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.


5 thoughts on “The Last Great Mystery”

  1. Friend, you find the answer in the wrong place. You can\’t find it in your skull.You have to find it in you chest, the left side.People think too hard. You know, sometimes 1+1 is really 2. But the fact that
    1+1 can be 3, people get paranoid. But hey, is it worth it to spend all your
    time in stressful thoughts to just make sure that 1+1 = 2 and not 3? Maybe if you\’ve just left the answer as 1+1 = 3, you\’ll know it naturally, without the need to keep
    an eye on it.

  2.  I love PluGFire idea, but if you want more "Scientific" answer, then I need other piece of paper to write the paragraph or none to summarize the sentences.
     In scientific way, we can explain how this Pinky Yummy Slimed-like thing works, but still in "Scientific" words. We can show the way of electrons move from nerve to nerve. But still, we cannot create the brain. We got a lot of theories but still not all of them can give us the right answer. So in science, we still need a lot of infomation to gather. This question is not too hard for us, I think. So this is my paragraph answer.
     But why this question is so important? What is our objective? Yes, I know that Scientists\’ objective is "We want to know". So simple and common. But do we really need to go that far? Some questions bring more problems and troubles along.It\’s like Pandora\’s Box. Before we go too far on this road, don\’t you think that we need more preparation.Mental, Law and a lot of stuffs we need to prepare. It\’s our jobs to find the answer but we need to prepare to what answer brings along too. Maybe better to leave some questions like that. Same as the "You know What" thing(ha ha)
     My will is clear but my logic is still unclear. I want to know the answer but think about what will happen , it\’s quite scary. Should we not open the Pandora box and live this quiet, peaceful life, or open it and see inside that it\’s nothing at all or all we need is hope? My job(in the future,though) told me the second answer, but my brain said first. So how comes my brain find very different answers but cannot decide for me which one is right? That\’s mysterious, don\’t you think? 

  3. Hi! I\’ve just found this blog after searching for it for ages. Well, before commenting anything on the subject, let me apologize for my uncanny English first.
    While I think that researches in conciousness-related fields could be of enormous importance, both theoretically and practically (after all, a human-like robot is more than just a good-to-have thing, judging from the trend in these recent years),  maybe the "real explanations" they are seeking for just doesn\’t exist. In other words, maybe there really are invisible (and for some blah-blah-blah quantum mechanical-related reasons, non-detectable) globins whispering us to do things the way we do inside of our heads. The reason this is not likely to be the case is that this "explanation" just doesn\’t predict what will happen, or in this case, what one person will do under some specific circumstance. However, believing that a theory that is able to explain our conciousness completely is floating somewhere out there is probably not correct. I believe scientists are looking for "models" that can explain the world around us. The point is that these models don\’t have to coincide with reality, so even if we can\’t verify the existence of the some of the ingredients in them, if they produce correct predictions then we (or at least scientists in my opinion) are willing to accept them. So find some theory to explain something, and asserting that the theory is "reality" are very different things. Furthermore, if we are believing that science is an axiomatic system, then they\’re going to be unprovable but nevertheless true statements (axioms) popping up all the time from where you don\’t expect. To get to the point, "conciousness exists because we are here." No rule implies conciousness. It just exist on its own, and there are other universes where conciousness doesn\’t exist, which of course no human observer like us is there to report the news.
    And lastly, maybe there are really gods, angels, fairies, elves, magic and those kind of stuff in this world. Don\’t you think it\’s more romantic that way?

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