Short film: the Magic of Consciousness


“It explores the problems in understanding human consciousness particularly in explaining how its seemingly magical qualities arise from the physical matter of the brain.”

I’m sure people were amazed that the seemingly magical qualities of lightning came from clouds whenever we figured that one out. The explanation is simple: consciousness is something brains do. If you think that consciousness is too magic for that to be true, you are wrong.

We once didn’t understand thunder and ascribed magical properties to it;

Now we understand thunder and no longer ascribe magical properties to it;

Therefore consciousness is something the brain does.

Great argument!

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“Seemingly magical qualities” are not magical qualities.

If you omit “seemingly”, or substitute “literally”, then science would have cause to declare Bullshit. But that’s not the case here.

The author is clearly giving us a bit of poetry, hoping to persuade us to watch the video. That’s all. No need to put it down.

Well, the explanation for the question “how does consciousness arise from a physical brain?” is definitely not “consciousness arises from a physical brain”. (cough cough question-begging cough)

The basic problem with the ‘consciousness is something the brain does’ theory is that nobody has any very convincing theory that explains how a physical system–the brain etc–can give rise to non-physical experience.

On the other hand, if we posit that consciousness is not something the brain does, then we’re kind of forced in the direction of some sort of dualism of substance. There is certainly nothing obviously wrong about this, but it’s not a particularly popular theory these days (for good reasons…it solves one big problem, but raises all kinds of others).

As far as I’m aware, we can reasonably conclude that brains are a necessary condition for consciousness, but we don’t know if they’re a sufficient condition for it.

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The quotation I am responding to presents as a premise that consciousness is something the brain does. “how it’s seemingly magical properties arise from the physical matter of the brain.” I’m not trying to argue that point, I am accepting it.

My point is that things we have thought were magical in the past were just things we didn’t understand. We’ve called lots of things magic in the past and the vast majority of them we now accept are not magic.

The basic problem with that question is that it assumes that consciousness is a “non-physical experience” whatever that means. Just because it seems that way to us doesn’t mean that it is. People thought the sun went around the Earth because that’s how it looked to them. It’s just not true.

No question begging intended. As I said above, I am answering only the issue of “magic.” I don’t have the actual explanation for the physical mechanism of consciousness. To get overly semantic, we can use “how” in very different ways. “How does this engine work?” is a very different question than “How could such a thing as an engine be?” The latter is more of a rhetorical statement of incredulity. I read that statement the same way. Remove the words “seemingly magical” and it doesn’t read that way at all.

I don’t agree that is clear at all. Both of the other responders to my comment appear to think that the fact that consciousness has seemingly magical properties warrants serious consideration, including the possible introduction of a second, parallel universe into our cosmology to explain.


I appreciate the impulse to reject “magical thinking”, but I think you’ve failed to recognize the depth of the question. Consciousness confounds objective inquiry by its very nature. It’s so subjective that it’s difficult to even talk about, let alone make assertions about.

I could quip “if you think you know anything for sure about consciousness, you’re wrong” but even then, how the crap could I know what you know or don’t know about consciousness? It’s ineffable. So while you could very well understand it, the expectation that you can explain your understanding to others suggests that you probably don’t.

See? Even trying to talk about consciousness for two paragraphs is making my brain hurt.

But we’ve used brain imaging to make roughly accurate pictures of what people are seeing. A recent experiment achieved brain-to-brain communication over the internet. It is completely plausible that within our lifetimes we’ll have a very clear understanding of what consciousness is and how it works. If so, it will use concepts that you and I currently find extremely difficult to get our heads around, but our grandchildren or great grandchildren will find those concepts relatively easy to understand as they become baked into culture. One generation’s paradox is the next generation’s cliche.

Not being able to get our heads around it just shows that we don’t understand it. We don’t understand it -> It can’t be understood is a leap that has been made many, many times and it never seems to work out. I think it’s time we give up on that line of reasoning.

I severely doubt my ability to explain my understanding of nearly anything to anyone.

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Well, it seemed to me like you were making an argument; you said that consciousness was something the brain does, and that anyone doubting that was wrong. If you intended simply to make a bald assertion, my apologies.

Yes, but how exactly does that buttress your assertion that consciousness is something the brain does, and anybody holding a contrary view is wrong? And if it doesn’t, why connect the two at all?

And there you go again! Precisely the same flawed argument:
It seems like conscious experience is non-physical;
It seemed liked the sun went around the earth;
but: the sun doesn’t go around the earth
Therefore: conscious experience is physical!
You are simply begging the question by assuming that consciousness is a physical phenomenon JUST like thunder and planetary orbits, and making no attempt to provide a coherent explanation for why conscious experience, alone among all other physical things, should have this peculiar property of making itself “seem” remarkably like it is non-physical to it’s purely physical self.

Leaving aside the fact that neither of us actually said that, were any of that actually true, don’t you think it would be at least parsimonious of us only to argue for the introduction of a single parallel universe, as opposed to the infinite multiverse which many physicists now suggest the introduction of to explain several problems in modern cosmology?

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As I said, the assertion that consciousness is a thing the brain does comes from the post itself. I agree with that. If you want to present a case as to why I shouldn’t agree with that I’ll read it. If you want to say I’m begging the question for agreeing with that… What can be said in response?

Lightning seemed remarkably non-physical to ancient people, as did many other phenomena, so much so that they posited the existence of Gods to explain it. I think the idea that this thing we can’t understand is so much different than the things that billions of other people couldn’t understand is pretty ahistorical and arrogant. Again, if you’d like to explain what is so different about consciousness, and why it is that how it appears to us, at this moment of history, is so important and so much different than all the things humans have been wrong about throughout history, I’d be happy to listen.

I won’t take this. If I mischaracterized what you said say how I mischaracterized it. If you don’t think that consciousness has seemingly magical properties that warrant serious consideration then please just say so (and while you are at it maybe explain why we are having this conversation if you don’t think that).

Not at all. If a “parallel universe” of mind or spirit or whatever was at all a similar thing to a parallel universe as discussed in physics than I would.

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Actually, it doesn’t assume consciousness is non-physical, it recognizes that there is no evidence to the contrary.

In this context, I don’t know what ‘physical’ could mean except something along the lines of ‘objectively observable’, i.e. if consciousness or experience are to be regarded as physical, we need to be able to observe (and ideally measure) experience for other subjects than ourselves. I think it’s fair to say we do not know how to do this, and as long as we can’t, a claim that consciousness must be physical is a claim without evidence.

This also is not a claim that’s obviously wrong (occam’s razor-wise its simplicity makes it one of the very best of the contending explanations). It’s just that the available information is inadequate to show that it’s the correct, only, or best explanation.

If you think that’s something I said, take another look–I only sketched the monist versus dualist positions and claimed a negative: that evidence does not allow the monist to make definitive claims (edited to add: the dualist can’t either :smile:). Again, brains are necessary for consciousness, but we don’t have enough evidence to say that they’re sufficient to produce it (though they might be!)

Back to the quotation a final time:

“how its seemingly magical qualities arise from the physical matter of the brain.”

That is

“how its … qualities arise from the physical matter of the brain.”

Which posits, to me anyway,

'its … qualities arise from the physical matter of the brain."

I disagree. I think the available information is sufficient to call this the best explanation. I think we probably have different epistemologies, though.

Like I said, “warrants serious consideration” and “possible introduction of…”

If we can’t conclude that the physicalist claim is definitive, then I think that’s saying it is possible that a non-physicalist explanation is right.

But to me, that sounds just like God or fairies or any other explanation that people have cooked up to try to not be in the dark about things.

  1. We’ve done some work linking brains to thought.
  2. Maybe brains aren’t sufficient for thought and instead there are parallel universes of mind and matter.
  3. Maybe brains aren’t sufficient for thought and instead magical fairies make thoughts.

(1) is a fact. I don’t see any more validity to (2) than to (3). Is there any reason other than “That’s how it seems to me” to think (2) at all?

And to be fair, I don’t think the brain is sufficient for thought. Go grab a random brain and put it in a vacuum. It won’t be thinking anything.

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Yes, but then you’ll have a vacuum-packed brain, great for breaking the ice at parties.

Nonsense. Can you produce ANY source supporting the claim that ancient people thought lightning was “non-physical”? Some ancient people thought consciousness (or the “soul”) was non-physical, but I’m not aware of ANY ancient people who thought thunder (or the sun going around the earth) were non-physical in nature. You’re trying to prop up a weak analogy with falsehoods.

First of all, “all the other things” eg thunder, the sun going around the earth, and so forth, are objects of human knowledge, things that can be known, or known about. Consciousness, on the other hand, is the medium through which anything can be known in the first place. This is a massive difference, the difference between a single word, and the whole structure of language which allows for the generation of words in the first place. Consciousness is different because it precedes everything else; everything that we are, everything we can ever know or articulate, is filtered through consciousness; it differs explicitly from thunder and planetary motions because we observe such things from the outside, but we cannot view consciousness from outside itself, any more than we can the universe. This is a huge difference which has been recognized by philosophers for aeons. And its only for starters.

That’s rich, man! You mischaracterized what we said by saying that we said things which we plainly, blatantly DID NOT SAY (and if we did say them, or anything remotely like them, do us a curtsey with a cut and paste!). We’re having this conversation because I queried your bald assertion that consciousness is something the brain does, and anybody thinking over-wise is totally wrong.

They are similar, are they not, in that both are equally impossible to empirically confirm or falsify at present, so that to emphatically reject the former and tacitly accept the possibility of the latter reflects philosophical prejudice rather than any kind of empirical rigor on your part?

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We tend to use technology and science to defend, defeat, and conquer.

I think some “magical thinking” can go a great way to helping people but as we’ve seen it cannot defeat a technologically superior foe. I think this is a reason we see it as weakness and tend to fear it.

That’s a neat perspective, and it does make me think. But I think it carries with it an attitude of “scientific triumphalism”, the idea that everything can be known and will eventually be discovered or explained through scientific inquiry.

Certainly, you can point to a relentless track record of ever more discovery and understanding resulting from application of the scientific method. And as you say, all kinds of things which seemed utterly mysterious are now understood to be patently obvious.

It’s tempting to generalize that into a rule that anything which seems mysterious now will be patently obvious to people at some point in the future. But just because many mysteries have fallen to the lens of science in the past does not mean that every mystery inevitably will. Over time, experience has given us a clearer indication as to which mysteries we can likely use science to figure out and which we just can’t.

To determine whether something can be investigated scientifically, ask “are there objective phenomena which can be measured?”. Unlike basically everything else, consciousness produces no objective phenomena. There is no way to measure, record, or observe direct experience by definition. So how to science that? Can’t. Can’t rationalize it either, which I think is the most frustrating part.

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Many ancient religions have gods of lightning, sometimes that god was also the supreme god or the god of heaven. So even if the lightning itself was physical (and I question what sense of “physical” they may have considered it physical in, but as you say, I don’t have evidence), its source was gods who presided over the spirit world and therefore themselves were non-physical (or at least capable of being non-physical or who could be said to be non-physical even as they could also be said to be physical). Maybe you would agree that many ancient people believed that lightning had magical or spiritual origins? If you would, is that such an important distinction that it was worth having this argument about?

Say, “I do not think that the idea that consciousness has seemingly magical properties warrants serious consideration.” If you say that, that is, if you directly deny the thing I inferred then I’ll admit I was wrong. I believed what I said was your position and did not mean to mischaracterize you.

Now I’m going to accuse you of begging the question. What do you have other than a bold assertion to say that all knowledge is mediated through consciousness?

Infants appear to recognize their mothers by smell and recognize the sound their parents voices from hearing them in the womb, but it is well recognized that they have no awareness of their own state or emotions. Whether a newborn is conscious is an open question, but they do seem to be able to know things. There is a kind of brain disorder that causes people to be unable to consciously see while their visual sense still work (blindsight). These people can sometimes “guess” with above average accuracy about the presence of objects despite having no conscious ability to see. Do they know anything about those objects?

Your extremely uncharitable readings of what I’ve written and your demands of extreme evidence and precision are exhausting. Yes, I am willing to say that I firmly believe that thoughts are physical things (the reason I’ve been denying your assertion that I said that the brain was the source of thought is that I don’t agree with that, but I usually accept it for the sake of argument in discussions about brain science). I’m not willing to continue defending that idea unless you are willing to take a stand and say they are not, or at least (as @hotel did) that there is not sufficient evidence at this time to make the determination either way (or whatever it is you believe - I wouldn’t want to mischaracterize you).

I can see why it sounds like that, but that’s not really what I’m saying. I’m saying that even if we are never capable of knowing something, that doesn’t justify positing a supernatural explanation for it. It could be that there are things in the universe that we can’t know (actually, we already know there are things we can’t know). But that’s not magical, that’s just a limit of our knowledge.

I’d point again to the brain-to-brain communication and our ability to reproduce (badly) what someone is seeing through brain scans. Suppose we could hone the visual recreation to the point that we could record a movie of one of your dreams and play it back for other people, and you could watch the movie yourself and say, “Yes, that is what I saw.” Would you still say consciousness has no objective phenomena? If thought is physical than consciousness is an objective phenomenon (and subjective, since subjective is precisely that kind of arrangement of the objective).

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I too can’t imagine how consciousness including qualia could possibly arise from any interactions among nonconscious matter. But I doubt there is nonconscious matter.

I don’t know if anyone will ever be able to test it, but I suspect there is some consciousness in everything, usually on its own, but in some systems making a greater consciousness possible, perhaps one that gives a survival advantage to any living cell, and again in other systems making another greater consciousness possible, one that gives a survival advantage to a living creature, especially if developed from awareness of one’s surroundings to also include awareness of one’s self and other selves [at which point, I think we need to take an ethical responsibility]. I think this is called panpsychism?

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Professor Nicholas Humphrey is an evolutionary psychologist. At the start of the video, he says this: “Take away the magic of sensations, the magic we create, and we’d be smaller creatures living in a duller world” (All the while showing images of insects.) I would argue that’s merely an anthropocentric claim on his part. Even insects have been shown to be “conscious” - just not human.

I mention this because he asks later in the video what the evolutionary advantage of consciousness might be, as though only higher animals possess conscious thought. Here’s the problem - “life” seems to be conscious on more levels than expected. One example would be acacia trees that have been recorded as increasing their ethylene gas production in response to elephants eating the trees - in turn, the trees then increase tannin production making their leaves toxic. In other words, the trees both sense and communicate.

Humphrey attaches spirituality to consciousness, but overlooks the obvious evolutionary benefits - mobility and ability to respond as an independent organism. I agree that we are rewarded for taking certain actions, but why is there a need to attach spirituality to those sensations? Aren’t they astounding enough in themselves?

We should celebrate consciousness, it is a wonder, but we shouldn’t treat it as magic.