TED Talks: How do you explain consciousness?



“Right now, you have a movie playing inside your head.”

Okay, consciousness isn’t exactly like a movie. There isn’t a little screen in your head with someone watching it, as in Being John Malkovich. It’s more like a virtual reality. Or rather, virtual reality is like consciousness: The main point of virtual reality is to replicate a state of consciousness without replicating the external reality.


“Neuroscientists like Francis Crick and physicists like Roger Penrose declared that now is the time to attack consciousness.”

See Francis Crick’s book The Astonishing Hypothesis, Roger Penrose’s book The Emperor’s New Mind and Crick and Christof Koch’s co-authored article “Toward a Neurobiological Theory of Consciousness.”

“The centerpiece of the science of consciousness has been the search for correlations between brain areas and consciousness.”

See Christof Koch’s book The Quest for Consciousness and Thomas Metzinger’s edited collection Neural Correlates of Consciousness. For my take on the science, see “How Can We Construct a Science of Consciousness?”

“We saw some of this work from Nancy Kanwisher.”

Nancy’s TED Talk wasn’t yet online at the time of writing these notes, but you can look up a summary and a relevant article.

“It doesn’t address the hard problem of consciousness.”

I coined this term in my 1995 articles “The Puzzle of Conscious Experience” (published in Scientific American — it’s slightly more accessible and has pictures) and “Facing up to the problem of consciousness,” (published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, with more detailed arguments). Of course the problem itself goes back much further: For some classic sources, see articles from Wikipedia and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

“It’ll turn out to be another emergent phenomenon, like traffic jams or hurricanes.”

For my take on emergence, see “Strong and Weak Emergence” (what I call “emergence” in the talk corresponds to “weak emergence” in the article). See also the book Emergence: Contemporary Readings in Philosophy and Science, which was edited by Mark Bedau and Paul Humphreys.

“It’s a datum that we’re conscious, but we don’t know how to accommodate it in our scientific view of the world.”

It’s worth noting that this isn’t an extreme or controversial view. It’s a widely held view even among people who lean toward scientific reductionism: For example, Steven Pinker (in How the Mind Works) suggests that we may never solve the problem of consciousness, and Christof Koch (in his Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist) suggests that consciousness is a fundamental property in nature. My experience is that around 75 percent of people across fields acknowledge that there is a hard problem of consciousness over and above the easy problems.

“My friend Dan Dennett has a crazy idea.”

For Dennett’s response to the hard problem, see his “Facing backwards on the problem of consciousness,” and also his earlier book, Consciousness Explained. For my response to him, see “Moving forward on the problem of consciousness.”

“The first crazy idea is that consciousness is fundamental.”

For more on this, see the second half of “Facing up to the problem of consciousness,” and the more detailed discussion in The Conscious Mind.

“The second crazy idea is that consciousness might be universal.”

See the articles on panpsychism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and also my article “Panpsychism and Panprotopsychism.” Christof Koch’s article “A Complex Theory of Consciousness” explores the idea from a scientific perspective. David Skrbina’s book, Panpsychism in the West, explores the history of the idea.

“Wherever there is information processing, there is consciousness.”

For my version of this idea, see Chapter 8 of The Conscious Mind. For Giulio Tononi’s information integration theory, see his book, Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul, and Christof Koch’s article. For the full details, see Tononi’s articles “Consciousness as integrated information: A provisional manifesto” and “From the phenomenology to the mechanisms of consciousness: Integrated Information Theory 3.0.” See also Scott Aaronson’s recent critique.

“Panpsychism might help us integrate consciousness into the physical world.”

A controversial physics-based panpsychism is put forward by Stuart Hameroff and Roger Penrose in “Conscious events as orchestrated space-time selections.”

“It’s consciousness that puts the fire into the equations.”

A version of this idea is explored by Galen Strawson in “Realistic monism: Why physicalism entails panpsychism?”

“What about Samantha, the artificially intelligent system in the movie Her? Is she conscious?”

For John Searle’s negative view of machine consciousness, see “Minds, brains, and programs.” For my positive view, see “The Singularity: A Philosophical Analysis.”

“Does consciousness attach to whole groups?”

For some meditations on this idea, see Eric Schwitzgebel’s “If materialism is true, the United States is conscious.”

“How do those little bits of consciousness add up to the kind of complex consciousness we know and love?”This is the combination problem for panpsychism, put forward by William James and named by William Seager. For more, see my article about the combination problem for panpsychism.