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By 2023, will there be evidence for a neurological correlate of human consciousness?


What is consciousness? I once asked my boss, a neuroscientist who tolerated my philosophical predilections, what he thought about the nature of consciousness. He chuckled and said “it doesn’t exist”. Instead of trying to be cute and retort about self-defeating claims I asked what he meant. He went on to detail how consciousness has been glorified, placed upon a pedestal, and that it simply cannot be everything that people say it is.

I still don’t know what consciousness is. Nor do my colleagues in philosophy. You might think that we can simply say that consciousness arises from the sophisticated physical organization of human brains. This leads to the Hard Problem of Consciousness, a phrase which philosopher David Chalmers coined back in the 1990’s. Think about the most beautiful moment sunset that you have ever seen. Now explain that experience in terms of neurons firing. It seems to many that physicalism (roughly, the idea that the mind is just the brain) is poorly equipped to explain the subjective quality of our experience.

Fear not, we aren’t going to get lost in philosophical ruminations. We are going to predate upon a bet made in 1998 between neuroscientist Christof Koch and philosopher David Chalmers. One night after a conference Koch bet Chalmers “a case of fine wine that within the next 25 years someone would discover a specific signature of consciousness in the brain.” (pg. 26). The idea is that Koch and his team will find a neural correlate of consciousness (NCC) “a minimal physical signature in the brain sufficient for a specific subjective experience” (ibid). That is, Koch’s team hopes to discover a small set of neurons with intrinsic properties. “Intrinsic properties could be, say, a neuron’s pattern of electrical firing, or genes regulating the production of various neurotransmitters.“ (ibid). According to the conditions of the bet, Koch has until June 20, 2023 to do so.

Resolution: The resolution is going to piggyback upon the bet between Chalmers and Koch. The question resolves as affirmative if Chalmers pays Koch, negative if Koch pays Chalmers, and ambiguous if neither concedes by end of 2023.

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