The bet on consciousness at the end of its 25 years

None of the bettors could win

Christof Koch got screwed. The neuroscientist bet in 1998 with the philosopher David Chalmers that neurosciences will be able to detect, in the next 25 years, a specific signature of consciousness in the brain, that is to say a measure of activity which makes it possible to distinguish between conscious or unconscious processing of information received by the brain. In June Koch acknowledged losing in a joint statement with Chalmers: research is not yet able to physically explain consciousness.

I said Koch got screwed, not that he lost. The bet took place at a time when the problem of consciousness could not be posed in correct terms. It still isn’t. Koch struggles to get rid of the reductionist side of neuroscience. The rendering of consciousness cannot be explained purely in terms of neural interactions. Chalmers stepped into this breach to define the “hard problem”: consciousness as a phenomenon cannot be fully explained by physics.

I briefly describe the solution. The details are available to any regular reader of the blog, who will refer to CONSCIOUSNESS summary.

25 years of philosophical stagnation in physics

It is perfectly possible to find a specific signature of consciousness in the neural exchanges and this signature is not enough to explain consciousness as a phenomenon. Koch and Chalmers are both correct. The bet should have ended in a stalemate. No other conclusion is possible from the way it was posed. Koch was not to receive a crate of wine but would have saved one.

The brain signature is a perfect neurological correlate of consciousness. Only a correlation, not an explanation. As a correlation, it nevertheless suffices to identify the origin of consciousness in the context of current physics. To say otherwise would be to say that something extra-material, outside of physical reality, is needed to account for consciousness. In other words, it is to restore credit to the concept of soul. Mystics will be delighted, but this concept was never an explanation either, only a name on a mystery.

Let’s avoid such a resignation. The other hypothesis is more encouraging: physics perfectly describes the material aspects of reality, but forgets others. Consciousness is well contained in its material correlates. It is physics itself, due to its methodological restrictions, which does not bring out its qualitative aspects. In 25 years the restrictions have hardly changed. It is therefore impossible for the method to have produced any progress as regards the phenomenon, and it never will.

The bet should have been that of a refoundation of physics

Koch’s bet wasn’t on physics itself, and I don’t think Chalmers was on it either: he never claimed that another physics was needed. Physics seems too monumental to venture to say such a thing. And yet… This is where the bet should have been played. If Koch and Chalmers agreed to limit it to the framework of current physics, then rather Koch won: there are already excellent neural correlations separating conscious and unconscious mental activities. By rejecting contemporary physics, it was Chalmers who won: his challenge lost none of its validity. No matter how precise the measurements, physics still does not explain the phenomenon of consciousness.

Ethically the bet was unbalanced. Koch went all out for a clear solution to the mystery, Chalmers didn’t offer one, only bet it would stay obscure, which is easy. The solution exists, but they were not aware of it. Even if they had known it, it is difficult to say what consensus it would gather today. It is the most controversial of subjects, which opposes two pillars of knowledge, philosophy and science, without an arbitrator recognized by both.

If Koch had been a reader of Surimposium, he could still have claimed his prize. He would have jointly presented to Chalmers his neural correlations and a physics reinscribed in a fundamental complex dimension, perfectly capable of explaining the phenomenon of consciousness. There too: in what exact terms was the bet made? Surimposium was published before the end of 25 years. But not in an official journal. Does Christof read emails from unknown senders? Will he be able to adhere to a theory that contradicts some of his predictions (he considers that AIs will never become conscious by a simple increase in digital capacity, which is false)? Remind me to keep you posted…


Decades-long bet on consciousness ends — and it’s philosopher 1, neuroscientist 0


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