My title comes with an apology to the late Monsieur René Descartes who was capable of much greater thinking than I can summon up at nine o'clock on a chilly morning. Ever since Tom Stoppard's play, The Hard Problem, opened (to mixed reviews!) I have been trying to avoid the subject of consciousness because, first, it is a diabolically difficult subject and, second, there appears to be no definitive answer and, third, I'm not brainy enough to offer anything original on the subject. So, as usual in my ignorance I will lean on the brains of someone who does appear to have a grasp of the subject - Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian.
In essence, 'the hard problem' can be summed up thus: is the cosmos and everything in it made up totally of material things which, even if as yet we do not know entirely how they operate, nevertheless being material they can in theory be measured and their activities defined; or, is there another part of the cosmos which is made up of immaterial things which cannot be measured, like minds and consciousness? What do I mean by 'consciousness? Well, let me ask you a question: do you, like me, think that inside your body there is a 'real you' existing which, whilst it is dependent on your carcass to carry the 'real you' along on your lifetime's travel, is in another sense independent of it? In other words, do you feel that there is a 'real you' hiding inside your body peering out at the world through your eyes and your other senses? And, even more important, this 'real you' is a mental being not a physical being.
The materialist philosophers and scientists will not have it! In recent years huge advances have been made in understanding the intricacies of how the human brain works and the more they learn the more definite their opinion that consciousness, the notion that there is a separate, independent entity called 'mind', is false and that in the end everything will be explained by material matter. This begs the question that Mr. Berkeman poses in his article, if the materialists are right does that make all of us zombies? Well, I'm 'in here', peeking out at you, or rather, your carcass over there and whilst I definitely and absolutely know that I am not a zombie, can I be sure that you are not one?
The zombie scenario goes as follows: imagine that you have a doppelgänger. This person physically resembles you in every respect, and behaves identically to you; he or she holds conversations, eats and sleeps, looks happy or anxious precisely as you do. The sole difference is that the doppelgänger has no consciousness; this – as opposed to a groaning, blood-spattered walking corpse from a movie – is what philosophers mean by a “zombie”.
Already my brain is beginning to hurt and I blame that René Descartes:
The source of the animosity [between contemporary philosophers] dates back to the 1600s, when René Descartes identified the dilemma that would tie scholars in knots for years to come. On the one hand, Descartes realised, nothing is more obvious and undeniable than the fact that you’re conscious. In theory, everything else you think you know about the world could be an elaborate illusion cooked up to deceive you – at this point, present-day writers invariably invoke The Matrix – but your consciousness itself can’t be illusory. On the other hand, this most certain and familiar of phenomena obeys none of the usual rules of science. It doesn’t seem to be physical. It can’t be observed, except from within, by the conscious person. It can’t even really be described. The mind, Descartes concluded, must be made of some special, immaterial stuff that didn’t abide by the laws of nature; it had been bequeathed to us by God.
Well, we can set aside the 'God question' for the moment but still ask if Descartes was right? Not according to the materialists:
The withering tone of the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci sums up the thousands of words that have been written attacking the zombie notion: “Let’s relegate zombies to B-movies and try to be a little more serious about our philosophy, shall we?” Yes, it may be true that most of us, in our daily lives, think of consciousness as something over and above our physical being – as if your mind were “a chauffeur inside your own body”, to quote the spiritual author Alan Watts. But to accept this as a scientific principle would mean rewriting the laws of physics. Everything we know about the universe tells us that reality consists only of physical things: atoms and their component particles, busily colliding and combining. Above all, critics point out, if this non-physical mental stuff did exist, how could it cause physical things to happen [...]?
Well, I don't care what they say, I'm still in here, inside my head, and that's 'me', the real 'me' and, to quote the title of, ahem, a 'famous essay', "I think I am what I am therefore I must be"!