“I am the bridge between the bleeding edge and the dead center. I stand between the Wizard of Oz and the man behind the curtain. I am the curtain.”
In “Blindsight” by Peter Watts
What if: There is only one consciousness that we all share? (Universal Consciousness)
What if: People are caught in the illusion of separation? (Encouraged by the limitations of the five senses)
What if: Fear and insecurity give rise to the need to think of ourselves as the creators of our consciousness? (Perhaps we tune into consciousness like a radio tunes into a station).
Most scientists explicitly abandoned Cartesian Dualism centuries ago. But as John Searle pointed out 25 years ago, most of them still implicitly accept a Cartesian distinction and are hung up on trying reconcile two things are not two. So materialists tend to separate the world into two kinds of phenomena and assign one of them to reality and the other to illusion. When we eliminate the ontological difference that is implied in this account, things become a lot clearer. Similarly for forms of idealism. Consciousness is subjective in exactly the same way that digestion is. The nutrients in the food we eat are only available to us because the processes that extract them are internal to our bodies. Similarly the brain is internal to us and thus its processes are only directly accessible to us.
The confusion about consciousness arises from two sources. The crypto- that still prevails and see mental and physical phenomena as ontologically different when in fact they are only epistemologically different. The problem of materialism is that it ignores the reality of structure. Clearly, the universe is made of one kind of stuff, but that stuff is made into a load of different things with many layers of complexity, with each layer displaying emergent properties. The only way to deal with this is to accept structure anti-reductionism alongside substance reductionism. In other words, structure is real.
The second source is the insistence on dealing with conscious states in the abstract form "consciousness". Of course we are still arguing about the features of this abstraction. We have the same problem with all abstractions. Digestion becomes incomprehensible if we treat it as an abstraction as well. Conscious states are defined by David Chalmers as easy problems. His Hard Problem simply doesn't exist because it’s based on an abstraction mistaken for an entity. There is no "consciousness" there is only a sequence of conscious states. And these are wholly generated by the brain - whose substance can be reduced, but whose structure cannot.
Searle also showed how we can have epistemically objective knowledge of ontologically subjective domains. The value of money is entirely subjective, for example, but objectively to anyone versed in European money, a 5€ counts as money of a certain value. This is an epistemically objective fact that has no basis in reality, only in the collective intentionality of people who use European money. Conscious states are ontologically subjective, but this does not preclude us from having epistemically objective knowledge about them.
These are problems for which there have been solutions available for a generation. The solutions are by no means simple, I'm just referencing the main ideas here, and the resulting philosophy although largely settled is far more open to possibility, changed, and the unexpected that any form of scientific materialism. The trouble is that philosophers are more interested in arguments than in solutions. If they solve problems then they are out of a job, so they continue to generate arguments. Douglas Adams summed this up very nicely when he lampooned them in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
The conceptual impasse of Watts really only arises because he refuses to abandon Descartes. That's the first step to a better worldview. “Blindsight” was, for me, equal parts brilliance and frustration. Watts obviously spent a huge amount of time with his investigation, and brings these details together relatively seamlessly SF-wise (which is no mean feat with so much crap being published in the SF area nowadays), but the overarching theme (consciousness is, evolutionarily speaking, epiphenomenal) left me puzzled. The tone of Watts' novel is resonant with a certain philosophical emptiness and the accuracy of his scientific extrapolation is stunning; unfortunately, the central hypotheses of the book strained my credulity. In this sense, my beef may be more with the premise than the book itself, which is no fault of Watts. A requisite for consciousness is a matrix, or form, or pattern, upon which consciousness can build. Curiously that necessary seems quite arbitrary, and is usually wrong. It is a genetically inherited assumption about the nature of reality. But once encumbered with that genetically-installed assumption, there is no pathway to an intellectual breakthrough.
To recap, an individual’s consciousness is simply one of the many Brain Operating Systems, based upon genetically-installed assumptions about the nature of reality. And is usually, and always wrong. The free book on the internet explaining it all runs to nearly a million words. It is tough going for those not familiar with the problems, and involves learning new concepts. The problem of consciousness is mostly down to a semantic error in the use of the word 'conscious'. If someone is hit over the head and is knocked out they may on recovering announce that they are now 'conscious'. It is clear that that's an empirical statement with a clear biological meaning. Descartes introduced an error in separating mind from body and gave rise to use of the word 'conscious' in a completely different (and I would argue meaningless) sense. So we have discussions about whether advances in AI will produce consciousness - utter nonsense of course, you might as well be arguing about whether a robot can have a pulse. The word conscious in this sense doesn't have a meaning.
Bottom-line: “Blindsight” is a work of Hard SF of the highest caliber worthy of the capital H (even with its flaws). Those who lament the lack of hard sf being published (especially deep, broad, quality, hard SF) in the last few years will find sweet relief here.
SF = Speculative Fiction.