Twenty-five years ago, the burgeoning science of consciousness studies was rife with promise. With cutting-edge neuroimaging tools leading to new research programmes, the neuroscientist Christof Koch was so optimistic, he bet a case of wine that we’d uncover its secrets by now. The philosopher David Chalmers had serious doubts, because consciousness research is, to put it mildly, difficult. Even what Chalmers called the easy problem of consciousness is hard, and that’s what the bet was about – whether we would uncover the neural structures involved in conscious experience. So, he took the bet.
This summer, with much fanfare and media attention, Koch handed Chalmers a case of wine in front of an audience of 800 scholars. The science journal Nature kept score: philosopher 1, neuroscientist 0. What went wrong? It isn’t that the past 25 years of consciousness studies haven’t been productive. The field has been incredibly rich, with discoveries and applications that seem one step from science fiction. The problem is that, even with all these discoveries, we still haven’t identified any neural correlates of consciousness. That’s why Koch lost the bet.
If the easy problem is this hard, what does that make the ‘hard problem’? Chalmers described the hard problem of consciousness as understanding why material beings like us have experience at all. Solving the hard problem would give us a secure theory of consciousness that explains the nature of conscious experience. Philosophers and scientists alike want to solve the hard problem, and to do so many are focusing on the easy problem. But all that attention is making the hard problem harder than it needs to be.
We might enjoy a hard puzzle but abhor a puzzle with pieces missing. Today’s consciousness science has more pieces than it did 25 years ago. But there is reason to think that key pieces are still missing, turning an intellectual puzzle into an intractable problem. To see why, we have to revisit the assumptions that launched the field of consciousness research. [Continue reading…]