Over at Aeon, Margaret Wertheim on consciousness:
The idea that the laws of nature might be able to account for conscious experience – a position known as physicalism – steadily gained supporters in the 19th century and was given a particular boost with the advent of Maxwell’s equations and other powerful mathematical frameworks devised by physicists in their golden age. If the invisible field of a magnet can result from natural laws, then might the same not be true for feelings?
Yet, as some philosophers of the early 20th century began to point out, physicalism contains a logical flaw. If consciousness is a secondary byproduct of physical laws, and if those laws are causally closed – meaning that everything in the world is explained by them (as physicalists claim) – then consciousness becomes truly irrelevant. Physicalism further allows us to imagine a world withoutconsciousness, a ‘zombie world’ that looks exactly like our own, peopled with beings who act exactly like us but aren’t conscious. Such zombies have no feelings, emotions or subjective experience; they live lives without qualia. As Chalmers has noted, there is literally nothing it is like to be zombie. And if zombies can exist in the physicalist account of the world, then, according to Chalmers, that account can’t be a complete description of our world, where feelings do exist: something more is needed, beyond the laws of nature, to account for conscious subjective experience.
These are fighting words. And some scientists are fighting back. In the frontline are the neuroscientists who, with increasing frequency, are proposing theories for how subjective experience might emerge from a matrix of neurons and brain chemistry. A slew of books over the past two decades have proffered solutions to the ‘problem’ of consciousness. Among the best known are Christof Koch’s The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach (2004); Giulio Tononi and Gerald Edelman’s A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination (2000); Antonio Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (1999); and the philosopher Daniel Dennett’s bluntly titled Consciousness Explained (1991).
It has been said that, if the 20th century was the age of physics, the 21st will be the age of the brain. Among scientists today, consciousness is being hailed as one of the prime intellectual challenges. My interest in the subject is not in any particular solution to the origin of consciousness – I believe we’ll be arguing about that for millennia to come – but rather in the question: why is consciousness perceived as a ‘problem’? How exactly did it become a problem? And given that it was off the table of science for so long, why is it now becoming such a hot research subject?