Annaka Harris in Nautilus:
The great mystery of consciousness is why matter lights up with felt experience. After all, we are composed of particles indistinguishable from those swirling around in the sun; the atoms that compose your body were once the ingredients of countless stars in our universe’s past. They traveled for billions of years to land here—in this particular configuration that is you—and are now reading these words. Imagine following the life of those atoms from their first appearance in spacetime to the very moment they became arranged in such a way as to start experiencing something.
Many assume there is probably no felt experience associated with the microscopic collection of cells that make up a human blastocyst. But over time these cells multiply and slowly become a human baby, able to detect changes in light and recognize its mother’s voice, even while in the womb. And, unlike a computer, which can also detect light and recognize voices, this processing is accompanied by an experience of light and sound. First, as far as consciousness is concerned there is nothing, and then suddenly, magically … something. The mystery lies in the transition. However minimal that initial something is, experience apparently ignites in the inanimate world, materializing out of the darkness.
But how does felt experience arise out of non-sentient matter? The Australian philosopher David Chalmers famously termed this the “hard problem” of consciousness.1 Unlike the “easy problems” of explaining behavior or understanding which processes in the brain give rise to various functions, the hard problem lies in understanding why some of these physical processes have an experience associated with them at all. And the fact that the hard problem has persisted for so many decades, despite the advances in neuroscience, has caused some scientists to wonder if we’ve been thinking about the problem backward. Rather than consciousness arising when non-conscious matter behaves a particular way, is it possible that consciousness is an intrinsic property of matter—that it was there all along?