In his latest blog post, Sam Harris comments on the mystery of consciousness, and vaguely stakes out a position. One thing he does make quite clear is that he cannot accept what his friend Daniel Dennett seems to be saying, which is that consciousness is just some sort of illusion. In this he’s in good company, because neither can John Searle, David Chalmers, Bill Vallicella, or just about anybody else, including me. The very assertion seems to contradict itself, and even after having read a great deal of Dennett over the years I can’t get my head round what he’s trying to put across in this regard. I fully understand, and agree with, what Dennett says about our being fooled into thinking our conscious experience is far more continuous and plenary than it really is, but there remains the undeniable fact that we have conscious, subjective experiences, and I quite agree with Sam Harris that “Consciousness is the one thing in this universe that cannot be an illusion.” I think Harris oversimplifies when he says “either the lights are on or they are not” — I would say that the truth involves something like a dimmer switch — but yes, at bottom there is a binary fact of the matter: an organism has some sort of subjective experience or it doesn’t.
The rest of the post is just a throwing-up of hands. After pausing to remark on the current disfavor of “mind-first’ ontologies fashionable in the mid-20th century in favor of reductionist materialism (with his apparent approval), he goes on to say that the currently prevailing view — that consciousness emerges from the activities of certainly types of matter, suitably configured — is “incomprehensible”:
To say that consciousness emerged at some point in the evolution of life doesn’t give us an inkling of how it could emerge from unconscious processes, even in principle.
I believe that this notion of emergence is incomprehensible—rather like a naive conception of the big bang….
[T]he idea that consciousness is identical to (or emerged from) unconscious physical events is, I would argue, impossible to properly conceive—which is to say that we can think we are thinking it, but we are mistaken. We can say the right words, of course—“consciousness emerges from unconscious information processing.” We can also say “Some squares are as round as circles” and “2 plus 2 equals 7.” But are we really thinking these things all the way through? I don’t think so.
Well, I don’t know what it means to Harris to “properly” conceive an idea, but it seems to me that the idea that consciousness emerges somehow from the activity of our brains (a distinction needs to be made here between what our biological brains do and mere “information processing”, I think) is surely conceivable, and not incoherently or incomprehensibly so, despite our ignorance as to how the trick is done. It may be that the answer will elude us forever; to fully understand it may even require intelligence, or ways of modeling the world, quite beyond what our modified ape brains are capable of. But the hypothesis itself is comprehensible enough, and given all the evidence that consciousness is supervenient upon the physical brain — and the fact that the only loci of consciousness that we know to exist are our own supremely complex brains, which came into existence through a gradual process of evolution from inanimate matter — I don’t think it’s about to go away anytime soon.
But I will admit: it’s a poser.
You can read Harris’s post here.