The Economist newspaper has recently featured a series of articles on major scientific topics. These articles are beautifully written and accessible to the intelligent – that is News Blog – reader. They cover topics such as time and space; matter and energy; and the Cambrian explosion in life forms that started about 540m years ago. The September 10th edition grappled with the intriguing, but enigmatic, topic of consciousness. This “science brief” covered “theory of mind” (i.e. ability to imagine what another person is thinking or feeling), and neurophysiology (importance of the claustrum and parietal-temporal area of the brain). But what is consciousness? At this point science and philosophy merge, as adumbrated in this fortnight’s News Blog. The article cites the work of the philosopher Nagel, who asks us to try to imagine being a bat in possession of consciousness. While we are able to imagine what it feels like to hang upside down, the bat would build consciousness on its predominant sense – echolocation. The form of such consciousness must remain ineffable to humans. The article goes on to point out that other scientific phenomena are equally ineffable – no scientist can really imagine wave particle duality or light years. But what makes these problems tractable is mathematics. Space/time is hard to imagine, but the speed of light can be converted to distance and included in Pythagoras’ theorem, c2t2 – x2 – y2 – z2, to identify a point in space time. No such approach can be used to fully understand what another creature – bat or human – is experiencing.
— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director
- The Economist. What is Consciousness? The Hard Problem. 2015. [Online]