Consciousness – The Hard Problem

For all of science’s incredible advancements over the years, there is one that is remains unsolved: consciousness. Precisely how all of our intricately-woven biochemical mechanisms result in a subjective experience of the world which we call home seems to remain locked behind years of future data gathering and testing. But what’s so “hard” about this problem, and why should we care?

The problem of consciousness is that its just so damn slippery. Does it arise out of the activity of the organ that is the brain – or does it somehow exist independently of it? If it did, why then are we individually rooted to the bodies we are born into? These sorts of musings are only few of nearly infinite that encircle the debate –so what point is there in having it?

Well, for one, humanity could reap a massive benefit from fully understanding the processes of consciousness. It isn’t hard to imagine that the medical field could engineer some sort of highly-effective cognitive boosters that could drop-kick humanity into a new evolutionary era. Furthermore, through a greater understanding of the intricacies of the human mind, we could engineer artificial intelligences that are near exact-copies of both the human brain and mind.

Although the prospect of being capable to create synthetic humanoids that mirror our own flesh-and-bone selves is tempting, one of the largest questions surrounding the topic of consciousness remains in the afterlife. Yes, the great equalizer known as death remains a steadfast obsession for our kind, primarily since we’ve still yet to obtain verifiable proof of if anything lies on the other side of the veil.

Over the years, scientists and researchers have attempted to uncover the plausibility of what occurs after the cessation of our time on this mortal coil through various means. From weighing the human body at the precise time of death to see if the soul has weight to interviewing countless of individuals who profess to have experienced a “light at the end of the tunnel” and “angelic beings” during a near-death experience, the scientific community is no stranger to seeking to test the concept of the afterlife.

Despite their best efforts, nothing of value has yet been yielded. Weight experiments detected no discernible shifts, and the testimonies of those that had allegedly stepped over to the other side have been widely discredited as the results of biochemical reactions in the brain during points of exceptionally high stress.

But consider this, despite the incredibly fertile field of research that lies ahead, little funding finds its way to the fringe studies of what is likely the grand unifying schema of this place we call the universe. Instead, disproportionate amounts are funneled to faith-based institutions that purport to have “the answers” in order to give the masses their so desperately sought after panacea.

And yet, the nature of consciousness, its perceived finiteness, and just how it relates to the universe at large remains not only one of the hardest problems left to solve, but perhaps almost the most liberating. Humanity has made incredible gains toward developing a wider understanding of the inner workings of our bodies over the last several centuries, but the mind remains the great unknown: the final frontier.

While we once gazed outward to the cosmos and believed the distant shores of faraway planets to be the last vestiges of that which we could crash our intellects upon, a space that has fascinated humanity since our ape brains first sparked alight has been garnering more attention than ever before. The inner world, as we might call it, continues to prove to be incredibly difficult to chart.

We know that the human brain is an incredibly powerful organic information processing unit, but just how the activities within the brain give rise to the immaterial mind – and some would argue the soul – is still very much up for fierce debate.

Perhaps we really are barking up the wrong tree, fruitlessly striving to understand something that we can never truly perceive outside of itself. Just as we cannot view our universe from the outside-in, perhaps the mystery of consciousness is something that will remain tightly wrapped in mystery until the very ends of our lives.

As hopeless and ephemeral as this question may seem to some, it nonetheless resides at the very core of what makes us the strange temporally-locked beings that we are and – should it ever be answered, could lead to our species’ largest Copernican Revolution.

At the forefront of seeking to explore this strange new relation between the mind and the universe is none other than science’s strangest cousin: quantum theory. The further that our investigation into the nature of the world takes us, the stranger things get and the more it becomes obvious that the old ways of insight may be failing us. Where many once believed that the brain merely perceives the material world around us, quantum theory may suggest that the mind’s behavior is inextricable linked with all around us, and that consciousness may even give rise to the physical realm.

This is nothing new. For every massive leap forward in understanding that our species makes, we are forced to review our past assumptions under harsh scrutiny and come to terms that our long-held beliefs may have been nothing more than convenient placeholders for some new, greater understanding that we slowly marched toward. The issue within the debate regarding consciousness, however, is that we seem to be marching in place.

For every theory that we throw against it, nothing seems to stick. There are wonderfully romantic and exuberant paintings of an afterlife where all pain and suffering is removed, and all that is felt is blissful and unconditional love. A wonderful sentiment, but far removed from any testable hypothesis.

There is no doubt that human consciousness is perhaps nature’s most incredible and most perplexing invention and any subsequent discoveries are sure to shake the foundations that we have established over the decades – but until then, what’s the point of even thinking about it?

Aside from practical applications to the fields of artificial intelligence and neuroscience, the musing over consciousness can do much for our mental health should we decide to take a healthy outlook on it. Perhaps, the more time we took to sit down and reflect upon the mysterious and transient nature of the lives we lead would force us to cut out the things that bog us down in endless cycles of distress and discomfort.

Unfortunately, us humans have the wonderful capacity to subdue our feelings in favor of chasing the multitude of materialistic items of “value” that are continuously being pitched to us. When we habitually turn our attentions outward, it becomes far too easy to believe that all that is material is all there is.

There have been attempts to remedy this malaise of materialism over the years – with most of the panacea being peddled by self-proclaimed “new-age healers”. While offering up a highly romanticized version of reality served up on a pseudo-science platter, these “healers” have arguably done more harm than good. And yet, their words cannot be entirely discounted.

If the newer models of human consciousness are to be believed and there is indeed an inextricable tie between the nature of our consciousness and the universe that lies around us, then perhaps we may be able to take the necessary steps forward to understand that the divides that plague us are naught but imaginary.

There is no telling what the next several decades of research will dig up. But as we continue to poke about our reality and the nature of the thing that perceives it, we are inching ever toward the precipice of full understanding – if such a thing even exists.

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