[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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[CBC Radio One]

Science FACTion

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 Problem.

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 consciousness.

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 vision.

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 souls.

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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