Margaret Wertheim at Aeon Magazine:
It might seem surprising to many readers but, for 300 years, scientists and philosophers have been debating whether our minds might not operate more like Bitbol’s thermometer. Though Chalmers’ ‘hard problem’ term is new, the questions underlying it have haunted modern science from its beginnings, for the attribution of consciousness is one of the foremost qualities distinguishing us as something other than a complex set of dials.
As one of the founders of empiricism, Locke believed that knowledge comes primarily from sensory experience, with real knowledge beingfelt by conscious beings. In the 17th century, René Descartes had also insisted on the irreducible centrality of subjective experience, arguing that, in principle, we could not build a machine to emulate human behaviour. For Descartes, a conscious machine was an impossibility, and something extra – a soul – was needed to account for the full spectrum of our mental landscape and actions. Like Chalmers and Bitbol today, Descartes and Locke considered conscious experience as something that couldn’t be wholly explained by the laws of physical nature.
But in the early 18th century an emerging group of mechanists began to suggest that feelings and emotions were merely secondary byproducts of the ‘true reality’ of matter in motion.