• Question: What is consciousness?

    Asked by murr499tub to Stuart C, Sharon M, Nora V, Kellie H, Esra H, Emma W, David M, Caroline T on 11 Feb 2024.
    • Photo: David McGonigle

      David McGonigle answered on 11 Feb 2024:

      Wow…exactly. What IS consciousness? When I was doing my PhD in London…some time ago *cough*…it was around the same time that some philosophers started to be interested in the brain. These ‘neurophilosophers’ would often give talks in the lab, as we had a ‘consciousness club’.

      It was fascinating. We had philosophers claiming that consciousness was an illusion (just the brain working, nothing else to see here), others saying that consciousness was everywhere in nature (even in thermostats…a tough one for me to agree with!). Some had very complicated examples of why they thought that consciousness was somehow only in humans (google ‘chinese room experiment’).

      But also confusing. We can all agree that WE are conscious. It’s the everyday experience of being us, reflecting on our past, present, and planning our future. But many animals do this too. Are they conscious? To make matters even more complex, its possible – in philosophical land – that each of us are the only conscious beings in the world. Why? Well, we can never really know the contents of each others minds. Therefore…well, you can guess the conclusion.

      Yet my old colleague Chris Frith would say that ‘you need to act as though other people are conscious, because that’s the way that you function best in a social world.’ It may all be an illusion…but it’s a useful one!