Consciousness as Art
Consciousness matters to us. Many would say it matters more than anything. We relish the beauty of a winter sunset, the memory-fueled comforts of a homecoming, the inviting caress of a lover’s hand. Conscious sensations lie at the core of our being. Without access to this marvel, we’d be poorer creatures living in a duller world.Yet the fundamental nature of consciousness remains a scientific mystery. The problem is not that we do not understand consciousness at all: some aspects of it are relatively easy to ex- plain. The problem is that one aspect of it continues to baffle everyone, and that’s the “feel” or “phenomenal character” of consciousness— or, as philosopher Thomas Nagel has put it, simply “what it is like.” Biologist H. Allen Orr probably speaks for most scientists when, in a recent review of Nagel’s book Mind and Cosmos, he writes: “I … share Nagel’s sense of mys- tery here. Brains and neurons obviously have everything to do with consciousness, but how such mere objects can give rise to the eerily different phenomenon of subjective experience seems utterly incomprehensible.”Theorists tend to fall into one of two camps. Some assert that the manifestly eerie and ineffable qualities of subjective experience can only mean that these nonphysical qualities are inherent in the fabric of the universe. Others, including me, are more suspicious. They argue that consciousness may be more like a conjuring show, whereby the physical brain is tricking people into believing in qualities that don’t really exist.But no one wants to be told the latter story! So I am going to try telling the story in a different way. While I believe con- sciousness may indeed be a stage trick by the brain, I want to suggest that it is also a stroke of artistic genius. Consciousness as art is surely a more palatable notion than consciousness as illusion. I am not just looking to make friends for a theory that may be hard to swallow; I also want to influence the further questions scientists ask.