Sometimes a thought gets stuck in my head, and the only way to get it out is to write it down. I’ve written a lot of papers over the years with that simple goal in mind, but I wanted to publish these three because I see now that they all share a common theme about the nature of consciousness, but tackle it from different perspectives.
Why we have conscious experiences has been called the hard problem of consciousness, and what I think makes it seem so hard is that it’s not something that we can answer philosophically. The hard problem isn’t a philosophical problem; it’s a problem for all of science. When we do answer the question it’ll be answered by physicists or chemists or neurobiologists, or more likely some combination of many different disciplines. It’s that view that’s at the heart of these three essays. The first starts with the famous philosophical thought experiments of Searle’s Chinese Room and considers what we would actually learn by attempting to create that experiment, and what that means about the kind of research we should be pursuing now. The second looks at the way we use the terms “learning” and “memory” in both common usage and research and whether our language is changing the way we view the problem of consciousness, and the kind of research we can do related to it? The last was inspired by another thought experiment, Mary the Color Scientist, which intended to show that there are facts about consciousness outside of physical facts. However it seems that it contains a contradiction that would actually require exploring the physical facts of neuroscience to untangle.
And that’s what I mean by the title Halfway to Dualism. Dualism can be defined as believing that consciousness, or the mind, is outside of physical laws. I don’t believe that, but I do believe that consciousness can’t be described by physical laws - as we currently understand them. And that eventually our understanding of the physical laws will expand to include consciousness. In the same way that when we first discovered some of the effects of quantum mechanics they seemed to defy everything we knew about the physical universe, so I think that our first empirical glimpse at the workings of consciousness will force us to reconsider our understanding of how the world works.
Ultimately I believe that we’re at a tipping point where research in to, and discoveries related to the physical causes of consciousness will soon be inevitable. There are two trends I see pushing us in that direction:
- The advancing capabilities of artificial intelligence, the more advanced it gets, the more it becomes clear what’s the difference between consciousness and ‘just’ intelligence are. This is especially true for technologies like artificial neural networks that attempt to mimic neurological wiring.
- Brain scanning and neurological modeling. Nervous systems from the simplest to the most complex are being mapped and modeled in every increasing detail.
As for what kinds of discoveries I think we’ll make, I’ll circle back around to that in the conclusion.
I hope you enjoy these essays.