Consciousness, iPhones and canaries in coal mines

Science. How good is it? Since it’s beginning several centuries ago, it has increased our knowledge about the world around us a thousand-fold. In almost every way imaginable, science has transformed not only our understanding of the world, but how we live our lives. But despite this, there is no scientific theory of consciousness. Why might that be?

Imagine this: A young girl grows up colourblind. She lives in the future when science knows everything there is to know about colour and how our brains process it. She pores over textbooks; learns all of it. She understands everything science can tell her. Then one day she is suddenly able to see colour. Does she learn anything? Surely she does: she learns what it is like to see colour.

Why is that so? Because science is the study of third-party objective facts. Consciousness, on the other hand, is your experience of first-party subjective facts. The two just don’t seem to fit together.

Science can’t even see consciousness. If you put two sophisticated robots in front of some scientists and told them that one was conscious and the other was not, they would have no way to tell the difference. Science can’t explain what it can’t detect.

In short, when it comes to explaining the origin of consciousness, science has no starting point, no ending point, no clues, no viable hypotheses, no way to test its ideas, no idea what it is studying.

How else can we put this? Imagine trying to explain the evolution of humans from apes – when the apes only exist in your mind.

Attempts to explain consciousness inevitably head down some very strange roads. The Guardian recently published a good overview of the topic. My favourite quote from it: “Your iPhone could have feelings“. It’s just hard to know where to draw the line between conscious things and the unconscious.

To avoid the weirdness of consciousness, it has been suggested that consciousness is an illusion. But what does that even mean?

It should be remembered that despite its successes, science is not limitless. This is because human brainpower is not limitless, and neither is human technology. Even if a scientific theory of consciousness is possible in principle, it may never be found in practice.

What does this mean? I should mention what it doesn’t mean. There is nothing about this that requires belief in God. There is no contradiction in agreeing with everything I’ve just said and being an atheist, and many renowned atheist thinkers have done just that.

Insisting that consciousness will be explained by science can only be done with a straight face if you ignore everything we know about consciousness, while looking at science with your rosiest rose-tinted glasses.

I think that consciousness is the canary in the coal mine of the Western worldview, telling us that the way the world works is far stranger than what we know; far stranger than what we can imagine.


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