Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Consciousness: why it's the "hard problem"

A New Scientist of 15 May 2013 featured Consciousness. The word is an abstract noun; its suffix --ness denotes the quality, or property, or essential nature of a thing. The teaser questions on the cover emphasise this: What is Consciousness? Why do we have it? What else has it?

I like to think of consciousness as a performance, like a dance or a song. That translates the teaser questions into How do we perform consciousness? Why do we perform it? What else performs it?

What we need is a verb like “dance”. Who can tell the dancer from the dance? Yeats asked. Who indeed. The dance exists only while it is performed, the song while it is sung, life while it is lived. You are singer only while you sing, a dancer while you dance, a living being while you live.

A while ago I came across the verb mentate, but it doesn't sound right to my ears, because it shifts attention to thinking, and thinking is a part (I think a very small part) of being conscious. Verbs such as think, know, attend, imagine, feel, sense, etc, refer to one or another of the elements of the performance, or perhaps to the type or style of performance, like the terms used for discussing dance.

Talking about consciousness without a generic verb is like taking about dancing without the verb dance, or about fruit entirely in terms of apples and oranges, bananas and pears, plums and loganberries. Difficult. I think that consciousness is a "hard problem" because we haven't a verb for it.


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