“Understanding consciousness may be easier than we thought.”
Alex Byrne in the Boston Review:
Here is a remarkable fact. When atoms and molecules are organized in a suitably complicated way, the result is something that perceives, knows, believes, desires, fears, feels pain, and so on—in other words, an organism with a psychology. Besides ourselves, who else is in the club? Descartes notoriously claimed that other animals were merely unthinking bits of clockwork, but that is an extreme position. Probably cockroaches don’t have much of a mental life, if they have one at all, but few would harbor doubts about monkeys, apes, cats, and dogs. Indeed, there is a flourishing discipline at the intersection of biology and psychology—cognitive ethology—devoted to the study of the mental and social lives of nonhuman animals. Somehow, minds emerge from matter. And so, of course, does the weather, digestion, photosynthesis, and glaciation. But although some everyday nonmental phenomena remain poorly understood—apparently the jury is still out on the explanation of why ice is slippery—the connection between minds and matter is supposed to be especially mystifying. Why so?
In the famous 1974 article “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” the philosopher Thomas Nagel fingered consciousness as the culprit. “Without consciousness,” he wrote, “the mind–body problem would be much less interesting. With consciousness it seems hopeless.” And consciousness has had philosophers hot and bothered ever since. Daniel Dennett published a book called, rather optimistically, Consciousness Explained in 1990, and his fellow philosophers could hardly get into print fast enough to proclaim that Dennett had not explained consciousness at all. But before we get to the conundrum of consciousness, let’s start with an apparently easier part of the mind–body problem.