On the mystery of human consciousness

[div class=attrib]From Eurozine:[end-div]

Philosophers and natural scientists regularly dismiss consciousness as irrelevant. However, even its critics agree that consciousness is less a problem than a mystery. One way into the mystery is through an understanding of autism.

It started with a letter from Michaela Martinkov√°:

Our eldest son, aged almost eight, has Asperger’s Syndrome (AS). It is a diagnosis that falls into the autistic spectrum, but his IQ is very much above average. In an effort to find out how he thinks, I decided that I must find out how we think, and so I read into the cognitive sciences and epistemology. I found what I needed there, although I have an intense feeling that precisely the way of thinking of such people as our son is missing from the mosaic of these sciences. And I think that this missing piece could rearrange the whole mosaic.

In the book Philosophy and the Cognitive Sciences, you write, among other things: “Actually the only handicap so far observed in these children (with autism and AS) is that they cannot use human psychology. They cannot postulate intentional states in their own minds and in the minds of other people.” I think that deeper knowledge of autism, and especially of Asperger’s Syndrome as its version found in people with higher IQ in the framework of autism, could be immensely enriching for the cognitive sciences. I am convinced that these people think in an entirely different way from us.

Why the present interest in autism? It is generally known that some people whose diagnosis falls under Asperger’s Syndrome, namely people with Asperger’s Syndrome and high-functional autism, show a remarkable combination of highly above-average intelligence and well below-average social ability. The causes of this peculiarity, although far from being sufficiently clarified, are usually explained by reduced ability in the areas of verbal communication and empathy, which form the basis of social intelligence. And why consciousness? Many people think today that, if we are to better understand ourselves and our relationships to the world and other people, the last problem we must solve is consciousness. Many others think that if we understand the brain, its structure, and its functioning, consciousness will cease to be a problem. The more critical supporters of both views agree on one thing: consciousness is not a problem, it is more a mystery. If a problem is something about which we formulate a question, to which it is possible to seek a reasonable answer, then consciousness is a mystery, because it is still not possible to formulate a question which could be answered in a way that could be verified or refuted by the normal methods of science. Perhaps the psychiatrist Daniel M. Wegner best grasped the present state of knowledge with the statement: “All human experience states that we consciously control our actions, but all theories are against this.” In spite of all the unclearness and disputes about what consciousness is and how it works, the view has begun to prevail in recent years that language and consciousness are the link that makes a group of individuals into a community.

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