Discussing the Mystery of Consciousness

What is consciousness? How can we use language to define it? Is there a way to measure it scientifically? Is it something only humans have, or do animals and plants have consciousness too? Does it require awareness of the self? What does it mean to have consciousness?

These questions inspired “The Mystery of Consciousness,” a recent discussion between neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, M.D., Ph.D., and philosopher David Chalmers, Ph.D., at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan. The conversation was the first public event hosted by the newly formed Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement (ICE) at Dartmouth University, an organization that seeks to create dialogue between the sciences and humanities.

The discussion began with an attempt to define consciousness. Damasio, the David Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Southern California and author of Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain, outlined four things he believed consciousness was not. Consciousness was not, he said, conscience or morality. It was not awareness, like the awareness of global warming or other issues. It was also not wakefulness, although doctors often use this word to describe the presence, or lack of wakefulness. Finally, it was not sentience, which he defined as “sensing stimulus and responding to that stimulus,” as it does not take personal experience into account.

Both participants agreed on Damasio’s definition of consciousness as “experience that is felt and has a point of view in relation to the owner.” Chalmers, professor of philosophy at New York University and author of The Conscious Mind, expanded on this definition, saying that monitoring brain function is the easy way to look at the question of consciousness. For example, there is a defined way to examine neural circuits in order understand more about learning and memory. Damasio, a Dana Alliance member, warned about this type of reductive thinking, saying the “mind is never going to be the result of the brain alone.” For this reason, although we may be getting closer to mapping the brain or creating artificial intelligence, we cannot answer the question of consciousness with data alone.

The “hard question” is finding out where subjective experience comes from, and we may not even have the proper tools to fully investigate this problem, Chalmers said. Moderator and ICE director Marcelon Gleiser, Ph.D., began the program with a quote from 19th century physicist John Tyndall, which highlighted this problematic issue:

Let the consciousness of love, for example, be associated with a right-handed spiral motion of the molecules of the brain, and the consciousness of hate with a left-handed spiral motion. We should then know, when we love, that the motion is in one direction, and, when we hate, that the motion is in the other; but the “Why?” would remain as unanswerable as before.

While we still certainly cannot answer the “Why?” of consciousness, both Damasio and Chalmers believe it is an essential question to ask. As Damasio remarked, nothing in life would matter without the subjective experiences that make up our consciousness.

For more insight, view the full discussion here.

– Ali Chunovic


One response

  1. Fascinating discussion. While it is widely not possible to explain consciousness today, there are many disciplines that are taking it to new heights. I work in the neurosciences both in the medical devices field, which I term the “nuts & bolts” of science, and in integrative and behavioral therapy with drum circles, which I term the “unseen” of science. Clearly the latter is more fascinating as it has the potential to explain much of what we don’t don’t about life and the world today. One of my more interesting blogs is one I wrote on the Sports vs the Brain Science of Basketball: Where does the shot come from, where I explain what we know, and what I speculate. Enjoy


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