The Last Great Mystery

Last month, as I was packing up my stuff, I came across an old birthday gift with a note attached. Reading the note, reflecting on the past year, unexpectedly I felt a rush of memories and feelings.

How can that be?
How can a piece of paper with ink smudges on it have meanings, have the power to move one to such emotions?

Of course, this is asking the wrong question. Without my brain making sense of that piece of paper, it would have no meaning. So the question can be restated as : How can this chunk of meat in my skull possess meanings and emotions?

Now we have come to the last great mystery for mankind to explore. Of course, this doesn’t mean that everything else is entirely explained. There are still many problems left in cosmology, nanoscience, medicine, and almost every other field of knowledge, but these are only problems. What’s the difference?

Problems are matters that even though we don’t have all the answers yet, we have a rough idea of how to proceed to find those answers. With mysteries, however, we’re not even sure that we’re asking the right questions. Frankly, we don’t have very clear ideas on how to think about thinking.

Take a moment and consider the questions below.

When you see a red object, what is happening? Does any part of your brain turn red? Or does only a ‘red’ symbol get turned on? How about when you just imagine a red object? Can you explain what ‘seeing red’ means to a blind person? Are you even sure that my ‘red’ and your ‘red’ mean the same shade of color? How can you tell?

What do you feel when you feel pain? Hunger? How about anger? Or love? Can a robot have these feelings?

Surely not, some would say. Robots are just combinations of wire circuits with some programming. They’re just matter.

But are we humans so different? After all, we’re just made up of neurons and axons, just matter. In a way, we’re just a kind of wet robot.

I hasten to add, however, that this does not mean that feelings and emotions are not real. When I’m in love, the feeling is as real as anything in the world, and when I’m heartbroken, the pain of rejection is surely no illusion.

The comparison to robots only means that however we may wish to explain consciousness, that explanation must rely ultimately on physical matter and detectable forces. To bring in any ‘immaterial’ stuff, any ‘special energy’, any ‘otherworldly souls’ , would amount to giving up on a real explanation.

Why? Because to explain the mystery of consciousness by invoking a larger mystery would be no explanation at all. It’s like saying "I have feelings because there are invisible goblins in my head, which no one can detect." Or rather it’s a way of saying " I don’t know, and I’ve given up trying to explain this mystery."

But many people are not giving up. Scholars from diverse fields such as philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence are trying to come up with real explanations. And I think they’re on the right track.

One way of looking at consciousness is to think of it as an emergent property. For example, wetness is an emergent property. A single water molecule is not wet, only a very large amount of water molecules in a certain situation has the property of being wet. In the same way, an individual neuron is not conscious, but a complex organization of neurons (e.g. a brain) certainly are.

Of course, having a large number of neurons is not enough. Consider a normal brain compared to one that has gone through a blender. Both have lots of neurons, but only one is functioning. It’s the connections, the organization, the programming of the brain that matters. Although there is no clear-cut path from programming to feelings (at the present), I believe this is where the answers to the great mystery consciousness will be found.