Until very recently consciousness appeared to be the same as intelligence, which led to what philosophers call The Mind/Body Problem. But in the same way molecular biology and genetics finally explained life as a chemical process, neuroscience and the cognitive sciences are now explaining intelligence and mind in ordinary physical terms, although not subjectivity itself. Philosophers call this The Hard Problem and no real scientific progress has yet been made on it. Don't believe any of the opinions you hear about what it means to be conscious; they are all wrong or hopelessly simplistic. This means that you are not necessarily just a machine hurtling toward death, which is as good as it gets. It may not be clear at first why this is good news, but it is. Trust me.
This month in Tucson marks the 20th anniversary of Toward a Science of Consciousness, which is a multi-disciplinary academic conference devoted to a scientific understanding of subjectivity. When the conference was formed in 1994 there was a great deal of optimism and an assumption within the conference community that a scientific understanding of consciousness was possible and would be forthcoming in the following decades. Twenty years later absolutely no positive progress has been made and no promising hypotheses have been offered, although enormous progress has been made in neurobiology and the cognitive sciences. Although the mystics and the kooks were visible at the TSC conferences from the beginning, their prominence has been increasing as the scientific side of the investigation more and more clearly falters. Deepak Chopra will be one of the main attractions at the conference again this year, as he was for the first time at the Tucson conference in 2012. This year all of the distinguished scientists that have worked on the problem of consciousness over the last two decades will return to Tucson to reflect and share their perspectives, which I will attempt to summarize at our next Kitchen on 4/30 at my house. Going forward I am sure the kooks will take over the conference completely and I do not expect to follow this thread any further.
In preparation for our Consciousness Kitchen on 4/30, please read David Chalmers' classic paper Facing Up To The Hard Problem Of Consciousness, which frames the scientific problem of subjectivity in the clearest possible terms. The essential point of The Hard Problem is to distinguish the problem of consciousness from the "easy" problems of intelligence, thinking and mind. For those of you who are interested in a broad perspective on the various theories of consciousness that have been fielded over the years, I have included a summary from the Standard Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
I have created a separate blog for the TSC 2014 conference in case you want to follow my thoughts about the conference and its contents as it unfolds. I look forward to talking through all of this fascinating material at our Kitchen on 4/30!