The science of consciousness has not lived up to expectations.

Over the summer, the neuroscientist Christof Koch conceded defeat on his 25-year bet with the philosopher David Chalmers, a lost wager that the science of consciousness would be all wrapped up by now. In September, over 100 consciousness researchers signed a public letter condemning one of the most popular theories of consciousness—the integrated information theory—as pseudoscience. This in turn prompted strong responses from other researchers in the field. Despite decades of research, there’s little sign of consensus on consciousness, with several rival theories still in contention.

Your consciousness is what it’s like to be you. It’s your experiences of color and sound and smell; your feelings of pain, joy, excitement or tiredness. It’s what makes you a thinking, sentient being rather than an unfeeling mechanism.

In my new book, entitled Why? The Purpose of the Universe, I take head-on the question of why it’s so hard to make progress on consciousness. The core difficulty is that consciousness defies observation. You can’t look inside someone’s brain and see their feelings and experiences. Science does deal with things that can’t be observed, such as fundamental particles, quantum wave functions, maybe even other universes. But consciousness poses an important difference: In all of these other cases, we theorize about things we can’t observe in order to explain what we can observe. Uniquely with consciousness, the thing we are trying to explain cannot be publicly observed.

How then can we investigate consciousness? Although consciousness can’t be directly observed, if you’re dealing with another human being, you can ask them what they’re feeling, or look for external indications of consciousness. And if you scan their brain at the same time, you can try to match up the brain activity, which you can observe, with the invisible consciousness, which you can’t. The trouble is there are inevitably multiple ways of interpreting such data. This leads to wildly different theories as to where consciousness resides in the brain. Believe it or not, the debates we are currently having in the science of consciousness closely resemble debates that were raging in the 19th century.

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