Just read Joshua Rothman's New Yorker profile of philosopher Daniel Dennett, his lifelong pursuit of a materialist, non-religious, un-mystical theory of consciousness. Dennett steps out as a brilliant, original thinker, with an impressive science background (biology, mostly). And as an admirably enterprising DIY jack-of-all-trades.
I'm neither scientist nor philosopher. But I have, like many another, puzzled over the question of "mind", this ancient (back to Epicurus, at least) divide between idealism and materialism.
Just a few off-the-cuff reactions to Rothman's Dennett. He strikes me as a curious, searching person, whose stance toward nature is essentially that of an engineer. He's interested in the mechanics of process - how things are done. This is obviously necessary for science, an attentive approach which leads to discovery. But it seems ironic that Dennett's view of consciousness - as a continuum, shared with other animals and living things - is not that different from the classic "chain of being" perspective of Aquinas (for one example). That other animals exhibit a "sort of" consciousness (Dennett's term) - an evolutionary preview of the human mind - parallels the chain-of-being picture, only without the traditional hierarchical fence between "Man" & the rest. For Dennett it's a flow. & it seems he has focused passionately on explaining (theoretically) the how of it : how our sense of consciousness could arise from purely physical, evolutionary developments.
This is, I would say, the blind spot in Dennett's vision. There are limits to the mechanical, analytical dissection of reality offered by biology. Whatever conclusions he can draw from such analysis only serve to justify his prior conviction of the non-existence of an over-arching God, Spirit, or Mind - something which cannot be "proved" by such analysis anyway.
It seems to me that aesthetics & poetry, as well perhaps as some branches of philosophy, can offer a more valid perspective - because they are rooted in a sense of holism, a synthetic sense.
The poet and the artist register the fabric of the dream. The theologian (or philosopher of God) articulates the analogical/anagogical synthesis. Materialist attempts to disprove the reality of Mind or Spirit lack the tools to achieve it, first of all - and, secondly, are probably asking the wrong question.
The question, maybe, is not how, but why. Why does this immense spectacle of the universe exist at all? "We are such things as dreams are made on..." - but why?
I've always found the theological answer the most satisfactory. Why the wonder of the cosmos? The truest answer : it's a gift. Why human consciousness? The truest answer is a kind of geometric/analogical one : human consciousness, which governs (imperfectly) life on our planet, demonstrates an analogy - a sort of geometric parallel - with the divine Mind that governs (ineffably) Reality as a whole. And history is basically a spectacular drama, unfolding the destiny of that governing mind or spirit, working through humanity toward some kind (or kinds) of definitive expression - call it "Providence".