Five approaches to understanding consciousness

And why collaboration trumps elimination

Picture yourself walking along the beach: the sounds of the waves crashing on the sand, the sight of seagulls flying above the blueness of the sea, the saline smell of algae drying on the rocks. The capricious wind leaving cold, salty droplets of water on your cheeks. The feeling of thirst that comes as you walk.

Now imagine you meet a philosopher, as you walk back from the beach. She accosts you:  "Isn't it amazing that you can have conscious experience at all?  But think about it: how can you feel something if scientists are right and your brain is made up of neurons that do not feel anything?” The person who confronts you is a fundamentalist: Not because she preaches radical views (though she might) but because her question is the most fundamental, general question there is. It belongs with problems such as "why is there something rather than nothing?" and "what is reality ultimately made of?" Fundamentalists tend to think their questions are the hardest ones (translate: most important) because they are still with us after centuries of writings and debates, and create opposite camps that never reconcile. Debating about very general matters without a clear sign of agreement in view may be hard, indeed - but who says it is the hardest?

So you pass the fundamentalist, though she warns you that down the line, you will only have soft or shallower problems: Problems which already assume a response to her question. If you do not consider her question, she threatens, you will have missed the hard problem. But you continue.

The issue with the fundamentalist’s version of “the problem of consciousness” is twofold. First, she thinks it is harder because it comes first. Until you have seen what the next problems are, how can you jump the gun and declare this is really the harder problem? A second problem, seen in many versions, is that it disguises itself as a ‘how’ question, when it is really a 'why' question. It is not asking ‘how come brains could be conscious’ but 'why is there consciousness rather than nothing, in a material world?' Why are we here, and why are we the way we are, may strike you as the source of a legitimate existential worry. But the fact that it seems incomprehensible to us mostly tells us something about ourselves, rather than about reality. So you continue.

The fact that it seems incomprehensible to us mostly tells us something about ourselves, rather than about reality

You meet a second philosopher who holds a large panel on which is written "how amazing your conscious experience at the beach came in so many varieties: auditory experiences, visual experiences, olfactory ones, feelings of thirst! How come consciousness comes in all these distinctive modes?" This philosopher wears a tee-shirt, that says “what is like to be a bat?" and though you continue your path, his words made you meditative. He seemed to have a point: the fundamental question about phenomenal experience may sound harder because it targets a very general category which we cannot precisely track. The fish is too big to catch. Touching a rock is very different from seeing the same rock and yet they are both phenomenal experiences of the rock. But your brain tells you how you became aware of the rock.  Visual and olfactory experiences for instance are widely different - you habituate to smells, and they disappear out of your consciousness, though you know there are still there. By contrast, you remain conscious of the sand, the seagulls, even if you stare at them for a long time. How comes our brains come up with such different kinds of conscious experiences, coming with different feels, vividness and characteristics. Why?

As you think about this second issue, walking above the dune, you are not so surprised to see another character, holding another panel. This one says “If your experiences are all so different, how can they be unified? Consciousness is not a collage: you are not aware of any border between auditory and visual experiences. How come?” Immediately after, a fourth and fifth persons distribute leaflets and try to get to you first. One leaflet asks “Couldn’t creatures with totally different nervous systems be also conscious?” The other one reads “Could computers be conscious?” You had not seen a sixth person coming. Her leaflet is much thicker, and asks “Are we all conscious in the same way? What about infants? What about drugs? What about disorders of consciousness? What about minimal consciousness? What about dreams?” You are interrupted in your reading of her long list of problems, as a gentle person whispers to your ear from the side “Don’t listen to these sirens saying they talk about phenomenal consciousness. Your experience of the beach might be much bigger than what you or they have access to”.

You may start to suspect that the harder problem is not that the fish is not ‘too big to catch’. It is that we don’t even know whether it is fish or fowl. What is true about phenomenal consciousness, might be true about our understanding of the brain. It may strike you at this point, that the fundamentalist should perhaps talk with these other people, and they figure out what it is that they want you to call ‘consciousness’ and ‘neural correlates’. Agreeing would be the much harder job. Then you guess they probably did talk, and preferred to stay separate.

What is true about phenomenal consciousness, might be true about our understanding of the brain

Where does this lead you? You wonder as you walk back slowly back home, and your mind start to wander. This all started at the beach. Your memories of the sea start to come back: Wasn’t it nice to hear the waves? Wasn’t the wind a bit colder today? And wait: isn’t it amazing that you can call back these conscious experiences (the ones you had access to, at least) to reflect on them? This is not possible for all the things that went on in your brain at the time - for instance the motor decisions that guided your walk, or the low level sensory processing of visual stimuli. You can reminisce, draw or write down your impressions. You can describe them later to your friends, and would have done so on the spot, if there were some. Consciousness, in that way, makes information escape the pure here and now, and available for future reflection and sharing. Rather than a problem, it seems that it is a solution.

Our conscious experiences are enabling us to do things that would be impossible otherwise. What solution it brings is hard to investigate if we contend ourselves with a method of elimination : How good are we at thinking a priori at what would go missing if consciousness goes missing? I find it hard to discard that behaviour and neural activity are here better guides than our own inclinations.


If you want to hear from leading thinkers like this debating renowned philosophers, cutting edge scientists, headline-making politicians, and beloved artists, come to HowTheLightGetsIn Hay 2020 for four days of debates and talks alongside music, comedy and parties.

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Joao Pizarro 13 March 2020

In other words you are saying that consciousness is a by-product of brain functioning? In other words you are, if one wants to give labels, in defence of materialistic view of consciousness. Is that wrong?