The Mystery of Consciousness

Longtime readers may recall that I mostly regard this alleged mystery as a crock, but for those who feel otherwise, some company.

The problem is that, even if we know what someone is thinking about, or what they are likely to do, we still don’t know what it’s like to be that person. Hemodynamic changes in your prefrontal cortex might tell me 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. One can imagine a creature behaving exactly like a human — walking, talking, running away from danger, mating and telling jokes — with absolutely no internal mental life. Such a creature would be, in the philosophical jargon, a zombie.

To which I say, nonsense, except in the sense that one can imagine a round square. Philosophers keep supplying my distain with fresh nutrient media. We know what and how other people are thinking in the same way we know anything else - by constructing models and making deductions. Which is to say, imperfectly, but plenty well enough for many purposes.


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