Consciousness is all the rage just now. It boasts new journals of its very own, from which learned articles overflow. Neuropsychologists snap its picture (in colour) with fMRI machines, and probe with needles for its seat in the brain. At all seasons, and on many continents, interdisciplinary conferences about consciousness draw together bizarre motleys that include philosophers, psychologists, phenomenologists, brain scientists, MDs, computer scientists, the Dalai Lama, novelists, neurologists, graphic artists, priests, gurus and (always) people who used to do physics. Institutes of consciousness studies are bountifully subsidised. Meticulous distinctions are drawn between the merely conscious and the consciously available; and between each of these and the preconscious, the unconscious, the subconscious, the informationally encapsulated and the introspectable. There is no end of consciousness gossip on Tuesdays in the science section of the New York Times. Periodically, Nobel laureates pronounce on the connections between consciousness and evolution, quantum mechanics, information theory, complexity theory, chaos theory and the activity of neural nets. Everybody gives lectures about consciousness to everybody else. But for all that, nothing has been ascertained with respect to the problem that everybody worries about most: what philosophers have come to call 'the hard problem'. The hard problem is this: it is widely supposed that the world is made entirely of mere matter, but how could mere matter be conscious? How, in particular, could a couple of pounds of grey tissue have experiences?
LRB 24 May 2007 | PDF Download