The Consciousness Conundrum: End of the Materialist worldview?

Fortunately it’s a lot easier to define ‘conundrum’—‘a paradoxical, insoluble, or difficult problem’—than ‘consciousness’. But one thing’s for sure about the latter: it’s easily now the coolest subject in the academy.

And if you really want to impress your intellectual friends ask them what they think about the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. Because trying to get your head around this will likely leave yours, and those of your friends, spinning.

To begin with we can at least describe what the ‘hard problem’ is in reasonably clear terms. It originates with the Australian philosopher David Chalmers in his seminal (1995) paper, ‘Facing up to the problem of Consciousness’. He distinguished between the ‘easy’ problem of consciousness — explaining our ability to discriminate, integrate information, report mental states, focus attention and so on—and the ‘hard’ one of how we experience both our conscious ‘subjective’ sense of self and our ‘objective’ relationship with the physical/material world.

Think of it like this. When you look at a flower you may be conscious of its colour, smell and form, all of which seem perfectly real (objective). These in turn may have triggered some mental (subjective) associations — the flowers you gave someone for their birthday, a piece of poetry etc. etc.

But we run into difficulty when we try to explain how these ‘sense impressions’ (or ‘qualia’ to use the philsophical term) materialise in our conscious minds. And the problem with this analysis is it only gets us so far because it keeps looping back to the initial or ‘meta’ problem of defining what consciousness actually is. How can we meaningfully discuss the ‘hard problem’ unless we agree on that?

It might be helpful before we pursue this question to make a further distinction. The ‘conundrum’ here is not about thinking how consciousness is structured (Freud’s ‘subconscious’ mind for instance) or ‘conditioned’ (by external influences say such as family upbringing or social environment). It’s about explaining a mental phenomenon we all share and we all know exists but that the more you look at, the more puzzling—like the most fiendish of Chinese puzzle boxes—it becomes. That’s why defining it is extremely tricky.

Okay, let’s go back to basics then. The Oxford English Dictionary gives three inter-related but distinct meanings:

  1. The state of being aware of and responsive to one’s surroundings: she failed to regain consciousness and died two days later

2. A person’s awareness or perception of something: her acute consciousness of Luke’s presence

3. The fact of awareness by the mind of itself and the world: consciousness emerges from the operations of the brain

Defintion No. 2 of course relates particularly to our ‘flower’ example. But all three point to the mysterious, almost impenetrable nature of consciousness, and combined they raise even more questions. How is human consciousness different to that of animals? Does consciousness survive death? Is consciousness just an ‘emergent’ property of the brain or separate from it (the classical ‘mind/body’ problem in philosophy with which Descartes wrestled). And perhaps most perplexing of all, assuming this to be the case, how does something which appears to be immaterial (non-physical) actually arise from physical matter?

We begin to see now why T.H. Huxley remarked:

How it is that any thing so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as the result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as unaccountable as the appearance of the Djin when Aladdin rubbed his lamp.

For some then, consciousness really is a ‘kind of magic’. But philosophers like Daniel Dennett are quick to disabuse us of drawing any ‘supernatural’ conclusions. In fact for Dennett consciousness is really just the brain’s ‘conjuring trick’—a neat evolutionary way of convincing us that the world ‘out there’ is (the occasional optical illusion aside) perfectly real, normal and knowable. And that there is nothing ‘abnormal’ about us. Keep calm and carry on in other words.

For others though, notably the ‘New Age guru’ Deepak Chopra and the biologist Rupert Sheldrake, this is a very mechanistic and deeply unsatisifactory way of conceptualising consciousness. Indeed it’s typical of the ‘materialist’ thinking that has come to dominate the human and natural sciences post-Darwin.

So what exactly do we mean by ‘materialism’? (I said there were more questions than answers in the field of consciousness studies.) Sheldrake believes scientific materialism is the cornerstone of an outmoded worldview, incompatible with a proper understanding of consciousness:

Contemporary science is based on the claim that all reality is material or physical. There is no reality but material reality. Consciousness is a by-product of the physical activity of the brain. Matter is unconscious. Evolution is purposeless. God exists only as an idea in human minds, and hence in human heads.

Indeed Sheldrake actually ‘converted’ from atheism to Christianity (disclaimer: I’m an agnostic myself) when the penny dropped and he realised that not only didn’t materialism make sense, but that it pointed powerfully to a purposeful universe in which consciousness (not matter) was primary and which, on account of its mind-blowing complexity, must have been designed by a higher power.

Sheldrake (like Chopra) has become one of the favourite whipping boys of mainstream science—his ideas about ‘morphic resonance’ (the notion that there is an extra-sensory field that animals tune into and perhaps humans too) typifying so-called ‘pseudoscience’. But we should note that no less a scientific mind than Einstein held similarly ‘mystical’ views to both Sheldrake and Chopra, describing reality as an ‘optical delusion of consciousness’. Furthermore, quantum physics has revealed the ‘weirder than weird’ dual nature of light — somehow capable of behaving either as wave or particle ‘depending’ on whether it is being viewed or not/how it is experimented on.. A clue perhaps to solving the consciousness conundrum?

Somewhere in the middle of these two camps is widely acknowleged authority on consciousness and vividly colourful character Susan Blackmore. She rejects the ‘woo’ science of those like Sheldrake and Chopra. But she recognises the fundamental difficulties with materialism. And she frankly admits that she’s as puzzled now as she’s ever been: ‘Many people say that the hard problem does not exist, or that it is a pseudo-problem. I think they fall into two categories — those few who have seen the depths of the problem and come up with some insight into it, and those who just skate over the abyss.’

But in a funny kind of way this is reassuring. For one thing it means the conundrum is a great leveller — a problem that anyone, be they student, academic, or pub philosopher, can have a crack at solving since as yet (Dennett included to my mind despite his ‘Consciousness Explained’ proclamations) no-one has been able to do so. And for another it means that for those like me who sense that consciousness may be the bridge between science and the kind of ‘post-religious’ spirituality envisioned by Einstein through which we are able to experience a deep sense of interconnectedness between ourselves and the wider universe, the space remains open to build this. But if we think we can do so on the ‘sure’ ground of materialism I suspect we may have to think again.

David Chalmers’ recent TED talk on the ‘hard problem’: