There’s a storm coming. Its roiling force will threaten to smash every window in the edifice of what we mean by our own humanity, and crack the very foundations of our metaphysics. It’s a hurricane of science that will make the current fracas over evolution look like a summer breeze.
A scientific understanding of consciousness has been long overdue. It has been hindered, in large part, by the fact that we have mostly approached the problem from the inside. “Consciousness,” as Tor Nørretranders writes in his The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size, “is a primary phenomenon.” What he means by that is that other sensations and experiences can be reduced to things outside of ourselves – objective reality. We learn at a very young age, for example, that things continue to exist even when we don’t see them. Before that point our experience of the big red balloon is primary – the experience of the balloon is the whole thing itself, and once it ends, there is no more balloon. After a specific point in cognitive development, however, our experience of the balloon becomes secondary; the experience is caused by the balloon, and if it is interrupted we can take action to continue the experience by finding the balloon again.
No adult seriously looks at a pencil in a glass of water and exclaims, “The pencil is broken!” Its fractured appearance is secondary, reducible to the rigid form of the pencil and the optics of refraction. We know this by comparing and correlating the many different ways we experience the world to form a coherent model. We can catalogue many details and exceptions as we observe them, but any emergent properties of the complex world remain within the model of an observed external reality. Anyone who claims that we cannot really know anything about the outside world has never learned the lesson of object permanence.
Consciousness cannot be reduced to anything else. We cannot interpret our subjective experience of, well, anything – let alone consciousness, which can be thought of as our subjective experience of our experiencing – in terms of something else. Thus we have no choice but to explain it as a thing unto itself, a unique phenomenon which we can describe only with poetry. We give it a name: spirit, essence, soul, and claim that it is the core of what makes us uniquely aware among the animals. We cannot imagine corporeal matter having such properties, so we declare it immaterial. We imbue our language with metaphors ennobling this non-stuff: energy, free will, purity, spirituality, inspiration, ethereal or subtle body, fire, breath, substance, quintessence. We write entire rambling volumes about how it cannot in principle be reduced to mechanical matter, and otherwise smart people fall for the illusion. Even Ray Kurtzweil spent a chapter in his otherwise humorless tome – in which he vigorously argues for the inevitability of synthetics minds – waxing poetic about the impenetrability of consciousness.
But this is all nothing but bluster papering over ignorance. We know what it feels like to be conscious, but we have no idea about what consciousness is. It’s not even clear how to define what we’re talking about, let alone what a reduction would even look like. Fortunately there is an antidote for mysticism: science. Scientists have cracked problems as poorly defined as this one before. The riddle of heat in its day turned people towards the same type of answers: it was thought to be mystical, an irreducible substance, or an illusion. Today we cannot talk about heat without reference to statistical mechanics.
The concept of life has a similar history. Living beings were seen as a different order than non-living entities, animated by a force or substance believed to be a metaphysical primary. No one knew exactly what life was, but it was assumed that mere chemical processes could not account for life or its infinite varieties. That would require something not only beyond matter but most likely supernatural as well. Of course modern biology has not only supplanted superstition but no definition of life could exclude discussion of entropy, replication and evolution. Getting an answer helped us to formulate what the right question was in the first place.
The superstitions haven’t died easily. The remarkable popular resistance to evolution has been based in part on an abhorrence of the idea that man is simply a part of nature, another animal. Even the Vatican which officially accepts evolution still demands the caveat that although the human body evolved from “lesser” ancestral forms, at some point in history God breathed a soul into it. It’s not so much a supernatural God that the reactionaries want to preserve as a supernatural man. Imagine, then, the reaction when the question of how meat can be conscious has been solved as completely and satisfactorily as the question of how matter can be alive? For some it will simply be the satisfying resolution to a fascinating question (and the start of many interesting engineering projects), while for others it will be nothing short of an upending of their entire world view.
The subjectivity of the conscious experience is an impediment to science but not an insurmountable one. Fascinating studies have already been done which have busted many of the myths we hold about our conscious selves as viewed from inside. Comparisons can be made between our brains and those of other species. Theories of consciousness are still in what philosopher Dan Dennett calls the “good try” stage, but the pace of work is accelerating and the results are getting more and more interesting. Breakthroughs are necessarily impossible to predict (unless you’re “futurist” Ray Kurtzweil of course), but the process of science, like the progress of a storm, is impossible to stop.