Tag Archives: Aeon Magazine

What does blue feel like? The consciousness conundrum

We may soon be able to say what is happening in the brain as a result of and to cause specific feelings and actions, such as what would make someone feel shame and what neurons fire to make that happen. No scientific paper will soon describe this process such that the reader can embody this feeling, however. “[We may be able to tell] that you are looking at a painting of sunflowers, but then, if I thwacked your shin with a hammer, your screams would tell me you were in pain. Neither lets me know what pain or sunflowers feel like for you, or how those feelings come about. In fact, they don’t even tell us whether you really have feelings at all.”

Even if we can describe in perfect detail every wheel and cog in the brain, how they are connected and how they work, we still wouldn’t know how consciousness works. Just as our mathematical language was not yet capable of describing solutions to some questions in the past, our thoughts are not yet capable of abstractly describing consciousness. “The question of how the brain produces the feeling of subjective experience, the so-called ‘hard problem’, is a conundrum so intractable that one scientist I know refuses even to discuss it at the dinner table.”

To make matters more complicated, our description of reality may need an update before we can proceed. From James Hopwood Jeans speculating in 1930 that “the Universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine” to philosophical extrapolations on the existance of quantum observer effects, the idea that consciousness creates reality around us rather than the other way around keeps injecting itself into modern science.

Michael Hanlon expands on these thoughts and questions in the article ‘The mental block: Can we get our heads around consciousness?’