Can Fish Climb Trees?

An Introduction To Mysterianism

Mysterianism and consciousness are vast topics to cover in a small article such as mine. At a fundamental level, Artificial Intelligence (AI) seeks to understand human consciousness. However, there is a school of philosophical thought called ‘mysterianism’ which postulates that humans can never truly understand consciousness. Ever. This article looks at mysterianism, its main proponents and ends with a question-what is the future of AI if we cannot understand consciousness?

A Rather Confusing Concept

In simple terms, consciousness is similar to awareness and yet it is absolutely confounding. The concept of consciousness is multi-faceted and therefore it becomes a matter of different perspectives. A scientist may have a different definition from a philosopher. In that sense, it is like different blind men touching different parts of an elephant and having their own opinion on what it is. Consciousness is a giant elephant in the room as far as Artificial Intelligence (AI) is concerned. On a very spiritual note, it aims to answer a fundamental question : can humans imbue artificial life to robots? Collectively, we are very far from definitively understanding consciousness but we know that it requires an approach beyond science. When physicists moved from classical to quantum physics, it opened a whole new quantitative doorway. As per wikipedia, consciousness may have a determinative role in quantum mechanics. Since consciousness is the primary aspect of an observer, and observation is viewed as a primary reason for wave function collapse,consciousness may account for aspects of the measurement problem exemplified by the Schrödinger’s cat paradox. This area has been an area of lively debate for decades, with recent efforts to substitute randomly caused decoherence as the source of wave function collapse. Max Tegmark and John Archibald Wheeler provided a useful survey of some of the issues. However, consciousness is both a quantitative and qualitative concept. Therefore, it may require a shift from thinking in terms of quanta to thinking in terms of qualia.

From Quanta To Qualia

Robert Fludd

Qua·li·a (pronounced as kwälēə/) refers to the internal and subjective component of sense perceptions, arising from stimulation of the senses by phenomena. As per Wikipedia: In philosophy and certain models of psychology, qualia (/ˈkwɑːliə/ or /ˈkweɪliə/; singular form: quale) are defined to be individual instances of subjective, conscious experience. The term qualia derives from the Latin neuter plural form (qualia) of the Latin adjective quālis(Latin pronunciation: [ˈkʷaːlɪs]) meaning “of what sort” or “of what kind” in a specific instance like “what it is like to taste a specific apple, this particular apple now”.

One of the hotly debated topics that lies at the intersection of science and philosophy is the term ‘Qualia’ (singular: Quale) which refers to subjective experiences that differ from individual to individual and stimuli to stimuli. One persons definition of hotness of a chili is very different from someone else’s. For instance, people used to eating bland food typically find it hard to adjust to spices and vice versa. Another example of a quale is the fact that your experience staring at the sun (stimuli) is completely different from staring at a television (another stimuli).

Do We Understand Consciousness?

Plato and Aristotle started a detailed discourse on the workings of consciousness and perception.

By Dustin Dewynne — Own work, CC0,

In 1630s, the word consciousness was etymologically defined as “internal knowledge,” from conscious + -ness. Meaning “state of being aware of what passes in one’s own mind” is from 1670s; meaning “state of being aware” of anything is from 1746. Consciousness-raising is attested from 1968. A related word was conscientia, which primarily means moral conscience. In the literal sense, “conscientia” means knowledge-with, that is, shared knowledge. The word first appears in Latin juridical texts by writers such as Cicero.

Cartesianism is one of the oldest schools of thought exploring human consciousness. It is named after Rene Descartes, the French philosopher, mathematician and scientist. It is also known as Dualism /“mind-body” /”mind-matter” approach to looking at consciousness. Descartes separated the mind from the brain by stating that the brain was the seat of intelligence.

Rene Descartes With The Swedish Queen (wikimedia commons)

René Descartes (1596–1650) is generally taken to be the first philosopher to use conscientia in a way that does not fit this traditional meaning.

The British philosopher John Locke was one of the first modern humans to try to define consciousness in his book ‘ An Essay Concerning Human Understanding’ which was published in 1690. He defined consciousness as “the perception of what passes in a man’s own


Bicameral Mind was a very controversial concept proposed by psychologist Julian Jaynes. According to Julian, pre-historic humans (3000 years ago) could not think and were therefore not conscious because of the dominance of the right hemisphere. According to Julian, the left side of the brain would hear “instructions / voices from god” and the right would follow them creating a bicameral mind which collapsed into a single mind imbued with consciousness over our evolutionary cycle.

Then there is the zombie argument. An argument that is based on a thought experiment proposed by David Chalmers. The basic idea is that one can imagine, and, therefore, conceive the existence of, an apparently functioning human being/body without any conscious states being associated with it (source: wikipedia)

Overall, there have been many theories on consciousness throughout the ages with the same inescapable conclusion — an inability to put a finger on what it is. Eastern religions such as Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism consider all non-human matter to be endowed with ‘sentience’. Sentience is the capacity to feel perceive and experience emotions. In western philosophy, sentience is the ability to experience ‘qualia’ (sensations). The short answer is ‘no, we don’t understand either qualia or consciousness’ . There isn’t a uniform clarity of thought on what constitutes Qualia and by extension consciousness.

National Institute of Health

Jiddu Krishnamurti, an eminent Indian philosopher distinguishes between two layers of consciousness. The outward self and the subconscious. This duality arises because we are different people at work and at home. There is a facade that we put on in our everyday lives but our subconscious houses our darkest secrets. Taken to it’s logical conclusion, Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams says that our dreams are nothing but a manifestation of our subconscious.

On the other hand, people like Daniel Dennett believe in a different approach. As per wikipedia, Functionalism is a view in the theory of the mind. It states that mental states (beliefs, desires, being in pain, etc.) are constituted solely by their functional role — that is, they have causal relations to other mental states, numerous sensory inputs, and behavioral outputs. Functionalism developed largely as an alternative to the identity theory of mind and behaviorism.

The question therefore arises: can computers imbued with AI dream?


Owen Flanagan, Professor of Neurobiology and Professor of Philosophy at Duke University in his book Science of the Mind coined the term ‘new mysterians’ after the rock group Question Mark and the Mysterians. He referred to mysterians as a class of people who believed that consciousness can never be understood by humans. Mysterianism regards consciousness as an unsolvable problem. The old approach stated that non-material things such as soul cannot be explained. The New Mysterians such as Colin McGinn think that consciousness is unsolvable because it is beyond human cognition/our capabilities.

New mysterianism — or commonly just mysterianism — is a philosophical position proposing that the hard problem of consciousness cannot be resolved by humans. The unresolvable problem is how to explain the existence of qualia (individual instances of subjective, conscious experience).

Noam Chomsky distinguishes between problems, which seem solvable, at least in principle, through scientific methods, and mysteries, which do not seem solvable, even in principle. He notes that the cognitive capabilities of all organisms are limited by biology, e.g. a mouse will never speak like a human. In the same way, certain problems may be beyond our understanding. (source: wikipedia)

As per, John Horgan, whose new book The Undiscovered Mind offers a view of brain science that might best be described as ‘mysterianism lite’. It is not just consciousness that is beyond our grasp, he says; neuroscience as a whole is failing, because the brain is too complicated for human understanding.

The Next AI Winter

An Artificial Intelligence (AI) winter is a period of disillusionment with AI marked by pessimism in the venture investing community, the media and an overall consensus among leading AI innovators that AI has hit a brick wall. There were two AI winters : in 1974–1980 and 1987–1993. By 2010, interest in AI witnessed a resurgence and Venture Capital (VC) investment in AI hit a decade high in 2017.

Source: Statista

One of the fundamental problems with the AI thought leaders such as Geoffrey Hinton, Andrew Ng, Yan LeCunn and Yoshua Bengio is to come up with different deep learning frameworks that mimic the human brain. Logically speaking, if the research community hits a wall-it would mean a waning interest in AI, less media coverage and the next AI winter.

The limited point I am making is this: there are 2 possible causes for the next AI winter i.e. a failure to recreate neural activity within the human brain (which is a more quantitative and scientific roadblock) and/or a failure to recreate consciousness (which alludes to qualia and is a darker black box).

The economic impact of understanding consciousness is like the concept itself. Absolutely mind blowing. Talk about the biggest arms race the world has ever witnessed. That is precisely why mysterians think it is impossible to understand.

Is It A Comma or A Full Stop?

When parents look lovingly at their children, they see the infinite possibilities that life offers their children. They also hope that the world that they have bequeathed is a beautiful paradise. Therefore, the quest to understand our world becomes a giant relay race where one generation of humans passes on the baton to the next to keep learning more. Ironically, the relay race is fun only when there is more to discover. In other words, our inadequacy to find solutions creates a purpose for our lives. That is the ultimate paradox.

If that is the case, I wonder what happens when we acquire all the knowledge of the world. I don’t even know if such a possibility exists considering that 99.99% of 1 trillion microbial specie are yet to be discovered. Neils Bohr, once said:

One could say the same thing about consciousness. If we can understand consciousness without going crazy, there is something wrong with us.Einstein commented that if we judge a fish by its ability to climb trees, it will grow up thinking it is stupid. Today, if we judge Homo Sapiens by their ability to understand consciousness, we might end up with a similar outcome. Then again, how much do we know about our future?

Writer @ The Intersection of Finance, Tech & Humanity. Stories of a Global Language: “Money”. Contributor @ Startup Grind, HackerNoon, HBR. Twitter@akothari_mba

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