David Barash has a short, but interesting post about consciousness. Responding to someone who asked him about the most difficult unsolved problem in science, Barash writes:
I answered without hesitation: How the brain generates awareness, thought, perceptions, emotions, and so forth, what philosophers call “the hard problem of consciousness.”
It’s a hard one indeed, so hard that despite an immense amount of research attention devoted to neurobiology, and despite great advances in our knowledge, I don’t believe we are significantly closer to bridging the gap between that which is physical, anatomical and electro-neurochemical, and what is subjectively experienced by all of us … or at least by me. (I dunno about you!)
And skipping ahead:
But the hard problem of consciousness is so hard that I can’t even imagine what kind of empirical findings would satisfactorily solve it. In fact, I don’t even know what kind of discovery would get us to first base, not to mention a home run. Let’s say that a particular cerebral nucleus was found, existing only in conscious creatures. Would that solve it? Or maybe a specific molecule, synthesized only in the heat of subjective mental functioning, increasing in quantity in proportion as sensations are increasingly vivid, disappearing with unconsciousness, and present in diminished quantity from human to hippo to herring to hemlock tree. Or maybe a kind of reverberating electrical circuit. I’d be utterly fascinated by any of these findings, or any of an immense number of easily imagined alternatives. But satisfied? Not one bit.
I agree, and would go a bit further. I can’t imagine what an explanation for consciousness would even look like. Right now, from the comfort of your armchair, make something up which, if it were true, would make you feel like you really understand how consciousness comes about. I don’t even know what to make up!
I write this as an utter and absolute, dyed-in-the-wool, scientifically oriented, hard-headed, empirically insistent, atheistically committed materialist, altogether certain that matter and energy rule the world, not mystical abracadabra. But I still can’t get any purchase on this “hard problem,” the very label being a notable understatement.
I am also a dyed-in-the-wool materialist, and I think we have good reasons for confidence that ultimately consciousness is a purely natural phenomenon. We know, for example, that virtually everything we regard as special to human beings can be obliterated just by damaging the correct portion of the brain, including our emotions and our sense of morality. We know that drug therapies have been very effective in treating mental illness. It certainly appears, based on observing animal behavior, that consciousness is something that comes in degrees. Humans seem to have more of it than apes, who have more of it than dogs and cats. At any rate, the circumstantial evidence is strong that the brain is a purely physical organ.
But I might be moved to reconsider if someone proposed a nonmaterial theory of mind that does any better. For example, I don’t see how it’s any help at all to posit some sort of ineffable mindstuff that interacts with the physical brain to produce consciousness. Does substance dualism explain anything at all about the brain? Let’s stipulate that there really is a distinction between physical stuff and mental stuff. Then tell me more about this mental stuff. If it’s not material, then what is it? How does it interact with the physical brain to produce consciousness? How does it get into our heads in the first place? How does the mental stuff in your head know how to be you, while the mental stuff in my head knows how to be me?
I may not understand how physical processes in the brain can produce consciousness, but I don’t understand how non-physical processes can do it either.
I know people who go in for vague, New Agey type explanations. They say things like, “Maybe consciousness is just an irreducible part of the universe,” which sounds like the purest gibberish to me. I find it hard even to say those words without putting on my best stoner voice, appending the word “man” to the end of the sentence, and then staring furiously at my hand for ten minutes.
I feel much the same way about free will. If it’s an illusion, it’s a mighty convincing one. But whether it’s real or just an illusion, I don’t understand how physical processes in the brain can can create it. I’m not letting that bother me though, since no one arguing from a non-physical perspective has, in even the slightest degree, had any more luck.
Everything we know about the brain suggests that it’s a purely physical organ. It also seems perfectly obvious that we are conscious and have free will. I conclude that suitably organized matter can create consciousness and free will. That I don’t understand precisely how that happens just tells me that our understanding of matter is imperfect.
Don’t like my explanation? Think I’m waving my hands? Fine. Give me a better one. I’m all ears.