The Frontal Cortex

The Churchlands on Consciousness

Here’s Pat Churchland, from a recent New Yorker profile (not online):

Paul and Pat believe that the mind-body problem will be solved not by philosophers but by neuroscientists, and that our present knowledge is so paltry that we would not understand the solution even if it were suddently to present itself. “Suppose you’re a medieval physicist wondering about the burning of wood,” Pat likes to say in her classes. “You’re Albertus Magnus, let’s say. One night, a Martian comes down and whispers, ‘Hey, Albertus, the burning of wood is really rapid oxidation!’ What could he do? He knows no structural chemistry, he doesn’t know what oxygen is, he doesn’t know what an element is – he couldn’t make any sense of it. And if some fine night that same omniscient Martian came down and said, ‘Hey Pat, consciousness is really blesjeakahgfdl!’ I would be similarly confused, because neuroscience is just not far enough along.”

It’s hard to argue against such infinite epistemological optimism. I will only note that scientists aren’t omniscient martians, and while scientific progress has certainly been astounding, there is nothing about the scientific process that guarantees us answers to everything.

I also find the “infancy of neuroscience” argument a little underwhelming. For starters,it’s not as if neuroscientists are like Albertus Magnus, and don’t know what stuff the brain is made of. We now understand a dizzying amount about what our neurons are up to, and the byzantine molecular pathways that determine their activity. Of course, many acronyms still await discovery, but I’d argue that modern neuroscience is in a very different position than medieval chemists.

Secondly, I think it’s easy to overestimate the philosophical importance of the knowledge that the neuroscientists of the future will discover. I have no doubt that future scientists will reveal all sorts of fascinating new details about our brain, which will help us treat mental illness, addiction, etc. But I struggle to imagine how these new molecular details will solve the mind-body problem. (Of course, this could just be a poverty of my imagination.)

The history of neuroscience, at least so far, is clearly on my side. After all, let’s not forget that the basic tenets of neuroscience – the neuron doctrine – were all laid out by Santiago Ramon y Cajal more than 100 years ago. While neuroscientists have continued to relentlessly refine our understanding of how, exactly, neurons work, we are still operating within the same fundamental paradigm. The mind-body problem remains at the same stubborn impasse. While we are clearly just a three pound brain – a slab of meat encased in a bony shell – that meat produces subjective experience and self-consciousness. I fail to see how more details about the inner workings of our meat will reveal how that meat becomes me. In other words, we still don’t know what it’s like to be a bat.


  1. #1 Gary Greenberg
    February 12, 2007

    For more on this issue see the excellent book by William R. Uttal (2005), “Neural Theories of Mind: Why the Mind-Brain Problem May Never be Solved.” Erlbaum.

  2. #2 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    February 12, 2007

    I will only note that scientists aren’t omniscient martians

    Well, most of them anyway.

  3. #3 Mark
    February 13, 2007

    I don’t see understanding what we call the mind as any different from understanding any other function of the brain. The biggest problem is that people define “mind” as something special and spooky.

  4. #4 Ben
    February 15, 2007

    As I have come to see it, subjective experience can never be explained through model based science. Once we talk about “subjectivity” as something that can be understood “objectively”, it no longer means the same thing. When dealing with this topic we’ve reached the furthest our minds can travel.
    The odd circumstance of reality is that your subjective experience is the only thing you have any contact with. You can never prove that your best friend has subjectivity. Awareness is different however. Calculators are aware when they respond to me pressing their buttons. Self-reflection is different too. I can note that my friend has learned from past events to repeat or not repeat certain actions. I’m not saying I don’t think other people have subjective experiences like mine. We just have to acknowledge that this belief is entirely based on faith.
    If we can’t prove subjectivity exists, how could we ever show why or how it exists? We would need to reach beyond our own subjective minds. We could no longer be “thinkers” who create models to “understand”. Even if technology allowed for the merging of material minds and you could experience another person’s (or bat’s) thought process, as far as you know, it would still only be your subjective experience of said brain’s material/mechanical process.
    Perhaps subjective experience is an inherent property of all matter. In this sense, your “self” is the matter in your brain experiencing itself partake in the complex information process of thought. A tree or rock may have “experience”, but the lack of information processing means it doesn’t “think” or have emotions like we do. If this is true, then matter would be required to transcend itself to understand why it is “experiencing”. Otherwise the loop of observer as observed as observer takes place forever. This transcendence itself is of course an abstraction and therefore not an adequate explanation to our problem.
    They say the mind-body problem is the final frontier of science. I agree, but I think it’s more like a black hole (as we currently understand them). If we made it past the singularity of this problem to see what’s on the other side, we’d no longer be “me” or “you”.