thomas_metzinger's picture
Professor of Theoretical Philosophy, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz; Adjunct Fellow, Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Study; Author, The Ego Tunnel
Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz; Author, Being No One

I believe, but cannot prove, that a First Breakthrough on Consciousness is actually around the corner. "Actually around the corner" means: less than 50 years away. My intuition is that, roughly, all we need for this first breakthrough are four convincing stories.

The first story will be about global integration, about the dynamical self-organization of long-range binding operations in the human brain. It will probably involve something like synchrony in multiple frequency bands, and will let us understand how a unified model of the world can emerge in our own heads.

The second story will be about "transparency": Why is it that we are unable to consciously experience most of the images our brain generates as images? The answer to this question will give us a real world. The transparency-tale has to do with not being able to see earlier processing stages and becoming a naive realist.

The third story will focus on the Now, the emergence of a psychological moment—on a deeper understanding of what William James' called the "specious present". Experts on short term memory and neural network modelers with tell this story for us. As it unfolds, it will explain the emergence of a subjective present and let us understand how conscious experience, in its simplest and most essential form, is the presence of a world.

Interestingly, today almost everybody in the consciousness community already agrees on some version of the fourth story: Consciousness is directly linked to attentional processing, more precisely, to a hidden mechanism constantly holding information available for attention. The subjective presence of a world is a clever strategy of making integrated informationavailable for attention.

I believe, but cannot prove, that this will allow us to find the global neural correlate for consciousness. However, being a philosopher, I want much more than that—I am also interested in precise concepts. What I will be waiting for is the young mathematician who then comes along and suddenly allows us to see how all of these four stories were actually only one: The genius who gives us a formal model describing the information flow in this neural correlate, and in just the right way. She will harvest the fruits of generations or researchers before her, and this will be the First Breakthrough on Consciousness.

Then three things will happen.

1. The Second Breakthrough on Consciousness will take much longer. Things will get messy and complicated. The philosophy and neuroscience of consciousness will get bogged down in diabolic details and ugly technical problems. Public attention will soon shift away from the problem of consciousness per se. Instead, new generations of young researchers will now focus on the nature of self and social cognition.

2. The overall development will have an unexpectedly strong cultural impact. People will not want to face their own mortality. There will be fundamentalist and anti-rational counter movements against the scientific image of man. At the same time crude new ideologies propagating vulgar forms of materialism and primitive forms of hedonism will spring up. Scientists will realize that one can not reductively explain the human mind and then simply look another way, leaving the consequences for someone else to deal with.

3. We will be able to influence consciousness in ways we have never dreamt of. There will be a new form of technology—Consciousness Technology—exclusively focusing on how to manipulate the neural correlate of consciousness in ever more fine-grained, efficient, and risk-free ways. People will realize that we need some sort of applied ethics for this new type of technology. And hopefully we will all together start to tell a newstory—a story about how to live with these brains and about what a good state of consciousness actually is.