The hunt for consciousness seems all-important and insignificant at the same time. It is all-important because consciousness—the state of being aware—gives us every experience we will ever have. It seems insignificant because in everyday life we take consciousness for granted. Like the air we breathe, it has always been there. Billions of people owe their lives to the gases in Earth’s atmosphere without bothering to learn what those gases are.
For the better part of 400 years science adopted the viewpoint, for all practical purposes, that consciousness was a given and not worth exploring. Only in recent decades has the hunt for consciousness become important, largely thanks to the emergence of sophisticated imaging technologies for looking into the brain. Since more than 99% of scientists agree that the brain creates consciousness, the answers to the mystery of consciousness seem closer than ever.
This was the basis of a widely circulated news story about a 25-year wager between a philosopher and a neuroscientist. In 1988 the prominent neuroscientist Christoph Koch bet the prominent philosopher David Chalmers that the mystery of consciousness would be solved in a quarter century. But at a recent conference devoted to the study of consciousness, Koch conceded that he had lost the wager. The mystery remains and research continues.
Chalmers, who gained fame by calling consciousness “the hard problem” (i.e., the most difficult riddle yet to be solved) wasn’t a sore winner. He was quoted by news media saying, “There’s been a lot of progress in the field.” In other words, the mechanics by which neurons produce the workings of the human mind are being steadily, if slowly, unraveled.
However, there’s a strong argument to be made that no progress at all is being made, that neuroscience has been following a series of false trails all along. Here’s an analogy that tells the tale. Imagine that you are in the Arctic wilderness following the tracks of a fox in the snow. The tracks are unmistakable, and if you follow them, they will eventually enable you to corner the fox in its den. You set off, but to your consternation, after a while you wind up exactly where you started. The tracks have led you in a circle. Your hunt has come to a dead end.