Essay: who is it that experiences?

In this short essay, Dr Graham Stew probes the origins of all those thoughts, sensations and perceptions that constitute the lived fabric of our day to day reality.

The tool he uses is Phenomenology, a branch of philosophy concerned with methodically exploring our inner subjective world via introspection.

Right now, I am conscious of a Mozart symphony. I know that sound waves are reaching my ears and being converted into action potentials, which travel along the cochlear nerves to my auditory cortex. What happens to transform these electrical and chemical activities into the subjective experience of beautiful music? How can a few pounds of grey, wet tissue create the smell of coffee, the taste of a peach, and even images of non-existent objects, such as centaurs or unicorns? Why should several billion interacting neurons give rise to a subjective sense of presence of simply being here?

This question of how this wet lump of tissue perched atop our spinal column gives rise to our state of consciousness is known as ‘The Hard Problem of Consciousness because it is, well…. hard to answer.

Dr Graham goes on to clarify the differences and debates between the two schools of scientific thought regarding the origins of consciousness.

  1. Materialists (who think the wold is all solid….er…stuff).
  2. And the Idealists (who think everything arises out of consciousness).

Yet still: “Human consciousness is just about the last surviving mystery”. Centuries of philosophical and scientific inquiry have not produced any means by which consciousness can be detected, and we do not know what exactly is to be measured. As Wallace (2000) points out, at present there is no scientific evidence even for the existence of consciousness. We only have our own first-person accounts of what it means to be conscious.

We understand a great deal about perception, visual attention, reactions to stimuli, and various cognitive and behavioral functions. But why are they accompanied by subjective experience? Why should all these physical processes produce this sense of presence, this background hum of being, this inner life?

There may be no bigger question, but Western philosophers and scientists don’t have a clue what any answer would look like. For all its successes in explaining the working of the universe and improving human life, science has failed conspicuously to provide any convincing explanation of the very thing that conceived it: consciousness itself. As the famous astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington (1928) said: “Something unknown is doing we don’t know what!”

Link to full essay: An objective science of subjective experience

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