believe in any spiritual answer, ruling it out.
“I can’t take seriously the idea that there is any being in the universe worthy of worship,” he said.
Even so, he isn’t sure there’s an entirely scientific answer to the mystery of consciousness, saying science may only “get a partial grip.”
Two Leading Hypotheses of Consciousness
In an attempt to explain consciousness, a series of “adversarial experiments” began with $20 million invested in the project!
Results were presented at this year’s Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness conference. Six independent laboratories focused on two main hypotheses, but the finding was that both ultimately needed revision. One idea focuses on the back of the brain, while the other targets the front.
Integrated Information Theory – Back of the Brain
The first hypothesis is integrated information theory (IIT). Nature, described is like this:
“IIT proposes that consciousness is a ‘structure’ in the brain formed by a specific type of neuronal connectivity that is active for as long as a certain experience, such as looking at an image, is occurring. This structure is thought to be found in the posterior cortex, at the back of the brain.”
Global Network Workspace Theory – Front of the Brain
The other hypothesis goes like this: “Consciousness arises when information is broadcast to areas of the brain through an interconnected network. The transmission, according to the theory, happens at the beginning and end of an experience and involves the prefrontal cortex, at the front of the brain.”
Neither hypothesis was proven, but overall, IIT fared better. Is it the front of the brain, the back, or is the answer much larger? Regardless, given advanced techniques, Koch doubled down that by 2048, neuroscientists may get to a winning theory. For now, it remains a hard problem without scientific answers.
Galileo Separated Science from Consciousness
Some point to astronomer Galileo for considering the topic of consciousness too inevitably mysterious to pursue by the purely quantitative scientific method 400 years ago. By doing so, some suggest he set back inquiry, and the answer can only be found by integrating both quantitative science and the qualitative realm of consciousness (see video below).
But ancient cultures before Galileo have long had complex concepts of consciousness. Indeed, one theory scientists are pursuing now is a secular version of Panpsychism, that all matter in nature has some level of consciousness, if only on a rudimentary level.
“According to panpsychism, consciousness pervades the universe and is a fundamental feature of it,” says philosopher Philip Goff, author of Galileo’s Error.
Panpsychism and Ancient Concepts of Consciousness
Incidentally, Goff has betted a case of wine that a version of Panpsychism will lead to an answer in 50 years.
You’re probably aware that Panpsychism is similar to what ancient cultures have said about consciousness for thousands of years. But pursuing that realm of knowledge may require stepping away from the pure scientific method (and the ego) to inquire by individual subjective experience. The unscientific answer may only be found through philosophical or spiritual pursuits. It’s much like the study of paranormal and UAP phenomena, which relies almost entirely on accounts from individual experiences.
Perhaps that’s the intrinsic hard, if not impossible, problem built into studying unobservable consciousness using only material scientific methods. If so, was Galileo’s intuition about not delving into a fuzzy area using purely hard science right after all?
More about Panpsychism and Galileo with Philip Goff via the Institute of Art and Ideas: