A) A Riddle wrapped in a Mystery inside an Enigma
In 2013, Barack Obama said:
“As humans, we can identify galaxies light years away, we can study particles smaller than an atom. But we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears.”
This is not an idle question. It’s hard to think of something that would better count as a fact, and more deserving of explanation, than I am conscious. This was shown by Descartes as cogito ergo sum. Or as si fallor sum. Or as das ‘ich denke’ muss alle meine Vortsellungen begleiten koennen if you’re a verbose German. In modern parlance, it can be stated as:
“We know consciousness far more intimately than we know the rest of the world, but we understand the rest of the world far better than we understand consciousness.” – David Chalmers
So how do we resolve this?
One approach is to call for “science!” and hope for something amazing to happen. There are worse ideas one could have. Consider that with science, things that were formerly numinous are now understood less opaquely after being put in scientific terms. For example, we don’t talk about phlogiston anymore, we discuss chemical reactions. As a result, science has become a default standard technique to use for complicated analyses due to the efficiency with which it has been demystifying concepts. So surely the scientists must be able to handle such a problem as consciousness.
Not exactly. As science advanced and explained more of the universe at large, and found more particles at the fundamental level, its best adherents found it lacking when trying to explain consciousness:
“The world of science has become so horribly objective as to leave no room for the mind.” – Erwin Schrödinger
There’s a good structural reason for this. The scientific revolution arguably originated with the works of Newton, and those works don’t handle an analysis of consciousness very well. Put succinctly:
“The Cartesians offered a fairly definite conception of body in terms of their contact mechanics which, in many respects, reflects commonsense understanding…However, the Cartesian concept of body was refuted by 17th century physics, particularly in the work of Isaac Newton, which laid the foundations for modern science. Newton demonstrated that the motions of the heavenly bodies could not be explained by the principles of Descartes’ contact mechanics, so the Cartesian concept of body must be abandoned.” – Noam Chomsky
In other words:
“The possibility of affecting objects without touching them just exploded physicalism and materialism. It has been common in recent years to ridicule Descartes’s “ghost in the machine” in postulating mind as distinct from body. Well, Newton came along and he did not exorcise the ghost in the machine – he exorcised the machine and left the ghost intact. So now the ghost is left and the machine isn’t there.” – Noam Chomsky
So before we even get started, the current scientific milieu, established by Newton, puts things decidedly against Newton.
Descartes 1, Newton 0.
Nevertheless, science has a good history of successes. So for the sake of argument, let us give the benefit of the doubt to the scientific method. If we use the method, what do we find? And how coherent is it?
B) Reductionism goes fishing
So what can science do for us in this matter? The typical scientific method involves isolating items and then reducing them into smaller and smaller parts for analysis, ie. reductionism. Like Napoleon, scientists use divide and conquer as their main stratagem.
If we break apart a brain and subsequently analyze it piece by piece, what can we hope to achieve? Quite a lot actually, if previous attempts set the trend. Many phenomena can be explained by simple formulations of sensory input and motor output being dependent on neurons. In this way, we can accommodate a role for neurocorrelates in behavior the same way we afford a role for chemical signaling in cause-effect relations with other bodily organs.
But Napoleon had a Waterloo. Similarly, current neuroscience may not reveal as much as you’d hope. For instance, look at this experiment’s description on brain-to-brain communication:
“EEG is used to detect activity in one person’s brain, which then sends a message over the internet and then uses a TMS coil which generates a magnetic pulse that induces activity in the brain of another person.”
‘Sounds interesting’ you say. ‘Fund their research’ you say. But what for?:
“These devices are undeniably cool, but when you think about it, are they really that groundbreaking? If this is “brain-to-brain communication” then doesn’t speech also deserve that title? After all, in speech, the speaker’s brain activity is what drives their vocal cords to encode a message which is sent (via sound waves) to the receiver, and a specialized device (the ear) turns that message into brain activity…then up to the rest of the brain (i.e. the receiver) to make sense of that. When you think about it like that, the high-tech EEG/TMS set-up looks rather like a Rube Goldberg machine – an impressive and elaborate way of doing something that we already knew how to do in a much simpler way.”
Also, if there isn’t another brain to pick up signals, we might not know what the signals mean since we can’t refer to our own experiences:
“We have third person objective measures of fear. But if half the people who came into the lab tomorrow said they were feeling fear but showed none of these signs and they said they were completely calm when their cortisol spiked and their palms started to sweat, then these objective measures would no longer be reliable measures of fear.” – Sam Harris
Or in other scenarios, we already know the result. In which case, the scans are moot:
“Strange is the idea that a subjective experience must be shown to have a measurable physical correlate in the brain before we can agree that the subjective experience is real, even for matters that are plainly experiential… When a brain imaging study showed that the reward centers in the brain had increased blood flow after subjects in an experiment ate high-fat foods, the Boston Globe explained: “Fat really does bring pleasure.” They’re right, it does. But it’s a slightly strange world when a scan of blood flow in the brain is taken as vindication of a subjective mental state, and a way to validate our experience of the world.” – Ben Goldacre
So are we latching onto anything real? Are we finding correlations for their own sake? Are we reducing anything worthwhile? Bueller? Bueller?
If not, it sounds more like the findings are redundant at this point:
“If the mind happens in space at all, it happens somewhere north of the neck. What exactly turns on knowing how far north? To put the same point the other way around: what if, as it turns out, nobody ever does find a brain region that’s specific to thinking about teapots or to taking a nap? Would that seriously be a reason to doubt that there are such mental states? Or that they are mental states of different kinds? Or that the brain must be somehow essentially involved in both? As far as I can see, it’s reasonable to hold that brain studies are methodologically privileged with respect to other ways of finding out about the mind only if you are likewise prepared to hold that facts about the brain are metaphysically privileged with respect to facts about the mind; and you can hold that only if you think the brain and the mind are essentially different kinds of thing. Brain scientists are supposed to be materialists, and materialists are supposed not to doubt that distinct mental states have ipso facto got different neural counterparts. That being so, why does it matter where in the brain their different counterparts are?” – Jerry Fodor
Assuming you can avoid these pitfalls and separate the wheat from the chaff successfully, will this approach eventually “carve nature at the joints“? What happens when everything is reduced?
C) All that is Reductionism melts into Eliminativism
The above notwithstanding, some find “objective”, ie. non-natural, collected data to be more appealing than “subjective”, ie. natural, experiential data. For these cheerleaders of reductionism, what happens when we go all the way?
Reductionism claims that mental states can be reduced to a neurological state of the brain. But if the neurological predicates, ie. C-fibers firing, are identical to sensory predicates, eg. pain, then why not abandon the everyday vocabulary? After all, on this view, sensation predicates are inferential while the neurological predicates would be causal ie. have a deeper explanatory value. If my present mental state is only a pattern of electrical activity in a network of neurons, then mental terms are empty and redundant in explanatory value. So one should talk only about the electrochemical activity, ie. eliminativism.
The problem is that this borders on being logically vacuous, as evidenced in the following:
“If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically. And hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.” – J.B.S. Haldane
Then again, maybe logic is too Bougie. Maybe logic is just one more vocabulary that can be eliminated by science. Well, it turns out that eliminativism also undermines itself in practical, not just logical, ways:
“If a man should give me arguments that I do not see, though I could not answer them, should I believe that I do not see?” – Samuel Johnson
This reductio ad absurdum is called a performative contradiction and should strike you as peculiar, even if you can’t place your finger on it. Luckily, philosophers are there to do the syllogistic heavy lifting for us. Here is a commonsense argument:
“Numerous common-sense mental ascriptions, such as that Granny wants a beer and believes there is one under the sofa, are individually more plausible, and always will be more plausible, than are the purely philosophical premises of any argument designed to convince us to the contrary. As [G.E.] Moore saw, purely philosophical assumptions have very weak epistemic credentials and cannot by themselves outweigh simple common-sense facts.” – William Lycan
And there’s no reason to think that science should beat commonsense:
“The Eliminativist may protest that her/his case is not purely philosophical, but rests on scientific considerations… But this is to misunderstand the Moorean argument… Moore would not deny that arguments for Eliminativism contain premises that are endorsed, perhaps simply established, by science. The point is that each argument also contains at least one purely philosophical premise. Make no mistake: In order to reach the staggering conclusion that there has never been a belief, a desire, or any other propositional attitude, any argument for Eliminativism will have to rest on one or more a priori principles connecting scientific truths to negative ontology. And it is terminally unlikely that any such principle could be more credible for me than that Granny wants beer.” – William Lycan
In short, eliminativism is what Tacitus called “making a desert and calling it peace.”
On a related note, there is also a peculiar, and perhaps worrisome, flirtation with idealism that happens when one embraces eliminativism:
“It is disastrous when, instead of merely attending to a rose, we are forced to think of ourselves looking at the rose, with a certain type of mind and a certain type of eyes. It is disastrous because, if you are not very careful, the color of the rose gets attributed to our optic nerves and its scent to our noses, and in the end there is no rose left.” – C.S. Lewis
If you embrace science without any other philosophical considerations, ie. scientism, this can be as problematic as any other dogma:
“Scientism is actually a special form of idealism, for it puts one type of human understanding in charge of the universe and what can be said about it. At its most myopic it assumes that everything there is must be understandable by the employment of scientific theories like those we have developed to date.” – Thomas Nagel
This myopia means that even the most Pyrrhic attempts at victory made by eliminativists will go astray since they require a thinking subject at some point to process the data:
“You can’t refute the existence of consciousness by showing that it’s just an illusion because the illusion/reality distinction rests on the difference between how things consciously seem to us and how they really are. But where the very existence of consciousness is concerned, if it consciously seems to me that I’m conscious, then I am conscious. You can’t make the illusion/reality distinction for the very existence of consciousness the way you can for sunsets and rainbows because the distinction is between how things consciously seem and how they really are.” – John Searle
Since 1637, this has been known and it has proven to be such a bugbear due to its stubbornness that it has been dubbed the hard problem of consciousness. To wit:
“According to [eliminativists], the hard problem is so hard that it can’t be real: consciousness must be some sort of illusion. Many of this persuasion tried hard to convince themselves that they are, in fact, not conscious, but few of them succeeded. Centuries ago, Descartes suggested, plausibly, that the attempt is self-defeating.” – Jerry Fodor
Descartes 2, Newton 0.
If the scoreboard is serving as a guide, then we should follow Descartes, even if just for the sake of argument. This means it is necessary to start from a thinking subject, whether res cogitans or being-in-itself or a subject of noesis, etc. In layman’s terms:
“The only part of our knowledge, or what we take to be knowledge, for which we claim much confidence is our mental world.” – Noam Chomsky
So whether by phenomenology or folk psychology or methodological solipsism, let’s follow this Cartesian rabbit hole.
D) Subjective Experience and Qualia
Despite all the above maneuvers, there seems to still remain a subjective character in consciousness. While reducing the material nature of things can help in certain areas, it seems less likely to do so in the case of consciousness. For example:
“To be alive is to have certain capacities. There are all sorts of things that living people can do but dead people can’t: eat, drink, sing, heal their wounds, propagate their kind, and so on. A materialist theory of life would be an explanation of how something material could do those sorts of things. We can therefore give an account of what a theory life has to explain without having to invoke the concept of a living thing. We can say, in non-question-begging terms, what a theory of life is a theory about. But the situation seems not to be like this in the case of the theory of consciousness; it’s not clear that there are capacities that depend on consciousness as such. That is, it’s not clear that there are capacities you have only if you are in a state that there is something that it’s like to be in. Consciousness, it would seem, is just the capacity to be in states that are, well, conscious.” – Jerry Fodor
Thomas Nagel has been pointing out that our current science lacks the concepts that would allow us to understand how subjective experience is possible. Modern science can give us information about the bat’s brain, but it cannot answer what is it like, how does it feel from the inside, to be a bat? Even with all the physical data available at one’s fingertips, a human would not be able to fully understand a bat’s sonar system, viz. what it is like to perceive something as a bat with sonar.
Besides hypothetical transmogrification, this subjective character can manifest itself IRL. For one thing, it determines how we should investigate certain mental operations:
“Some phenomena are not best grasped from a more objective perspective. The standpoint of the thinker does not present itself to him: he is that standpoint. One learns and uses mental concepts by being directly acquainted with one’s own mind. But any attempt to think more objectively about mentality would abstract away from this fact.” – Thomas Nagel
Additionally, each person, sans ageusia, knows what sugar tastes like even if science lacks the vocabulary to understand and explain what that peculiar subjective experience is like. A fortiori, the experience of handclaps. Or a specific color. This personal, non-fungible subjectivity is referred to as qualia. These subjective perceptions give content without requiring concepts. The visual data from external objects may require further interpretation to identify, eg. lights in the sky as stars/plane/UFO. The raw data from inner qualia, eg. pain, has no such requirements. One lives with pain, one doesn’t conceptualize it.
Here again, with qualia, the reductionist approach hits a wall:
“[A Martian physiologist] would know exactly what the microscopic structure of ammonia must be; but he would be totally unable to predict that a substance with this structure must smell as ammonia does when it gets into the human nose. The utmost that he could predict on this subject would be that certain changes would take place in the mucous membrane, the olfactory nerves and so on. But he could not possibly know that these changes would be accompanied by the appearance of a smell in general or of the peculiar smell of ammonia in particular, unless someone told him so or he had smelled it for himself.” – C.D. Broad
Whether ammonia produces pain or pleasure or thirst or another subjective experience is unknown by enumerating physical properties. Things like thirst or dyspnea are synthetic sensations contributed to by many afferent pathways and experienced uniquely by different people. So can’t we just compile a list of all the possible variations of inputs and materials and then have a complete understanding? Not quite:
“A blind man will not understand what color vision is merely by finding out about the brain mechanisms that underlie it, since he needs acquaintance with the color experiences themselves.” – Colin McGinn
The consequences of direct acquaintance with the qualia itself is shown by Frank Jackson’s Mary’s Room thought experiment. Let’s summarize it as: Mary is a brilliant scientist forced to investigate the world of color from a black and white room with a black and white TV monitor. She has ALL the physical information about what occurs regarding the eyes, the nerves, the photons, etc. when a person sees colored objects. So, just like the allegory of the cave, what happens when someone allows Mary out of her room to view colored objects? Will she learn something new?
Upon leaving, she now has an experience of color. All of the physical data, even if possible to gather, would have left that out. It’s not that she gained a new ability to see things, but she still gained knowledge of how the visual experience and physical brain processes relate viz. what kind of experience is caused by those processes. She gained that knowledge even though she knew everything about the color. She gained the experience itself.
Beyond the acquisition of such knowledge, it is hard to even communicate about qualia on a basic level since correlating brain states with the words we use to denote qualia might not hold necessarily. There is the possibility of inverted qualia, ie. people perceiving the same referent as having different qualia. Thus, qualia could have a different relationship to physical brain states that are processing the same information and this would mean qualia are not identical to physical brain states. To put it another way:
“When you’re trying to study human consciousness by looking at states of the brain, all you can do is correlate experiential changes with changes in brain states but no matter how tight correlations become it never gives you license to throw out the first person experiential side. That would be analogous to saying that if you just flipped a coin long enough you would realize it only had one side. Now, you can be committed to talking about just one side, you can say ‘heads being up is just a case of tails being down’, but that doesn’t actually reduce one side of reality to the other.” – Sam Harris
To bring things back from the ivory towers to real world examples, remember this?:
This dress presents to different people as different colors: blue, white, gold, black, etc. Fortunately, prior to this picture, most people had a shared vocabulary for referring to colors. It is only because people agreed on “blue” and “white” to begin with, that modification could happen to the image to correspond to what different people saw. This allowed for us to determine that each person saw basically one of the two following images:
If a shared vocabulary didn’t correspond beforehand to a shared experience, the effort would have been moot. So again, IRL, consider synesthesia, ie. a condition where numbers/letters appear as colors. There could be some ability to communicate and understand this phenomena, but not necessarily. For some, numbers appear as colors that never appear in the real world, and as such have been dubbed “Martian colors”. No amount of dissecting eyes for rods and cones will ever produce the colors that those without synesthesia don’t see. And don’t even think we could ever find out what those look like by examining brain scans.
Given the structure of current scientific methodology, it is not surprising that it would fail to grasp, let alone solve, certain metaphysical conundrums. To wit, as stated here:
“How do you measure the unmeasurable? Divide the unmeasurable into pieces, and measure the pieces. Too many pieces, too fine? Start with the obvious. We found a foot, an eyeball, and a liver. This must be a man. Or a triceratops. And now we come to consider that a man is something possessing of three attributes: footness, eyeballness, and liverness, with exclusion criteria of dinosaurization. Thanks, Aristotle, this helps a lot.”
The reassembly after dissection by reductive analysis will require something additional if the disassembly leaves out something – which is exactly what is occurring. The above instances serve to show the limits of reductionism and the surrounding methodology. It cannot achieve a level of causal completeness.
But just because we cannot have full knowledge of mental activity, that doesn’t necessarily rule out sufficient understanding. So the next question that needs to be asked is: how well has contemporary neuroscience fared?
This will be explored next.