The Riddle of Consciousness

Evolutionary Biologist and Science Educator
Evolutionary biologists have learned the basis of a variety of human activities, yet when it comes to understanding human consciousness, the field is as helpless as any other.
  • Transcript


QuestionWhy can’t we understand the basis of consciousness?

Richard Dawkins: Well, both what it is -- it clearly has something to do with brains, and it's something that emerges from brains. When brains get sufficiently big, presumably, as human brains have, consciousness seems to emerge. As to what it is, that's a philosophically very difficult question, which biologists are no more equipped to deal with than anybody else. 

QuestionIs there a certain brain capacity necessary for the development of consciousness?

Richard Dawkins: Oh, nobody knows, because we don't know which animals are conscious. We don't actually, technically, even know that any other human being is conscious. We just each of us know that we ourselves are conscious. We infer on pretty good grounds that other people are conscious, and it's the same sort of grounds that lead us to infer that probably chimpanzees are conscious and probably dogs are conscious. But when we come to something like earthworms and snails, it's anybody's guess.

Question: How can science have a unique insight into cognizance?

Richard Dawkins: Well, that's a very difficult question since we can't actually measure whether creatures are conscious. So I guess science has as much insight as any other subject, but I don't think I can answer that question directly. Maybe computer science has as much insight into it as any other science. 

Recorded on: October 21, 2009