Consciousness matters to us. Arguably it matters more than anything. Take away the magic of sensations, the magic we create, and we’d be smaller
creatures living in the duller world. Yet consciousness is still a scientific
mystery. Does it mean there are dimensions to the
universe that science doesn’t understand? Or could it all be an illusion? We revel in sensations. Colours, sounds, tastes can seem unspeakably wonderful, but what’s really going on? Inside my head my brain is tracking the stimuli that
reach my body’s surface. This activity is my brain is a purely
physical process but my experience of it seems anything but purely physical. And that’s the problem. Let’s take the case of pain. Suppose I were to prick my thumb, my brain would respond to signals with an internalised hurt response – what
scientists call the neural correlate of pain. From an objective point of view, this paining is nothing more than the
activity of nerve cells, but from my inside subjective point of
view well, it seems to be nothing less than
conscious pain. How can this possibly work? How can there be physical matter on one side of the equation, and non-physical consciousness on the
other? The ‘explanatory gap’, as it has been called, drives philosophers crazy. In fact there are a good many who would say that the physical brain is just the wrong kind of
thing to give rise to consciousness. You might as well suggest, it’s been said, that numbers emerge from biscuits for ethics from rhubarb. Now, I have to agree that when they put it like that, the sceptics may be right. You can’t get
numbers from biscuits and you really can’t get pain from nerve cells. But here’s the thing: who said you can? Who said you get pain from anything? What if the pain I experience doesn’t really exist at all? let’s reconsider. When I prick my thumb, my brain does something physical in
response. It creates the neural correlate. When I observe this neural
activity from the inside it appears to me, in the theatre of my mind, that I’m in the presence of a pain sensation. But that’s just it. Appears to me as pain. So what’s really at issue is not the
reality of pain but the appearance of it and the question should be not how can
my brain give birth to pain as such, but how can it give birth to something so
remarkable so tricky, perhaps, that it looks to me like pain? That’s why I think Richard Gregory’s real impossible
triangle provides such a useful analogy. Note we don’t have to explain the
existence of the impossible triangle. We only have to explain the existence or something that looks like an impossible triangle. Now with consciousness I admit we’re not
nearly there yet, we don’t know what the actual illusion-generating mechanism is. I’m confident that neuroscientists, armed with the right questions will soon
be closing in. Even so, there must be limits to what a neuroscientific explanation can tell us about the origins of
consciousness. Though it may explain the ‘how’, it can never explain the ‘why’. And of course an evolutionary psychologist like me can’t leave it there. Given that
consciousness has evolved by natural selection, we have to ask what the evolutionary advantage is. Richard Gregory invented this object precisely so as to amaze us. Why ever should nature have designed us to amaze ourselves? Well, there’s an unexpected answer, but it’s the answer that as a scientist I’d put my money on. If we want to learn how these remarkable experiences contribute to biological survival, we need to look at the lives of conscious creatures in their natural environment, and for
humans that means especially the world of other people. When we survey the social scene I think the evidence is clear. The chief
benefit of being conscious lies in the way it changes people’s
psychological profile. Consciousness feeds our self-worth, our joy in life, our fear of death, and especially it increases our respect for the other conscious
beings we live alongside. By placing each one of us at the centre of a mystery, consciousness
encourages us to think of ourselves and others as
spiritual beings, and of the world about us as an enchanted
place. The philosopher Descartes famously said, “I think therefore I am”, but the
consciousness that has evolved around the magic of sensations is deeper and more generous than this. I feel therefore I feel therefore I am. Therefore you feel and you are too. If you want to post your questions in the comment section below, please do
that, and we’ll come back and try and provide some answers in a follow-up video in a few months
time.