Even among non-neuroscientists, determining the origin and purpose of consciousness is widely known as “the hard problem.” Since its coinage by philosopher David Chalmers thirty years ago, that label has worked its way into a variety of contexts; about a decade ago, Tom Stoppard even used it for the title of a play. Unsurprisingly, it’s also referenced in the episode of Big Think’s Dispatches from the Well above, which presents discussions of the nature of consciousness with neuroscientist Christof Koch, Vedanta Society of New York minister Swami Sarvapriyananda, technology entrepreneur Reid Hoffman, Santa Fe Institute Davis Professor of Complexity Melanie Mitchell, and mathematical physicist Roger Penrose.
Koch describes consciousness as “what you see, it’s what you hear, it’s the pains you have, the love you have, the fear, the passion.” It is, in other words, “the experience of anything,” and for all their sophistication, our modern inquiries into it descend from René Descartes’ proposition, “Cogito, ergo sum.” Sarvapriyananda, too, makes reference to Descartes in explaining his own conception of consciousness as “the light of lights,” by which “everything here is lit up.”
Mitchell conceives of it as a continuum: “I’m more conscious when I’m awake,” for example, and “certain species are more conscious than other species.” And perhaps it could develop even in non-biological entities: “I don’t think that we have any machines that are conscious in any interesting sense yet,” Mitchell says, but “if we ever do, they’ll be part of that spectrum.”
The question of whether a machine can attain consciousness naturally arises in host Kmele Foster’s conversation with Hoffman, who’s made serious investments in artificial-intelligence research. As impressive as AI chatbots have lately become, few among us would be willing to deem them conscious; nevertheless, attempting to create not just intelligence but consciousness in machines may prove a fruitful way to learn about the workings of the “genuine articles” within us. Penrose’s theory holds that consciousness arises from as-yet-unpredictable quantum processes occurring in the microtubules of the brain. Perhaps, as Koch has suggested, it actually exists to one degree or another in all forms of matter. Or maybe — to quote from a song in heavy rotation on my childhood Walkman — it’s just what you make of yourself.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.