It’s like trying to explain how you can get “numbers from biscuits” or “ethics from rhubarb.”

February 6, 2008 | By | Reply More

What is the “it” referenced above?  “It” is the rich subjective experience of consciousness.  There’s nothing else quite like consciousness, right?  

Writing in Seed Magazine, Nicholas Humphrey suggests that, perhaps, consciousness is “not such a big deal.”

OK, but what is consciousness?  Why do we see the vivid redness of that ripe tomato?  Using the jargon of cognitive scientists, why are there qualia?  Is consciousness a difficult topic?  Absolutely.  “It” has the world’s greatest cognitive scientists stumped.  Humphrey reminds us why they are stumped: “We cannot simply change our perspective to see the solution.”  But at least, we might plead, tell us what consciousness is for?  Humphrey suggests that Jerry Fodor asked the right question when he asked: “Why did God—or rather natural selection—make consciousness?”  This is where Humphrey raises an interesting suggestion:

I’d suggest the reason [Fodor] finds it all so baffling is that he is starting off with the completely wrong premise, for he has assumed, as indeed almost everyone else does, that phenomenal consciousness must be providing us with some kind of new skill. In other words, it must be helping us do something that we can do only by virtue of being conscious, in the way that, say, a bird can fly only because it has wings, or you can understand this sentence only because you know English.

Yet I want to suggest the role of phenomenal consciousness may not be like this at all. Its role may not be to enable us to do something we could not do otherwise, but rather to encourage us to do something we would not do otherwise: to make us take an interest in things that otherwise would not interest us, or to mind things we otherwise would not mind, or to set ourselves goals we otherwise would not set.

Perhaps Humphrey is onto something.  Then again, his suggestion would seem to make consciousness of those things of which we are intensely interested a spandrel (to use the term of Stephen Jay Gould), a phenotypic characteristic that is considered to have developed during evolution as a side-effect of a true adaptation. It’s really hard to imagine that the image and smell of that steamy piece apple pie I’m about to eat is all gratuitous–that icing on a cake is just biological icing on the cake! It’s hard to imagine that the qualia associated with sex–the soft ruby lips of that woman I’m about to kiss or the sound of her affectionate whispers–play no role in furthering natural selection. Is Humphrey really suggesting that consciousness is evolutionarily important only to the extent that it guides our actions regarding pie and lovers that are not within easy reach?

How would we test Humphrey’s theory? 

[W]e will need evidence as to how being phenomenally conscious changes our worldview: What beliefs and attitudes flow from it? What changes occur in the way conscious individuals think about who and what they are?

Humphrey is an optimist.  He writes, “There is every reason to think the truth about consciousness will eventually be discovered by scientific investigation.” 

Like Humphrey, I’m a big fan of science, but consciousness is such a strange “thing” that I lack Humphrey’s optimism that science will ever get its arms around the topic, certainly not in my lifetime.  As I wrote at the top of this post, there just isn’t anything quite like consciousness.  There just doesn’t seem to be any place for old Archimedes to stand . . .

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Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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