The unsolved mysteries of consciousness.

Scrutinizing culture.
Nov. 30 2009 6:10 PM

The Dangerous Mysteries of Consciousness

We still need answers.

There's a certain kind of mystery—unsolved and probably insoluble—that has a seductive attraction for me. I think the insolubility is the attraction. Historical and literary mysteries: What was the origin of Hitler's hatred? Did Shakespeare revise Hamlet? And I'm particularly troubled by metaphysical mysteries, the essential but oh-so-slippery mysteries of existence. Why is there something rather than nothing? What is the origin and nature of consciousness? What distinguishes living from nonliving being?

I can't get past the idea that they may never be solved. And what's most irritating is when people seem unaware they have not been solved. Or when people who should know better proclaim there are no real mysteries left. Consider, for instance, the problem of the origin and nature of consciousness. The failure to solve it without resorting to religion or quasi-religious "intelligent design"—which offers no real resolution since it doesn't explain what created the consciousness behind the intelligence of intelligent design—strikes many observers as dangerous. Dangerous because it threatens the foundation of scientific rationalism and materialism. Dangerous because it disrupts one's sense of any order in the universe and opens the floodgates of chaos.

"Consciousness is the only thing in the world and the greatest mystery." This was Martin Amis at recent prepublication celebration of Nabokov's The Original of Laura, at the 92nd Street Y, paraphrasing Nabokov, whose ability to evoke the tenor and texture of consciousness may be one of his most distinctive talents as a writer. Did it come from the fact that Nabokov was gifted with "synesthesia"—itself a mystery of consciousness—which he experienced as the ability to see sounds as sight, as colors? The sound made by the letter "K" for instance, is something he said he experienced as the color of huckleberry. What an extraordinary, colorful spectacle his own words on the page must have been to him. If only we could reproduce it as he saw it.

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(By the way, one of the reasons I had reservations about the publication of Laura was that I worried people would review it as a finished book when in fact it was an early draft. What I didn't expect was that people who claimed to share these concerns went ahead and reviewed it as though it were a finished book, gleefully heaping scorn on Nabokov's less well-turned phrases.)

But even for those of us who don't have synesthesia, the pageant, the palette of consciousness is one of life's great unsolved mysteries. I was reminded of the vexing mystery of consciousness a few days before the Nabokov event when I found a link on the valuable Bookforum blog to an essay in the Philosophers' Magazine by Raymond Tallis, a philosopher whose regular critiques of Postmodernism and its metaphysics (especially those of Foucault) I'd admired for some years in the London Times Literary Supplement.

Here, in an essay titled "The Unnatural Selection of Consciousness," Tallis took on what he regards as the overconfident assumptions of some evolutionists, who argue that the problem of the evolution of consciousness will be solved the same way the problems of the evolution of the Panda's thumb or the beak of the finch had been.

Neither Tallis, an atheist, nor I, an agnostic, are anti-evolutionists. I hope science will one day offer an explanation for the emergence of awareness from unconscious matter. I'd like to know how consciousness is preserved, coded, and expressed by the genes, and whether we should then start worrying that consciousness is genetically determined, which therefore implies the impossibility of free will. Not to mention the answer to even more fundamental questions about consciousness, or more accurately awareness: What is it? That is, is it made up of the same elementary particles, the quarks that make up the rest of the universe? If not, what sort of material is it? Where does it exist? If it exists in the mind, is the mind contained in the brain? Does the mind differ from the brain? Is it determined by the brain and thus functionally nonindependent?

I'd be happy if science could explain all that. It would make for a simpler, less annoyingly mysterious world.

For some time, however, I have resigned myself to the so-called "Mysterian" position on this question offered by the Oxford-trained philosopher Colin McGinn, who argued in a illuminating book (melodramatically titled The Mysterious Flame) that we may never find an explanation of consciousness because (to oversimplify a bit) we are trapped within consciousness. One thing the book has going for it is its profound humility before the mystery it confronts.

Tallis takes on the problem from a different angle. He questions whether consciousness can be explained as an evolutionary development. Tallis points out that consciousness remains a mystery even to hard-core evolutionary scientists and cites a passage from the Darwinist/atheist Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker:

"Cumulative selection, once it has begun, seems … powerful enough to make the evolution of intelligence probable, if not inevitable." Seems "powerful enough"? That doesn't sound very scientific. It sounds, in fact, like faith-based overconfidence in science, an admission that we have no answer, just hope that one will develop. Just as many religious types hope for the coming of the Messiah in a fiery apocalypse.