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The Hard Problem
Copyright © 2003 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.
Nebula Award-winning science-fiction writer
Robert J. Sawyer
writes and presents a weekly science column for
the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's CBC Radio One.
The columns, which have the umbrella title
Science FACTION: Commentaries from the Cutting Edge of Science,
are produced by Barbara Saxberg in Toronto, and
syndicated to local CBC Radio stations across Canada.
Recorded 23 June 2003
Host: The 17th-century French philosopher René
Descartes is famous for having said, "I think, therefore I am."
But what exactly does it mean to think? Just what is the human
mind? Here's science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer with one
far-out new possibility.
Robert J. Sawyer: The study of consciousness is divided
into two categories: the easy problems and the one and only Hard
The easy problems are thing such as locating the part of the
brain that detects shape, and the other part that detects colour,
and the third part that gives names to the objects we're seeing.
Sound Effect: Flag snapping in the breeze
For instance, if you look up at a Canadian flag snapping in the
breeze, one part of your brain separates the rectangle from the
background of the sky; another part says that the object is
partially red and partially white; a third part supplies the name
"flag" for the thing you're looking at.
But where are all those separate responses bound together? That's
the Hard Problem: we can identify the parts of the brain
that perform various aspects of thinking, but we haven't
identified the place where it all comes together into a unified
thought, such as "I'm aware that I'm looking at the Canadian
flag." That one question the Hard Problem has
occupied great thinkers for generations.
René Descartes recognized that our brains have two
hemispheres, with the same components duplicated on each side.
But one little doodad, called the pineal gland, exists in between
the two hemispheres; it's the only one-of-a-kind part of the
brain. Descartes figured that it must be the seat of
But Descartes was wrong: people whose pineal glands have been
destroyed think and feel just fine.
So, where does it all come together? Karl Popper, the
great philosopher of science, proposed in the 1990s that some
unknown force field must envelop the brain, and it was that force
field which integrated all the different inputs provided by the
various parts of the brain. He said the force field must consist
of some unknown type of energy, because if it were just something
ordinary, we would have detected it already.
Popper may have been giving science too much credit. When his
idea started making the rounds, neuroscientists had to admit that
they actually hadn't looked all that carefully for any kind of
force field encompassing the brain.
Sound Effect: Radio frequency sweep
Independently, two researchers Britain's Johnjoe McFadden
and New Zealand's Susan Pockett proposed that Popper's
field does indeed exist, but that it consists of plain old
electromagnetism: a standing field encompassing the brain, a
field that is itself conscious.
A crazy idea, right? Maybe not. The left and right hemispheres of
the brain are joined by a thick bundle of nerve tissue called the
corpus callosum. Supposedly, this tissue is what allows the left
side of the brain to communicate with the right side. Since the
left side of the brain is where we process the images from our
right eye, and the right side of the brain is where we process
the images from our left eye, it would seem that without this
communications channel between the two, we shouldn't be able to
get our eyes to track together; nor should we be able to
integrate their two different images to produce stereoscopic
But it turns out that even if you sever the corpus callosum, the
two halves of the brain continue to communicate without
any physical connection. It seems there really just might be an
electromagnetic field encompassing both hemispheres, letting them
interact without any physical contact between them.
Music: something ethereal or spiritual
Of course, there are profound spiritual implications for this: if
a standing electromagnetic field does envelop the brain, can it
persist after the death of the physical body? The so-called Hard
Problem of Consciousness may give us the answer to an even more
profound question: whether or not human beings actually have
I'm Robert J. Sawyer.
More Good Reading
Other "Science FACTion" commentaries for CBC Radio
"2020 Vision" scenarios for Discovery Channel Canada
Media backgrounder on Rob Sawyer
Rob's novel The Terminal Experiment, which deals with the nature of consciousness
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