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.