Why are we?

Consciousness fascinates me.

How can a collection of cells, which aren’t self-aware, made of atoms, which aren’t self-aware, arrange themselves into a specific pattern, which somehow IS self-aware?

How can the same stuff that makes up earth and air and stars and steel create something that can feel?

Why do humans (and a few other species) suffer grief, and delight in certain tastes, instead of simply registering damage and consuming fuel, like cleverer versions of modern cars?

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The technical term for such experiences or sensations is ‘qualia’.

Isn’t that a nice word?



I might try to convince my sister that it means ‘More than one quail’.


We can build light detectors, microphones and touch sensors, but they don’t see, hear or feel – there’s no inner them that experiences things.

And the kind of awareness we’re talking about isn’t even unique to life – there’s virtually no chance that bacteria, plants or even many animals are self-aware.

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Unlikely to produce good reflective poetry.

So what makes us different?

You are (bits of) your brain

Well, we know suitably complex brains somehow generate consciousness.  In fact, as far as humans are concerned, we even know which bits of the brain generate consciousness.

These brain areas have short, punchy, easy-to-remember names like “reticular activating system” and “intralaminar nuclei”.

(I love neuroanatomical names; even Frank Zappa wouldn’t call his kids ‘Intralaminar Nuclei’ and he has children called ‘Moon Unit’ and ‘Dweezil’.)

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How do we know these areas of the brain are necessary for consciousness?

Because people who have even a sugar cube sized lesion (1 cm3 of damage) in certain areas of the brain become completely, irrevocably, unconscious/unaware.  Similarly, experiments have shown that reversibly deactivating specific parts of the brain using strong magnetic fields results in complete cessation of awareness.

We know that consciousness is generated by specific parts of specific brains, but that doesn’t answer the question: why is red so red?

What makes tastes and sounds and smells feel the way they feel?

How and why do we have conscious experiences at all?

And how can ANYTHING physical, even complex brains, create these completely non-physical sensations?

This question is known as the ‘Hard Problem of Consciousness’.

There’s not a problem/It’s unsolvable/We’re not clever enough yet

Here is a link to the Wikipedia entry on the Hard Problem of Consciousness: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_hard_problem_of_consciousness.

It’s well worth a read, especially if you’ve had a drink and are feeling all profound, but I’ll summarise.

Currently the different schools of thought can be grouped into:

  • People who reckon they’ve made some inroads to the answer
  • Those who think we’re too thick to solve the problem, and that we need to evolve further or invent super intelligent computers to figure it out for us
  • Naysayers who deny there is even a problem to solve it, asserting that it simply seems like consciousness requires nonphysical features to account for its powers
I’ve figured it out Dave, but you won’t like it…

I’ve figured it out Dave, but you won’t like it…

The different theories about how consciousness ‘works’ are interesting enough, but the best part for me is that all the experts, from all the different fields, utterly disagree with one another – which shows that no one really has a clue as to the answer.

Hence this cracking quote:

Consciousness is the only major question in the sciences that we don’t even know how to ask.

How exciting is that?

This might be the single greatest mystery the universe has thrown at us.  Ever.

Think about that for a second.

We can ask questions like “Do Aliens exist?”, “Is there a God?” or “How might someone live forever?” pretty easily and at least imagine the kinds of evidence we would need to start answering them – be it close encounters, multiple miracles or someone who’s never aged a day since they met your grandfather’s grandfather – but when it comes to “why do I experience events at all?” we don’t even know where to start.

In fact, all of this mangles my mind so comprehensively that, if I could pick one scientific problem to be solved in my lifetime it would be this one.

But I won’t be holding my breath.

– Kevin Morrison


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