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Consciousness Is Nothing But A Word

Henry D. Schlinger
Skeptic, 2008, 13 (4).


"In 1991, Daniel Dennett published his tome, Consciousness Explained. Yet, ten years later he penned an article titled "Are We Explaining Consciousness Yet?" If he had to ask the question, the answer seems obvious. English-speaking philosophers and psychologists have been trying to understand consciousness at least since John Locke introduced the word into the English language in the 17th century. But despite the best efforts of those who've thrown their hats into the ring, we haven't made much progress. Obviously, a different approach is needed. In my view, we aren't explaining consciousness for at least two reasons. First, we are trying to reduce the problem to brain processes. For the past decade or so, many have argued that the brain gives rise to consciousness. Some have set their sights on finding its so-called neural correlates, trying to explain consciousness, as the late Francis Crick described it, in terms of the "interactions of nerve cells ... and the molecules associated with them." Referring to consciousness as "the major unsolved problem in biology," Crick famously observed: "'You,' your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. "No more than"? Your joys, sorrows, memories, ambitions and sense of personal identity and free will are more than the behavior of your nerve cells, just as a Seurat painting is more than the thousands of points of paint on the canvas. They are also your behavior and the activity of your peripheral nervous system all in a rich and fluid context with a long and immensely complex personal history. Crick is obviously not alone in believing that reductionism will solve the problem of consciousness. Philosopher David Chalmers wrote, "The search for neural correlates of consciousness (NCCs) is arguably the cornerstone in the recent resurgence of the science of consciousness." And sophisticated technologies seem to offer hope for such beliefs. I, for one, am skeptical. Here's why."