Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash

Why the Problem of Consciousness Is so Hard

I just read a great article in The Guardian about the struggle of scientists and philosophers to understand consciousness (link at the end). The Guardian article covers the history of the quest to understand consciousness as well as some of the currently posited explanations, ranging form materialism (“there is no consciousness”) to panpsychism (“this is only consciousness”). After reading it, I had to email my favorite philosopher, David Chalmers, who is featured in the article and who labeled the issue of understanding the “I am” aspect of consciousness as The Hard Problem. One of the tools-of-thought he uses is the concept of a “philosophical zombie.” This is not a rotting corpse that can walk, but a supposedly imaginary functional human-being with no sense of self, and therefore no subjective experience. This is where my email begins:

Hey David,
I’ve been thinking about consciousness for a while.
Did you know that there actually are what you call “zombies” in the world?
What those zombies have to say about consciousness is eye-opening.
The claim is that the sense of being a separate individual, a kind of trick that the brain plays, actually hides the fundamental nature of reality. The fundamental nature of reality is an indescribable absolute in which there is no separation, what some call nonduality. The self-illusion is an illusion of something being separate that is a subject that makes everything else seem to be an object. This self-illusion, a very precarious psychosomatic misunderstanding that arises in systems with complex-enough pattern-recognition functionality (such as humans), cannot understand the wholeness of reality. The self-illusion seeks the wholeness it’s missing by apparently trying to find it. However, what it’s looking for is the end of itself and the revelation that there is only wholeness.
Awareness and consciousness are different aspects of this same self-illusion. The false claim is that there is something over here that is aware of something over there. The false claim is that there is something here that is real; This is the “I am” illusion. It’s all illusory. The body and mind do what they do and then the self-illusion says, “I did that” or “that’s about me.”
This is not what Daniel Dennet is talking about; this is not absolute materialism. This is also not panpsychism. I had glimpses of nonduality after which I thought that “consciousness” was the fundamental nature of reality. I have since come to understand that the nonduality that is revealed when the self-illusion drops is not conscious at all, and it’s not aware. When the self-illusion comes back, the memory of the nonduality is misconstrued by the self-illusion as being about someone and therefore being consciousness: “There is only that, so I must be that.” No, there is no I at all. There is no “I am” whatsoever. What seems to be happening is simply nonduality appearing that way, but to no one.
So, there are human beings alive today who have absolutely no sense of self. There is no sense of separation, and they speak of what seems to be happening as being nonduality appearing as what seems to be happening, effortlessly and unconditionally. They claim that there is no meaning or purpose beyond the fulfillment of what seems to be happening, and they claim that there is no one in control of anything. Nonduality, the fundamental nature of reality, is also not understandable or knowable, even though it is revealed, and is unmistakable and undeniable, to no one.
The reason that humans are having such a hard time understanding consciousness is that it’s an illusion, and the thing that’s trying to understand it is the illusion itself. The illusion of separation, the illusion of self, the illusion of consciousness, the illusion of awareness (all the same illusion) is simply nonduality appearing as that illusion.
Obviously, this communication is not very popular with people.
I’d love to chat with you about this some more, if you’re interested.

Article by Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian: Why can’t the world’s greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness?