Steven Pinker offers a solid overview of the current thinking around consciousness, both from a philosophical and neurological viewpoint. The gap between those two viewpoints has been closing for some time now, and it’s good to see that “idle” speculation has again pointed in a useful direction. Of course, this doesn’t redeem philosophy (in the completely armchair sense) in that critics could always – and probably correctly – assert that for every one good idea, we’ve wasted thousands of person-hours on very bad ones. Which, I suppose, is why at least one of my colleagues will no longer have anything to do with philosophy that’s unconnected with actually poking a stick at something, to see how it responds.

Towards the end of the piece, Pinker mentions a typically perceptive thought from Colin McGinn: even if all the evidence is in, and we begin to understand how simple (in one sense, because it’s clearly not simple at all) we are, we’d probably not be able to believe it, or live with that belief. There may well be a drug that can fix you, and me, whatever our afflictions are, but would we want to take them? Or is this the wrong question, because if we do take them, would we not be glad we had?

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.