The new science of consciousness

At the beginning of a new millennium, it is rather surprising that the mind-body connection is again a hot topic of research from a multidisciplinary point of view (Chalmers 1996; Velmas 1996; Blackmore 2003). As Stuart Hameroff has pointed out, the recent interest has been confirmed by the 'boom' in new books, articles and international symposiums on the subject (Hameroff et al. 1996; 1997; 1999). For instance, since 1994 a major debate has been held every two years in Tucson at the Center for Consciousness Studies, University of Arizona, where scientists and researchers from various backgrounds meet to discuss the 'new science of consciousness'. The discussion is mainly about what David Chalmers originally called the 'hard problem' of consciousness (Chalmers 1996). But what is the 'hard problem'? The answer varies considerably from investigator to investigator, but a consensus seems to have emerged that the 'hard problem' refers to the problem of how subjective experience associated with cognitive or mental events arises from the objective activity of brain cells.

In many ways, the hard problem of consciousness is just another name for the classic mind-body problem. According to Susan Blackmore: 'What makes the problem of consciousness somewhat different from other versions of the mind-body problem is the modern context' (2003: 9). While theories of consciousness proliferate, the question remains: 'What is consciousness?' Although consciousness is one of the most familiar and intimate aspects that each one of us possesses, it also remains a poorly understood phenomenon. Francisco Varela defined consciousness as a sort of 'bag term' in which we throw anything we don't understand yet (1996: 23), while Daniel Dennett described it as 'the last surviving mystery' (1991: 21). I would like to focus now on the origins of this contemporary debate.

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