Monday, April 02, 2007

Consciousness: The unsolved problem, revisited

A recent book on consciousness by Nicholas Humphrey has almost found th perfect reviewer in Paul Broks. He says, "Nicholas Humphrey's latest book on the mystery of consciousness travelled with me to Crete, Latvia and America. And the intellectual journey it took me on has half-persuaded me that his evolutionary approach will one day provide an answer."

Well, of course, it did. Reviewer Broks, as he introduces himself to us, would certainly be half persuaded that a materialist explanation - shipped far enough back in time that it is not really researchable - is the answer. I can only wonder what is holding up his other half.

He writes:
... how does the objective, physical activity of the brain create the private, subjective qualities of experience? For some philosophers the question is unfathomably deeper than that; not so much how does the brain produce consciousness, but how can it? How can three pounds or so of jellified fats, proteins and sugars possibly be identified with the ineffable "raw feels" of awareness: the taste of beer, the sound of cicadas, the redness of red? This is the explanatory gap. It swallows our intuitions like a black hole. Colin McGinn, a philosopher, thinks it is plain obvious that the brain is "just the wrong kind of thing" to give birth to consciousness: "You might as well assert that numbers emerge from biscuits or ethics from rhubarb." The mystery of consciousness, he says, is beyond human comprehension. Stuart Sutherland, who was a psychologist, couldn't be bothered: "Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon; it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written about it." But Humphrey turns the tables. Consciousness seems mysterious because it has evolved to seem mysterious. Fascination and elusiveness are its primary functions. With an evolutionary perspective, due attention to neuropsychology and a little conceptual re-engineering, the explanatory gap can be closed.

So ... it's a problem only because it has evolved to be a problem? Well, I guess, if you gotta believe in a materialist explanation, this will last out the picnic.
Check out The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul by Mario Beauregard and Denyse O'Leary (Harper 2007).

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