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Ophelia Deroy: “Five approaches to understanding consciousness”

NOMIS scientist Ophelia Deroy has published an article in Changing How the World Thinks, an online magazine of big ideas.

Issue 86, 13th March 2020

Five approaches to understanding consciousness

And why collaboration trumps elimination

Picture yourself walking along the beach: the sounds of the waves crashing on the sand, the sight of seagulls flying above the blueness of the sea, the saline smell of algae drying on the rocks. The capricious wind leaving cold, salty droplets of water on your cheeks. The feeling of thirst that comes as you walk.

Now imagine you meet a philosopher, as you walk back from the beach. She accosts you:  “Isn’t it amazing that you can have conscious experience at all?  But think about it: how can you feel something if scientists are right and your brain is made up of neurons that do not feel anything?” The person who confronts you is a fundamentalist: Not because she preaches radical views (though she might) but because her question is the most fundamental, general question there is. It belongs with problems such as “why is there something rather than nothing?” and “what is reality ultimately made of?” Fundamentalists tend to think their questions are the hardest ones (translate: most important) because they are still with us after centuries of writings and debates, and create opposite camps that never reconcile. Debating about very general matters without a clear sign of agreement in view may be hard, indeed – but who says it is the hardest?

So you pass the fundamentalist, though she warns you that down the line, you will only have soft or shallower problems: Problems which already assume a response to her question. If you do not consider her question, she threatens, you will have missed the hard problem. But you continue.

The issue with the fundamentalist’s version of “the problem of consciousness” is twofold. First, she thinks it is harder because it comes first. Until you have seen what the next problems are, how can you jump the gun and declare this is really the harder problem? A second problem, seen in many versions, is that it disguises itself as a ‘how’ question, when it is really a ‘why’ question. It is not asking ‘how come brains could be conscious’ but ‘why is there consciousness rather than nothing, in a material world?’ Why are we here, and why are we the way we are, may strike you as the source of a legitimate existential worry. But the fact that it seems incomprehensible to us mostly tells us something about ourselves, rather than about reality. So you continue.

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Chair, Philosophy of Mind and Cognitive Neuroscience
Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Munich Center for Neurosciences
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