I treasure Sam Harris is a great many ways. However, he recently posted a two part essay on consciousness which demonstrate complete confusion about the subject (link1, link2). I think that we should start with the obvious point that some objects are complex biological machines which are conscious. Humans are the preeminent examples and they can more richly demonstrate their consciousness by verbal reports on the content and nature of what they are conscious of. There are an increasingly well understood array of cognitive function which support that activity.
What does Sam Harris do in response to the fact of human consciousness? He basically assumes that something magical happens that cannot be explained. He has many statements such as the following:
“How is it that unconscious events can give rise to consciousness? Not only do we have no idea, but it seems impossible to imagine what sort of idea could fit in the space provided. Therefore, although science may ultimately show us how to truly maximize human well-being, it may still fail to dispel the fundamental mystery of our mental life.”
It not difficult in the slightest for me to imagine that science will explain this phenomenon. Our universe is profoundly and completely natural with no supernatural elements. Our instrumentation is increasingly sophisticated in deriving data about how the brain works and where various types of emotion and cognition occur. The entirety of our subjective experience is created by these various brain functions combined with the sensory and support mechanisms for the brain supplied by the rest of our bodies. I an not only certain that this is true; I am certain that when we eventually build systems that adequately emulate the entire array of these functions we will have a system that is aware and will be able to demonstrate that subjective awareness as well as any person. If it is built on a computer system (as is most likely) we might have a feeling of incredulity in response to our relationship to the invented system. However, it should be an undeniable fact when it is achieved.
The fact is that nothing is ever proved by incredulity. Sam Harris, simply repeats one layer of incredulity after another with the expectation that we will accept his assertion that there is something that cannot be explained. For example: “Consciousness—the sheer fact that this universe is illuminated by sentience—is precisely what unconsciousness is not. And I believe that no description of unconscious complexity will fully account for it. It seems to me that just as “something” and “nothing,” however juxtaposed, can do no explanatory work, an analysis of purely physical processes will never yield a picture of consciousness.”
What should we do in the face of such claims. I think it is appropriate to approach these claims with the scorn we express for all unsupported religious claims. That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence. That was a standard line used by Christopher Hitchens and it fully applies here. There simply is no reason to assume that subjective experience is anything other than the well integrated collection of more primitive functions in the system that experiences.
There is the obvious fact that no description of any object, such as a brick, would ever be equal to the brick itself. Reality is different from any of our maps of that reality. This is not rocket science. However somehow very bright people can trip over this very obvious and simple distinction when it comes to consciousness.