How Close is Science to Understanding Consciousness?
In a recent panel discussion hosted by Science and Non Duality (SAND), posted on youtube, several top scientists and explore their current understanding on the nature of consciousness. Participating were,
- Stuart R. Hameroff, MD, Director of the Center for Consciousness Studies
- Julia Mossbridge, Ph.D., Director of the Innovation lab at IONS
- Henry Stapp, Ph.D., A quantum physicist and author
- Chris Fields, Ph.D., Interdisciplinary information scientist
- Donald Hoffman, Ph.D, Cognitive scientist and author, researcher at UC Irvine
What is consciousness? Can it even be defined? The panellists voiced a spectrum of opinions. Stuart Hameroff said that we know consciousness when we experience it but cannot prove it or define it. He said, “You can’t tell if I am conscious. I could be a programmed zombie pretending to be conscious for all you know.” Julia Mossbridge observed that consciousness must involve “The I versus the Not-I” In the absence of self-consciousness, the term is meaningless. Chris Fields and Hameroff both stressed the importance of feelings. William James said that feelings are primary indicators of a conscious experience. Can an AI machine feel anything? If not, then is it conscious?
Donald Hoffman spoke of the necessity for a mathematical model of consciousness. He is currently working on one. If a study of consciousness is to be a science, it must be framed in terms that can be falsifiable. A mathematical model can provide that framework. He suggested that we take consciousness as primary, as given and try to derive the laws of quantum mechanics from there. Hopefully, we could make predications that could be tested by experiment.
Perhaps consciousness can never be defined, Chris Fields added. In science, certain concepts are left undefined. Energy for one. We know its units and what it does. Other physical effects are defined in terms of energy, but energy cannot be defined in terms of other, more basic entities.
What progress has been made in understanding “the hard problem” — the duality of mind and matter? According to Henry Stapp the solution lies at the heart of matter, at the Planck Scale where space and time are themselves discontinuous. Consciousness, he said, must be accepted as a fact. Stuart Hameroff, referencing work with Roger Penrose, explained why any model of consciousness must reference Platonic Ideals. Wisdom, understanding or the aesthetic sense all require an interaction with a non-material, Platonic world. Penrose demonstrated why such values cannot arise from computational processes, but require other explanations.
The discussion provides new insights into a complex question, one so fundamental so our existence. We get a glimpse at a vast unexplored tapestry. The diversity of the opinions suggests that not only are we not close to understanding the nature of consciousness, but that we have barely begun to pose the right questions.