Is the Hard Problem of consciousness solvable by science? Will we ever come up with a meaningful explanation as to how squirts of neurotransmitter and minor jolts of electricity create subjective experience? As far as I’m concerned, this is the major philosophical question hovering over neuroscience. If the new Mysterians are right, and we will never understand how the texture of experience arises from neural computation, then neuroscience has a very profound limitation. The most important question in the field will always remain an ineffable mystery. There will always be a big void in the center of our knowledge.
Nobody can predict the future of scientific progress, but I’m doubtful that the Hard Problem will ever be solved. Steven Pinker shares my skepticism:
And then there is the theory put forward by philosopher Colin McGinn that our vertigo when pondering the Hard Problem is itself a quirk of our brains. The brain is a product of evolution, and just as animal brains have their limitations, we have ours. Our brains can’t hold a hundred numbers in memory, can’t visualize seven-dimensional space and perhaps can’t intuitively grasp why neural information processing observed from the outside should give rise to subjective experience on the inside. This is where I place my bet, though I admit that the theory could be demolished when an unborn genius–a Darwin or Einstein of consciousness–comes up with a flabbergasting new idea that suddenly makes it all clear to us.
This, of course, is a truism of psychology: our brains are bounded by evolutionary constraints. We aren’t natural epistemologists, and we don’t perceive anything straight. All of our truths depend upon three pounds of fatty membrane. Given these innate limitations, I think it’s eminently reasonable to believe that some questions will always lie beyond our purview. We can’t expect a product of biological evolution to solve every paradox.
What do you think? Is the Hard Problem of consciousness beyond our grasp? What about the ultimate nature of the universe? I believe it’s possible to be a pure materialist – to not digress into discussions of the soul or God – but still believe that some mysteries are impregnable.