science commentary

Scientific materialism and the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness

Some scientists assert that subjective phenomena cannot be studied scientifically. But subjectivity
is an irrefutable fact of nature. Understanding it will be essential to understanding the mind.

by T.J. Nelson

science commentary

U ltra-materialists like Daniel Dennett and religious fundamentalists may differ on many issues, but they have one thing in common: both want to isolate nonmaterial phenomena from science. And, in my opinion, both deeply misunderstand the role of reductionism in science. These ideas are standing in the way of progress in the study of the mind.

Oh no, I hear you saying ... (yes, you forgot to unplug your Samsung TV again ... and by the way, your missing remote is under the couch) ... this is going to be about consciousness again, isn't it?

Well, no, not really. But since you brought it up, let's talk about consciousness for a minute.

In a 2011 Trends in Cognitive Sciences article (“Consciousness cannot be separated from function”) with Michael A. Cohen, Daniel Dennett ridiculed the long-standing division of consciousness research into ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ problems, saying that the latter is really an ‘impossible’ problem because it isolates consciousness from all current and future avenues of scientific investigation. In other words, he says, it is unfalsifiable:

“All theories of consciousness based on the assumption that there are hard and easy problems can never be verified or falsified because it is the products of cognitive functions (i.e. verbal report, button pressing etc.) that allow consciousness to be empirically studied at all. A proper neurobiological theory of consciousness must utilize these functions in order to accurately identify which particular neural activations correlate with conscious awareness.”

Proponents of the ‘hard’ problem, according to Dennett, are trying to understand cognition as a whole; but conscious states are by definition inaccessible and therefore beyond the scope of science. As support for this argument, he cites Crick and Koch's idea of ‘winning coalitions of neurons,’ Zeki's theory about consciousness being distributed in space and time, and other theories of local recurrency which model large-scale neuronal and cognitive activity in the brain. These theories are all flawed, Dennett says, because they posit the existence of conscious states that individuals do not realize they are having. Dennett goes on to discuss the limitations of visual perception and the results of various psychological tests.

This argument is just fine, except for one problem: none of the aforementioned theories is actually trying to address the ‘hard’ problem of consciousness. The evidence Dennett gives, while compelling for the case he discusses, is irrelevant to the question being asked.

The hard problem is completely distinct from issues of perception, pattern recognition, awareness, attention, and other brain functions. It's possible that some researchers use a different definition, but most seem to be following David Chalmers's general idea, which can be stated thus: The hard problem of consciousness is the question that is asked when one asks “Why am I (conscious as) me and not you?” In other words, ‘consciousness’ in this context is not specifically a question of how the brain works, but why the apparent inner being of an individual is centered in one individual, and why there appears to be an inner world unique to each person.

Perception, attention, and what psychologists call ‘qualia’ are all functions of the brain, which can be addressed by neurophysiology and psychology; suitable network models will, undoubtedly, eventually be constructed that satisfactorily explain these processes in terms of neuronal connectivity and brain architecture. This is an ‘easy’ problem in the sense that we know, at least in principle, how to approach it.

Philosophers, particularly Husserl and Heidegger, have struggled with the other question, which they call ‘Being’ with a capital B, or to use Heidegger's term ‘Dasein’, believing it to lie under the purview of philosophy. (The correspondence is not exact, as Dasein, or being-in-the-world, is more of an ontological concept, but his question of why there is something instead of nothing only makes sense as a discussion of the problem of individuation, which has been called an epistemology of consciousness.)

So far, progress has been ... steady but slow. This not for lack of ingenuity, or a sign that the methods in philosophy are flawed; rather, it indicates that these are not philosophical problems, but a scientific ones. This, in my opinion, is what Chalmers meant when he referred to a ‘hard’ problem. The question of why we subjectively appear to be in one location and not another is difficult, but not necessarily impossible, to address scientifically.

How could this question be addressed scientifically?

Before Being can be studied from a scientific point of view, we need to understand what is and what is not part of it. Sleep/wakefulness, perceptions of colors and shapes, and qualia are not part of this question. They are, at least in principle, understandable as neuronal states, emotional and physical associations, and memory complexes. But Being itself is separate. Its existence is irrefutable: without it, there would only be “other people” in the universe. You would not be there. It would always be somebody else—pure objective reality—a historical world with no preferred moment of time and no preferred point in space.

Studying this scientifically will not be easy. It will require new theories and ingenious new ways of studying the real world. The benefits, however, will be enormous: understanding Being scientifically will provide insights into the nature of our reality as conscious entities.

Reducing the brain to a computer

Today, neuroscience conceptualizes the brain as an organic computer. This has provided much insight and will ultimately contribute to a full understanding of consciousness as a computational problem. Some day we will understand our own brains as well as we understand our livers. But this will not be the end of our task. The most interesting aspect of consciousness is the one that concerns us most: why we are subjective, independent individuals.

Some philosophers and theologians criticize our current molecular focus as being reductionist. Theologically oriented philosophers like Thomas Nagel and others harshly criticize science for being too concerned with breaking things down into tiny pieces. We are accused of thinking that these tiny pieces are all there is to the world, and that our entire sentient experience, including our emotional feelings and our free will, are nothing more than chemical reactions and ions flowing in our neurons. Therefore, they believe, we are claiming that we are little more than a ‘bag of rocks’, as one person put it, whose every thought is reduced to the movements of molecules and ordained solely by physical forces.

These criticisms are misguided. Reductionism is how we humans think: our minds take things apart, understand what the pieces are, and put them back together, at least conceptually, to understand the complete structure. Reductionism in science really is nothing more than an analytical approach, much the same as that taken by analytic philosophers. This same reductionist approach will be critical to answering the hard problem of consciousness.

Yet we encourage those criticisms when we claim that subjective reality is a mere illusion. This claim is easy to refute: if Samuel Johnson were with us today, he might well kick Daniel Dennett in the shins, saying, as he said to Berkeley, “I refute it thus!”; Dennett would then have to agree that, in fact, it was he and not some illusory other who was experiencing searing pain. This thought experiment reminds us that there is something unique about each person's existence that cannot be explained away by invoking ion channels, DNA molecules, and myelinated neurons.

see also:

Is the universe mathematical?
We use mathematics to deconstruct the universe. Could it also build one?

What Does Science Say About Life After Death?
The Buddhists had a lot to say about the afterlife, but science is starting to catch up.

Book Reviews

Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False by Thomas Nagel

Information Theory and Quantum Physics Physical Foundations for Understanding the Conscious Process by H.S. Green

Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer Physical Foundations for Understanding the Conscious Process by Henry P. Stapp

Our Mathematical Universe by Max Tegmark

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