I just got my copy of The Shadow of Consciousness: A Little Less Wrong by Peter Hankins, the consciousness behind the very fine long-running blog Conscious Entities. Here, to tempt you to order the book, is the Prologue:
In the latter part of the twentieth century there was a remarkable quest into one of the last areas of darkness on the intellectual map. The problem of explaining what consciousness is and how it works had in the past been considered such difficult territory, a landscape so strewn with pitfalls and so rich in scope for embarrassment and failure that prudent researchers didn’t go there; it became a kind of Forbidden Realm. Now, though, there was optimism in the air and one after another new expeditions were being equipped.
The venture was not co-ordinated; it was more as if, one after another, a stream of aspiring heroes rode out to take on the dragon and bring back the prizes single-handed. Several different strategies were advocated and champions of all kinds came to try them, from grizzled veteran knights with Nobel prizes already slung from the pommels of their saddles, to optimistic young wizards with what they hoped were magic formulae. There were two prizes that could be won on this quest; an Easy One and a Hard One, and there was no agreement about which to take first, or even that both prizes were real. Some said they were real enough, but only to be found in a land of mystery barred to humankind.
The quest turned out to be more difficult than the optimists had expected. In different ways and different places the venturers ran into inexplicable barriers in the darkness, or found themselves bogged down in what seemed to be invisible swamps. Those who pursued the grail of the Hard Quest often contented themselves with merely bringing back evidence that the beast was truly out there; but sometimes they fought a battle and came back with trophies that seemed to others, on examination, to be the heads of deer or rabbits rather than that of a fearful monster. Some heroes in this position insisted that the monster of the quest had always, in fact, been a rabbit—what else could it have been? Some disdained that quest altogether; what dragon, they demanded?
There are still bold folk riding out to try their prowess now and then; but the first impulse and the early optimism has died down. Thoughtful commentators generally do not expect the great quest of consciousness to be achieved very soon.
We have learned a few things, though. I think we can see that many of the attempts on the prize to date, and indeed some investigations that were pursuing other quests, were running into essentially the same invisible problems in different forms and different places. Four things about the world have proved especially troublesome: inexhaustibility, irrelevance, haecceity, and (by no means least) reality.
By plotting the places in which the explorers were stopped by something dark and ungraspable and adding the result to the fragments of trustworthy description brought back by scarred and battered explorers we can get a grip on these problems and, as it were, sketch the outline of the mighty but elusive beast from the shadow it casts.
That is what I mean to attempt in what follows—and in so doing learn, I hope, how to be a little less wrong.