Published on February 9, 2024, 11:27 am
Determining the origin and purpose of consciousness has long been recognized as “the hard problem,” even among non-neuroscientists. Coined by philosopher David Chalmers three decades ago, this phrase has made its way into various contexts, including a play titled “The Hard Problem.” In a recent episode of Big Think’s Dispatches from the Well, experts discussed the nature of consciousness.
Neuroscientist Christof Koch describes consciousness as the experience of sensations, emotions, and thoughts. It is what we see, hear, feel, love, fear, and are passionate about. Koch’s understanding of consciousness stems from René Descartes’ famous proposition, “Cogito, ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”).
Swami Sarvapriyananda from Vedanta Society of New York references Descartes as well. He sees consciousness as the light that illuminates everything. According to Sarvapriyananda, everything in our reality is lit up by consciousness.
Melanie Mitchell approaches consciousness as a continuum. She explains that we are more conscious when we are awake compared to when we’re asleep. Mitchell also suggests that certain species may possess varying levels of consciousness. She ponders whether it could develop in non-biological entities too but acknowledges that no machines currently exhibit interesting forms of consciousness.
The question of whether machines can attain consciousness arises in an engaging conversation between host Kmele Foster and technology entrepreneur Reid Hoffman. Though AI chatbots have become increasingly impressive, most people would hesitate to label them conscious beings. However, attempting to create not just intelligence but also consciousness in machines could provide valuable insights into how genuine conscious experiences function.
Mathematical physicist Roger Penrose offers his theory on consciousness: it arises from unpredictable quantum processes within the brain’s microtubules. Perhaps consciousness exists in varying degrees within all forms of matter—a notion suggested by Koch as well.
Exploring the nature of consciousness is a fascinating endeavor, involving perspectives from neuroscience, philosophy, and religion. As we continue to delve into this complex topic, we may unlock the mysteries of consciousness, gaining a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us.
It’s important to note that consciousness has significant implications beyond its scientific study. It nurtures our self-awareness and shapes our experiences. It is what makes us human and distinguishes us from other beings.
As we ponder the origins and purpose of consciousness, let’s remember that it is a deeply personal and subjective phenomenon—a unique aspect of being alive.