"I can repeat the question, but am I bright enough to ask it?"


2003

"What are the pressing scientific issues for the nation and the world, and what is your advice on how I can begin to deal with them?"


But the single greatest mystery facing science today arises, remarkably, each time we see the red of an apple, hear the blast of a trumpet, smell the fragrance of a rose, or reel with anger from an insult. The mystery is this: What is the relationship between our everyday conscious experiences and our brains?

Donald D. Hoffman

Mr. President,

Scientists are now studying many fascinating and fundamental problems: What is the nature of "dark matter," the unseen and as yet unknown matter which apparently comprises most of our universe? What is the ultimate "theory of everything" that will unify our understanding of the forces of nature? Will such a theory let us predict the masses of fundamental particles?

But the single greatest mystery facing science today arises, remarkably, each time we see the red of an apple, hear the blast of a trumpet, smell the fragrance of a rose, or reel with anger from an insult. The mystery is this: What is the relationship between our everyday conscious experiences and our brains?

The issue is that brains seem to be physical objects with physical properties like spin and momentum, but conscious experiences seem to lack such properties. What, for instance, is the spin of anger or the momentum of my experience of red? The very question sounds like nonsense, and that raises the mystery.

The mystery is us. What kind of creatures are we? Are we composites of physical bodies and nonphysical experiences? Or are we entirely physical, or entirely nonphysical? Do brains create conscious experiences, or vice versa? Could some complex pattern of neural activity in my brain actually cause, or be identical with, my experience of red? How, precisely? Is the distinction between physical and nonphysical even useful here?

The mystery could hardly be more personal: What are we? And the fields of science potentially relevant to its resolution could hardly be more diverse: Quantum physics and chemistry, molecular biology, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, cognitive science, sociology and anthropology.

The mystery is as old as philosophy and religion, but today it engages many of the brightest minds in diverse scientific fields. An initiative to study this mystery could galvanize these fields and promote multidisciplinary collaborations.

What are the potential payoffs of such an initiative? At a minimum there is the intangible benefit of furthering our scientific understanding of what we are. The tangible benefits of such an understanding are anyone's guess. They might include payoffs of interest to any administration, such as a better understanding of the sources of interpersonal and international conflict and how these can be resolved. For if we better understand what we are, we might better understand why we behave as we do.

Donald D. Hoffman
Professor of Cognitive Science
University of California, Irvine
Author of Visual Intelligence: How We Create What We See and coauthor of Observer Mechanic

 

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