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Journal ArticleDOI

The thinking ape: The enigma of human consciousness

01 Nov 2013-Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences (New York Academy of Sciences)-Vol. 1303, Iss: 1, pp 4-24

TL;DR: What it means to be conscious is discussed and the human capacities displayed in cognitive, aesthetic, and ethical behaviors are examined, with a focus on the place and function of the mind within nature.
Abstract: What is the origin and nature of consciousness? If consciousness is common to humans and animals alike, what are the defining traits of human consciousness? Moderated by Steve Paulson, executive producer and host of To the Best of Our Knowledge, Nobel laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman, philosopher David Chalmers, expert in primate cognition Laurie Santos, and physician-scientist Nicholas Schiff discuss what it means to be conscious and examine the human capacities displayed in cognitive, aesthetic, and ethical behaviors, with a focus on the place and function of the mind within nature. The following is an edited transcript of the discussion that occurred October 10, 2012, 7:00-8:15 PM, at the New York Academy of Sciences in New York City.
Topics: Consciousness (60%), Artificial consciousness (59%), Poison control (50%)

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Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. ISSN 0077-8923
The Emerging Science of Consciousness: Mind, Brain, and the Human Experience
The thinking ape: the enigma of human consciousness
Steve Paulson,
David Chalmers,
Daniel Kahneman,
Laurie Santos,
and Nicholas Schiff
Wisconsin Public Radio, Madison, Wisconsin.
Australian National University, Canberra, Australia; and New York University,
New York, New York.
Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey.
Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.
Weill Cornell
Medical College, New York, New York
What is the origin and nature of consciousness? If consciousness is common to humans and animals alike, what are
the defining traits of human consciousness? Moderated by Steve Paulson, executive producer and host of To the Best
of Our Knowledge, Nobel laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman, philosopher David Chalmers, expert in pr imate
cognition Laur ie Santos, and physician-scientist Nicholas Schiff discuss what it means to be conscious and examine
the human capacities displayed in cognitive, aesthetic, and ethical behaviors, with a focus on the place and function
of the mind within nature. The following is an edited transcript of the discussion that o ccur red October 10, 2012,
7:00–8:15 PM, at the New York Academy of Sciences in New York City.
Keywords: consciousness; philosophy; ethics; behavior; cognition; mind
Steve Paulson: Welcome. It is wonderful to see such a terrific turnout here. I’d like to say a huge thank you
to the Nour Foundation and the New York Academy of Sciences for making this event possible.
It is a great pleasure to be here because we have a terrific panel and some fascinating ideas to dig into.
I have been neck-deep in questions about consciousness for the last 4 to 5 months. I’m in the process
of putting the finishing touches on a 6-hour radio series on the science of consciousness, which will be
coming to a public radio station near you in the coming months.
I’m not a scientist or a philosopher; I’m a public r adio guy. But for whatever reason I can’t stop thinking
about the subject of consciousness, which, in one sense, is rather odd—my wife will be reading a great novel
while I am plowing through a philosophical tome about the mind/brain problem; I can’t really explain it
but reading books about the nature of consciousness is strangely addictive to me.
Let me give you two recent examples. The neuroscientist Christof Koch, who did groundbreaking work
with Francis Crick, recently came out with a very interesting book entitled Consciousness: Confessions of a
Romantic Reductionist. I interviewed Koch and mentioned that some scholars, including the distinguished
philosopher on our panel David Chalmers, have suggested that science will never understand certain
dimensions of consciousness. Koch replied, and I quote, “If you look at the historical record of philosophers,
it’s pretty disastrous. Science has a spectacular record of understanding the universe,” and he went on to
say, “I’m profoundly skeptical when philosophers tell us once again what we’ll never know.” [Audience
laughter] Something to talk about this evening, I think.
Take another example, the philosopher Thomas Nagel has a new book c alled Mind and Cosmos, also
quite interesting. Nagel wrote the famous essay, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” The answer, by the way, is we
will never know. Nagel’s new book is a critique of the standard materialist model of science and specifically
the way many neuroscientists try to explain consciousness through neural correlates. He ends the book by
saying, and I quote, “I would be willing to bet that the present right-thinking consensus will come to seem
laughable in a generation or two.”
So here we have fundamental questions about science and philosophy, not to mention a certain degree
of testiness when it comes to trying to explain the nature of consciousness. Of course there are all
sorts of other big questions as well; for instance, what kind of consciousness do animals have? Will
computers become conscious someday? And what about the people who have fallen into comas after
doi: 10.1111/nyas.12165
Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 1303 (2013) 4–24
2013 New York Academy of Sciences.

et al
. The enigma of human consciousness
suffering severe brain trauma; where does consciousness begin and end with them? This is fascinating
stuff. We’ll be talking about all of this and more on our panel, “The Thinking Ape: The Enigma of Human
Let me introduce our very distinguished panel of speakers. David Chalmers is a philosopher of mind and
consciousness at New York University and director of the Center for Consciousness at Australia National
University; his many books include The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. Laurie Santos is
a professor of psychology at Yale University investigating the evolution of the mind, the theory of mind, and
the development of cognition in humans and nonhuman primates. Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel laureate
and professor emeritus of psychology at Princeton University who pioneered behavioral economic theory;
he’s the author of Thinking, Fast and Slow. And Nicholas Schiff is a physician and scientist at Weill Cornell
Medical College, where he focuses on the pathophysiology of impaired consciousness, arousal regulation,
and the effects of deep brain stimulation techniques on minimally conscious patients. It is great to have all
of you here.
Dave Chalmers, let me start with you, since I mentioned you earlier. Some people say understanding
consciousness is the biggest mystery left in science. What do you think?
Chalmers: I’ve always seen it as pretty well the biggest challenge forscience,forascienticworldview.
I started out in the sciences and mathematics and physics, and there are a lot of puzzles in these areas.
And from working in the middle of them I got the sense that scientists basically have a correct world
view, and that they are currently cleaning up some of the puzzles; that while we’re not quite yet at the last
stages of explanation, we’ve got a sense of what the relevant picture of the universe, of what the domain
looks like. As a result there’s a beautiful scientific picture—a great chain of explanation: physics explains
chemistry, chemistry explains biology, biology explains at least some aspects of psychology, psychology
explains aspects of sociology, and so on. And although there are a number of details yet to be worked out,
we’ve at least somehow got a sense of the whole picture and how pieces fit together.
What’s interesting about consciousness is that it just doesn’t seem to fit easily into that picture at all
because our scientific picture of the world is described in terms of objective mechanisms from the objective
point of view. In contrast, consciousness is the quintessentially subjective phenomenon; it’s how things
feel from the inside; it’s how we experience the world from a subjective point of view. But nothing in the
scientific objective picture of the world seems, on the face of it, to tell us why there’s going to be subjectiv ity.
So I see it—by the way, I didn’t say what you said I said to Koch . . . [audience laughter]... Ineversaid
science can’t explain consciousness . . .
Paulson: ...youhavehintedatthatverystrongly...
Chalmers: ...certainkinds of standard scientific explanation wholly in terms of brain mechanisms may
fail, yes. But I see it more thoroughly as a challenge to science. It may be that our methods of science and
our theories of science have to be expanded to bring consciousness in.
For years, I’ve organized a conference called “Toward a Science of Consciousness,” so I’m proscience;
I’m a glass half-full guy . . .
Paulson: [laughing] I never said you were not proscience . . .
Well, we will come back to that, to how far science can go in explaining consciousness.
Let me just throw this open to the rest of the panel. Is consciousness one of the big questions out there?
Is it one of the big mysteries? Or have we overblown this? Is it not as big a challenge as we’re saying? Niko
Schiff, let me turn to you.
Schiff: I totally agree. I would say that the science of consciousness is extremely challenging and that in
the context of trying to make operational evaluations of patients, that is, when trying to determine if they
are conscious or not, we don’t have a standard model—I don’t even think there’s a dogma (the idea of a
standard model here is laughable). So, while we do have measurements and some operational approaches,
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The enigma of human consciousness Paulson
et al
and while we certainly know in a casual sense when somebody’s conscious, it is very difficult to demonstrate
that a comatose patient w ho starts to recover but inconsistently responds is actual ly conscious. If the patient
never responds, could he/she be—or become—conscious? Is the patient conscious now and we just don’t
realize it? We’re getting better tools that provide measures for approximating probabilities of a state of
Actually, I would say that as I’ve looked at this, and my colleagues have looked at this, more carefully with
better measurements over the last 10 years, measuring and predicting consciousness are more challenging
and harder than we originally thought. I realize how many mistakes I’ve made along the way, and I still
make them. So I find the problem of consciousness very challenging, a very humbling kind of problem to
attempt to solve.
Paulson: Laurie Santos, let me turn to you. I know your specialty is animal cognition; so is this a big
question for you as well: What is consciousness?
Santos: I agree with what people have said so far. In fact, I don’t think we modern neuroscientists and
cognitive scientists know how to get at the phenomenon of subjective experience—when does it occur;
what does it feels like to have subjective experience; how can we measure it? That said, cognitive science
has made tremendous inroads into other things that were once thought unmeasureable. For example, if
this discussion were held in the 1950s, a group of behaviorist scientists would be sitting on the panel and
they would say that while behavior can be measured fantastically well, the black box” of the mind is just
going to remain a black box.
And yet, since the 1950s neuroscientists and cognitive scientists have come up with all kinds of
cool techniques to probe what’s going on in the black box, both behavioral and neuroscientific
And so—[speaking to Chalmers] I didn’t think you’d be the optimist up here about measuring
consciousness—I also take a glass half-full approach: I think that while we definitely don’t know where to
search for an explanation of subjective experience, this doesn’t mean that 50 years from now we won’t all
be in this room saying, “Oh, we have this fantastic tool and we know what we’re doing.”
Paulson: Danny Kahneman, how big a question is this in science, consciousness?
Kahneman: Well, that’s very odd. I’m in a minority because for some reason I’m one of those people who
never got myself completely fascinated by this question [audience laughter]. And in part this is because I
never could imagine what an answer to that question would be. I find it difficult to conceive of a question
without having some idea of the structure of an acceptable answer. If there is a structure, I don’t know
about it.
What I do see—[to Schiff] and that’s the approach that you talked about—is that in fact we can identify
consciousness; we can agree on it. And while it is subjective, we can evaluate the consciousness of other
people and of other animals, and we’re getting better and more consistent at it.
And so building from the bottom up, I think we can get a better understanding—or at least a better
description—of the conditions for consciousness. To attempt to bridge the gap between the material and
the subjective, I don’t know how that g ap could be bridged. I don’t know what the meaning of the question
is. And if that is the objective, I don’t see how we can succeed.
Paulson: Is neuroscience the most important discipline for trying to understand consciousness?
Schiff: I think it depends on how one defines neuroscience. Neuroscience is a very broad topic; among the
people I know and work closely with are neuroscientists who are also physicists or engineers, or are trained
in other fields. So the simple answer is “yes”; if we believe consciousness is a brain process, which we
do, understanding consciousness will be centered on neuroscience. But neuroscience per se encompasses a
large set of activities.
Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 1303 (2013) 4–24
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et al
. The enigma of human consciousness
Paulson: Let’s come back to this question of subjective experience. Yes, neuroscience can map lots of things
that are happening in the brain—for example, these partsofthebrainhavetofireforthis particular mental
state to happen—but is this really getting at what subjective experience is about?
Chalmers: Maybe the question isn’t, Is neuroscience the most important thing, but rather is neuroscience
all you need to explain consciousness? And I think for all the reasons that Danny and others have been
saying that it looks like neuroscience alone isn’t going to tell us why there is subjective/conscious ac tivity,
because there’s a potentially unbridgeable gap.
So my view has always been you’ve got to gather the data from neuroscience, which will be a huge part of
the story, but also gather what we might think of as subjective data about consciousness, measured either
from the first person point of view or from the sympathetic third person point of view—as when we talk
to people and ask them what they’re conscious of—and build a multilevel picture that takes seriously the
neuroscience but also takes seriously the deliverances of subjective experience.
Kahneman: It’s not only neuroscience; real experimental psychology has a lot to say about this. In fact
some of the more interesting data are coming from experimental psychologists because they are focusing
on the issue—accepting the sort of naive and obvious definition of w hat consciousness is—that there is an
enormous amount of mental activity going on outside of consciousness.
There are discoveries being made by experimental psychologists that raise the question, for some
psychologists, of what consciousness is for because they don’t find a nything that cannot be done without
it. And I think that this question—what is consciousness for?—is actually being taken seriously.
So, we have the feeling that consciousness is very important for deeper mental activity, for more orderly
mental activity, for rule following, but there does seem to be an awful lot of extremely sophisticated stuff
that can be produced without it.
Schiff: And that’s what makes consciousness-specific measurements very difficult.
Kahneman: That’s right.
Paulson: I want to come back to this question about subjective experience. Yes, we can ask people what
they’re thinking, what they’re feeling; we can hook them up to an fMRI and ask them some of these
questions and monitor what’s going on in the brain. Is that relevant to understanding the essence of what
they’re feeling? Can science really speak to this issue?
Chalmers: We ll, let’s distinguish between gathering data about what someone is conscious of and explaining
the data. I can find out what you’re conscious of by asking you. This does raise philosophical questions,
for example, how can I be sure that you’re conscious? Maybe you’re a zombie, and so on. But it seems
reasonable, under natural assumptions at least, to take what you’re saying as a guide to your consciousness;
and thereby I can find out about other people’s consciousness. But it’s another thing to explain this.
There has been a big “neuroscience of consciousness” developing, especially over the last 20 years. And
while this area has made significant advances it’s still a science of correlation; people draw a diagram of the
visual system and these bits seem to connect more closely to these kinds of conscious states, and so on. But
it’s still a science of correlation. What we’re lacking is explanation: Why is it that all these processes in the
brain are in play?
Kahneman: And we have no idea what it would look like if we met it . . .
Paulson: Can we ever get that? Can we ever get an explanation for why these subjec tive experiences come
Schiff: I would guess the answer is yes. But this doesn’t get us any closer to it.
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The enigma of human consciousness Paulson
et al
Kahneman: I want to raise a difficulty. One thing that troubles me is something that is going to happen
from robotics. Some day we’re going to have robots with facial expressions that seem to express emotions.
And I believe that we will respond emotionally to robots that talk and whose voices indicate emotion;
they’re going to make sense to us. These robots will look conscious to us. I have no doubt that this is
something that is going to happen before we understand consciousness; we will have robots that will appear
conscious to us.
Paulson: Will appear conscious. Does that mean they are conscious?
Kahneman: I don’t know ifthey are or not; how would weknow? It’s ajudgment that we make about another
person. I know my own subjectivity; I believe you’re conscious. But my belief about your consciousness,
I think, could b e simulated by my belief in a robot’s consciousness. And where that goes, I have no
Schiff: So let me ask you [Kahneman], and maybe David, a question. Do you think that a robot could use
natural language—when are we going to have a robot that can adequately use a natural language? I think
that’s the harder problem.
Chalmers: Yes, that’s a hard problem. But going back to the earlier issue, I’ll be convinced that the robot
is conscious when a robot says to me, “Boy, I know deep down that I’m a set of silicon circuits, but I just
can’t explain this experience that I’m having of subjectivity.” [Audience and panelist laughter]
Kahneman: I don’t think you can define consciousness by being a philosopher . . . [Audience and panelist
Chalmers: I didn’t say this was a necessary condition, just a sufficient condition . . .
Paulson: Let’s pursue this question of computer consciousness because, certainly, a lot of people speculate
on it. Does a computer have to—does the makeup of a computer have to—mimic the human brain in
some way to be conscious, or c an its makeup be entirely different from a human br ain? What does it take
for a computer to start to develop what would seem to be consciousness?
Santos: We have no idea. Computers often trick us into thinking they are conscious . . . Take the Siri
function on the iPhone; sometimes it can make you think it’s conscious by providing information that
seems to require consciousness, “Ooh, you knew there was a Rite Aid there?” But it’s a wholly different
question to ask whether or not the ac tual gears of the computer are producing something like a subjective
state . . .
Kahneman: ...andImreallynotsurethatwecantell;thethird-personrequirementforinterpretation
seems to be overwhelming.
Chalmers: [to Kahneman] How do you feel about other people?
Kahneman: Oh, I’m quite sure that everybody in this room is conscious.
Chalmers: Why so sure?
Kahneman: If there really were convincing robots sitting in this audience, I would not be able to say, “Oh,
that one is not conscious.” The evidence that I have of the consciousness of other people can be produced
Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 1303 (2013) 4–24
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