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To this day many people believe that consciousness is something special.  It doesn’t fit within the natural world.  It’s mysterious to us, therefore it must have a mysterious source.  It seems that everything is magical to ignorant people.

Our forebears believed that an elan vital, a vital force, distinguished living things from nonliving things.  It infused the corporeal body and animated it.  Then we uncovered the biochemistry that produces life: metabolism, muscle fibers, actin and myosin, ATP, and so on.  The explanation turned out to be completely naturalistic.  The vital force had to die.

There are groups of people in the South Pacific who practice what’s called a cargo cult.  When Americans arrived in the Pacific theater during World War II, they built landing strips and flew in planes with cargo.  The natives were very much impressed with the wonderful goods that the magical steel birds were bringing.  They concluded that their ancestors were sending the planes (the natives practice ancestor worship, a form of religion that predates the three “great” monotheisms).  They started building their own landing strips and effigies of planes made from bamboo.  They performed rituals, and waited, and waited, and waited.  To this day they are waiting for the cargo to come.

Of course, the cargo will never arrive, because the natives are ignorant of the civilization and technology necessary to make airplanes that fly cargo.  There is a completely naturalistic explanation to cargo planes.

The history of knowledge has one ineluctible pattern: every explanation that we have uncovered has been a naturalistic one.  Why do people expect consciousness to be any different?  It’s a difficult problem, but we are making headway.  With better brain scanning technology and data mining / pattern recognition algorithms, we will unravel the problem of consciousness, and it will no longer be mysterious.

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