“Here’s the full text of the article Russell Brand kindly invited me to contribute to last week’s issue of the New Statesman. The article, entitled The War on Consciousness, had to be shortened to fit the space available in the magazine, but I reproduce the complete unedited text here.”
Consciousness is one of the great mysteries of science – perhaps the greatest mystery. We all know we have it, when we think, when we dream, when we savour tastes and aromas, when we hear a great symphony, when we fall in love, and it is surely the most intimate, the most sapient, the most personal part of ourselves. Yet no one can really claim to have understood and explained it completely. There’s no doubt it’s associated with the brain in some way but the nature of that association is far from clear. In particular how do these three pounds of material stuff inside our skulls allow us to have experiences?
Professor David Chalmers of the Australian National University has dubbed this the “hard problem” of consciousness; but many scientists, particularly those (still in the majority) who are philosophically inclined to believe that all phenomena can be reduced to material interactions, deny that any problem exists. To them it seems self-evident that physical processes within the stuff of the brain produce consciousness rather in the way that a generator produces electricity – i.e. consciousness is an “epiphenomenon” of brain activity. And they see it as equally obvious that there cannot be such things as conscious survival of death or out-of-body experiences since both consciousness and experience are confined to the brain and must die when the brain dies.